The Unwritten Rules:  A Comprehensive Guide to Float Fishing Etiquette

The Unwritten Rules:  A Comprehensive Guide to Float Fishing Etiquette



So, you bought yourself a drift boat or raft.  You took it out and were so excited to get that baby in the water, but your day wasn’t great.  People were glaring at you at the put-in, some guide yelled something at you during the float, and more people were mad at the take-out.  What happened?


Well, you probably didn’t follow the Float Fishing Etiquette Manual . . . which doesn’t exist.  Learning to drift is fraught with challenges including the rowing itself, but there’s also a whole set of unwritten float fishing rules that you should follow.  These can vary a bit river by river, but, in my experience, they have been pretty universal.  I’ve also broken most of the rules as I’ve learned them.  Some people were polite in helping me learn and others were not.


I’m also going to say this, you will sometimes have people tell (yell) that you’re doing something wrong that you know you’re fine doing.  In my experience, this is usually a frustrated or crotchety guide who is just having a bad day.  I had a guide once yell at me on the Henry’s Fork for going behind him (he was anchored in the middle of the river).  I went behind him because his client was float fishing on the other side.  We then started fishing again about 30 yards down.  He apparently thought the river belonged to him.  It didn’t.  So, don’t be deterred when you know you are in the right.


Let’s get on with the rule list so your next float will be a pleasant one.  In a somewhat logical order, here are the unwritten (now written) rules to float fishing:


KNOW HOW TO BACK UP YOUR TRAILER – The boat ramp is not the place to practice backing up. In fact, they are very stressful with everyone watching and they are always tremendously narrower than you think.  Practice backing up your boat and trailer in a parking lot.  See if you can find a hill, too, because you’re almost always backing the boat down to the river and sometimes it’s steep and the boat and trailer seem to disappear.


HAVE YOUR BOAT LOADED AND READY TO GO – There is nothing more annoying than a float fisherman rigging up his boat on the ramp itself. That is not the time.  Almost all boat ramps have a parking lot/staging area and then a loading area.  The loading area also has a waiting area for people to line up who are ready to go.

The parking lot/staging area is usually a bit away from the ramp and is where you should set up your boat.  I get mine totally ready to go; plugs, anchor, tie-downs, rods, lunch, oars, etc.  This way, all I have to do is back down, disconnect the boat from the winch, and push off.  Make sure you don’t cut the line in the waiting area when you’re ready to float fish.


UNLOAD YOUR BOAT AND MOVE IT AWAY – Unload your boat, get it away from the ramp, and then get your vehicle and trailer out of there. You should move your boat up or downstream in a way that won’t interfere with others loading and unloading.  I usually take the farthest spot that I can.  Also, try not to anchor up in a way that rubs other boats.  Rafters don’t seem to care, but those guys who just dropped $36,000 on a new Parvati sure will.  Remember to let your anchor out and drag it up the shore a bit, but don’t make it a tripping hazard.


WAIT YOUR TURN PUSHING OFF – This doesn’t mean that you have to let every boat go before you that was there first. However, if someone is ready to go, but they are waiting on the other guy who is already pushing off, you may be third in line.  Communication is key.  I will often ask someone if they’re good if I go ahead and push off.  They always appreciate it.


AVOID THE WADING ANGLERS – This is a big one. If you have someone on the bank wade fishing, have your anglers (or you) lift up your rods, and don’t fish as you go past them.  Also, don’t run over their fish if you can help it.  Sometimes you only have one option for a line and that’s okay.  Just say hi as you go by.  To be fair, they need to be respectful as well.  I’ve floated really close to several anglers who were wading in the middle of the river.  Some would get annoyed.  I’d just say, “Sorry, this is the only line I can take here.”

These anglers should be aware that they are going to be dealing with boats given where they have chosen to fish.  Also, and this is more of a personal thing, wading anglers don’t have the right of access at a boat ramp.  Sure, they can fish there amongst the boats launching and fishing, but they are at a “BOAT RAMP” so they should know they don’t have the right of way there.


