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Luck, Superstition and Intuition in the Great Outdoors

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Bananas, rabbit’s feet, beginner’s luck

  •  James A. Swan, Ph.D.



James SwanThere’s some historical background as to why bananas aren’t allowed on many boats.

“Good luck!”


You may have the latest gear, the best guide, the best casting skills and technique, the hottest lure and have read volumes of books and articles on what you are fishing for, but every angler knows, deep down, that there is something else that must be factored into success in the field. Luck.

Despite doing every “right” according to what the experts say, luck is a factor in why 80 percent of the fish seem to be bagged by 10 percent of the fishermen. The same seems true for hunting.

In 1899, author Henry van Dyck wrote a whole treatise about luck, entitled “Fisherman’s Luck and Some Other Uncertain Things.” The reason for such a book, he explained, was that “The attraction for angling for all the ages of man, from cradle to the grave, lies in uncertainty. ‘Tis an affair of luck.”

My father first introduced me to fisherman’s luck by quoting Izaak Walton’s 1653 book “The Compleat Angler” when we were fishing on Lake Erie and not getting a bite.

“Wind’s in the wrong direction,” he said.

When I asked what did that have to do with fish biting, he quoted Walton, “Wind from the south, hook in the mouth. Wind from the east, bite the least. Wind from the north, further off. Wind from the west, bite the best.”

Now on the west end of Lake Erie, wind direction actually might have a little something to do with success, as east winds often are associated with storms and especially large waves generated as the winds sweep across the open waters. That makes fishing harder and more dangerous. West winds, in contrast, are normal, and associated with normal weather patterns.

The connection between good luck and something tangible interests me, for in addition to writing and acting, I have a Ph.D in psychology, a subject that I have taught at several universities. Working as a sports psychologist, I have helped some world-class athletes be more consistently successful by developing their mental game. I’m working on a book about this, so let me give you more details on various aspects of success and failure associated with luck, because it can be a factor in success in the field.

In the year 2000, one in four Americans admitted that they are “very” or “somewhat” superstitious. If the same poll was administered solely to outdoor sportsmen, I suspect the percentage would be much higher.

James SwanThis big salmon came with some luck.

Spitting on your bait brings good luck is a common fishing superstition. I am not sure about the attractive powers of saliva, but it would makes some sense if you chew anise, which is commonly used as an odor attractant for salmon and steelhead. A guide who I fish with on the Kenai River in Alaska religiously applies anise to flatfish we troll, and he catches a lot of big king salmon.


On San Francisco Bay, if you catch an undersized sturgeon, charter boat captains insist that if you kiss the sturgeon on the nose and then throw it back, the next fish you hook will be a keeper. Strange as it seemed, this has happened a couple times when I’ve been out after these huge aquatic vacuum mouths.

Never let anyone step over your line, or it will bring you bad luck. Bring a woman or a suitcase on board and it will result in bad luck. There are many taboos in fishing, but perhaps the strongest is to never bring a banana on fishing boat.

“Absolutely, positively, no ifs, ands, or buts, do not bring bananas on board,” declares the web site for the Kona Fishing Charters in Hawaii. In Florida, some skippers take the banana taboo even farther, banning Banana Boat sunscreen, and wearing clothing from Banana Republic.

Apparently this taboo can be traced back to the 1700s, and in several parts of the world. One of the most practical explanations for the origin of the banana taboo is that bananas grown in the tropics spoil quickly when they are on sailing ships coming to the U.S. And if they spoil when stored below deck, they give off methane, which can cause an explosion or even poison crewmen who go below deck.

Another possible reason for fearing bananas on a boat is that poisonous spiders can hide inside of bunches of bananas, popping out when the bananas are on board the boat.

In Hawaii, the significance of bananas goes back farther. According to historians at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, bananas were not mentioned in songs and it was considered bad luck to dream of bananas. This may be associated with folklore as Hawaiians believe that the banana tree is associated with the god Kanaloa, the Polynesian sea god. Perhaps sacrificing a banana to the sea before going fishing will bring good luck.

What is interesting is that Hindus see the banana tree as sacred. Leaves and fruits are made as offerings to gods at Hindu temples as the Hindus believe that the banana is a symbol of fertility and prosperity.

In Samoa, fish are wrapped in banana leaves to cook them.

A pot of gold is said to lie at the end of the rainbow. Rabbits’ feet, lucky lures, hats, poles and vests are all good luck charms used by fishermen. I know duck hunters that similarly have “good luck” decoys. In Norse folklore an acorn is said to be a good luck charm.

