“We like companionship, see, but we can’t stand to be around people for very long. So we go get ourselves lost, come back for a while, then get the hell out again.”
― Chris McCandless, Into the Wild
Fishing with a stick and line is a solitary endeavor by nature. It always comes down to the two hands of an angler: one on the rod and the other in control of the line. Sharing the water with friends is great. But fishing, inherently, is not a team sport. It’s more like pole vaulting than a football game because it’s really about individual performance. And at its root, fishing is just a contest between one man and a fish.
However, we fish together to share our experiences, to learn from one another, to catch up with old friends and make new ones. We choose to fish together because the bonds formed on a river are like none other, and because flowing water and shared moments can heal friendships and mend grievances.
It’s hard to find good fishing friends who see eye-to-eye or accept your own philosophies. Tougher still is finding another angler who follows the same protocols and norms about sharing water. No one likes to be front-ended by a stranger, but it can be even tougher to accept a friend jumping ahead to fish the water you had your eye on.
All of this is easily avoided, of course, with a little communication and some agreement on the terms of the day. There are a bunch of ways to fish together, so let’s sort through them . . .
Don’t count me, man
First, an important question: To compete or not to compete?
That’s up to you and your friend, but I’ll mention this: Many would-be friendships go awry when one guy counts but the other doesn’t care to keep track. If you like to compete (if you’re a numbers guy) just be sure your partner feels the same way before you bring a competitive element into the exchange. Never volunteer to keep track of another man’s fish count.
Good fishing often happens in pairs. Many of the following strategies are best when fishing with a partner, and adding a third person makes things a little crowded. With more than a trio, most of these methods fall apart from the center.
Lastly, all of the approaches that follow are based in a need to cover water. You can go out there and stand in one pool all morning, chatting with your fishing buddy, but to catch a few fish you need to move — usually.
So here are a handful of ways to share the water with friends.
Most of us didn’t grow up with a fly rod in hand. We started with some means of conventional gear and later moved to the fly rod. And some of the cultured habits of spin fishing cause problems if transferred over to fly fishing. Let me explain.
It’s easy to spin fish right next to your buddy. But fly fishers need room for the backcast, and our casting range is much shorter with a fly rod. We need a good bit more personal space to sling the line around, and that’s really the essence of the clash — we simply need more space for success.
So the side-by-side approach can work well for spin fishers, but it doesn’t often crossover well to fly fishing.
Sometimes, on larger rivers with plenty of casting room, two anglers may work a river side-by-side and continue to move upstream. And even on medium-sized creeks, two fly fishers can set up across from one another and fish together, with one guy working the right side and the other working the left. If the water is stained enough, you can even stay within conversational distance of your friend without spooking too many fish. It just requires some cooperation.
Side by side is great, but on many waters it’s not practical.
When the river is too small for a pair of angler to fish close, then leaving your buddy and hopping up to the next honey hole is probably the most common way of doing things. Working upstream or wading down, leapfrogging is a good way to spend a day of fishing and still keep in touch with your friend, because there’s a new opportunity to catch up and share a few words with each pass — with each leap — toward new water.
The leapfrog rules can be troublesome, though. You may find yourself relying on the generosity and selflessness of your partner. Your idea of enough space and your friend’s idea may be pretty different, so it helps to agree on some guidelines.
On most rivers, my suggestion is to level up . . .
The waters I fish have enough gradient and structure to provide clearly defined levels on the stream. Levels are natural breaking points in the river. Basically, a level up is the next place upstream where you can wade into the water without spooking the fish your partner is working. Lips, ledges and rock formations often provide these breaks.
If my friend is fishing a tailout, then I may give him the whole pool, and I’ll jump up to the run above.
But levels aren’t just riffles, runs and pools either. Within a one-hundred yard stretch of good pocket water, there might be a half dozen or more levels. Anything that breaks up the water, anywhere you can put in and not disturb your partner’s fish, is the next level. Sometimes it’s fifty feet away. Sometimes it’s five hundred.
Either way, I find it a lot easier to agree on a level up system than a on particular distance. Using levels as markers allows the river to make the decision about how far ahead of your friend you should be.
I was eleven years old, and I’ll never forget: One Saturday night in 1986, Ricky “the Dragon” Steamboat teamed up with the Junkyard Dog to take back the belt in a no-holds barred WWF tag team title match. The Junk Yard Dog pulled out the brass knuckles, and it was all over.
Tag team fishing takes patience, and taking turns on the river isn’t for everyone. For certain, the retired crew takes up this strategy far more often than the flat-brimmers.
At whatever age, if you’re out there to fish hard and learn something, it’s tough to sit back and watch somebody else fish. But after some long river hours, and on multi-day trips, even the youngest, most ambitious anglers out there may really sink in and enjoy tag-teaming the water.
Watch your buddy fish for a while, enjoy a good conversation or keep it silent. You’re there with each other. Watch and learn from your partner. Bust his balls for missing the hook set. Net his fish. Drink a beer until he’s ready to tag out, and then take your turn while he relaxes and watches.
See you later
Avoiding any conflict about river space is easy if you split up at the truck. It’s also a good way to fish with friends and still clear your head for a while. For many years, this one has been my favorite.
“Hey, I’ll go way downstream, around the bend and below that long run against the hillside. I’ll put in right at the feeder stream and start working back up. I’ll meet you back here for lunch.”
Sounds good. Of course, the downside is less time spent communing with your friend, but if you fish together enough, you’ve probably run out of things to talk about anyway.
There’s nothing finer than a float. With two friends (or three, or four) floating downstream together, anything can happen. You’re forced into cooperation with one another. And for any real success out there, the angler fishing must work with the guy on the oars.
Floating a river together defies the individual-sport rule. Instead, two guys work together to find, track, hook and land the fish. And nothing brings people together more than teamwork.
A boat opens up a host of possibilities that are wholly unavailable while wading. Floating is a commitment and cooperation between friends, and that’s a good thing.
However you do it . . .
Whatever way you choose to share the river with friends, it’s always worth calling up a fishing buddy. Because feeling good and lonely only lasts so long.
Fish hard, friends.
Enjoy the day.
T R O U T B I T T E N