Muse / Sporting Life

Fly Fishing: Etiquette and Ethics

Casting PMDs

Gros Ventre with Charles

This weekend, I slid down to the Carolina Coast with my family. I didn’t  bring my lap top along and I’m anxious because Figuring I wouldn’t  keep pace with my recent weekly installment of Sunday fly fishing posts for BigHaintBlue. We’ve had a pleasant long weekend with perfect June weather.  I’ve had a chance to take out the skiff with the boys, share a few great meals with family, play games, and sit under the umbrella with feet in the sand. It’s a crowded week on the beach, the kind when you can enjoy people watching, but also have to accept the nature of people. No sooner than our family set up chairs with a nice vantage of the water yesterday, a group of twenty folks hauled in their coolers and umbrellas and built a refuge camp right in front of us. I opened my mouth once and got the taste of spray sunscreen in on my tongue. I’ve had to listen to someone else’s crappy music and whining kids. I’ve had to stare at a few women that are a little too old for ass eating bikinis standing in front of me while I’m trying to have conversations with my mom and wife. I’ve had a bocce ball rain from heaven within inches of my feet and awaken me from a little snooze. There are a bunch of bad tattoos that I would have rather not entered the cache of my mind. I’ve come to accept that when you spend on a busy weekend day on the beach during the summer that sometimes this is just the way it is. This did cause me to muse and wonder— so I have gotten out my phone and begun to peck out a little fly fishing piece that parallels this experience. Today, I am going to write a little about mountain stream etiquette.

I really enjoy building sandcastles. Maybe it’s my anxious desire to always find something productive to do or maybe the hidden artistic architect inside of me. It’s a pleasure of labor to build a great sandcastle just below the tide line, admire it, then observe it slowly crumble under the rising surf. In the past few years, I have seen more and more rock cairns along stream beds. I’m not sure if the folks that left these stacks of stones along the water’s edge just have the same desire for artistic expression as me- or if they were practicing some existential hippie mediation in the woods, but no tide came to wash them away. Despite the fact that science tells us that moving around river rocks can damage the fragile ecosystem of a river, I just think of them as a organic graffiti. When I hike back into nature, I just don’t appreciate the reminder that it has been touched by another human before me. Aside from the mindless and innocent inconsideration of folks on the beach, this thought about sand castles and cairns led to my typical wondering muse, so here I am writing about respecting the trout stream experience. 

I do a little fishing at the beach. Aside from going off shore, it seems like every time I get a nice set up on fish and start reeling that another boat elbows it’s way in. In contrast, that’s what I generally love about fly fishing in mountain streams- it’s just me and the wind— as long as other folks follow time honored stream etiquette.

Toe river

Pellet belly golf course trout.

I’ll begin by saying, if you chose to fish on a really crowded stream on a very busy weekend, the consequences of your decisions will be self evident. Otherwise, if you have taken the effort to find a relatively remote place to fish, you should play by some rules to respect the stream and other fisherman- in hopes that they might do the same for you. There are a few points of order that I’ve always followed and appreciate when other do too.

Trout are finicky beasts. They spend an entire life holding in streams with one eye looking upstream for morsels to drift into their feeding lanes and the other aimed to the sky waiting for predators. Generally, when I assess a stream for a hold of trout I move quietly along the bank. When fishing a run, I start down stream and work my way up from behind the fish, both with my casting patterns and my travel up the stream. I’ve learned that gawking over pod of trout spooks them. I’ve learned that breaking off a stuck fly in a branch is going to do better than doing surgery on rhododendrons— only leaving all of the fish around you scattered. Trout do have short memories and will settle if you are patient, but it’s generally disappointing when another human screws up the fishing in front of you. Recently, I was working a nice little run a few miles back in the national forest and came up to a deep pool. There wasn’t a way to wade through it and only a few access points to cast into it. As a blue wing olive hatch started to go off, I spent about half an hour snooping around and reading the water. I found a really nice fish feeding, patterned it, and spent a bit of time working myself back around the pool to setup for a cast. Right when I put my feet in the water, a loud friendly voice came from behind me, “How you doing, catching anything?”

I’m sure they were just as enthusiastic about fishing as me and didn’t mean any harm. I turned around slowly. There stood a husband and wife decked out in enough fishing provision to open a fly shop. Caribbean bright shirts that looked more like they were headed to a Jimmy Buffet concert than a trout stream reflect across the water. Just because I’m a friendly and non-confrontational guy I carried on a conservation, with subtly in my quiet voice. I shared the answer to, “what you fishing with?” In the meantime, the couples golden retriever took a swim across the pool. I frowned as they walked away and began casting about thirty yards upstream in a bend just above the pool, right into the next water that wasn’t yet disturbed by me or anyone. In the middle of nowhere. I’ve had folks sling rooster tails and red eggs across me with spinning rods and figure you can’t rearrange the order of ignorance in the universe, but I expect a little more from my fly fishing brethren. 

Lessons from the fable:

  • If a stream isn’t crowded, give other fishermen plenty of space.
  • If you have to share a stream, respect the person who was there first.
  • If there is a run that can be worked through from pod to pod and holding water to holding water, get considerably downstream of the guy there before you.
  • Don’t splash through the water around other fishermen.
  • Pass other fishermen quietly on the bank, stay back when you can as not to disrupt the water they are working.

I addition to respecting the enjoyment, solitude, and success of other anglers; a word or two may be worth mentioning about ethical fishing and respecting the habitat. The old adage, “trout don’t live in ugly places”, is one of the things that brings me back over and over to the river. Respecting the places we fish maintains the habitat, keeps it enjoyable, pleasurable, and accessible. Obviously, no sane adult would throw trash on the ground, but the notion of ‘leave no trace’ goes a bit farther on the trout stream. Our visit to the river can make it less natural and beautiful and even alter the habitat if we don’t tread lightly. Not to mention, the privilege to river access is always in a delicate balance with locals, often in rural areas, and with private land holders.

A few words about being a good steward of the sport:

  • Don’t be tempted to trespass, understand river access, park your vehicle respectfully. Be a ghost- instead of playing your radio loud, peeing beside your car with your waders half on and Budweiser on the roof of your truck in eye shot of a farm house. They are watching.
  • Don’t litter. This includes doing the very best you can to pocket all of the leader and tippet you snip off.
  • Be respectful of access points. Fish with permission. Close farm gates, don’t fill up trash cans in the middle of nowhere, be a friendly out-of-towner when you go into rural stores.
  • Don’t alter the stream. We can’t erase footprints in silt, but be careful not to knock away undercut banks, don’t move around rocks., don’t take it upon yourself the prune every branch that seems to be in your way.
  • Practice catch and release. “Keep ‘em wet”. Don’t kill fish in your efforts to take a picture for the perfect Instagram post.

There’s not a whole lot I can do about the insanity of humanity on a crowded beach, but as fellow fly fisherman we can preserve what makes our sport sacred. It just requires the Golden Rule: treat the river like it was yours and treat others the way you would have them treat you.

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