Crossing Lines: A Guide to River Etiquette

by Ryan Wilson

Few things unite fishermen more than a disdain for anglers who show poor river etiquette. At The Shop last week, a discussion on encroachment pulled in two of my guides, three separate customers and myself. Anyone who has spent any amount of time fishing will have a story about some jerk who ruined a perfectly good day on the water.  Those experiences stick with us and can really affect our enjoyment of the experience. After all, fishing is supposed to distract us from all the jerks out there in the real world!

Well, I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that some of those “jerks” are reading this right now and aren’t actually jerks.  I’m guessing that many of these folks are just trying to enjoy their right to the outdoors, but were never educated on the unwritten rules of river etiquette.  Let’s change that and get some of those rules written down.

First and foremost, obey the state regulations and basic decency.  If you are using restricted tackle, keeping fish out of season, taking more than your limit, littering or actively disrespecting public or private property, you aren’t a fisherman, you’re a poacher.  If I see you poaching, we are going to have a conversation.  That’s probably not a conversation that will contribute to a fun day on the water.  It’s your responsibility to know the regs and abide by them.

Encroachment is one of the most common stressors for anglers.  Our quality streams can get crowded, especially on the weekends and after stocking.  The first arriving angler has claim to a spot and the ability to move and work it. While there is no set amount of yardage, an angler has claim to the geography of that spot.  That geography is the length of the run from tail end to where the water drops in, on most small to medium runs/ holes (10-50 yards).  A second angler can fish a separate run above or below, but should never jump in on a run that is already occupied.  On larger runs (50+ yards), it might be appropriate for multiple anglers to find space together.  The second angler should give the first plenty of space and should make sure not to disturb the water upstream.  It never hurts to communicate your fishing plan, so both groups can avoid encroachment.

The other side of the coin is “camping” on a spot.  While not exactly best practice, the first arriving angler is under no obligation to leave a productive spot just because someone else wants to get in. If you really wanted to claim a spot, you should have gotten there first.  This is America, no one needs to get out of your way.  If you find yourself standing by an occupied fishing spot with your arms crossed and your eyes boring a hole into the back of a fishing vest, you are the one being a jerk.  That being said, it is generally good and courteous practice to move along after a while and not hammer one spot too hard.

Proper fish handling is crucial to the health of the river.  I recently witnessed a young man fishing with no net or clamps, struggling to unhook a small trout.  He gripped it too hard, dropped it on the ground and then kept it out of the water to take a picture.  He then repeated the process with several other fish before being corrected.   It’s unlikely a single fish he released is currently still swimming.  It’s important to handle the fish as little as possible, keep your hands wet if you need to touch them and keep them in the water whenever possible.  Use a net and clamps to land and remove the hook. Allow the fish to recover if necessary, rather than tossing it right back in the water.  Having the proper gear and caring enough to learn how to properly handle fish is a critical fishing skill.

Unless you have access to some secluded private water, you’re going to be fishing on a shared resource. To protect that resource and to allow your fellow anglers their right to enjoy it as well, it is important to practice proper etiquette, beyond the outlined state regulations.  Many of these practices are obvious, but all too often, ignored.  As an angling community, we need to feel confident in self-policing bad behavior.  I’m not suggesting that we angrily confront every misstep, but we need to teach those within our circle of influence and use common sense when approaching others.  It starts with treating our resources and our fellow anglers with a high level of respect and consideration.  Set the right example and we’ll all have a better experience on the water.

Ryan Wilson is the Owner and Operator of Madison River Fly Fishing Outfitters in Cornelius, NC. If you’d like to hear about our guided trip options, please contact him at or call at (704) 896-3676.  Check us out on Facebook: Madison River Fly Fishing Outfitters or on the Web: