Stream Etiquette

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Fly fishing is supposed to be a relaxing sport, right? Well, most of the time it is, but sometimes a day out on the stream that is meant to smooth away all those stresses we’ve built up over the week can turn into an infuriating experience. Why? Most of the time it is a lack of good stream etiquette on the part of fellow anglers.

A couple of years ago while fishing the tail water below Bull Shoals dam, I watched a crusty old gentlemen one early morning artfully casting into a small run. He was having exceptional luck and with every other cast was lifting his rod tip to the pull of a fat rainbow that had taken his nymph. While I continued casting, I began to notice more and more anglers entering the water. There was this one particular fellow I noticed scrambling down the gravel bank toward us. He was outfitted immaculately and was an image perfect candidate for the cover of Orvis or some other fashionable flyfishing publication.

The fellow entered the water and began to wade directly out into the lower section of the ‘run’ the old man was fishing. Suddenly, a streak of profanities broke the silence of the early morning stream. “You dumb F**k!!”…… was the first expletive shouted from the old man. He was loud enough that I swear it echoed off the dam that was a good mile upstream from us.

A hand full of flyfishers down river from us turned their heads, some in mid-cast, startled by the commotion. The old man was beet red in the face, shaking his rod and cursing up a storm toward the fellow standing in the run. Fortunately, the old man had been on the water since very early morning and it was probably near time for him to retire to his camper for coffee and a rest anyway. He sloshed out of the river while hurling sporadic profanities toward the intruder and left the stream in disgust.

Thankfully, unlike this intrusive fellow, the majority of fly fishers are courteous folks that quietly observe some unspoken rules of the water that are designed to help make flyfishing an enjoyable experience for all of us. However, with fly fishing continuing to become more popular every year, there are increasing numbers of people entering the stream with very poor stream etiquette and there is nothing that can infuriate a flyfisher more quickly than another angler leaving good sense on the bank and failing to abide by the unspoken rules of the water.

Stream etiquette is a combination of following many of the same protocols and using the same manners most of us learned while growing up. But because flyfishing takes place in a different environment, the stream, there is a little more to it than that. Developing good stream etiquette is dependent upon the flyfisher having an elementary understanding of both human and fish behavior and developing an ability to ‘read’ some of the major elements of a stream. By ‘reading’ a stream I’m referring to the elementary ability to identify runs, seams, pockets, shoals and so forth.

Take for instance, the fellow that waded out into the middle of the ‘run’ the old man was fishing. I suspect the fellow was a “newbie” and although dressed like an Orvis guide, he may not have had enough experience to even minimally read the stream. He probably did not understand that he was entering a ‘run’ and that by doing so his presence would scatter the trout and ruin the areas fishing potential for the rest of the day. On the other hand, he could have been a “prick” that knew exactly what he was doing and maneuvered himself to “take” a section of the run from the old man, in which case the old man’s ranting was well deserved. Although I don’t condone violence, if this was a hostile takeover, then the old man would have had my blessings had he broken his rod over the fellows head just as he had threatened to do as he left the stream that morning.

In my years on the water I have never seen anyone who had a minimal understanding of fish behavior and who could read the basics of a stream wade into the middle of ‘run’. But I have seen a growing number of newbie flyfishers slosh through productive water scattering fish in panic and ruining some prime flyfishing territory the rest of the day for everyone else. For these flyfishers, inexperience and ignorance was behind their poor stream etiquette.

If you are new to the sport, take some time to learn how to “read” a stream. Virtually every flyfishing magazine has an article or two every year on this subject. Failing this, find a seasoned angler who appears to know what he or she is doing and take some time to observe how they approach the stream. The best way to learn good stream etiquette is to go with or take the time to observe someone who obviously knows what they are doing.

A pointer to keep in mind if you do nothing else is never, ever, wade through a run or the heads or tails of a shoal. Runs are the deeper troughs often found in the bottle necked water of a shoal or other area of a stream that has a moderate to fast flow of current. A run is a natural holding and feeding area for fish. They cling close to the bottom in the slower moving deep water and pick off nymphs as they tumble into the run as well as rise to floating insects that are swept into the run. If you must wade across stream, go well up stream or downstream of the run before crossing. If you go upstream be certain you are far enough upstream of the run that your crossing will not kick loose sediment and bottom trash sending it into the run disturbing the trout that are holding there.

