There are a few extra anglers on the water these days. It’s a Covid thing. And crowded streams have become a popular subject at the bars, in online discussions and in the fly shops. More fishermen is something that most established anglers disdain. It’s a funny thing, because we all know how much enjoyment being on the river brings to our lives, and we truly want that for others. We just don’t want more people throwing a line in our favorite spots out there.
However, even with extra angler pressure, it’s as easy as ever to predict what places will be crowded and to avoid them. Because, for the most part, everyone fishes the same water. But why?
Much of what makes fishing special is the solitude. Right?
Not necessarily. Many fly fishers enjoy seeing and being seen. It’s human nature, I guess, to strut a bit. Decked out with shiny new gear, there’s a measure of pride taken in being an angler, and I think that’s alright. Eventually, the worn-in creases in a pair of waders, the ratty boot laces and the faded vest becomes its own badge of honor, but it takes some time to understand all of that.
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Keep in mind that different types of people take up a fly rod, and while I think there are more introverts that stick with the game — more of us who are looking to get away from everything — there seems to be just as many of the see-and-be-seen types out there, the ones that are more interested in holding a conversation than casting a line, in telling stories than improving tactics. This is part of it. It’s fishing. It’s people. And that’s alright.
There’s a lot more recreation happening on and around our waters too — more kayakers, dog walkers, bikers, runners. You get the point. Perhaps the best thing about Covid is that people are remembering what they liked about being outside. Personally, fresh air and walking around in trout streams makes me a nicer person. So just imagine how happy the world would be if everyone was out there fishing . . .
Hold on. Let’s not do that.
If you keep your ear to the ground, then by now you’re probably a little weary of all the complaining over angler pressure. Maybe you’ve been doing some of the complaining too — I’m guilty of it myself. But if solitude and a little casting room really matters to you, then finding your own water starts by understanding the habits of anglers — especially the beginners.
New anglers tend to fish the same places. Hell, seasoned anglers fish the same places too. In fact, I think about ninety percent of the anglers fish the same ten percent of the water. That’s a fair estimate. Because I guide and live around some of the greatest wild trout waters in the world, I see it every day. I can almost guarantee where I will find other anglers and where I will not. Within a favorite three-mile stretch of water, if there are fifteen cars on a Wednesday evening in May, eight of them will be in the same gravel lot.
There are a few reasons. And they all make sense, if you think about it. So if you’re to the point where you really do want to get away from other anglers, it helps to first understand where most of them go.
Why does everyone fish the same waters?
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Popular rivers have access points with catchy names. Everyone has a story about fishing Three Dollar Bridge, Rainbow Riffle or Tunnel Road. These places are easy to remember and easy to communicate.
There are legendary places in our fly fishing world, and most of us want to fish them.
FOMO (Fear of Missing Out)
When everything you read about a river mentions these big name access points, when every video features these locations, the draw to repeat what you’ve seen and heard is too much. You simply have to fish these places a few times, because you don’t want to miss out on the good stuff.
Even if epic fish catching doesn’t happen like it did in the video, at least now you’ve fished there. Right?
Fly anglers are no different than tourists this way. If I ever go to Paris, then yes, I’d like to see the Eiffel Tower and visit the Louvre. And when Dad and I first went to Montana, we fished the Madison and the Gallatin. We started at the big names, and we hit the popular access points.
The Sure Thing
The nine cars in a gravel lot that can hold ten looks mighty inviting to many anglers. All those fishermen can’t be wrong, you’d think. So the new or traveling angler pulls in and fills the last spot.
We’re all looking for clues about where the fishing will be best. And a bunch of fishermen is like a shining beacon of a sure thing for some folks.
Make it Easy, Please
Add in a picnic table, a porta potty and some signage, and you have the best of the good spots. The draw of easy access, with one turn of the steering wheel into a parking lot next to a manicured lawn and trimmed trees is too much for some fishermen to pass up.
It’s a hell of a lot easier than a muddy pull off on the side of a dirt road, where donning your waders happens at slanted angles among something you’re pretty sure is poison ivy.
Easy access draws crowds.
Public | Private
So many states in the union have confusing stream access laws that travelers are rightfully hesitant about where it might be legal to fish. So accessing the rivers and the places written about in guidebooks is a safe bet. No one wants a pissed-off landowner spoiling their day.
This Must Be the Place
Ain’t no place around that looks like this place, so this must be the place. — My Grandfather
Add it all up: the catchy name, easy access and a legendary reputation, and you have the ultimate draw. So for anyone new to the area or new to the game, this is where they begin. When Dad and I pulled into the lot at Three Dollar Bridge, we knew where we were, and we expected to see a few other cars — we did. All of that was reassuring.
Then, later that day, we did something different, we explored the no-name stream behind our campsite. But we also had our story about fishing Three Dollar Bridge.
