Most sports have a set of unwritten rules, generally agreed upon by those in the know. But the trouble with the unwritten rules of fly fishing is that many newcomers aren’t aware of them. So it might take seasons of error before realizing that you were pissing everyone else off while wading downstream into the upstream guys.
My boys are in Little League, and we are awash in the joy of baseball again. As coach for my youngest son’s team, I teach these little ball players not only what a force out is at second base, but also the other things, like the unwritten agreement not to step into the batter’s box until the catcher is ready, and to stay off the pitcher’s mound if you’re not the pitcher.
My older son is on a “Major League” team this year, and it’s fun to watch Joey as a rookie again. He’s learning so many new rules at once, and much of what he’s absorbing isn’t in a rule book. It’s just a set of standards and expectations that are generally agreed upon. Like, don’t bunt to break up a no hitter because that’s cheap. And left or right fielders yield to the center fielder for called balls — always.
Fly fishing has its own long list of rules. Of course, because so many of those rules are predicated on one faction of fishers doing things better than the other, the tag of elitist is unfortunately (though rightfully) earned.
I have no use for restrictions that suggest how we should catch trout on a fly rod. I will not limit myself only to dry flies, and I will not restrict my nymphing to upstream sight fishing for one trout. I sometimes use bobbers. I sometimes use split shot. I don’t use fly line if it makes no sense. My philosophy of fly fishing is to do whatever catches fish. And however anyone else wants to rig up and fish a fly rod is just fine by me too. Such decisions about methods and tackle don’t affect other anglers. They are personal choices, so the silly codes or rules against indicators or other rigs and styles make little sense to me.
READ: Troutbitten | Where the Lines Are Drawn
On the contrary, the unwritten rules about what fly fishers should do in deference or respect to their fellow angler are paramount. And as the streams get more crowded, the rules of etiquette are more important than ever.
Here’s a good one …
The Downstream Fisher Yields to the Upstream Fisher
Many streamer anglers fish downstream. Before my time, the rivers saw a lot of wet fly fishermen who also fished downstream. These days the wet fly guys are sparse, and the streamer crowd is growing.
Streamer anglers blow through a lot of water. That’s really the only way it works. Cover water, and catch fish on a streamer. If you don’t constantly cover new water with your streamer, you won’t net many fish. The pace of the streamer guy can easily be five times that of the upstream nymph or dry fly guy — and it should be. You have to cover water.
No matter what fly you’re fishing, if you’re working downstream and come upon an angler fishing upstream, you should give him plenty of room. Get to the bank and walk around him. That’s the rule. I hesitate to call it unwritten because it is written, although it seems to be a vanishing concept.
I propose that we all reaffirm and generally agree on this upstream guy / downstream guy thing. With two anglers approaching one another on the same track, somebody has to jump off eventually, and it only makes sense that the guy making his way downstream yields to the guy fishing upstream.
This isn’t my rule. It’s been that way for a long time. As far as I can tell, it’s been commonly accepted wisdom for over a century. You can quickly find this affirmed here, here and here.
The downstream fisher blows up more water at a faster pace. His casts are longer, and he cover a wider arc. He spooks more fish ahead of him than does the upstream angler, and he kicks up mud and silt that carries downstream ahead of him.
All of this has a far greater effect on the upstream fisher than vise versa. The upstream fisher has virtually no effect on the downstream fisher above, until he is nearly on top of the other angler. Conversely, the downstream fisher can affect the quality of fishing fifty or more yards ahead of him, with the carried mud, long casts and spooked fish.
Importantly, the rule should also apply to anglers in a boat approaching the wading angler. Sure, you can run the wading angler over like a Mack truck, but you should give him the right of way.
I float with friends sometimes, and we make every effort to take the boat behind a wading angler, so as not to disturb the water he’s fishing. Yes, even if that means getting out of the boat and walking it through the shallows, that’s what we do. Many anglers will wave you through (sometimes with a middle finger), but a little communication goes a long way to preventing any animosity.
Spread the word
My friend, Greg, includes an etiquette section with his introductory classes on fly fishing. That’s a fantastic idea.
Etiquette only works when both sides agree on the terms. Unfortunately, there are a lot of guys out there storming off in a huff because some angler cut him off or ran through the water he planned to fish. Sadly, the offending angler often has no idea he did anything wrong.
Do everyone a favor and share this info with your fly fishing friends. Discuss it. Share this post.
