I recognize that to venture into the topic of fly fishing etiquette may be Quixotic. But with the ever increasing number of anglers on our streams today, unpleasant encounters seem to be increasing. The discussion of etiquette usually comes up after a drink or two at the end of a day’s fishing. After a retelling of “the one that got away”, someone will say, “You wouldn’t believe what some ***hole did to me today”!
I believe that those of us who have been fly fishing for more than a bit, and still believe there is a fly fishing etiquette, share some of the blame or responsibility for the behavior of our fishing brethren. After all, are the “offenders” being malicious, or are they simply ignorant of the expectations of other anglers? Do they know the “rules of the game”, so to speak? Rather than avoiding the topic, or complaining among ourselves, I think we should try to educate our fellow anglers. Simply put, I think that guides and fly fishing courses should all include a discussion of fly fishing etiquette.
So, let me relate a few encounters that I have experienced in recent years, to illustrate some common aspects of fly fishing etiquette.
Wader vs. Drift Boat
Last year, while wading in the “wade only” section of the Madison River in Montana, I became aware of a drift boat coming downstream. Although rarely seen on this section of the river, boats are allowed for the transport of anglers, but they are not to fish from the boat. The river is about two hundred feet wide where I was fishing, with an island in the middle. I was wading a run about twenty feet from the bank. Suddenly it was apparent that the boat was going to come right down the run that I was fishing. I waved, trying to get their attention, but to no avail. They passed so close that I could have touched the boat with my rod-tip.
I shouted, “Why can’t you go down the other side of the river?”
The oarsman shouted back, “I didn’t think I could make it through!”
For many reasons, the unwritten rule has been that the wading fly fisher has the right of way. Had a professional guide been at the oars, that boat would have moved to the other side of the river, without disturbing the run I was fishing. In addition, the clients would have been instructed to either stop fishing or to fish on the side opposite of me until they had passed.
When fishing popular waters with the use of a boat, it is important that amateur boaters match their skill-set to the water. This is necessary for the safety of all involved, as well as for following the “rules of the road”!
Johnny Come Lately
Last year, my sister Judy and I were fishing the Ruby River in Montana. We were fishing a run that was perhaps a hundred-fifty feet long. We were the only ones fishing within at least a quarter mile, the length of river that we could readily see. Along came another angler, who without a word, positioned himself between us.
A few moments later, Judy caught a nice brown trout. After releasing it, she discovered that her fly was a wreck. She waded back to the bank, and walked downstream to where I was fishing. While I helped her with a new fly, the interloper moved upstream to the spot where Judy had been fishing. We shrugged, and she waded to the newly vacated spot. I chuckled when she caught another trout a few moments later. This prompted the interloper to approach us and ask “What are you using?” After reluctantly telling him, we left to find another stretch of water.
What should he have done, and what should we have done? My choice of the word “interloper” clearly suggests what he should have done- find another place to fish. As popular waters become more crowded, this situation frequently arises. The general understanding is that a just-arriving angler NOT intrude on a small to moderate run that others are fishing. If a run is quite large, perhaps offering room for another angler, one should ask before wetting a line. And respect the response; move on if so requested.
What if an intrusion does occur? Judy and I chose to leave, and in my experience, that is the safer thing to do. Trying to prevent the intrusion often escalates to heated exchanges, and sometimes turns “western”. Such responses ruin the fishing experience for everyone. I also doubt that such moments are the best “teaching moments”. Rather, let’s educate anglers beforehand.
There are times that water should be shared. I’m mostly thinking of public waters that hold salmon and steelhead. But there are some eastern rivers as well, like the Beaverkill in New York, that present the same issue. Often, there are only a few runs or pools large enough to hold fish. Should one angler or a few anglers hold possession of a run for most of a fishing day? Probably not.
In New Brunswick, anglers have agreed upon the “New Brunswick Shuffle” to address this. In brief, anglers spread out along the length of a run, far enough apart to allow for easy casting. After an agreed upon number of casts, everyone “shuffles” upstream three steps. When an angler reaches the top of the run, they return to the bottom. If more anglers are present than the water can accommodate, a “shore group” is formed. In this instance, when an angler reaches the top of the run, they join the shore group, and wait their turn to resume fishing.
While not my cup of tea, the New Brunswick Shuffle is a means to share a very limited resource. Another approach would be to simply leave a run after a few hours, and allow others to fish it, rather than hogging it all day long. Whatever the solution, I think we have to remember that public water belongs to everyone, and some means of sharing it needs to be honored.
A few years ago, I hiked the 3-4 miles up to the middle meadow of Slough Creek in Yellowstone National Park. After a bit, I found a pod of cutthroat feeding in a small run. I was approaching from a high, outside bank, with the sun at my back. There was no way I could fish it from there without spooking the fish. I retreated downstream until I found a crossing point, and came back upstream to the run.
There was a sparse, green drake hatch, and the fish were rising when the occasional fly presented itself. I crawled forward, and positioned myself streamside, on my knees. I chose my fly, tied it on, and began to fish the lower end of the run. A few moments later, along came some anglers, walking downstream on the high bank. They were walking only a few feet from the edge. They waved to me, and asked how things were going. Needless to say, the trout saw them, and promptly scattered.
I counted to three, then quietly replied, “It was great until you came along and scared them all! Can’t you walk farther from the bank so that the trout won’t see you or your shadow?”
They replied with a “flip of the bird”, and continued on by.
Over the years, I have had situations like this arise on a number of occasions. In every instance, no matter what I said, the “effort to teach” fell upon deaf ears. Similar to addressing “interlopers”, the reaction was usually defensive or angry. Now I simply leave to find another run, or resign myself to laying low for half an hour. But if anglers were more educated, this situation could easily be avoided most of the time.
These are but a few examples of issues that can arise while fishing public waters. It behooves us all to respect one another, and share the limited resource. If we learn and follow a few simple rules, i.e. fly fishing etiquette, we can all better enjoy our time on the water.
written by Al Simpson, July 2017.