The Dying Art of River Etiquette

Fly fishing isn’t an odd hobby anymore, undertaken by old eccentric men waving cane poles through the air. Gone is the feel of fly fishing being “An Old Gentleman’s Club” and arrived is an inclusive, come-one-come-all atmosphere that has, in my opinion, improved the sport.

However, the influx in anglers has done damage to two areas of the fly fishing world:

  1. Secret holes are no longer considered sacred. If a place has big fish, you can bet your grandpa’s fly rod somebody will post about it on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook, complete with GPS coordinates and an arrogant, “There shouldn’t be secret holes” attitude. Now, let me add here – I’m all for sharing water, even lesser known water, with others. I frequently put fellow anglers on smaller, secluded streams here in Utah because I understand the love and value of a day spent on the river with only birds, fish, and the occasional deer or elk as a companion. However, I still believe in and protect the sanctity of “honey holes.” More than a few generous anglers have let me in on their secrets, and in turn I’ve been true to my word and never revealed the location of the places shown to me by others. I’ve also stumbled on some amazing places in my travels, and I’ll openly share those spots with a select group of friends who I know will keep the location close to their vest. As any angler who’s been involved in the sport for a respectable amount of time will admit, spilling the beans on a honey hole is a quick way to lose future invites to secluded, “secret” water.
  2. River etiquette is dead. This is the plain and simple, hard-to-face truth. The Lower Provo River, 20 minutes from my house in Utah, is a prime example of the lack of etiquette in today’s angling world. 90% of the time, it’s shoulder-to-shoulder combat fishing on a river not more than 60 feet across at its widest point. The average trout runs 12-16 inches, although the Lower boasts a robust population of 20+ browns and rainbows. Any given day from April – October, 30-50 cars will be parked along the river as it winds it way up Provo Canyon to Deer Creek Reservoir, and anglers can be seen roll casting within 25 feet of each other for hours on end. It’s a sad sight.

Obviously, the topic of this post is river etiquette. Before I dive into what I believe to be proper behavior while fly fishing a river, I need to preface my thoughts by saying that a) I’m guilty of being a less-than-considerate angler on more than one occasion. I’m not proud of it, but that’s the truth. B) Fly fishing snobbery on my part didn’t inspire this post. Instead, it’s due to the fact that I’ve had a few experiences recently that caused me to leave the river before saying something I’d regret, and the fact that fly fishermen, and anglers in general, need to be more considerate, kind, and respectful of other fishermen. The water is ours collectively, but that doesn’t give us the right to be assholes about it.


Give other anglers space

This is my biggest pet peeve, and one part of river etiquette that’s all but disappeared on some of the county’s more famous waters.

I was recently in Wyoming, where my buddy Mysis Mike and I were fishing a slow pool. The pool had enough room for two anglers, and seeing as Mike and I were fishing together, we didn’t mind being 20 feet away from each other. About ten minutes into our fishing the hole, two other anglers began fishing below us, not 50 feet from where we were standing. Our fly lines shortly became a tangled mess, I said a few things I regret, and the other anglers left after a shouting match the rest of the river easily heard.

And that’s just one recent occasion – I can tell story after story of this sort of thing happening. It’s just inconsiderate. The golden rule for giving anglers space on a river is this: give other anglers the same kind of room you’d expect them to give you. 

Every angler has a different distance at which they feel comfortable fishing next to strangers. If you’re not sure if you’re too close, there’s a simple remedy: go ask the other fisherman if he or she is fine with you fishing x amount of yards down or upstream from them. 9 times out of 10, you’ll be pleasantly surprised how often anglers, when asked if you can fish near them, will acquiesce.

Now, on the flipside of this situation: if you’re approached by another angler, there’s no need to be a jerk about them fishing close to you. If you really don’t want them there, say it, but do so with tact. Any fisherman worth his salt will appreciate the kind rebuttal and move on to other water.

Watch out for other anglers

I’m guilty of this one quite often. When I’m on the water, I tend to develop tunnel vision and focus solely on runs, riffles, pools, and eddies likely to hold fish. Sometimes I’ll stomp right up next to another fisherman without realizing it, with only my ignorance to blame.

Keep a watch out for other fishermen – especially if you see other cars parked near the river, or bootprints in the trail.

Sometimes, it’s impossible to see another fisherman due to the nature of the river you’re fishing. I was in Idaho a few weeks ago on a particularly windy stretch of water when I turned the corner to see another guy fishing a hole I’d set my sights on. He’d been obscured by the thick brush on either side of the river.

