Classic Pro Tips: What Makes Good Stream Etiquette?

Written by: Bill Cairns

Bill Cairns was a pioneer in fly-fishing instruction and a Master Caster.

[Editor’s note: Reader Jeffrey Harris sent in the text below, along with this note: “Bill Cairns’s thoughts on stream etiquette bear repeating from time to time. Here’s my retyped version from my tattered copy he gave me 20 years ago. I hope you’ll share it with your readers and Orvis customers.” We wrote about Bill when he passed away in 2013. Thanks to Mr. Harris for this great reminder of Bill’s legacy. This is still good advice.]

It used to be that most new fishermen were gradually introduced to the sport of fly fishing by a family member or friend who had a fishing background, and various rules of behavior would be acquired over time and adhered to as a matter of course. Nowadays, we welcome many adult newcomers to the sport with no tradition to rely on for guidance so streamside misunderstanding can easily arise.

The rules of streamside behavior are few and easily observed. Mostly they revolve around common sense, courtesy, and consideration of others sharing the stream.

  • A section of water belongs to the first fisherman fishing it. It is inconsiderate to crowd him and just how close an approach is permissible is an obvious variable.
  • A slow-moving or stationary fisherman has every right to remain just where he is. If you are moving, leave the water and walk around him, being certain not to disturb his fishing or the water he might be working. In a similar vein, a fisherman may be resting a pool or planning his next move. It is still his water, and you should not jump in without his permission.
  • A fisherman working in an upstream direction has the right of way over someone coming downstream. Wading upstream against the current forces you to move slowly, cover less water, and you are approaching the fish from behind. The fisherman working in a downstream direction covers more water, more quickly, and has the potential to disturb more water. For instance, careless wading could send silt or debris washing downstream to alarm fish that someone else is working over.
  • Many streams flow through private property. Recognize that access is a privilege, not a right. Respect private property. If unsure about access, ask the landowner politely. On farm properties: don’t trample crops, disturb livestock, or leave gates open.
  • Leave no litter at streamside. In fact, get in the habit of picking up discarded monofilament, cans and other trash, carrying them out to be discarded properly.
  • Recognize that skilled anglers and/or heavy fishing pressure with excessively liberal limits can greatly reduce the available fish populations in any stream section unless voluntary restraint is practiced. A legal limit is not a quota. Let your fishing motto be: “Limit your kill; don’t kill your limit.” Orvis encourages the catch-and-release philosophy of angling, allowing fish to mature, reproduce, and live to challenge other anglers in the future.
  • Multiple recreational use of streams is common. We may share the resource with tubes and canoes. It is the responsibility of the canoer to recognize that the angler has established a position before the canoe floated into view. The canoer should try to pass behind the angler. If space doesn’t permit this, the canoer should float by quietly and with minimum disturbance.

In summary, behave on stream towards other anglers as you would like them to behave towards you. . .and welcome to the world of fly fishing.

Bill Cairns is a legend in fly fishing. He was a fly fishing teacher, ambassador, historian, rod builder, fly tier, and one of the best casters ever. He founded the first fly fishing school in 1966 at the Orvis Company. The fly fishing world lost a true gentleman in 2013 when Bill was 81 years old.

18 thoughts on “Classic Pro Tips: What Makes Good Stream Etiquette?”

  1. This is excellent, thanks. I’ve grown up around fishing, but fishing in Florida is significantly different from when I go on trips to fish for trout.

  2. Conversely, someone parked for hours at a good run should be yelled at. You can’t hammer it all day and not give anyone else a chance.

    1. Really? Yelling has no place in trout fishing or any other type of fishing IMHO. If you covet someone else’s place on the stream come back early the next morning. While you’re on the stream it would be much appreciated if you would just zip it when it comes to yelling at anyone.

      1. I have to agree with JLJameson. Yelling? Really? There’s enough yelling going on all around us already. If you need more of it, read the newspapers and get your fill there. Just don’t bring your yelling to the stream/river bank. In fact, maybe YOU should just stay home and give the rest of us some peace.

      2. I have to agree with JLJameson. Yelling? Really? There’s enough yelling going on all around us already. If you need more of it, read the newspapers and get your fill there. Just don’t bring your yelling to the stream/river bank. In fact, maybe YOU should just stay home and give the rest of us some peace.

      3. Yelling is inappropriate, but so is over staying your welcome. If you are lucky enough to live next door to a blue ribbon stream, that’s great. But many of us have to travel long distances and make special arrangements to get to a good spot. It is ignorant, to be frank, to tell somebody who gets to travel once our twice a year to try and get some decent fishing in “to come back early next morning”. The sport needs support, so maybe engage the newcomer, and ask him to her if they would like to fish the pool for a while . I’m sure there are other places holding trout, and we want to encourage people to take up the sport and share what they enjoy with others. End of sermon!

  3. Pingback: Tippets: Making Mends, Good Stream Etiquette | MidCurrent
  4. Many waters today are overflowing with people. You can only do your best not to crowd your fellow angler but sometimes no matter what you do someone is going to feel you have intruded upon them.

  5. Good post. Thanks.
    Knowing the considerate amount of distance to keep from another angler is challenging because it varies on different waters. It is best to ask the angler who was first in place to fish the water – just ask … you might find better words but “would it intrude on you if I begin fishing above that X (or below that X). If the angler gives an answer that seems “hoarding” to you, well, hey, he/she got there first and that should be respected.

    1. Respect and acknowledgement to the angler that is there goes along way to the point of friendships may be built off!! And you may learn something by wAtching and listening.

  6. For a while I fished a stream that, in warmer weather, was about 50% fly fishers and 50% kayakers and tubing people. The kayakers and canoeing folks were usually very nice and aware of my fly line, but sometimes clueless. Used to annoy me. But then I noticed their paddles stirred the stream bottom, and that the trout followed them feasting on the bugs stirred up by the paddles. Really changed how I looked at the folks floating by! Now, I look forward to these times and drift a nymph through the seams right behind the floaters. Whenever they offer an apology for drifting past me I just smile and reply back “it’s your River too”!

  7. On the Farmington River during Summer months many (not all) tubers are consistently rude, often under the influence and annoying. My response is to always thank those who exhibit courtesy and hold my tongue when they don’t.

  8. I liked that you said that there is [proper fishing etiquette. I would agree that it would be polite to allow the first fisherman to pick a section of water for himself. I would allow him to have this so that he could have the opportunity to catch fish in peace.

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