The Golden (Trout) Rule: A Guide to Fly Fishing Etiquette for the New and Experienced Alike

The Golden (Trout) Rule: A Guide to Fly Fishing Etiquette for the New and Experienced Alike

The Golden (Trout) Rule: A Guide to Fly Fishing Etiquette for the New and Experienced Alike

By Chris Opfer


If you want to live in a civilized society, people must be civil to each other. “Thanks, Captain Obvious,” you say. We all know this. Yet every day, we see those drivers who cut others off in traffic, people who crowd you in line, owners who let their dogs run off leash (I’m sure I just upset some people here), and so much more.

We aren’t always the best ourselves, either. This is no different on the river or a lake, for that matter. I’ve been fishing my entire life and without fail, every time I go out, there is at least one person that doesn’t act appropriately. Although, it’s almost worse on the river; more competitive, perhaps?

If you’re new to fly fishing, it’s my hope that this article can give you some guidance on proper stream etiquette. If you’re an experienced angler, maybe this will serve as a reminder. Or at least something to validate you the next time someone throws a cast right where your indicator just landed (which happened to me last year).

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We are an unregulated hobby, sport, activity, or whatever you want to call it. There are no classes required before you go plop down your annual fishing license fee. I’m a firm believer that if we ALL do our best to make fly fishing the best experience for everyone and not just ourselves, we ALL have a better time. So, here we go in no particular order:

You’re In My Bubble

This is an interesting one. Sometimes when we fish, we’re on a stretch of river by ourselves. After all, this is why we do it, right? Some tranquility? Some peace? No cell phone? Check out the Calm in the Current article.

However, when someone is in a run you know well, or at least a run you’d like to be in, it’s tempting to get up on them. This isn’t okay. So many different parts of the river hold fish; I’m continually surprised. You don’t have to fish that particular run even though you netted a beautiful 22” butter belly brown from that particular section of water last fall. Move up or down to the next stretch. You can always come back and be the cleanup batter. More bragging rights that way.

But what about combat fishing? This is where a particular stretch of water is crowded because the trout are running or it’s so popular that anglers are often considered “shoulder to shoulder.” You can see that this is one extreme to the other mentioned above where there was no one. You have a few options here. Wait for a hole or a run to free up or simply space yourself as far apart from as many anglers as possible.

I was fishing a popular tail water a few years back. It was deserted in the morning but then filled up before lunch. I was fishing in a pool at a small weir. It was so small that my rod covered almost half the distance of the pool itself; definitely not enough room for two anglers. I watched what was clearly a new fly fisherman eyeing the various spots, or lack thereof, from the bank. He fixed his eyes on me and walked straight across the river to me. He stood opposite the pool and started casting directly at me. Given that he was clearly new (every bit of his setup was still shiny) I took the opportunity to explain that fishing like this wasn’t the best. He smiled, apologized, and went on his way. Nice dude, he just didn’t know.

Compare this to another angler that I had the “joy” of meeting at a much smaller and less populated river here in Colorado. This freestone river was only about 30 feet across in most places. You may have a run or two and then have to walk for a bit before you find your next one.

I was in the only real run for a 50-yard section. I noticed that an angler came up behind me. He watched as I pulled two nice-sized (for the river) rainbows out of the run. He then proceeded to scramble down the bank less than 20’ ahead of me and started fishing. He was even so gutsy as to cast right where my indicator had been just a second or two before. I asked him sternly what he was doing. He just stared at me. I told him that he needed to be a more courteous fly fisherman and go find another run. He paused. I said I was serious. This wasn’t a threat or anything like that, although I’ve heard stories. It was clear to me that this guy, who was experienced enough to land his rig essentially on top of mine, hadn’t been educated on the proper etiquette. Or maybe he knew it was poor behavior, but no one had ever said anything before, so…

This was a long one, but the point is here, you wouldn’t want someone to crowd you so don’t do it to someone else. You’ll have more fun and they will too. Yes, I recognize that certain tail waters may not permit a ton of space, but give what you can. A great rule of thumb here is if you’re wondering whether you’re too close, you probably are, and move along.