Maybe you don’t agree with the concept that the downstream fisher should yield to the upstream fisher. That’s fine too, but it doesn’t change the fact that it’s what most anglers expect. And agreement with the rule isn’t required for compliance.
To George Costanza’s exasperated point, “We’re living in a society!” It’s really the right thing to do.
Fish hard. And good luck out there.
Enjoy the day.
T R O U T B I T T E N
Good post Domenick.
This is one of my old favorites
Good stuff there. Thanks for sharing.
There’s only one thing wrong with this “Fantastic Article” those that need to heed this advice are the ones that won’t read it.
That’s probably true, Joe.
Great article! I agree with every word and I’m gonna try to be more conscious of how I wade. Also try to pass this on to others. Having a downstream angler muddy the water I’m fishing can ruin the summer of George!
LOL at the Summer of George. Best show ever.
Great Article, Domenick! Courtesy is one missing element of fishing in general. There seems to be importance on this in other hoddy activities like golf (e.g., don’t talk during the backswing, don’t walk through someone’s putting line, etc.) and even bowling (e.g., don’t approach the ball rack until each bowler on each side of you rolled, don’t linger at the line too long, etc.), but in fishing, it seems to be something that new anglers just don’t pick up. Maybe it’s the solitude of the sport. If you stood on a tee and talked while someone was swinging, it wouldn’t take long for you to be told that is not an acceptible practice. Hopefully, with articles like this, those who don’t know will be informed so they don’t have to learn the hard way.
Keep up the good work, Domenick!
Good point about the solitude. That’s probably a big reason why new anglers may take a long time to learn the unwritten rules. Also, anytime I’ve ever tried to tell someone on the stream about these “rules,” they never have taken it well. Doesn’t seem to matter how I’ve approached it, no one wants to be told that they are doing something “wrong” while fishing.
Agree on the “rules” conversation and disgruntled look it commonly produces. I have abandoned that talk. Instead I try to lead by example and make the comment, “I’ll hike up a while to give you some room to fish” as I pass by the angler who literally dropped in on top of me. Another good reason to introduce people to our sport (or whatever you want to call it) is to help shape them as anglers.
I was fishing a small creek near my house yesterday. I was returning to my car by fishing downstream when I saw an angler ahead of me fishing upstream. I left the stream and walked along the bank past him. We greeted each other and he seemed genuinely surprised that I yielded the stream to him. Goes to show you how out of touch we are with the kind of stream etiquette Dom wrote about. Good, and important, article.
I think I am a wet fly fisherman but I wade upstream. No wonder I don’t catch anything haha.
Seriously though, I made a new friend on the river the other day. We arrived almost the same time but he parked first. I said, “I don’t want to fish over you, are you fishing up or down?” He was a worm fisherman but turns out the best catch and release guy I’ve ever seen. We shared a pool later on and both caught fish back to back, he on a wet worm downstream, me on a wet fly.
But I also want to say I like your writing style. I’ve read a number of your journal entries.
And yeah, it’s all just fishing after all.
Hi, I am really enjoying reading your blogs especially this one. I live in the NW of England and have always thought that over there in the great expansive US you would have to walk for days to bump into another angler (joking of course), while here in crowded little England it can be a problem. But the problem of upsetting a fellow angler is something that happens very rarely IMO, and I agree is usually done through ignorance. But the individual who leaves litter on the bank is probably the same guy who spoils your day on the river and is beyond help. Give him a wide birth or a telling off and risk a mouthful of abuse and a ruined days fishing (the world over)- c’est la vie!
Would that more will read and think about……………..
Sadly, Dom, as a newbie to the sport I did this to a fellow fly fisher in Pagoda Springs. Didn’t realize what I’d done until much later even though I got the evil eye as he walked off the water. Kept an eye out for him to apologize but to no avail.
Oh yeah, I’ve done the same. It happens.
Thanks for the article. A little communication does help a lot, and it is very easy to mistake ignorance for malice. This year has been especially bad for getting high-holed or having the one other floater in the lake literally paddle over your line, asking if you’re catching anything. One older couple specifically said they wanted to give us some room, and then anchored about 20 feet from where our flies were sitting on the water. The outcomes of the situations depended entirely on my reaction, and I feel a lot better about being friendly than the times I let my anger get the best of me. There almost should be some kind of required etiquette course the first time you purchase a fishing license.
