At the end of Ernest Hemingway’s short story, “Big Two-Hearted River,” Nick Adams has a decision to make.
He has had a fine day catching trout, and he has approached the place where the river enters a swamp. It is fast deep water, shaded by the big cedars which tower over it. Nick is inclined to avoid such a place. He fears wading in water up to his armpits. He also fears that it will be impossible to land big trout in such a place.
But therein lies the problem. There are big trout in this stretch of river. Nick is tempted. To keep going or to quit?. That is the question.
Should he go after the big trout or save them for another day?
Hemingway ends his novel like this: “Nick climbed the bank and cut up into the woods, toward the high ground. He was going back to camp. He looked back. The river just showed through the trees. There were plenty of days coming when he could fish the swamp.”
I wish I had a bit more of Nick’s instincts to leave some trout for another day. But I am greedy. Whether I’ve caught two or ten or 25 trout, I want to exploit a day on the river for all its worth.
Why end it too early? If it’s a great day, I might never get another one like it.
But over the years, I have learned the wisdom of quitting at a point of satisfaction, even though I could squeeze out another hour or two and add to my total of trout landed. There are a few reasons why this is wise, even if it’s hard to do:
Dark Thirty’s Rude Behavior
First, there is no need to make a habit out of arriving home later than I promised.
My wife recently bought a piece of decorative art at a Hobby Lobby store and put it on my desk. It reads: “GONE FISHING. BE BACK AT DARK THIRTY.” Been there, done that. Early in our marriage, we lived in Paradise Valley, south of Livingston, Montana. I had the day off from my job as a ranch hand, and I promised to take my wife to a concert in Bozeman that night. First, though, I planned a quick trip to fish the Yellowstone River. I told her I’d be back in plenty of time.
But I arrived home at Dark Thirty.
The good news is that we made it to the concert about one minute early. The bad news is that we were rushed, and the conversation on the drive over the Bozeman Pass was not as pleasant as the scenery. This resulted from my inability to resist the lure of one more cast, one more stretch of water, one more fish. Yet one led to another and another and another (casts, not necessarily fish).
If you can’t tear yourself away from the river, you’ll end up being rude to those you love.
Leaving with Your Story Intact
Furthermore, if you stay an extra hour, there’s no guarantee that a great day will stay great.
I remember a stellar afternoon on Madison River in the Bear Trap. I caught a lot of big rainbows. So when the afternoon shadows started to fall, I decided to keep fishing even though I’d have to rush home in the dark, wolf down my dinner, and make it to a meeting with no time to spare. I didn’t quit, but the trout did. During that last hour, I caught one.
Better to leave imagining that you left a dozen there than to leave frustrated.
The Urge to Fly Fish and Real Satisfaction
There’s an even deeper reason, though, to quit while you’re ahead.
Suppose that the extra hour on the river turns out to be an action-packed sequence of landing one trout after another. Will you leave more satisfied? The truth is, no. That’s right. You can never catch enough fish to be satisfied. You will always want to catch one more.
Last year, my podcast partner Dave Goetz and I fished a banner stretch of Sixteen Mile at the northern reach of Montana’s Gallatin Valley.
By 4 p.m., we had each landed a ridiculous amount of trout. The friend with whom we were fishing asked us if we wanted to keep fishing. In that moment, I finally mustered up the courage to say no. Part of it was because I was wrecked. Dave and I had hiked and fly fished in the back country of Yellowstone National park for two straight days. I was exhausted. That helped.
Part of it, though, was the sense that we should end a glorious day while we all felt good about it. I knew in that moment that my greedy desire to catch another dozen wouldn’t make me feel any better about the day. Besides, the fishing might slow down. And we were looking forward to a good meal at Sir Scott’s Oasis, the legendary steakhouse in Manhattan, Montana.
Like Nick Adams, Dave and pulled ourselves away from the creek. We decided to save some fishing success for another day. We didn’t fish until Dark-Thirty.
And I’ve never regretted it to this day.