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During the darkest hour of the recent pandemic, I started reading articles about sports psychology. It began with an article on the BBC news website about a phenomenon known as “Quiet Eye” that can be identified in certain elite athletes, but also in mediocre athletes who suddenly go on a “streak” (I’ll have more to say about that in another post). My interest in that article led me to more sources: sports journalism, scientific studies and science writing in various media. In short, I started to wonder how contemporary writings about sports psychology might apply to tournament kayak fishing.

I started asking questions about what’s happening in my body when I am fishing. How is physical exhaustion relation to mental fatigue? What are my eyeballs doing in relation to what my hands are doing? Can I identify patterns of movement and thought – decisions I make – from the countless hours of video I record? What is my brain doing? I began noticing things, and I started writing them up.

This first installment uses a recent run of good results as a starting point to explore some of those questions.  Maybe I’m jinxing myself by reflecting on it during the hot streak, but I’m not superstitious (unless it’s my football team). I’m also trying to figure out how it happened after a major surgery that seems to have cleared my mind as my body healed. It seemed counter-intuitive: wouldn’t my recovery impede strong performances. Or did the extended period of trauma and recovery do something that helped me succeed on the water?

I’ll introduce some terminology and basic concepts, then proceed to results and speculation. I have no preconceived notions; like stars in the night sky, curiosity and experience guide me.


 “Alpha” is a buzzword and a cliché in contemporary culture. To most, it is synonymous with aggressive, domineering behavior, usually associated in pop culture with “masculine” behavior. “Beta,” by contrast, is equated with being “submissive” and gendered as “feminine.”

Terms like these are more often than not yelled by insecure men who puff their chests in order to make a quick buck on the internet.

Sorry guys – not only is your shtick cheap and boring, it’s also bad science.

To be clear, behavioral scientists do use the terms “alpha” and “beta” to study social roles among animals, as well as to study brain activities that correlate with those behaviors. The variant uses of the terms may create confusion. For example, alpha waves are associated with rest in the brain, while in behavioral psychology recent scientific research has shown, for example, that the “Alpha” state is “not aggressiveness per se….it increases…perseverance, motivational drive, grit.”

The types of “alpha” and “beta” behavior I will explore below refer to brain waves. In this case, alpha and beta do not refer to social stereotypes; they refer to measurable phenomena in the human brain that corresponds with certain states of consciousness. “Alpha,” in this science, refers to a relaxed state, while “Beta” is a more active state. Each type occupies a wavelength of electrical activity (for curious readers, this Scientific American article clearly explains the four “states” of alpha, beta, delta and theta brain activity).

To be clear: my observations are hypothetical. That means I have a hypothesis to explore, and I will do so, within reasonable parameters. However, I have not hooked up my brain to any machine (like an EEG) in order to verify or record brain waves. I’m simply curious to explore what I am beginning to regard as strong evidence that my brain is in certain states while I am fishing, and that some of those states correspond with results.

I do not wish to suggest, however, that behavior (or tournament success) is solely motivated by physical activity or electrical activity in the brain. I am not a crude materialist. Memory, creativity, intelligence, experience, chance error and accident all play a role, too, and those are topics to explore in later posts.

Stats and Stuff

Some basic facts: in my five most recent tournaments, I’ve had three top 10 finishes.  That streak includes two consecutive 1st place finishes on different lakes (CCKF at Jordan and Falls), a 7th place finish (CCKF Mackintosh) and two KFL team events during which I landed limits and placed scoreable fish on the leaderboard in both – in one of the two, I was the team’s top angler.

The streak could continue; I could blank at my next event and win the last four after it. You can’t know, so I don’t care. But how did it begin?

“Don’t take it for granted.” It’s what I kept telling myself after waking up from an unexpected surgical event two months ago. I sat around the house for nearly 6 weeks, resting and thinking about fishing. The one time I went to fish a tournament, I lasted fewer than four hours before I had to leave. Lifting the kayak was a task that required assistance. I wasn’t ready for the grind.

And then I was. Rest, some light exercise, the support of family, and that fresh start feeling: those were the ingredients that have gone into these past 6 weeks of my renewed tournament season. My brain and body had not felt that relaxed in years, maybe decades.

And then, I threw myself into the fire of battle.

Let’s review the variables and differences in the three top 10 finishes:

  • In the first top 10 finish, I pedaled 7 miles, total.
  • In the first of the two victories, I fished one area, left and went to another launch. I caught the winning fish with minutes to spare before lines out.
  • In the second victory, I left my fish finder and my pedal drive kayak at home.

A side note: in an age of yacht-sized, motorized fishing kayaks and multi-screen rigs, I paddled my way to victory in one event.