Interesting. It seems your etiquette is different to ours in the UK. While we have a rich tradition of etiquette in salmon fishing and chalk-stream fly fishing there is less when fishing for trout on our freestone streams. Here the etiquette for up vs downstream seems to be whoever was there first has the right of way, probably due to the long history of fishing wets down and across in these environments.
The tricky one for me is if a trout fisherman is working upstream and a salmon angler enters the river ahead working his way down. Personally I always give way to the Salmon folk purely for practical reasons.
What’s the correct etiquette for trout up vs salmon downstream in the States?
I would not venture a guess on that one. I’m not a salmon guy. Hope someone who knows the etiquette will chime in though.
I’ve been trying to find an answer to my question above. I called one of the largest organisations that look after and let fishing on major rivers containing trout and salmon here in the UK.
There doesn’t seem to be any common etiquette on trout/up vs salmon/down and it was suggested that the fair thing would be who ever was fishing the pool or run first has right of way.
Personally I’ll continue yield to the salmon angler as I just think it’s the best way for both to enjoy and be productive with their fishing. The areas I fish that contain salmon have a limited number of ‘rods’ for a given day and I can see what the number will be in advance.
I can imagine it would be different on rivers that have very few trout anglers and the focus is on salmon. A while back I trecked to fish some remote rivers in the Scottish highlands. Scotland have different laws to the UK so I was often calling to ask for permission to fish a river or catchment. A common response was amusement as to why I’d want to fish for trout and not salmon in the first place!
What about the etiquette of proximity? Some anglers I encounter seem put-off just because you show up on the river while they’re fishing alone. This unwritten rule probably should vary depending on angling pressure.
This one kind of applies:
I fish the Farmington, its my home stretch. 21 miles of beautiful river to choose from. I find myself driving in loops sometimes watching where guys end up. I follow the 21 miles on my way to work daily. You wouldn’t know it, but so much of the river is lightly fished. Its so easy to pick pools that are empty. I was not familiar with this front ending thing…apparently it happens to me a lot. I never thought about it. I usually just leave.
I drive by my river most every day as well. And it makes me chuckle when guys start complaining about pressure. Most sections on most days are wide open. And the trends of anglers becomes easy to predict if you see the river every day.
What a bunch of crap. I’m sick of people deciding for me how to fish. Don’t try and come through my fishing spot if I am there first. You won’t like the results
Well I agree with that.
Interesting comments and a great post. Not sure how I missed this when first posted.
To pay for college, I worked on the river boats all summer. There are very specific rules of navigation and right of way that apply. The same should be said for fishing, as you well noted. I’d suggest you and/or TU put them up on a website and publish for discussion. Most folks don’t know them. I’ve been fishing for trout for 40 years and I didn’t.
Great post. Thanks for putting it out.
If your parents taught you commen courtesy, respect for others,values, patience etc. when growing up, these unwritten rules on the river would most likely come naturaly. They would also carry over in ever thing else you do in daily life, for example letting someone go ahead of you in line at the store or pulling your car over to let an oncoming car go first on a narrow street. I find the older fishermam know these unwritten rules but some of the younger kids don’t know these rules because they were never taught what I mentioned above
Thanks for the comment.
Ironically, though, it’s often the older set that seems to walk downstream and NOT yield to the upstream anglers. Really, I don’t think that this unwritten rule is something that is completely intuitive or learned by having common courtesy. That’s why I wrote the article. Fifty years ago, the thing to do was to swing wet flies around here, wading downstream. But things have changed, and most guys fish upstream (because you catch more trout that way).
First come, first served! But don’t Bogart that spot. Being crowded out of your preferred run or pool is the perfect time to explore that road less traveled. I would much rather fish alone on secondary water than compete with others. Too mentally distracting for me anyway. One other solution is to wait until later in the evening as very few anglers stick it out to the real magic hour, much less into the dark.
What you’re talking about though, is a little different — how much space to give each other out there. That’s a whole other piece of onstream etiquette. I wrote about that one a little while ago as well.
I would be interested in thoughts on something I ran into last week. A local stream has a relatively short wild section that gets pretty good pressure. Your are mostly fishing spots and it is not likely you will be able to move up or down stream far with out seeing other anglers. I came upon a nice spot with someone on the opposite bank on the phone. Despite making myself known the angler did not acknowledge me. After 2-3 minutes I asked if he was getting in or getting out. He responded that he was on a conference call but was fishing the area. It was a first for me and I am not sure what to make of it. I just moved on, but felt a little burned that I could not fish that spot because someone else was “at work” across the stream . Thoughts?
