Stream Etiquette, Two Stories About How To Share The Water

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Photo by Louis Cahill

Photo by Louis Cahill

Two experiences in two days left me with two very different feelings.

I spent a couple of days fishing in North Carolina a couple of weeks ago. A dear friend came in from Colorado and gave me the chance to share some of our eastern rivers. We had two close encounters with other anglers which proved to be lessons in stream etiquette. One a great example of how to share the water, the other not so much.

Stream etiquette is often complained about but seldom taught. What’s expected on the river changes from place to place but there are some simple ideas of respect and tolerance that are universal. If you’re not sure what’s cool and what’s not, I hope these two examples are helpful.

Encounter #1

My buddy and I arrive at a favorite piece of water with about an hour and a half of light left. The run is down in a gorge and we inspect it from above before hiking down. There’s no guarantee that it hasn’t been recently fished but no one is there now, so we head to the water. We are both fishing tenkara rods and my buddy is ready to fish but I want to make a fly change before fishing this new spot. I line up across from the first pool and start rigging while my buddy heads to the next pool upstream. Just then another angler rounds the corner and calls out. He has hiked up from down stream and was out of sight when we inspected the water.

To my mind, this is his water. As I see it, any angler already in the water has the right of way. I immediately apologize. I tell him we didn’t see him and will move on. He asks where we’re from, we talk a bit and he asks about the tenkara rod. I insist that he try it. After the briefest possible introduction, he catches his first fish on tenkara. Again, I insist that we will leave and he insists that we stay. Everyone catches fish and we part friends.

Encounter #2

The next day my friend and I arrive at a different stream. We park in a pull out on the forest service road and follow a trail about 200 yards to the creek. There is a beautiful bend with an obvious honey hole. My buddy, who is still a fairly new angler, makes a couple of casts and catches a fish but he has questions about his presentation. In order for me to give a little instruction we move about 40 feet downstream, below the run. This way he can practice a few drifts without spoiling the run.

In the middle of our lesson another angler appears, having come down the same trail as us. He asks how we are doing and I tell him we just arrived and haven’t really started fishing yet. He doesn’t reply and feeling sure he will move on, I get back to my lesson. Having spotted the camera around my neck, the the fellow interjects, “My granddaughter is a photographer.”

I will admit that this innocent comment set my teeth to grinding. No one who makes their living with a camera wants to hear about your granddaughter’s photography unless she’s Annie Leibovitz. I respond politely though and return to my lesson. Then the old fellow says, “Well, I’ll just be here fishing,” and when we turn to look he is beating a froth on the water of the honey hole. We rig up our rods and head back to the truck to find new water, a little steam rolling from my ears.

Stream etiquette isn’t rocket science. It really just boils down to showing some respect and taking the time to think about what the other guy is doing. I don’t think the angler in the second story meant to chase us off. I think he was just clueless and self involved. Had he taken the time to ask what our plan was, we could have shared the water just fine. Instead, he saw a choice piece of water and he took it. Never mind that there were two anglers 40 feet away who were clearly working towards the hole.

The best way I could think to handle it was to move on. I guess I could have given the old dude a piece of my mind. But what would that accomplish? He needs to be taught better but I’m not in the habit of teaching unless I’m asked. That’s just condescending and doesn’t usually take. So we left.

To my mind, the proper thing for him to do would be to ask where we planned to fish and then find some water that accommodated us all as best as possible. That’s what I’d have done anyway. Tell us what stream etiquette issues you run into and how you handle them.

Louis Cahill
Gink & Gasoline
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39 thoughts on “Stream Etiquette, Two Stories About How To Share The Water

  1. So, for my own education, you are working a section of river and an angler approaches from downstream and neither of you is sure ‘who got there first’. You had planned to start working upstream yourself after a few more casts. You try to engage the guy and no reply. Whats the proper etiquette at that point about who gets to work the upstream stretches first?
    thanks for any help

  2. Louis,

    I liked your post, but I also believe stream etiquette is not always black and white. I believe the type of water is the biggest factor in determining how to respect other anglers. Delayed harvest on small streams (there are quite a few in NC) can sometimes be complicated especially when there are a number of fisherman. I was on the pigeon river last week, and it was a free for all. I couldn’t get mad, and I hope no one got mad at me for moving around people on holes. I’m not sure if it this is kosher or not. What are your thoughts on heavily fished waters. Are the rules the same?

    I can definitely see what you are saying about people doing that sort of thing on less pressured waters. Or wild trout streams where the miles are plenty and the holes are as well.

