Winter is tough for kayak anglers. For a privileged group, the off-season is just a slightly chillier version of the on-season. For most of us, the off-season means closed fisheries, unfishable weather and even iced-over rivers and lakes. It’s tough to be an angler when you can’t fish.

As a placebo for the real thing, I spend hours working on my gear and rigging tackle. I don’t spend this amount of time on these tasks during the season. Why now? I could be doing other things. Why not?

In the study of motivation, social identity theory is one of the anchor concepts. Megawatts of brain power have been directed at understanding why people behave in the way they do – and social identity explains much of it.

Social identity theory states: since we are social creatures, we align with a certain group with whom we identify. For example, “I am a kayak angler”. There is a difference between anglers who fish from a kayak and those who identify as a kayak angler.

The kayak angler never unloads his boat, wears Crocs to work and has stickers plastered over his truck, office and house. Plenty of people like kayak fishing, the kayak angler loves it.

Social identity goes on to state people who buy into a group, adopt the identity as their own. Look at fans of sports and art. How many concert Ts or team jerseys are in your closet? This identity becomes a piece of an individual’s sense of self. This is powerful, as staying consistent with one’s self-image becomes a need in itself, and a potent motivator.

Which is how we get to social identity and motivation. The theory predicts we do things just to live up to our own expectations of what it means to be in the in-crowd.

Here’s the crazy thing, the group doesn’t even have to exist. There are no kayak fishing police who will arrest you if you wear loafers to the staff meeting or leave your tailgate sticker free. But pull into the parking lot at a kayak fishing tournament and you’re bound to find plenty of each identifier.

So winter is tough. If I identify as a kayak angler, yet my water is frozen over, am I really a kayak angler? If I identify as a fly fisher, yet have nowhere to cast for four or five months of the year, who am I?

Social identity theory suggests we behave in certain ways to compensate. We drop by the tackle shop on the way home from work to see what’s new. We may buy a single, random lure or a pack of size 10 swivels.

We re-silicone the mounting hardware bolts on our boat, or buff some of the scratches off the hull. We tie flies. We organize (again) our tackle box.

I rationalize hours in the garage as having a utilitarian purpose as important as a day fishing on the lake or waist deep in a river. Let’s not kid ourselves. I spend the hours proving to myself, and the invisible group, I am indeed a kayak angler. I piddle away dark evenings and weekend mornings, not just for fun, for the reward of exercising my identity. If my gear gets dusty, so does my image.

On particularly tough off-season days I wear my fishing shirt to work, just to prove (to whom?) I am a fly fisher first and foremost. A couple times over the winter, I will take my rods to a soccer field and practice casting onto the snow. Tying flies is the off-season equivalent to floating little trout streams; easy and satisfying.

It’s tough to be an angler when you can’t fish, but I’ve figured out a solution. Organizing my streamers and cleaning my rod holders is an important waste of time. I may not be able to fish through the winter, but I am still a fisherman.

I am a fisherman, even when I’m not fishing | Featured photo: Cory Routh

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