I guess I have two thoughts on this:
First, I can think of a few times I had to take an important call from my wife or my son, and I stood in the water on the phone for a few minutes. So I’d give the guy a little grace.
Second, if an area gets that much pressure, I just move one. I’d rather fish over half as many trout because there will be a quarter or less of the anglers.
I have also run into this and feel if I wait 2 minutes and the “gentleman” is still on a call, he’s not fishing, he’s conducting business. Sorry buddy, you can’t have it both ways.
Arghhh!!!!!! Dominic, I like your writing but this is hogwash. Unwritten rules aren’t rules. They are things you personally think should happen. And way more often then not, they are used as a stick to beat someone else with. Case-in-point…bunting to break up a no-hitter. This is pretty high up on the list of dumb things anyone has ever said. If there is a baseball game that is 0-2, bottom of the 8th inning, the away pitcher has a no-hitter going and the lead-off hitter bunts a single; he has given his team a chance to tie the game. He is not being “cheap”, he is competing. What does being “cheap” even mean? It means you’re mad that your no-hitter got broken up. But to throw a no-hitter, you have to throw a no-hitter. No team gets an option taken away from them because of your potential no-hitter. Your potential no-hitter does not shift the object of the game from winning to giving a pitcher a chance for this thing. It is a selfish idea that the rules of the game change because of this thing. Also, when does this rule kick in? What if I bunt as the lead-off hitter in the top of the 3rd and no one got a hit in the first 2 innings? The pitcher is working on a no-hitter.
Fly fishing etiquette can be written down and clearly explained. Things that can’t be are your opinion.
Philip, You spent an awful long time on baseball there, trying to justify your argument against a generally accepted rule by picking out specific circumstances. We can do the same with the upstream/downstream etiquette rules. There are plenty of exceptions to any rule — hence the common saying. But that doesn’t mean that these conventions don’t exist. You start your reply above by calling my opinion hogwash, but that doesn’t change the fact that these rules of the stream do exist. As I wrote above, this is NOT simply my opinion. I suppose, by your line of thinking, that there are no rules of etiquette allowed or to be followed, anywhere, unless they are written and passed into law by some agency. But that’s not the way the world works, and I doubt that you actually live that way. With respect, Dom
What a pleasant experience to find an open forum talking about a disagreement – and finding 40 comments where the most inflammatory word used is a single ‘hogwash’. Let’s give ourselves a pat on the back!!
Dom.. another of your interesting topics, sure to get plenty of comments. I certainly agree that etiquette on the stream is woefully lacking on the very busy waters that I frequent here in central Oregon. Much of it stems from a lack of training. There just isn’t any course on etiquette required when you buy your fishing license and unless you]are lucky to have a mentor teach you these things, you will not learn unless someone educates you on the stream.
I’m one of those ner’do wells that fish downstream a lot of the time. I happen to find the old method of swinging soft hackles to be productive and a fun way to fish. My fishing partner is a died in the wool dry fly guy. When we fish together, we work out the where and the how each day. It’s amazing how often we will find our selves spread nicely out on a stretch of river and watch as one or more anglers decides to jump in between us, without ever asking either of us which way we are fishing. On those occasions I have very little concern about what they are doing and will continue my direction, and if I catch up to them fishing upstream, will likely mention that if would have been nice to inquire which way I was heading. Since they aren’t disturbing my water per your article, I guess they aren’t concerned with me disturbing their water. I have to admit I get a little satisfaction of picking up several fish as I near their encroachment.
Now on the contrary… if I’m on the river and round the bend to find another angler in the same water that I wasn’t aware was there, I will observe what they are doing and if it appears they are fishing up… I’ll go down and wait til they pass and ask if they mind if I step in below them.. Most of the time, all it takes is the ask and most experienced anglers will share the water just fine.
I think that is probably fine with you and most of your readers and probably similar to their experiences. But for it to be absolute that the downstream guy has to yield and that he’s disturbing the water for the other guys.. is a little too strong for me. Love your work and appreciate your willingness to address topics that might be a little touchy…
Right on. No need to agree.
I guess that point is that if there is a standard (and it’s helpful when there is), then the guy working downstream should yield to the guy working upstream, for all of the reason I laid out. Of course there are exceptions, and I acknowledge that too. But most things in life have an average set of expectations between participants. All we’re doing here is thinking that through. ]