PICK A SIDE OF THE RIVER – This is river-specific. Some rivers are narrow enough that you just float fish whatever side looks good.  Other rivers, however, are larger and it is expected that you don’t “ping-pong” your way down the river from bank to bank.  Just watch the guides or other boats and you’ll know if that’s a rule on that stretch of river.  Also, this is dependent on how many boats are on the water.  If it’s just you, go nuts.


DON’T ROLL OVER FISH – On more popular rivers with multiple floating anglers, you want to do your best not to roll overruns that are holding fish. A lot of rivers hold most of their fish along the banks, so it would be inappropriate in that circumstance to float right down the bank and float fish toward the middle of the river.  First, you and those in your boat will catch less, but second, you’re spooking all the fish for those coming behind you.  Again, this isn’t a big deal if it’s just you on the river, but that’s usually not the case.


DON’T FISH PAST ANOTHER BOAT WITH ANGLERS – There will be times when a guide or a set of anglers is in another boat and going slower than you. Maybe you want to pass them, which is generally just fine.  However, don’t float fish as you go past.  Lift your rods and have other anglers do the same.  Not only do you avoid tangles, but you keep those people happier.  Remember, you’re probably going to the same take-out.  I will also usually announce something like, “Passing on river left.  ”


THE DOWNSTREAM BOAT HAS THE RIGHT OF WAY – If you think about it, a rower is generally facing downstream and can’t easily see other boats behind them. You still need to be cautious of what is upstream and downstream, but a downstream boat has the right of way.  If they’re going into a rapid or chute first, slow down and let them go.  Give them space.  If you want to pass, find a safe place and communicate.


DON’T ANCHOR AND FLOAT FISH (SOMETIMES) – This rule is also river-specific, but I think it’s a pretty good general rule. The whole point of float fishing is to float and fish.  If you’re anchored up, that can be fine, but I think it’s really specific to the situation.  If you’re the only one on the river, or there are few people, sure.  If there are a ton of boats and other float anglers, maybe not.  If you do anchor, get out of the way, so other boats can easily pass.


DON’T HOG A RUN – This kind of ties into the previous rule. If you’re float fishing, you should generally take your shots at the fish and move on.  This doesn’t mean you can only stay for 10 seconds, but what it does mean is that I wouldn’t anchor up in a great run on a crowded river for 30 minutes.


ENTER AT THE BOTTOM OF AN EDDY – If you want to float fish an eddy, the general rule is to enter at the bottom of the eddy. This is better for you because it spooks fewer fish, but it also makes it so if another drift boat wants to enter that eddy after you, they enter at the bottom, you fish up, they fish up, you exit, they exit, you can then re-enter if you want.  If you enter at the top, you can mess up the system.  Again, this doesn’t matter if the river is empty.  Spook all the fish you want.


DON’T TAILGATE – Make sure to always give the boats ahead of you ample space. Either pass them safely or don’t pass.  I’ve had boats get right up on me.  Not only is it unnerving, but it’s dangerous.  If I need to take an evasive maneuver or anchor suddenly, that boat is going to plow right into me.  This is especially important in any sort of rapid.  You can ask Chad what it’s like to be pushed through a rapid from behind by a raft.


COMMUNICATE ABOUT PASSING – I’ve already mentioned this, but tell other boats when you’re passing them. Again, say something like, “Passing on river right.    Have a good one.”  Then actually push past them quickly.  Don’t linger.  Too much eye contact on the river is weird.


AVOID NOISE – Remember that most people, especially other anglers, are out there to enjoy the peacefulness of nature. They don’t necessarily want to hear your blaring Dirty Heads playlist.  I often have music in my boat, but it’s quiet.  Keep the yelling to a minimum as well.  Remember, sound travels farther over water.


TAKE BREAKS RESPECTFULLY – This is a big annoyance of mine. I’ll find a nice, but small, place for my family and me to take a break for lunch, only for a bunch of other boats to pull in after they see me there.  I know I don’t own the river and its banks.  That’s not the point.  If someone is in a smaller area, don’t just pull in on them.  Be respectful.  If the area offers plenty of room, then fine.  If it’s really tight, either keep moving or ask if it’s okay if you pull in.  Sometimes, you have no choice because there isn’t another lunch spot for a few miles.