Find Your Water
Occasionally, I run into someone who’s mad about so many other guys fishing their favorite spot in the river. I also see experienced anglers chastising beginners for not exploring and looking beyond the big names and popular access points.
But it’s easy to forget that we were all new once. My first trips to the waters that I now live around and guide were to the popular access points. It’s where the fly shop jockey sent me. It’s where the guidebook sent me. And these were great starting points. As a new angler, I didn’t have the confidence to be an explorer, especially in unfamiliar terrain.
READ: Troutbitten | Explore — Learn — Return
What’s the upside to all of this? The habits of anglers are predictable.
Yes, the big names might be crowded this spring. So what. If you’ve been around long enough and have confidence in your skills, then move on to new waters. Accept the challenge of exploring a bit. Find access outside of the special regs areas. Walk further away from the lot, duck through the brush and forge your own trail. Fish an untouched small stream or choose a piece of water that no one talks about.
For every big name piece of water that’s overcrowded, there are hundreds of miles of trout water that are rarely seen by any angler. If ten percent of the water sees ninety percent of the fishermen, then be that small percentage angler who finds wide open places in a high percentage of water.
Fish hard, friends.
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Enjoy the day.
T R O U T B I T T E N
Man oh man Dom, great read. I’m guilty as charged. I will say that I’ve pushed myself to at least 10 new streams in the last year. When I say new, I mean “new to me.” I’m finding that I’m looking at a map more, and trying to find new tribs and blue lines. As far as shiny gear, well my waders are currently standing on their own, thanks to aqua seal. And my boots are barley recognizable as boots at this point. And yes I do wear them as a badge of honor. They didn’t get that way from being stuffed in a basement storage room. I’m fishing more now than I ever have. I own a WV, PA, MD, and NC license at the moment, and have fished them all in 2021. Again, great read
The extra pressure in those popular pools and runs pushes fish into less pressured water.
So getting away from the crowds can also get you into those fish that are there for the same reason that you are. Ha!
Getting away from the crowds requires 2 things, time and confidence. Now that I have less time but more confidence, I’m learning that even the most popular rivers can be fished in solitude by being willing to hike or fish the heavy water 95% of anglers can’t or won’t. Just came back from a full weekend on a “name” central pa stream with perfect weather, water and hatch conditions and saw only a handful of anglers all weekend. It’s a big world out there, no sense in complaining about other people enjoying it too! Just go where they aren’t.
North Carolina stocked streams have become totally over run so a couple years ago our TU chapter had a presentation on wild mountain streams. Sounded great and I gave it a try, but I found at 75 I’ve become too old for rock hopping on the small wild mountain streams. I’ve given up and have taken my fly rod to the lakes for bluegill. Sad to see what has happened to trout fishing here.
Tribs to the name streams, Charles?
Celebrating my first brown trout of the year.
Love your dog.
Once you get decent, you learn to explore a bit. I personally like the solitude and quiet of nature. Rather hear a bird sing sometimes. This means figuring out where to go to get away.
If you can get out mid-week, you have more options. If you can only get out on the weekends, you have to look a little harder and maybe explore further out.
There is an upside. Good to have more folks caring about water quality. Maybe get more folks to pitch in a few bucks to Trout Unlimited to keep the water for the next generation.
Personally, I am starting to plot where to ride my bike in to get to water most don’t think about. There are a few places left out there for sure.
Also, little brook trout in the mountains are another topic altogether
Great post Dom. Timely. I spent most of last year forcing myself to fish new water on the Farmington. Driving the 21 miles of TMA sometimes for hours waiting for spots to clear. Doing this made me a much better angler and I enjoyed the solitude. Night fishing has and will be a mainstay for me now. Even the most popular spots are completely void of anglers at night. Granted my results in the dark have been lack luster but the peace and quiet are worth it. The thundering herd is always around us in many aspects of life. The good news is it’s easy to identify their patterns and then fish against them.
I’m a creature of habit and remember the fish I’ve caught in those select pools. This is encouragement to branch out to other spots and make new memories
This issue reminds me of all the bitching about traffic. When we pull out onto the road, all those other cars are the problem, but not us.
Funny creatures, humans.
While the famous central Pennsylvania streams seem to be invaded by newbies, I keep hacking at Little Valley Creek and Valley Creek. Or more appropriately, I am being educated by these streams. They’re 13 miles from Philadelphia and class A trout streams holding wild browns to at least 28 inches in abundance. I would feel like I was blowing the biggest secret about Pennsylvania trout if it weren’t a wide open secret already.
Dom, my only wish would be to watch you angle these educated, wary fish in their usual low, clear water.
Yes, great read. Just returned from a couple days in northern MI, where I walked and drove a little further to my spots, avoiding the well-known ones. Surprising what just another mile or a couple hours’ difference in start time can do. It isn’t hard, really, and I am neither young nor spry. Rewarded with 12+ fish in 2 hours at one spot before the sun put a stop to the bite. There are more than enough spaces and times here to make this work, just have to re-make habits.