Tuesday Tip: The Keys to 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’ 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 last year. 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.

16 thoughts on “Tuesday Tip: The Keys to Good Stream Etiquette

  1. Dave R

    Boy, I know a couple of streams I fish that I wish this was posted on a sign in the parking areas. Still I am not sure if everyone would take the time to read it, let alone follow it’s advice.

    Reply
  2. joshua

    stream access is a right, not a privilege. waterways(most) are public property to the high water mark — at least they are here in California. that being said, being respectful of the properties of others is a given, even if the land owner doesn’t show you that same respect.

    Reply
  3. Tommy Baker

    I agree with Nick above, likely preaching to the choir here.

    I especially like the part in the article about letting the guy camp out if he arrives at a spot first. I may not like the fact that is there and not willing to let me fish, but I have to give him credit for getting there before me, time to move on and find a vacancy somewhere else.

    Reply
  4. Tecco

    on the 4th bullet, growing up and working on farms and ranches if you find a gate open leave it open if you find it closed close it behind you. some times a get is left open to allow herds to move or the owner is moving a herd.
    Ranchers watch before they approach you too. Twice i have been approached by ranchers who watched me pick up garbage I found and granted me special access like parking at their homestead and sharing info rather than trying to run me off..
    If you get this access be appreciative. Don’t just park and head to the water. let them know you’re there. stop chat have a coffee. If they smoke bring a cigar for him. if they like whiskey bring a single malt some times. ranchers talk and the little niceties can get you access to other ranches aswell. and that can be water that every one else walk a miles to get to using the standard rules of access.

    just some tips of access too

    Reply
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  6. chris

    I have great areas nearby that I will seldom fish because of the lack of respect and poor etiquette, and I seek out areas where I know this will not be an issue. All of these points could be easily composed on a piece of card stock that can be attached to pieces of gear being sold at retail. Maybe the manufacturers could really help to raise awareness, especially for the beginning angler, by implementing a program such as this.

    Reply
  7. Adam

    I like Chris’s idea above.

    I’ve looked to Orvis for a lot of angling guidance over the years, so it would be great to have a section of their site that features etiquette awareness and gives some scenarios as examples. I, too, have stopped fishing certain areas due to the “bad vibes” created when I have to remind other anglers on points of courtesy.

    Reply
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  9. Greg Morgan

    Good article and a great reminder. In our world there seems to be a lack of manners and overall politeness. Part of the attraction of fly fishing is the etiquette, the tradition, and the conservation of the streams and access points.

    I have found that most fly fishermen are some of the best sportsmen and outdoorsmen I have ever met. I have met people willing to share stream knowledge and even their fly’s with me just because they are genuinely interested in seeing a fellow fishermen share the experience.

    I believe in leaving the river better than when I arrived, meaning picking up trash when you find it helps everyone. It is annoying to find it and disrespectful to the land but it only takes a minute to pick it up and it sets a good example to anyone watching. And if no one is watching, it is still the right thing to do.

    Fly fishing is a wonderful sport, shared by and large by wonderful people. When we lose an ambassador like Bill Cairns, then the rest of us must step up to share his vision and legacy. If we lead by example we can teach etiquette to anyone we share a stream with.

    Reply
  10. Harry

    When I was young, my Dad’s way of teaching was to give us a pole & hook, let us bait it then he would leave us so he could fish. Naturally, I really didn’t get a lot of information this way, so I never really learned to fish. Nor did I learn why fishing can be very important for long time mental and physical health.
    Now I am retired and learning to fish. Members of the fly fishing club I joined have spent many hours trying to teach me the rudiments of fly fishing. They also work very hard with veterans with PTSD or other injuries. They are giving back and giving me an appreciation for the art of fly fishing which I never attained when I was young.
    Since I am learning about this sport so late in life, I can’t teach my adult children since they moved away. Teaching others about this sport is probably one of the most enjoyable things a person can do. Passing on what you have learned over a lifetime is time well spent. The lessons discussed above are needed so we can maintain our civilized life, without common sense rules we have anarchy.
    Thanks for the article and the comments.

    Reply
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  12. El Pescador

    We fish a NYC Reservoir Tailwater today. My Dad was fishing upstream from me and I was shocked when he told me that an Angler entered upstream of him and worked direclty downstream as my Dad was working upstream and even fished next to him. I was amazed at this restraint.

    Reply
  13. Gary

    The only thing I would add is the part about gates. I was always brought up if the gate was open you leave it open and if it is closed, you go through and then close the gate

    Reply

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