Oh, and unless the river is huge, don’t ever fish directly across from someone unless you know them. It’s weird.

Say Hello and Be Courteous

It baffles me how there are two extremes of fly fisherman. Those who glare at you and those who are super nice. Which one do you want to be? I’d strongly encourage you to be the latter. Even if you don’t say, “Hi,” just wave as you’re walking by.

Another great tip that I got from a class I took early on, is to ask an angler which way they’re going. Meaning, if you pull up into a parking spot with another angler and they’re almost ready. When you hop out, say “Hi,” and then ask, “Were you planning on going upstream or downstream? I’ll go whichever direction you don’t since you were here first.” You’ll surprise the heck out of that angler and you just made a friend for the day. I’ve done this several times with great results.

The last part of this is to respect why anglers are there in the first place. For everyone, it will be different. I say this because I’ve said “Hello” to some anglers while asking how they did to just get a short, “Hi and fine.” With others, I get a complete recounting of the day. I’ve even swapped flies with other tyers and shared pointers. If someone wants to chat, great. If they don’t, great. If you do or don’t, great. We’re all there for our own reasons, but we can still be courteous.

Popping out of Bushes and “Playing Through”

If this hasn’t happened to you yet, it will. You’re walking through some heavy brush to get to a run you know and you pop out of the bushes only to find that you’re about 10’ from another angler. What do you do? Just apologize and go back the way you came. Don’t try to awkwardly shuffle behind them or walk through their run.

There are going to be some times when you want to leapfrog another angler as you both are working your way upstream (or down); you’re going to want to play through. I’ve seen too many anglers just walk through the run to get to another spot. There’s no need for this. Get out of the water and walk the extra 20 yards to avoid this altogether.

A few weeks ago, I was fishing the Arkansas River. I wanted to go around two anglers who were fishing under a bridge. I wanted to fish the opposite bank, farther upstream. So, I simply crossed way down from them in some super shallow riffles so as to not disturb anyone or any fish. They clearly appreciated it, as they told me about another hole they found as I walked past them on the opposite bank.

This leads me to another quick point: Don’t ever stop and stare at another angler while you’re clearly looking for a spot to fish. It makes them think that you’re going to drop in on them and they’ll stop enjoying their time on the water. If you’re waiting for a run to open up or trying to figure out which way an angler is going so you know where to go next, watch them from a distance like every good stalker.


Man, this is a big one, but most fly fishermen are pretty good about it. Just don’t leave garbage behind; that includes fluorocarbon, leaders, or anything else. We go to these places to enjoy the serenity. Let’s keep it clean. Or, do one better, and pick up some trash each time you’re out. I promise you’ll feel better about yourself and the Fly Fishing Gods will bless you!

Don’t Be a Lake Creeper

Growing up, when my father or I hooked a fish and noticed that some of the other fishermen along the bank of the lake started inching towards us, my father would call them Lake Creepers. When we were on the river and this happened, he’d just simply call them lake fishermen. Don’t take offense.

If you’re not catching anything, but the angler downstream from you is slamming those bows, don’t give into the temptation of working your way towards them. First of all, they see you no matter how nonchalant you’re being. Second, you’re quite likely going to invade their space. Third, there is likely fish where you are too, you just probably have a different rig, flies, weight, setup . . . Something. Figure it out instead of being a creeper.

Lost Territory

First of all, you don’t own the river (unless you actually do, then you’re fishing your private land and please call me because I want to be your friend!). We need to understand that. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be allowed to fish a run undisturbed, but it means that we have to share. I tell my 6 and 8-year-olds this all the time.

With that said, what happens if someone gets pulled away from a run they’re working on? Maybe they hooked a large fish that took them downstream a bit. Maybe they had to step out of the water because they were cold or needed to tie on a new rig. Maybe they snagged the bank. Maybe they had to take a VERY important phone call; otherwise, they shouldn’t be answering the phone since they’re fly fishing and that’s like taking a call in church. Whatever the reason is, don’t just go rushing into that run. If it’s clear that they aren’t leaving, let the run be and allow them to go back into it. If it looks like they might be leaving and you’d like to see if you can pull a few more fish out of there, just ask. This goes back to being courteous. Even if the angler is leaving, they’ll appreciate that you asked and often share some advice with you.