Regardless if they invoke spiritual forces or not, sometimes there is some obvious validity to good luck charms. In performance sports, your attitude is a powerful influence on success. If you believe that you are going to be successful, you’re more likely to be so, in part because you’re more self-confident.

Sportsmen of all types use performance rituals, like a batter touching his cap, touching the bat to the plate, and spitting tobacco just before the pitch is thrown. Positive performance rituals are very important to improving success in all kinds of sports, and can be useful in conquering performance anxiety, including “buck fever.”

Just as positive attitudes and visual imagery can improve sports performance, positive attitude and performance rituals can also be applied to other walks of life, like applying for a job. Acting coaches teach actors that before you go into an audition, recall a list of positive things, like parts you have had in the past and done well at, as a way to improve your performance in the audition interview.

OK, you left the bananas at home, are wearing your lucky hat, consulted the weather charts, and maybe even tossed some food in the water to appease the gods, there still is something else involved with the intangible element in success in the field — being at the right place at the right time.

To quote Albus Dumbledore, the wizard of the Hogwarts School in the “Harry Potter” books, “It’s our choices Harry, that show who we really are — far more than our abilities.”

Yeah, I know that some people, including some academic psychologists, insist that there is no such thing as intuition. When I was on the faculty at the University of Oregon, I well remember one day when one member of the faculty was delivering a lecture on how intuition and psychic phenomena could not exist. Simultaneously, on the law just outside the classroom, the grounds crew was using dowsing wands to find an underground sprinkler system — which they did.

A number of recent studies by open-minded researchers conclude that intuition is a very helpful tool in being successful in business.

Intuition involves direct knowing, as opposed to thinking. You know things by dreams, gut feelings, emotions. Women are supposedly more intuitive than men, but research does not show that to be true. Women are not taught to hide their emotions, which means that they may be more aware of emotional and body sensations that are intuitive signals.

According to psychiatrist Carl Jung, each of us has four ways that we interact with the world — thinking, feeling, sensate-practical and intuition.

Each of us, according to Jung, has all four, but we use them according to both our nature, and how we are taught. Schools do not teach about intuition, but ask any good jazz musician or athlete if intuition exists or is important to performance.

Everyone knows that Indian guides are often the best at finding fish and game. Some of this certainly comes with knowing the land and the behavior of the wildlife, but native cultures tend to be much more intuitive than modern people, because they are taught from birth to be aware of subtle feelings about nature.

Research with Eskimos, Aborigines, Indians and Bushmen in Africa all find hunter-gathers to be much more intuitive than the average person who lives in a town.

One aspect of intuition is forecasting. In the backwoods of New England folks quietly talk about predicting things according to omens, they call “forerunners,” like the width of a wooly bear caterpiller’s middle brown stripe.

The most famous such future predictor is the Pennsylvania groundhog, “Punxsutawney Phil” who comes out of his burrow on Groundhog Day to see if he can see his shadow or not. If he does, it means six more weeks of winter weather.

Intuition works best when you relax and do not try to analyze things. Thinking too much, especially wishful thinking, and worrying, can decrease your institutional ability.

This is how “beginner’s luck” comes into being. A beginner does not have their head crammed with facts, worries, etc. They are just out there like kids, having some fun, and consequently their intuition is more likely to be working.

One way to develop your intuition is to keep a notebook of predictions. For a month, write down everything that you think is going to happen. Then, at the end of the month, go back and check your predictions. See what happened.

Not only will this make you more aware of your intuitive abilities, but look for patterns where you consistently make mistakes. This should help you identify issues that you need to work on, and help you trust and interpret your hunches more accurately.

In Samoa there is a saying that “The fish seem to do the will of the master fisherman.”

Yes, the chief fisherman knows the water, the lures and watches where the birds are feeding, but also he must be aware of the moods of nature and how to respond to them. When you are at the right place at the right time, something special may happen.

Carl Jung called such experiences “meaningful coincidences,” or “synchroncities.” Jung studied this for many years, and came to conclude that a person is most likely to have meaningful coincidences if they are relaxed, and in tune with nature.

Trying always helps, but after all the trying and preparation, approaching a situation with what martial artists call “beginner’s mind,” can help you intuitively do the right thing. So, maybe, you can improve your luck.

Good luck!

James Swan — who has appeared in more than a dozen feature films, including “Murder in the First” and “Star Trek: First Contact,” as well as the television series “Nash Bridges,” “Midnight Caller” and “Modern Marvels” — is the author of the book “In Defense of Hunting.” Click to purchase a copy. To learn more about Swan, visit his Web site.

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