Angling etiquette is simply polite behavior among the fishermen and others you encounter on the river—boaters, swimmers, tubers, etc., and importantly with property owners. On our popular Catskill rivers and streams it is unlikely you will be alone on a stretch of river, so practicing some common courtesies will help everyone, including yourself, to have a pleasant time.
Much of fishing etiquette is common sense, and the Golden Rule applies. But there are special issues with fishing on a river or stream, especially with fly fishing for trout, that are not obvious to the neophyte. And I want to emphasize that fishing etiquette and its cousin, fishing ethics, go hand in hand. An ethical angler releases all wild trout he or she catches to preserve the legacy and resource for the next angler and future generations.
While the etiquette guidelines suggested below are broadly applicable to all fishing on streams, be it for smallmouth, shad or trout, two aspects of fly fishing for trout are especially important. First, trout are basically rather stationary in the river, not migrating or traveling much, and they are very easily spooked or “put down” by noise or disturbance. Second, a wading fly fisherman usually needs a considerable distance between himself and others to successfully work a fish. Consequently, there is a premium on being quiet, not disturbing the fish or other fisherman, and giving other fisherman a wide berth. Many of the principles below derive from these fundamentals.
Some basics: First, the legal part. Have the necessary fishing licenses. Second, park your vehicle in an allowed place without taking up unnecessary room or blocking others. Third, don’t trespass on private property without permission.
So, we’re going fishing. Make your way to the water quietly. We’re not in church; there’s no need to whisper, but neither are we at a ball game, so no loud carrying-on, please. Many of us go fishing for some peace and quiet, so be respectful of that. And unlike the customs in some other sports, there is no need to let everyone on the water know that you caught, missed, or lost a fish via your loud shouts or expletives.
Don’t charge into the water. If you see someone fishing upstream, head downstream. On our popular waters it’s likely you’ll run into someone else. Quietly walk behind them and go to the next pool, riffle, or run. It doesn’t hurt to nicely let others know what your intentions are. A simple, “Hey, do you mind if I walk up to that willow tree and fish there?” goes a long way. What goes around comes around, and the respect and courtesy you extend to others might even make you a new friend along the way.
On a boat
On bigger water like the Delaware you might encounter canoes, kayaks, float tubes or drift boats, and the etiquette becomes more complex, though mostly for those in the watercraft. For starters, often, you won’t be alone at the boat ramp. Others with vessels will have the same idea. Etiquette dictates respect for your place in line and efficient use of time on the ramp itself. Be ready, rigged and loaded before you back down the ramp. If you’re not ready, let others who are waiting go ahead of you. After launching move your boat to the downstream side of the ramp while you park your vehicle so others can launch.
OK, you’re underway and, sure enough, there’s a wading angler downstream. It’s best to go behind the fisherman, causing minimum disturbance as you get near. If the water is too shallow to float, get out of the boat, and with as little noise as possible walk it. Don’t fish the water as you go by. That’s plain rude; you’ll be downriver soon enough to start fishing again. The wade fisherman always has the right of way.
When there isn’t enough room to pass behind and the river is wide enough, you might hug the opposite bank. Another option is to pass close in front of him so you do not disturb his fish, but only after letting him know of your plan. If he objects, get out and drag the boat behind him. Wade fishermen are allowed to step back toward the bank to let a boat through, and most will in tight situations. Remember, there’s never anything wrong with friendly communication.
Now you come upon another vessel ahead of you. If the other boat is anchored and they are fishing toward the right, pass far on the left, and vice versa. If you can’t tell, just ask what side you can pass on. Always give as wide a berth as possible. If the boat ahead is underway and drift fishing, pass on the opposite side that they’re fishing. The vessel being overtaken always has the right of way which, in addition to fishing etiquette, is the law.
Never cut in front of a boat and start fishing. Go downriver a long way before you start. If you want to fish that water, hold your boat well back and fish behind them. I’ve seen that misstep flare tempers, with the result being that no one had a good day.
In general, never jump in on anyone else’s fish unless invited. Don’t even ask. Just go find some different fish. Don’t anchor in casting range of anyone else (assume casting range to be a fly-line length for yourself and for them, about 200 feet). When you anchor, do it quietly, and when it’s time to move on, leave quietly too. If you just need to anchor for a rest stop or a bite to eat, don’t block a narrow channel.
If you plan on fishing on into the dark, be certain you know how to find the takeout. Don’t shine lights unless it’s an emergency. Light will make it difficult if not impossible for the operators of any vessels on the water. Also, keep disembarkment noise to a bare minimum. Sound travels long distances on the river and can be disturbing to residents. You may have to wait your turn to take out, so be ready when your turn comes. Once your boat is on your trailer, pull it out of the way of others disembarking. Then secure your tie-down straps, put your tackle away and take off your waders etc.
In the end, be respectful to all you run across. Recreational paddlers, bird watchers, nature lovers and swimmers all have their reason for being by or on the water, reasons that are every bit as important to them as fishing is to you. Spend enough time on the water, and you are bound to have some less than ideal encounters with others. When you do, keep your etiquette up. There’s no sense going crazy over perceived discourtesies, because you’re not going to ruin anyone’s day but your own.
[Capt. Joe Demalderis (known to most as Joe D.), owner of Cross Currents Guide Service located in Starlight, PA, has been fishing the Delaware since the mid 1970s and has been an Orvis Endorsed Fly Fishing Guide for 20 years, being named the Orvis Guide of the Year in 2010. Visit www.FlyFishTheDelaware.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.]