I tipped my hat in apology, got out of the water and walked a quarter mile above him before getting back in the water. A simple reaction like that is the best way to handle the times when you legitimately didn’t see the other angler. As I’ve said previously, I’m by no means a bastion of perfect river etiquette – no one is – but I’ve made enough mistakes in my angling career to recognize solutions to them.

Respect the solitude of the river

We fish for different reasons, yet solitude and time away from daily life is one reason that seems fairly common among all anglers.

I’m not saying you need to treat the river like a monastery – I’ve been known to let out a few “Hot dogs!” when hooking up with a hot fish. But don’t be that guy who arrives at the river, talks as loud as he can to everyone within earshot, and makes a general ruckus. Understand that some guys are there to lose themselves in the relative quiet of the moving water, and while you’re not in a library, there’s an unspoken rule in fly fishing, and angling in general, that silence is key to catching fish.

Whether that’s true is up for debate, but the fact remains that sound travels exceptionally well over water. Be mindful of other anglers around you and you’ll be just fine.

As I said a couple times in this post, I’m not perfect at being as respectful angler as I should be. But with the influx of new, young anglers in the sport, those of us who’ve been fishing since we could walk owe it to the sport to teach by example. If we all just start acting the way we wish other anglers would act, river etiquette would make a swift return.


Posted in:Tips

Spencer Durrant

Spencer is a fly fishing writer from Utah and author of the soon-to-be-published YA novel, “Learning to Fly.” He’s a regular columnist for the Standard-Examiner, where he authors the monthly Trout Bum column, in addition to writing the Cutthroat Chronicles for Fishwest. His writing has appeared in Hatch Magazine, On The Fly Magazine, The Orvis Fly Fishing Blog, and If he’s not on the river, he’s at home tying flies or writing. Connect with him on Twitter or Instagram @Spencer_Durrant.

4 comments on “The Dying Art of River Etiquette

  1. Spencer, my name is Jeffrey Delia , I live in the Pacific Northwest on the Olympic Peninsula where I have been flyfishing for sea- run cutthroat and salmon for the last 40 years or so, you can check out my Facebook page if you’d like. Just want to say that I totally agree about any kind of fishing etiquette and etiquette in general. I am 69 years old, grew up on the east coast in a fishing and hunting family and etiquette was the first thing we learned before we even got near a river. My dad would never fish a stretch of water if another fisherman or woman was fishing that water and as far as he was concerned you damn well better be a polite person on or off the river, period.
    I know I could get a wrath of crap about what I’m about to say but so far I’ve seen a lo of this new generation of fly fishers to be not very polite at times as well as combative at times and so aggressive that I have had to leave certain fishing areas at times just because I didn’t want to be in the company of that kind of aggressive behavior. I guess I’ve been lucky in my life and have worked hard to learn the sport and been rewarded by trophy fish and plenty of them so no I tend to be less aggressive and enjoy more of the completeness of the experience on the rivers, on the bays and estuaries of Puget Sound and I tend to be less aggressive and enjoy more of the completeness of the experience on the rivers, on the bays and estuaries of Puget Sound.
    Paying your dues used to be the basis for getting into fishing or hunting, but unfortunately these days paying your dues means going online and finding out where when how why what time what fly , what everything so the New Age fisherman can become a seasoned fisherman overnight. That’s one of my biggest peeve’s because if you pay your dues it takes a lot of time effort and communications with other fishermen to learn how to be a fisherman and I think again, a lot of the new agers don’t want to take the time, they want to get it right now. Well enough of that.
    By the way you might find this interesting, I graduated from BYU in 1969, was called the Gentile then and I still am but I was on the BYU ski team and just trying to graduate took all my time and I did very little fishing but I know it was a time in the Provo when there weren’t that many fishermen, really sorry to hear how crowded your river has become.
    Jeffrey delia

  2. I see a general widespread lack of respect everywhere… not just on trout rivers. And while the entitlement generation are the most common offenders, the practice of the golden rule is dying out in our society. I’ve tried to respectfully educate a few younger anglers who stomped into my fishing holes but they lacked the humility to receive it. We’re living in a different world now…sad to say.

    Boise, ID

  3. I can only imagine what it’s like out there now. I was in Sandy 25 years ago and the Cottonwood rivers were like a private backyard stream in those days. I’m thinking of coming back to Panguitch which still has wild waters. I’m one that’s on the waters for the solitude.

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