  3. Had a good one on the little Truckee a few weeks back, my brother in-law and I were driving along to road following the river, spotted a nice promising pool, pulled over and parked, rigged up.

    Mind you no one is in sight. We hike down and start fishing the water below the pool working back up to it. I started below Scott and in just a minute he rounds a small bend only to find another angler. He let me know he’s there, I’m scratching my head thinking where the heck did he come from.

    Anyway I tell Scott we should give this guy the water and we hike back up to the car to leave.

    Guess what the DH’s car is parked right behind use. He had come down right on top of us. With a bad taste in our mouth we left the spot to the sportsman!

  4. Hit the nail on the head. I live and fish in a fairly populated area and tend to have this type of situation arise on a fairly regular basis. I think most of the poor etiquette is a product of inexperienced guys and gals that are out there learning on their own and did/do not have the advantage of having someone more mature and wiser to teach them the “soft” skills of fishing. Granted there is always a knuckle head out there that is looking at the river as his and he is going to fish it all regardless of anyone else. Much like you I am willing to move on; having fished in the area I live for over 30 years I always have a backup and usually they are a bit more out of the way and less likely to be “busy”. Thanks for writing another great article I look forward to your next article.

  5. Etiquette is a key to peaceful enjoyment of fishing everywhere there is competition for good water. Fly Fishing the shoreline off Boca Grande a few years ago, we saw a large cruising pod of happy tarpon and used the trolling motor to move offshore and down the beach and we carefully poled into position right where the pod was headed when a jerk MOTORED and stopped right between us and the approaching fish and proceeded to cast bait into the pod. He was unsuccessful and we lost our shot at the fish and burned a half hour of valuable fishing time. I have had similar problems with schools of redfish in Florida and on North Georgia streams.

    A significant point of education for fishermen is etiquette on the water. Fishing guides, TU, NGTO, and other groups should invest the time in educating others if we hope to avoid the problems mentioned in this post and string. Some folks will not change, but I find that many would like to know what is right so they can do it.

  6. So this got me thinking… How much space is enough space if there’s agreement that it’s ok to head down stream a bit…. Using an example of my own actions at Dukes, here in Georgia. It was a full on rainy session…. with the max # of poles on the water for the morning Session..

    I fished a little at the bottom of section 1 , then headed off to section 2 on foot to catch up with my buddy. So I walked up on two guys that started fishing Section 2 at the private waters end and were working their way down. I wasn’t looking enter the water, just find my buddy that was fishing somewhere on the same section. So I talked to the guys, inquired if they’d seen my buddy, they hadn’t, so I wished them luck and headed down stream. Let’s say I went 150-200 yards( it could been more , but definitely not less) found my buddy who was fishing below them , watched him fish a pool then headed farther down stream to give him plenty of water to fish. I’ll admit that I’d never fished section 2 and when found a sweet looking pool that was just “Fishy”. I had to give it a go….Knowing Mike was above me and that he’d just kicked my ass up in Michigan from the front of the drift boat,(his turn) I didn’t think twice about the entering the hole…At some point my buddy walks up on me we chat a bit, he hopscotches the hole I’m in and goes on fishing….. I hook a real nice one , 20″+ and lose him , which prompts a few more casts with false hope..

    I’m getting ready to leave the hole and they two guys catch up to me , never seeing the buddy that I referenced, because he’s down stream of me now…(my buddy that’s just around the bend in shouting distance because he’s making sure I know that only a chump would lose a fish outta the hole I’m in…

    I offer up the hole and head out to catch up with Mike after telling them what happened with the fish… They declined, so I told them where Mike was, yet they decided heading a bit further down… BUT, I don’t think they ever walked past mike a they went out to the road.

    So, all said and done, things seemed pretty amicable between everyone, but this brings me back to the question about space.

    How much space is enough space in ones mind when the word etiquette can mean such a different things to the parties involved… Should you leave the water like you reference in your post or just spread out as much a possible and hope for the best?

  7. One of the most inconsiderate situations I have encountered was here in Colorado. I had made the journey to specifically fish waters I knew would crowded. It was late September and the “browns” were running. When I arrived there were approximately 8 people fishing this stretch of water. I greeted each as as I hiked past moving upstream to find unoccupied water. I had caught a couple of nice fish when I was joined by another fisherman. I was just finishing a drift, and he cast right on top of my line! I was shocked to say the least. He managed to tangle both of our lines, but I kept my cool. All I got was “Sorry.” Once untangled i decided I didn’t need to be around this guy and went further upstream.