The heads and tails of shoals or pools can be prime fish holding sections of a stream. Wading through these areas or wading out into them to make short casts will disrupt the area completely for the rest of the day. Position yourself by using longer casts and avoid wading through these areas of a stream. On more than a few occasions I have seen flyfishers work the head or tail of a shoal or pool thoroughly without a strike then assuming the fish are not holding in the area, they wade through it to their next choice on the stream. Just because you may not get a strike after working an area thoroughly does not necessarily mean the fish are not there. The fish may simply not be feeding or your presentation may not be what they are interested in at the time. Always assume that fish are present in these areas and wade around them accordingly, not through them. Doing this will preserve the integrity of the fishery for the next flyfisher behind you.

Flyfishers love to wade almost as much as they love to cast. But a knowledgeable flyfisher practicing good stream etiquette will never wade out into a stream until it is necessary to do so. Unless you are familiar with a section of a stream and have read the water to know exactly where the fish will probably hold, follow the “work outward” rule. A good flyfisher will “work” the water “outward” from nearest to him by standing on or near the bank and only move into the water and toward midstream once the intervening water has been thoroughly worked. I have watched many a newbie flyfisher crash into the stream, wading out to the middle and start whipping their fly line in all directions. Often times these newbies have sloshed out into a holding area and disrupted the trout that they had no idea were holding there.

A fly rod and line are meant to be cast. Fly fishers sometimes enjoy casting more than actually fishing, so put that innate desire into action and use the rod for what it was designed to do; cast to the fish. Wade out into the stream only as a means to get a better angle on a drift or to reach a holding area that is beyond your casting distance. It doesn’t make sense and it is not very productive to wade twenty feet out into the stream to make a twenty foot cast when you can preserve the integrity of the fishery for everyone by making a thirty or forty foot cast from closer to the bank. You’re fly ends up in the same place as with a thirty foot cast and you have managed to keep from disrupting the stream and any fish that may be holding in the area between you and your fly for the next flyfisher.

On a stream where several flyfishers are present human behavior and the psychology of virtual territories plays an important role in stream etiquette. Many newbies and some experienced flyfishers have not developed a sense of the virtual territories or the “comfort zones” most flyfishers establish around themselves while on the stream. When you arrive at your favorite water only to find several anglers present, start thinking about “zones”.

In everyday life people have “comfort zones’. These zones are the distances for how close people can approach you and you still feel comfortable. Americans, Europeans and Asians all have different distances for their zones of comfort when meeting in real life. Some cultures have comfort zones that require two to three feet of space between each other when meeting, while other cultures feel comfortable with 6 to twelve inches of distance between people. Fly fishing has comfort zones as well, but they are different than the comfort zones we sense on dry land.

Comfort zones in fly fishing are dictated by the physics of fly casting obviously, but also by an extended ‘zone’ anglers place around themselves that they identify as “their water”. Exercising good stream etiquette requires us to sense what other anglers zones of comfort are, or in other words identifying what is considered “their water” and what is considered open for our use.

Several years ago sensing zones was not as much of a problem as it is today. With the growing popularity of the sport however, we sometimes find streams overly crowded at times to the point of almost shoulder to shoulder casting with multiple zones overlapping. Under normal conditions though there will still be times when there may only be two anglers within sight on a stream and invariably a third will wade up into one of the other flyfishers zone and draw an off color comment reprimanding the intruder.

Encroachment into someone else’s zone is a problem behavior that fish feverish newbies often fall into. Over anxious newbies who see another flyfisher catching fish on the stream will sometimes hurry over to “join in” on the good fortune and find themselves the target of icy stares and near misses with a fly from a well directed cast by the “owner” of the zone. Most of the newbies that chase fish catchers are young and new to the sport and have yet to learn that everyone on the stream is not their surrogate father who will share good fortune openly with them.