The common denominator is that I was exerting myself and pushing my body to its limits, either pedaling or paddling. Physical activity changes how we think, as our brain waves switch gears. A recent NIH study found that dancers experience higher alpha and beta wave activity, while “fast ball sports” players have more delta and theta brain waves. The causes of those differences are indeterminate: they could be stimulated by repetition and training, or the more vague category of “talent.”

What we know, however, is that our brains oscillate between frequencies while we exercise. Where are tournament fisherman’s brains on that range of frequencies?

And what about my brain?

Photo: CCKF Tournament 7, 2022 (Falls Lake). My Tactacam captured the moment my anchor fish, an 18.75″, sprayed me with water as it pulled my rig into an overhanging bush. Note the paddle, lower right. Once the fish was in the net, I had to paddle backward with one hand.

I’ve noticed that when I fish well, I am calm. On video, my head does not move around much, indicating my eyes are focused in front of me. I also talk on camera more, and laugh out loud. Usually, the two happen in a sequence: I am quiet and focused (alpha) and then I am alert and talkative (beta). That’s the oscillation I wonder about.

With regard to my recent streak….. Let’s compare it to another run – the best of my fishing career to this time (the fall of 2022).

In 2019, I had my best year as a tournament angler. I finished in the money 10 times in 12 events. Two of those 10 finishes sent me home from national events with big paychecks. The I.R.S. was happy come tax season. But I faded in the fall. I didn’t place in a single championship or end of season event. I was worn out, physically and mentally.

This time is different.

  • I caught fire in early summer in 2019. This year, I am heating up in late summer/early autumn.
  • In 2019, I won money fishing mainly topwater lures. My winning fish have all been caught on crankbaits of late.
  • I fished main lakes in 2019. I’ve focused more on tributaries this year.

Different seasons, different locations, different techniques, different kayaks, different times. Also, I was still recovering from surgery during my recent run, and very well rested; in 2019, I was in peak, mid-season form.

One thing hasn’t changed, however.

I’ve been here before and I know not to take “it” for granted. What is “it?” What “it” means is that I am relaxed and happy, “in the zone,” as they say. When I show up to fish, my mind is clear. I don’t know what is going to happen. I launch, I press record on my camera and I start casting. Eight hours go by. Whatever happens, happens.

The Last Cast

I appreciate the money and the recognition. I am flattered and grateful by the kind messages of congratulations. Those things come and go. But fishing with a clear mind, smiling and joking with a friend, chatting at the ramp, watching a fish elevate clear out of the water when it jumps, yelling at the sight – those, above all, are what I will never take for granted. And they happen regardless of your place in the standings. That frame of mind, I think, is “it.” It is the brain making that fast leap from alpha to beta, from relaxed to engaged.

On a personal note, that run in 2019 began with an epiphany. While fishing Badin Lake with my friend Shelly, a loud boat went by. Shelly stood up in his kayak, and started dancing. He finished in the money at the event; I landed one fish. I decided then to fish loose. And that’s when the epic run began in 2019.

I started with a question: did my recent surgery and extended rest play a role in this run? I believe it did. My brain was locked into a restful state for more than one month. My body, too, was rested like it had not been in years. I was calm when I returned to tournament fishing – the “edge” – the anxiety, the nerves, the anticipation – was gone. I wasn’t merely fishing loose and having a good time.

This would suggest my brain was locked into that alpha zone of restful focus. As it began oscillating between alpha and beta during tournaments, I don’t think I was experiencing the highs and lows as I used to. That’s to say, my keel was more even. As a result, I made clear-headed decision when selecting spots to fish, when fighting fish to the net, pacing myself, etc. In short, my brain was working with my ambition to win, rather than against it, by simply adjusting to circumstances, as opposed to trying to force the issue.

I wasn’t aware of much of that as it was happening. I knew I felt rested when I resumed fishing. I also knew that I was happy to be alive after the surgery, so my mood was positive. Fishing familiar waters helped, too – all of the tournaments I fished during the run were on three lakes that I know well. So I was comfortable in that way, like a captain guiding a ship into a port near home.

Of course, I don’t know what was happening in my brain. These are informed guesses. But when I review notes, watch video and consider memories of each day, and the run as w hole, I can’t help but wonder that there really is a “zone” or state of mind we inhabit when we are fishing well in tournaments.

Click here to read the “Sequel” to this article, published in May 2023.

First Published September, 2023. Revised version April 19, 2023.

© Henry Veggian. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without written consent.

 (Note: This is a revised and expanded version of the article I posted in the fall of 2022. Headers, and a new title have been added. Some minor proofreading changes were also made. The most significant changes are the “Overview” and ‘Science” sections.)