    I passed 2 more fisherman on my hike and exchanged brief pleasantries before continuing. I found a piece of water and settled back in. Not ten minutes later, guess who shows up? You got it! And guess what was the first thing he did? With one of the most beautiful casts I have ever seen he went over the the top of my line. I wish I could say I was kind and understanding… But I wasn’t! I lost my testimony right there.

    I never assaulted the man, but I wanted too. I had done what I thought was more than sportsmanlike, and this idiot seemed to not care. He had made a birds nest of both our lines and I was furious. What I did next was overkill. I pulled out my knife and cut his fly line in half. He had ruined my day and I wasn’t going to let him ruin anyone else’s. I grabbed my gear and stormed off, back to my vehicle.

  8. My fishing life began on a small river in Scotland and I was always told to “give way to upstream anglers”, and downstream anglers leap frog to the next empty part of the stream. It is common practice to “cast and step” in whatever direction you are fishing, up or down. It is frowned upon when an angler (normally inexperienced but not always) stays put and acts like a heron by staing put thinking that it is “theirs” and no one else can fish it. Now that really gets up my nose and I suppose being a Scot, I have to say something to let them know that by doing what they are doing is wrong and upsets every angler that obeys the rules of etiquette.
    If you want to stay put when fishing then go find a still water and get a book to teach you about river etiquette before returning to a river. There are also rules on Stillwater etiquette too.

  9. Living in Southern California we seem to have more fishermen than water. I run into this problem all the time. Matter of fact a guide and I were talking about this two weeks ago at a local fly shops show. We both had the same comments. In the winter we all seem to go to the fly fishing only area in Bishop California. I told him I’ve had people from a fly club he frequents just drop in above and below by maybe thirty feet. He said he knows what I was saying. Then he told me of several occasions where the same thing happened to him. I told the if I came up to a water and seem a fisherman I always stood thirty-five to forty feet back and got the guys attention. Then I would ask and point was the guy going upstream or down. If the guy said up I would point that I was going down several bends. Joe, the guide said he has had people walk right up to the river to ask him, which would spoil that water. We have both started to work with the Southwest Council of the Federation of Fly Fishers and clubs in our area to talk to people about this issue.
    Thanks for posting this and love your blog. I read it every day.

  10. The waters we fish in WI are close to a major metro and get pretty good pressure, but there’s a lot of water – good water. As a general rule of thumb I like to try and give another angler at least two pieces of water upstream of where he or she are fishing – say a riffle and a pool – before I settle in and start working up myself. If I come on a stream right after someone else it’s easy enough to ask if they’re going up or down from the put-in.

  11. If someone low holes me or blatantly steels my spot they can guarantee we will exchange words. If they are argumentative and are looking for trouble I move on. if they keep pursuing in a confrontational manner I ask them “did you come here to fish or fight? If they say fight I tell them to stop fishing and find a different sport to take up. That is why I like to have a friend with me when I fish. Sometime you just have to be the bigger person and let the jerk have his way.

  12. I don’t think there is a black and white on exact distance, and it can vary from water to water. My personal “bubble” is how far I can throw a ball. I figure if I can hit them with I’m too close. (I used to play ball and have a decent arm). And that is CO rivers. Bigger ones I’d say more.
    But I think the point is to assess the situation a little before jumping in. Make a bit of a plan then a bit of a backup plan in case water is crowded. Be courteous and remember we are all doing the same thing. And at the end of the day, sometimes people are either uneducated on etiquette or just rude. Better to just move on anyway….

  13. Good stuff. The rules do indeed vary depending on the water. Densely fished streams require a lot of tolerance for nearby fisherman. Sparsely fished streams require that anglers give each other generous amounts of space; obviously those streams attract people who are looking for some solitude. And then there’s the Bighorn: the combat zone of the West with a surprisingly large population of self-entitled guides and abusive locals, in desperate need of etiquette lessons.

  14. Great article…totally makes sense…except for the part about you getting choked over his camera comment….really whats the big deal if the guy was making some conversation about a camera…wonder who’s really self involved???

