Fly Fishing Crowded Waters

A few months ago I introduced my brother-in-law to the Owyhee River in eastern Oregon. We had a summer afternoon to fly fish. I warned him that we might run into a couple of other anglers in my favorite spot.

I was wrong. The number was much higher. I counted seven pairs of waders—filled with bodies — in the run I like to fly fish (pictured above). So what is a fly fisher to do?

Here are seven tips for fly fishing crowded waters.

1. Remain calm.

When I’m feeling annoyed, I have to remind myself that other anglers have every bit as much right to fish in my spot as I do. I am as responsible for the crowded conditions as they are. My kids’ advice is good in these moments: “Take a chill pill.”

What ruins a good day are not the fly fishers who beat me to my spot. It’s my response. If I relax, I can usually figure out a solution.

In fact, one of the best days I’ve ever had on Montana’s Madison River (I landed 25 browns on the last day of March) was the result of finding every one of my favorite spots on the Gallatin River filled with fly fishers. I’m glad I calmed down enough to formulate Plan B and drive to the Madison.

2. Arrive early (or late).

I’m fishing with a friend in a few days on the Missouri River near Helena, Montana. My friend has a favorite spot where he catches large rainbows in the spring. But he gets there at dawn.

Last week, he landed seven big trout in an hour and a half of fishing. Then he left as the crowds started rolling in about 9 a.m. The evening can be productive, too. I’ve found great solitude (and fishing!) on the Yellowstone River in Montana’s Paradise Valley in the spring and summer after 5 p.m.

3. Avoid the weekend.

Yes, I know that you may only have weekends to fly fish. But if you have any flexibility in your schedule, try Tuesday or Wednesday, and then work on Saturday. Or leave work early if you live near a river.

Dave, my podcast partner, and I like to fly from Chicago to Bozeman, Montana, on Sunday night or Monday morning. Then, we fly home on Friday as the weekend frenzy begins. It’s worth our vacation days to fish mid week.

4. Wait for your spot.

Don’t crowd the fly fishers in the run you want to fish. That is simply bad fly fishing etiquette.

But you can hover (at a distance) in the run below them. You’ll find out soon if they are moving or planning on staying put. The twenty minutes you think you are wasting, waiting for them, might turn out to be a good investment of time. You may be using a different pattern or approach, so don’t assume that the run needs to rest for two hours before you fish it.

5. Look for an opening.

Sometime we give up too quickly and assume the river is too crowded when there are spots open.

My youngest son, Luke, is working in Madison, Wisconsin, at the moment. He had day off on a Friday, so I suggested he try the Blue River about an hour west of him. I told him to get there early, and he did. But he saw cars parked in both access spots. So he called me and asked where else he could fish. I told him to try to find an open spot on the river (well, it’s really a small spring creek). It turned out that a couple guys were leaving, and there was a long stretch of open stream to fish. He ended up catching several nice brown trout.

6. Walk the extra mile.

Dave and I have talked about this before. If you’re willing to walk farther than the other fly fishers on the river, you might get into some fine fishing. I realize this doesn’t work everywhere. You may walk a ways only to come to another fishing access with more fly fishers! I had this happen last year on the Provo River in Utah. But if you keep walking, you may find a golden spot.

7. Research other options.

If you keep encountering crowds on your favorite stretch of river, start exploring some other options.

A couple years ago, we noticed more fly fishers on a lesser known stream in southwest Wisconsin. So Dave did some research and found a beautiful creek a couple hours west in southeast Minnesota. We rarely see crowds (as long as we avoid weekends), and it fishes well. It reminded me that there are other fine waters out there waiting to be discovered.

7 Streamside Habits of Highly Generous Fly Fishers

In 2015, an estimated 4.5 million folks over the age of 16 fly fished at least once during the year. That’s slightly more than one percent of the population of the United States. The industry growth roughly tracks the net population growth of the U.S. Though not exploding in popularity, the fly fishing community is growing. And it’s important that new fly fishers carry on the great traditions of our sport.

One legacy is what can only be described as the generosity mindset, illustrated by the catch-and-release movement of the last fifty years, stream restoration efforts, the advocacy for public lands, and the extensive volunteerism of Trout Unlimited chapter members.

Another layer of this generosity mindset is the sport’s streamside etiquette. To oversimplify for a moment: There are takers in this world, and there are givers. The fly fishing community is a “giver community,” and I’ve assembled seven streamside habits that characterize the highly generous fly fisher:

1. They defer to others on the river.

This seems patently obvious, but it needs to be said again and again. This is a way of thinking more than anything. It is not a sign of weakness. In fact, it’s a sign of strength. This mindset believes there’s always better fishing elsewhere, if something or someone is blocking access to his or her favorite spot.

Just to be practical for a moment: If you’re not first to your spot on the river, you’re not the first. Move on. Defer to the person who got there first. Find another run. Move to another river.