RESPECT PRIVATE LAND – Every state has different laws around this. In Colorado and Wyoming, the river bottom is owned by whoever owns the adjacent land.  In Montana, the river bottom is public to the 50-year high water mark.  Know the law, don’t anchor on private land, and don’t trespass.


RESPECT OTHERS ON THE RIVER – We’ve talked about being respectful to other anglers and rowers, but generally, be respectful to everyone on the river. If there is too much conflict on a section of river, the state can always shut it down or make it harder to float fish.  Be kind and courteous.  Almost everyone is out there to have a good time, so this shouldn’t be hard.


PACK IT OUT – Always have trash bags or buckets in your boat and use them. Trash falling in the river or left on the banks is absolutely unacceptable.  My oldest had a bag of chips blow out of his hands and we couldn’t get it back.  He and I spent some time cleaning up the take-out to appease the River Gods.  Make it right and pack it out when you’re float fishing.


ANCHOR TO THE SIDE OF THE TAKE-OUT – Just like the put-in, you should have your boat off to one side or the other until you’re ready with your trailer. Generally, you won’t want to pull your boat right up on the take-out ramp.  Rather, anchor it off to the side.  Go get your truck and trailer, then walk your boat over.  Here’s a tip, it’s easier to anchor upstream and float your boat downstream to the ramp in most circumstances.


HELP OTHERS – This seems to be needed more at the take-outs than the put-ins, but be willing to help others. Sometimes a raft needs to be lifted and loaded.  Other times a single rower is having trouble angling his boat onto the trailer with the current.  Either way, be willing to help when needed.  I’ve even backed down a trailer or two for people.


WAIT YOUR TURN – Don’t cut in front of others to get your boat out whether that is with your truck and trailer or when you’re pulling your boat in. I know you may be tired from your day of float fishing, but don’t do it.  Take-out etiquette seems to be the worst.


UNLOAD IN THE PARKING LOT – Just like at the put-in the ramp is for taking out or putting in. That’s it.  It is not the time to unload everything back into your truck.  Hook your boat up and pull out.  You can unload your rods, gear, drinks, vests, etc. in the parking lot or staging area.  It’s not unreasonable to pull your plugs, though, so that your boat can drain as it is pulled up the ramp.


DON’T BRAG AT THE RAMP – If you had a lights-out day of float fishing, don’t brag about it. I took my brother and father-in-law on a guided trip this last summer so that I didn’t have to row.  We caught a mess of fish between the two boats.  There were two other guided boats at the take-out.  One caught one fish and the other caught zero.

We kept our mouths shut.  Not only would that make those anglers feel bad, but the guides as well.  My standard response anywhere when someone asks about how good the fishing is or was, I’ll say, “It’s fishing” or “I caught a few.”  I don’t throw out numbers and if it’s bad, I’ll say it’s bad.


ENJOY YOURSELF – This should go without saying, but enjoy yourself on the river. You’re there for a reason.



That’s a lot of rules, but they are pretty much based on the golden rule; treat others as you’d want to be treated.  You’ll still mess up and you will also have people get upset with you for something that is not your fault.  I’ve been yelled at by anglers fishing right on the boat ramp as I’m in my boat.  I’ve had guides say things to me because they really just wanted the whole river to themselves.


I’ve found the best thing, though, is to ask a guide or two at the put-in, if there are any special rules that I should know about.  They’re always happy to share.  At a minimum, pay attention to what other rowers are doing to see what is appropriate on that river.


Remember, we are a self-regulated hobby for the most part.  No one is going to come write you a ticket for not announcing when you pass or for rolling over fish.  We adhere to proper etiquette to make it an enjoyable experience for everyone.  If you have someone who is really breaking the unwritten rules, and it’s egregious, don’t be afraid to say something.  Be polite, of course, but they may not know.  I’ve appreciated when people corrected me (rightfully) early on.


If you don’t know if this whole rowing thing is for you, or you’re tired of rowing your buddies, come take a float fishing trip with us at Minturn Anglers in some of the most pristine and trout-filled waters in Colorado.

It’s time to nail down your 2024 fly fishing trip with Minturn Anglers.

About the Author

Chris Opfer

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