  15. “Old Dude” seems to define your mindset, as just him mentioning his Granddaughters photography interest had you grinding your teeth…everyone starts out as a novice in any endeavor…Body language shows a lot on certain people and after after the Old Dudes attempts at trying to strike up a conversation…that if it had happened…which it didn’t…maybe he figured P…on You…and went fishing…Communication…it takes 2 to share the water…just my thought…another Old Dude…

  16. I fish the marsh flats for Redfish around Savannah. Etiquette here depends on the size of the flat we are fishing. Some have room for two or even three pairs of anglers. Others will not accomodate more than one or two anglers. I normally wade the flats, most other guides pole the water. If there is not room for both then the first one there is entitled to the water unless the water is large enough for everyone. Good fishing etiquette is learned, by example, by reading some good fly fishing literature or in a fly fishing class situation. With increasing fishing pressure, getting along with each other is imperative.

  17. Embarrassed to say I was a bumbling idiot in CO several years ago – so new to the sport I barely knew which end of the rod to hold and encroached on another angler’s water. Being the better man he didn’t say anything [although well justified] he just walked away but gave me a look that let me know I’d done something wrong. It didn’t occur to me what I’d done until much later and I couldn’t find him to apologize. I’m much more aware of my actions now.

  18. River and Stream Manners

    First Rule – the first person in the water is free to choose how and where to fish it.

    Second Rule – if that fisherman decides to fish upstream, do not enter the water above the angler. If he decides to fish downstream, do not enter the water below that angler. If an angler is fishing downstream and you only have upstream gear, or vice-versa, go find another piece of water.

    Third Rule – being first does not mean an angler can hog the pool all day. Once an angler has fished through a piece of water thoroughly, you should be able to have a turn. Or else get into a circuit with the first angler.

    Fourth Rule – if an angler is breaking the rules of good manners, assume it is out of ignorance, and attempt to quietly explain the rules of good manners.

    Fifth Rule – my own personal rule, that you are free to use if you want – if there is any agro, go find another piece of water. Trout fishing is supposed to be relaxing.

  19. As a kayak fly fisherman on a large tailwater, the etiquette issues that usually present themselves are (1) bank/wade fishermen and (2) motorized watercraft. I give bank/wade fishermen lots of space – they don’t have good means to fish other sections of the river like I do. My big gripe is that jon boats believe they have super-priority over everything else on the river. Can’t tell you how many times I’ve hooked a striper and fought it downstream, and had a jon boat come up and anchor in the hole I caught the fish and yank out the rest of the school. I would have no problem with taking turns motoring/paddling up and drifting the run, but anchoring up in that situation is complete bullsh*t. While Southerners are generally better mannered than those from other regions, Southern fishermen definitely are not.

  20. Fishing in Northern New Jersey and the Catskills is beyond what most people would consider a heavily pressured fishery. There are anglers everywhere, in any weather, at any time. “Low holeing” is common and in most circumstances unavoidable. The common thread I’ve been reading in this post and comments is someone was about to fish an area when… If you see a good piece of water or know a piece of water, by all means fish it first. Lolly gag around later. Practice is for back yards, streams are for fishing. If your pro-active, you can in most circumstances avoid being pissed off.
    In response to the angler who got anchored on while fighting a striper. Your right, that is bullshit, and should be dealt with. It happens all the time on the jettys on the striper coast and it infuriates me, but I’ve found, Like Louis said, if you just talk to the angler 90% of the time you can work it out.

  21. I was fishing the Kern in CA a few weeks ago and another FF’r very respectfully fished up the opposite side of the river from me and then left the river to walk around my location when he was about 40 yards or so downriver of me.

    The thing is, he had caught probably 6 fish as he fished up the opposite side, to my 0.

    The river is plenty wide enough to where neither of us could fish each other’s “turf” from the opposite side of the river, and I really expected him to fish opposite me, as I really wanted to watch what he was doing and learn from him.

    However, he “bubbled” upriver, and I didn’t have the opportunity to say anything. As he disappeared into the distance I felt like I missed an opportunity.

    I guess the lesson is to pro-actively communicate.

  22. I’ve had some similar experiences to old dude recently. Cheesman Canyon the day after Thanksgiving. The place can get really crowded and on those days it’s a little understandable that folks are in close proximity. On this day there was no one in the lower canyon. I’m shocked and stoked so have a sweet stretch to myself. I settle into a hole and after an hour by a man and his kid roll up, say nothing and start casting 20 feet to my left making all the noise they can, whipping their rod tips on the water. 10 minutes later a guy and his wife roll in and cast directly across from me like I’m not even there…then another guy about 20 feet to their right! I stopped fishing, stood in the stream and just watched the pair across from me. They got the hint and moved off. This time of year the water is maaaybe 30 feet from bank to bank and there was 30-40 yards of open water in both directions! I’m a fairly new fly fisherman and I’m reluctant to give anyone grief. I’m also very reluctant to just drop in on someone regardless what the norm for the area is. People can ruin a great experience on a dream stream by fishing an area with the same etiquette no matter what. I think it’s better to play to the space available on any given day rather than the common etiquette for what may typically be a very packed stream. If crowding isn’t absolutely necessary then just don’t do it.