Most fly fishers often mentally “stake-out” the area they are fishing and establish a zone that may encompass a wide arc of water that is sensed as belonging to them, exclusively, until they decide to give it up and move on. Some of this staking out a zone is based on the need for casting space but much of it is more primal than that. Establishing zones and ownership of water is really not much different than what young children do during playtime. A child chooses a toy to play with, establishes ownership of it, and often may not wish to share that toy until they are through playing with it. If another child attempts to take the toy away, a loud and sometime physical protest ensues; which if you think about it, it is not that much different from the interactions that occur on the stream between anglers who violate each others zones from time to time.

The zones flyfishers establish around them is viewed as their own personal space for fishing and to intrude into that space with out permission or invitation is not only rude, it is a down right sin to many. Most of us as small children leaned not to intrude into someone else’s play area or attempt to share someone else’s toy unless we were given permission or invited to do so by the other child. Even though flyfishers have all out grown that childishness, right?, we should know to stay out of someone’s play area until they are finished playing or until we have been given permission to join the play.

Judging where the boundaries of these comfort zones are can be as complex as it is simple. Here are a couple of thoughts that might help in sensing the zones of other flyfishers. When the stream is crowded, at the very minimum, judge the farthest distance the flyfisher is casting his fly, then double that distance. This is a starting point for the minimum distance for the zone for the other angler and you should not encroach upon it. Most casts for trout flyfishing will be in the thirty to forty foot range, but oftentimes stream topography requires a single or double haul cast that might place the distances out anywhere from eighty feet or more. If you double these longer distances you should stay a minimum of 160 to two hundred feet away from the other angler if possible.

Such distances are not always feasible though when several anglers are on the stream in a particularly popular area. If you approach the stream and find several anglers present and the available water does not allow optimum distances for everyone’s idea comfort zones, approach the widest space available between anglers and before you prepare to cast, ask the closest angler if he or she minds if you fish the area. I have never heard anyone say “no” to such a request and the simple act of asking permission lets the other angler know that you are aware of his or her zone, you respect it, and you would like to have permission to share a portion of it.

Most flyfishers have matured beyond the childhood attitude of “all-mine” and often adjust their zones downward in size relative to the number of anglers on the stream. But there is a limit. Never crowd into another flyfishers zone just because his or her area may have better fishing potential. It’s a first come first serve rule on the water. If it’s in someone else’s zone leave it alone. If you wanted the spot, you should have been there earlier.

There are times that the stream has just too many anglers on it to accommodate another zone. When this is the case, you sometimes just have to find another place to wet your fly. A few weeks ago I traveled over to the White River below Beaver dam to get in a little time on the river. After arriving I walked down to the water to see what action was taking place when I was confronted by a long row of flyfishers and spincasters stretching down the length of the stream as far as the eye could see. They were all fairly evenly spaced apart, except for the bait fisherman who were huddled up like opposing football teams on the bank. The zone distances available between anglers was not adequate enough to allow another angler, comfortably, to join the parade. So, rather than make a crowded situation worse I left that section of stream and fished a far less productive stretch further down river. This option is not always what we would like to take after a long drive to the stream, but is often better than creating additional stress and jockeying for zones on over crowded water.

Zone rules based on casting distances will generally hold true for trout fishing. However, if you are fishing a warm water stream another set of factors come into play. A warm water fly fisherman will often cover far more territory than a trout fly fisherman and will do so in a much shorter period of time. A flyfisher casting for Smallmouth will usually work an extended area up or downstream from their position and move from structure to structure at a faster pace than a trout flyfisher. It is best to observe which direction they are wading and then either go in the opposite direction or walk the bank around them until there is at least a hundred or more yards of water available for them to fish before you begin your fishing. This is not always feasible, but attempt to leave as much untouched water for the fellow as you would want to be given if you were him or her.

Good stream etiquette is a combination of using good manners, gaining experience on the stream, understanding human behavior and developing an ability to read a stream. The next time you take a newbie flyfishing, do him or her, as well as the rest of us a favor by starting to point out the aspects of good stream etiquette. Teach them the basics of reading a stream, show them how to respect zones and encourage good manners on the water. Doing so will improve the enjoyment of flyfishing for everyone and help ensure the next generation of flyfishers continue to view a Scott or Winston and not a Smith and Wesson as their primary piece of gear when visiting the stream.

By Brock Rutledge

This article originally appeared on

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