By the way, this also applies to fly fishing guides. Just because someone paid you for a great day of fly fishing doesn’t mean the generosity mindset doesn’t apply to you. If you can’t be a generous fly fishing guide to others (those who not your clients), then get out of the business and into a different sport.

2. They give others a wide berth.

This is a corollary to the first point, of course, but we’ve all had days when we’ve come around the bend to see another fly fisher stalled on our favorite run. My first thought is often a prayer: I sure hope she is on her way upriver. My next is, “I sure hope there’s not another fly fisher ahead of her.”

The highly generous fly fisher doesn’t just go up to the next run. He or she goes up two or three runs farther – or another mile. Or leaves to find a different river.

Back to the initial point: There’s always more, not less.

3. They dole out information freely.

I love running into a fly fisher who says, “I switched to a size 18 BWO pattern this afternoon, and I finally started catching a few.” Or, “I fished an olive woolly bugger for a couple hours, but when I switched to nymphs, it was game on.”

No, I don’t think you have to tell someone your secret run. At least I won’t. But the highly generous fly fisher sees the next fly fisher not so much as a competitor but as a colleague.

I once invited a friend to hunt with my family in North Dakota. Once. I never invited him again. He was so obsessed with shooting pheasants, he wanted to hunt the ditches on the way to the cornfield we planned for the hunt – 15 minutes before the 10 AM opener! He was so fiercely competitive, he annoyed the rest of us the entire day.

4. They slow down to teach young fly fishers.

Young does not mean young in age, necessarily. Young means “new to the sport.” I have found so much joy in helping my twenty-something nephew get started in the sport. When he initially engaged me, I had a fleeting thought that I might not be able to fish much, because I’d be so focused on helping him tie on flies, untangle knots, and identify the best runs to fish.

Instead, the common interest created a nascent friendship, and it won’t be long and he’ll be much better than I. I can’t wait.

What I love most about helping younger fly fishers is that they ask questions. They want my opinion. Yea! No one wants my opinion on anything these days (not my wife, not my kids, and not even my dog!).

5. They keep their dogs in the truck or at home.

Speaking of dogs, I don’t believe they belong on the river. I’ve hunted with dogs my entire life, and even the best hunting dogs go AWOL some days. If you are in the wilderness and sure you’re ten miles from the nearest fly fisher, then yes, take along your dog.

But the highly generous fly fisher would never spoil the day of another fly fisher by allowing his or her unleashed dog to walk through runs or startle the fly fisher coming up the river. It’s crazy that this even needs to be mentioned.

If you want a dog with you, go back to the suburbs and walk your dog around the neighborhood.

By the way, did you know that the fly fisher moving up the river has priority over the fly fisher moving downstream? The person moving upstream has the right of way. So if you’re walking downstream with your dog, and it lopes ahead of you in the stream, you are in the wrong.

6. They slough off the slights.

Several years ago, an intense fly fisher (who looked like a Navy Seal) stomped past Steve and me (we don’t look like Navy Seals) while we were hiking a narrow trail to a stretch of river in Yellowstone National Park. He brushed past us with not so much as a grunt. It was clear he had a spot in mind. And he got it.

We were a little miffed. And after we said some unflattering things about him to each other, we laughed it off, spied him on the river later, and moved ahead of him about a mile. We never saw him again.

If you fly fish long enough, you’ll have the chance to be annoyed at someone. Just walk away. No need to get in the last word.

7. They share their gear.

A few years ago, Steve, my podcast partner, arrived at his favorite run on the Madison River to find another fly fisher sitting along the bank. The guy had broken his rod. After catching a couple rainbows, Steve handed his rod to the other fly fisher fisher and told him to give the run a try.

In case, you think Steve is the most generous guy on the planet, you should know that Steve was acquainted with this guy. They had worked together in the past.

That said, however, I’ve broken my rod several times while fly fishing with Steve and he has never offered me his rod. Maybe that’s because one day on the Yellowstone, with a broken rod tip, I outfished him. My eight-and-a-half foot five weight rod became an eight-foot rod when I snapped off the last guide about three miles into the backcountry. Fortunately, the runs were right along the bank, and I could sling the hopper pattern with a modicum of precision.

But wouldn’t it be great to make this a habit if the opportunity arises?

Generosity begins with the idea that there is more, not less – more river, more opportunity, more fish. And so there is no need to horde. No need to compete. No need to be a grump. Just move on and find the more.

S2:E11 Fly Fishing Etiquette

fly fishing guides

Fly fishing etiquette – yes, there is such a thing. There are unwritten rules about how a fly fisher should behave while on the river. Listen now to our podcast on fly fishing etiquette and how the community views such things as bringing along your dog to fly fish and how to create space for the next fly fisher on the river.

Listen to our episode “Fly Fishing Etiquette” now

At the end of each episode, we have a feature called “Great Stuff from Our Listeners.” We read a few of the comments from this blog or from our Facebook page. We enjoying hearing from our readers and listeners, and appreciate your advice, wisdom, and fly fishing experience.

What have we missed? What other rules of fly fishing etiquette should make the list. Please post your ideas below.

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