  23. Or maybe you could have said something to him that would indicate your intentions as to what was going on. We’re in a funny business, this fly fishing. Not everyone is on the same page. Forty feet? Not much and I agree that it was too close. Could be you missed an opportunity to educate a fellow FF. Old guy, really?

  24. Pingback: Tippets: 15th Century Fishing, New Mines Raise Concerns, Stream Etiquette | MidCurrent

  25. Over here in England I see all the same things with one difference . Most river fishing is strictly controlled by clubs and associations , so the chances are that other angler you come across will be a fellow club member , now although you may not know him or her there is almost without fail an exchange of pleasantries and everyone gets on with the fishing , The two main streams I fish are a chalkstream about 5 miles long and a spate stream ( freestone ) about 10 miles long and despite the cost of membership which is substantial I rarely see over crowded banks in fact I often see no one at all. On commercial still water fisheries however where you turn up pay and start fishing its totally different . If you catch you can expect someone to come and virtually fish right next to you . People have few manners and no consideration.


  26. River etiquette definitely applies to the size of the water, but it’s inexcusable to fish the same run as another angler. The North Platte is a very popular river where I live in Wyoming and it’s pretty much guaranteed you’ll run into other anglers, but it blows my mind how often other anglers will just walk right up on the same run and start to fish. I hate to stereotype, but the majority of the time these people are from Colorado and have zero respect for other anglers. Since these individuals are usually grown men I don’t buy that they don’t realize what they are doing is bullshit, they just don’t care and will try and push you out of a run. The bottom line is if someone is fishing a run its not okay to fish the same run…find somewhere else and come back later if you are set on fishing that run.

    • In Colorado we say the majority of the time they’re from Texas! lol

      I get your point though and get the same thing. Folks also think because they traveled a long way they need to be in such a rush. Then they end up invading.

      I’ve had friends visit Encampment River and tell me the fishing is excellent! I plan to visit next summer…and bring good Colorado etiquette with me.

      • Haha I hear you and I don’t mean to hate on Colorado…I’ve met numerous fishermen who are respectful and friendly as well from there! You’ll definitely enjoy the encampment it’s a good one!

  27. Here in Michigan, space and etiquette change with the seasons. I have had people step in 40 feet below me on some Steelhead waters, and that is perfectly acceptable given the river, hole/run, time of year. I have also come unglued on people a hundred yards away on slick calm water with feeding trout. I think, unfortunately, some people blunder through life with an entitlement mentality that is only corrected with a sharp comment or worst case, a punch in the nose. I understand that it’s most often lost on them, but I can’t bring myself to be complicit in their ignorance!!!!

  28. I just was fishing the town water where i live and ran into angler that needs to read this. Guy sees a fish rise across from me and him being on the opposite side of the river decides to fish directly across from me, i kept fishing landed the fish and moved on.

  29. Best advice I got from a guide was to give them 20min and fish behind. Not too different to what the competition anglers do on beats. It will make you a better angler.

  30. Pingback: Stream Etiquette | MidCurrent

  31. The only water that should be yours to fish in any stream or creek is the water you can effectively cast to in front of you going upstream or downstream. The area outside of your casting zone belong to anyone who wants to walk in and start fishing.That small run you left behind to teach another angler is your fault, not the angler who walked up and found no one fishing in that pool of water. You do not own the 100 to 200 feet of trout waters above you or below you depending on which direction you are fishing. If you are fishing streams with a high volume of anglers you will learn quickly. Yes, it would be nice to find a stretch of water that no one is fishing in but it doesn’t work that way in today’s fly fishing world.
    Tight Lines
    Danny Barker
    White River Fly Fishing Guide, Arkansas

  32. Out here in the west when another angler crowds us or walks in upstream where we are obviously headed I pleasantly ask, “Where are you from back east?” Usually they reply, “Oh I’m not from back east, why would you say that?” To which I reply, “You fish like an east coast fly fishermen. Out here we have so many miles of public water we try to give other fishermen a little room”

    They generally get the idea and I’ve only had one guy get offended. He was a University of Wyoming professor who proved my point when my labrador got tangled in his fly line while standing right beside me.

    My best advice, move on. There is plenty of water and nothing ruins a great day of fishing quicker than a fist fight.

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