Ask the Experts: Streamside Etiquette

Having a stretch of river to yourself is less common these days, so be prepared to share the space
Photo by Shawn Bratt

As outdoor activities continue to surge in popularity, a lot of new anglers have hit the water this season. But unlike in decades past, when newbies were more likely to rely on an experienced mentor to show them around, today’s aspiring anglers can watch instructional videos, look at maps, and order gear all online, and might never have to interact with another fly fisher before heading to the river. While the internet has helped to reduce barriers to entry, it has also reduced new anglers’ exposure to the nuances and unwritten rules of the sport–namely, streamside etiquette–which isn’t as easily communicated by video instructors. 

New anglers (and seasoned veterans alike) should always be mindful of their potential impact on others and how best to mitigate it. We asked a few of our veteran guides for their tips on streamside etiquette, and their replies are below:

Boaters should briefly stop casting while passing other boats or wading anglers
Photo by Evan Jones

John Way, The Tackle Shop (Ennis, Montana):

Operating on the Madison, which is super busy, means seeing lots of folks when fishing. My general rule is to give everyone the space you would desire. We are all out there for the same reasons: solitude, connection, de-stressing, and maybe to catch a few fish. But giving proper space can be hard at times, with wade and float fishermen all sharing the same river.

When wade-fishing, try not to get any closer than 150 yards to another angler who is not in your party. When floating, do not crowd other boats, and if you need to pass, make some tracks and give them a buffer. When you float by a wade angler, fish the other side of the river or stop fishing until you get out of the hole. This is how we try to operate, anyway.

When we experience someone not following these practices, we don’t get mad. All that does is ruin our day, not theirs. Let them pass with a smile, take a break for a while, and then it’s all right. Nothing good comes from confrontation, even if you’re in the right.

Dave Brown, Dave Brown Outfitters (Patagonia, Arizona):

Good etiquette can be summed up in one sentence: give other anglers the appropriate amount of space for the river that you are fishing.

Obviously “appropriate” space differs from river to river, so it’s best to ask at a local fly shop what is considered acceptable space or distance from another angler on that particular fishery.

Even on the less-pressured rivers of S. Vermont, it’s still important to acknowledge other anglers
Photo by Evan Jones

Ray Beruman, Taconic Guide Service (Manchester, Vermont):

We have no shortage of freestone rivers to fish here in Southern Vermont. I find most anglers practice common courtesy as good human beings, but the degree varies depending on a few factors: good eye contact and a pleasant demeanor can go a long way. Always be the first to offer a friendly (but short) conversation on the river, and you will be surprised how far that will go.

If it is public water, everyone has the same right as you to access and enjoy the fishery. Often people are tubing and swimming in my best fishing spots, so I move on to the next. Don’t be a bully just because it is inconvenient for you.

When it comes to highly-pressured fisheries, where anglers often stand within one drift of each other and often are crossing each other’s lines in synchronization, it gets a little tricky. My best advice is to arrive early and stay on your spot. As other anglers arrive, greet them with a friendly hello and be positive. 

Fly-fishing rafts and other watercraft are becoming more affordable, and we are sure to see them on the water more frequently. Drifting rules include putting oars and lines up when floating past other anglers. Waders have the right of way, so be courteous, and be quick to depart.

So many potential issues can be avoided by a brief chat
Photo by Amelia Jensen

Amelia Jensen, Jensen Fly Fishing (Alberta, Canada):

The first rule of etiquette is to acknowledge that you’re not the only one looking to enjoy your time on the water. There are always other people who want to enjoy the same water you’re on, and they have as much right to the resource as you do. So be observant, and take the time to talk to other anglers and recreationists on the water. Talking with others can not only improve your day, but often save you from unneeded conflict, as well. 

Make it a priority to ask a few targeted questions while you’re at it, such as, “have you seen anyone else out here” or “how far up/down do you plan to fish?” Not only will this help you to better understand their intentions, but you’ll also get the chance to express your own. It also gives you a chance to potentially learn something new, especially if you haven’t spent much time fishing in that particular area.

If you’re brand new to fly fishing, the one big no-no when encountering other anglers is to walk up and start fishing right next to (or directly across from) them without saying anything. No one responds well to “hole-jumping.” Exactly how much space to give another angler will depend on how busy that particular river is, and what you both can agree on if you just talk.

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