A Run, is a Run, is a Run

This references some of the other spacial rules, but it’s really important to know where an angler is going. Meaning, let’s say you’re on a large tail water somewhere (by Western state fishing standards). Say the Blue River in Silverthorne or the Arkansas below the Pueblo Dam. The runs can be huge in these areas. Look at what an angler is doing before you slide down the bank into the river. Are they working up or down? If they’re fishing streamers, they are likely working down. If they are fishing dries or a nymph rig, they are likely working their way upstream. Is where you want to go part of where they want to go or will be in a very short time?

As an example of this, a few years ago, I was fishing the aforementioned Blue River in Silverthorne just below the dam. For those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about, this was a Gold Medal stretch of water (unfortunately, it recently lost the Gold Medal designation) that is bordered by an outlet mall. It’s super weird, but great fishing.

I was fishing a relatively short run. Maybe 50’ or so. Two anglers walked up the bank alongside me. They didn’t say hello (I’d almost put them in the glaring angler category), passed a small bush, and dropped right in at the top of this run. The river was wide open otherwise. They weren’t so close that I was going to hit them with my indicator (although I’m sure I could have if I wanted to… I have a tendency to fish with too much line out), but they basically ended my time in that run. I could only fish another 10’ or so farther upstream and then I was getting into their swing. Sure, they were close, but I think it was more so that they just didn’t think about where I was going or that it was all one run.

A quick note here is that I don’t think that we as anglers get to say that everything we see is all one run. It’s like the line from Jack Black in Saving Silverman when he picks a nacho off a plate and the rest of the nachos are stuck to the first chip. Black says, “If they’re stuck together, it counts as one nacho.” Although we’d always like that to be true, again, we don’t own the river by calling it a single run.

Unless, of course, as I mentioned before, you do own the river in which case please contact me through this blog; I’ll help you keep your fly box full.

Just to make this rule a bit longer, I was on the Arkansas last year below the dam in Pueblo.

If you’ve ever fished this water, you know that the river is basically divided into sections after the stream restoration several years ago. There is a weir, followed by several rock structures, followed by a tail out, followed by another weir. There’s one stretch of this river that has at least 6 or 7 sections just like that, one after the other.

On this day, I was in one of these sections and all but one of the others were empty. Another angler appeared out of nowhere; all I heard was the splash of his boots entering the water right behind me. He walked in the water along the bank to fish the weir. I was fishing the middle rock section. Again, were he to have watched me for even a minute, he would have noticed that I was fishing upstream, with an indicator nymph setup and taking a step every 5-10 casts (keeps me moving with different drifts). Just like the other guys, I probably could have hit him with my rig if I really tried. I thought about it. Instead, I just got out and walked up to the next section because it was completely empty.

Anglers that cut your run short almost make you feel like you only got to eat half the steak or something. It’s an unpleasant feeling; like you left something unfinished. Don’t take away someone’s steak.

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So, this was a long article and I’m sorry (not sorry). If everyone were to follow some simple rules, all us anglers would have a better experience. Sure, we might not get to fish the run we wanted right then, but, at least for me, this has pushed me to explore different areas.

Really, this is just the golden rule, right? Do unto others, as you would have them do unto you. Would you want someone jumping in that close? Would you want someone crossing through your run? Would you want someone to glare at you as they walked by? Would you want someone to jump into the run you were working just because when that hook popped loose from a decent trout, you got a snarl, and had to cut apart your rig?

The answer to all of these questions is clearly “no.” So, not only do we have the opportunity not to offend or upset another angler, we actually have the ability, collectively, to make this a more enjoyable activity.

In the words of Smokey the Bear, “Only you can prevent foolish fly fishers.” Or something like that…

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Tyler Banker

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