This Is How We Do It: Tips For River Etiquette

Photos by Tony Ensalaco

The following appears in the February issue of Alaska Sporting Journal:

BY TONY ENSALACO

Has anyone noticed that proper etiquette is disappearing from our lives?

It wasn’t that long ago when it was mandatory to use the words “please” and “thank you” when appropriate, and people would always say “excuse me,” or at least ask for permission before invading someone’s space.

Recently, I was about to enter a building when I noticed a woman behind me who was having some difficulty pushing two small children in a stroller. The lady obviously needed some help, so I thought it would be polite to assist her by holding the door open. My friendly demeanor quickly turned to utter disbelief when she marched through the doorway without bothering to look my way to offer a “thank you.” Nor did she express any other form of meager gratitude.

“What am I, Casper the friendly fricken ghost,” I thought to myself. I would have taken anything – a merci, a gracias or even a “you suck!” – any acknowledgement to let me know that I wasn’t invisible.

I wasn’t looking to be rewarded, but maybe I felt like some sort of recognition towards my good deed would have been nice. I was taken aback of the lack of common courtesy, but I wasn’t surprised either. Incidents like that are becoming more common, and if Emily Post were alive, she would be appalled by the absence of manners in today’s society, and would probably shred her journals and toss the scraps into a fireplace.

Big lines can form as anglers hope to launch their boats for a day on the river.

TIMES ARE CHANGING 

I pin most of the blame on the technology era. We have become too dependent on our electronic devices to communicate – via text messages and emails – so that now we’ve forgotten how to verbally interact with one another. Tasks that used to require another person’s assistance to complete can now be done electronically.

It’s the new normal to go online and schedule appointments, make restaurant reservations, book hotel stays and purchase airline tickets. You don’t even have to leave your home to stock up on food and supplies. Just pick out what you need on a store’s website and those items will be dropped off at your door within a couple of hours. There is no question that oral communication has been severely diminished due to the digital age.

Subsequently, human contact is becoming a lost art. It’s sad that there are so many individuals who don’t know what to do when they are unexpectedly confronted by another person. You don’t believe me? Try walking down a crowded sidewalk and impede someone’s path.

If you are able to get that person’s attention long enough, look directly into his eyes and say, “Excuse me,” and wait for the reaction. Most of the time, that person will freeze in his tracks with a confused look on his face. And if there is an attempt to say something, it will usually come in the form of incoherent nonsense – and don’t expect eye contact.

We can probe deeper into the subject, but this magazine isn’t the right platform for that debate, nor am I a spokesman. Instead, I want to discuss stream etiquette and how it pertains to salmon and steelhead fishing. Now, I can’t prove if there is a correlation between everyday life and the fishing community, but there has been a noticeable decay of civility along the rivers lately.

But before I start ranting, I would like to commend the anglers who are respectful to others, and I look forward to sharing a stream with them in the future. With that being said, I still encounter a fair percentage of anglers who will do some crazy, outrageous @&%# that I have trouble wrapping my brain around.

Their apparent lack of compassion towards others might be unexplainable at first, but then at closer examination their behavior can usually be attributed to a few factors.

How to fish your hole in the boat around other anglers is important to know.

BLISSFUL IGNORANCE 

The first reason might be that they don’t have a ton of river fishing experience and have never been taught the unwritten rules that river rats routinely follow.

It’s hard to hold someone accountable for messing up if he or she doesn’t know right from wrong. You can usually tell if someone is new to the game, so I will usually overlook any blunders that person commits. In some instances I might even offer some helpful advice if I think it will be well received.

The second reason is much harder for me to tolerate.

DISTRACTED BY THE MOMENT

When visions of fresh chrome consume a fisherman’s grey matter, there is nothing that is going to get in the way of achieving those piscatorial ambitions. Some anglers allow common sense to get placed on the back burner in favor of fulfilling their goals and, possibly, their freezers.

This type of conduct can range from carelessly infringing on others to even so far as fishing illegally. A perfect example is when someone thinks it’s acceptable to use bait on a river where it is banned.

Every steelhead season, I find evidence of fishermen using the stuff on a stream that prohibits any form of scent. I have even caught a couple of the offenders red-handed, which I couldn’t understand because they appeared to be competent anglers who didn’t need to resort to breaking the rules to catch fish. Not only did they lose my respect, but they were also lucky that they didn’t get caught by the game wardens.

Kids should learn early about being respectful on the water. The author fishes with his son.

TAKING THE RIVER FOR GRANTED

There are some in the fishing game who believe they are entitled to special privileges because they consider themselves locals, and anyone coming from a different zip code is basically trespassing. Even if they don’t live in the immediate area, they feel that as residents of the state it’s “their water,” which gives them the right to put their needs first and treat visitors like they are intruders. This bold attitude is more prevalent down on Lower 48 tributaries, but the Last Frontier is not immune from the arrogance.

Whatever the cause, appropriate river etiquette doesn’t seem to concern some anglers. And even though I’m becoming desensitized when I see someone performing a faux pas on the water, I still have trouble accepting thoughtless mistakes.  Here are some of the gaffs that I usually come across.

LATE TO THE PARTY 

Nothing can ruin the excitement of a new day on the water worse than when your start time is unexpectedly delayed by a group of fishermen who insist on getting dressed, rigging their equipment and organizing their gear while their boat sits idle on the launch ramp, obstructing river access for everyone else.

These selfish individuals act oblivious to the growing number of boat trailers that are lining up as they take their sweet time getting ready. Fortunately, this is a simple fix: If you suspect that this might be you, please remember there is plenty of room in the parking lot to prepare for the day.

When everyone in your party is good to go, it’s now time to proceed down the ramp. Once the boat is safely in the water, move it off to the side and secure it while the vehicle is being parked so others can use the ramp.

DAWDLING AT THE END OF THE DAY 

The same efficiency should be applied at the end of the day. No one should have to wait to come off the river because someone decides to clean the boat and transfer the gear into the vehicle while it blocks the ramp. Or worse, use the ramp’s incline to empty the water from the vessel.

On my most recent trip, there were three groups, including mine, that were stuck behind a pair of dudes who thought it would be alright to tie up the takeout while they watched a trickle of water escape from the drift boat’s drain hole. It had rained for most of the day, so smart anglers had taken periodic breaks from the action to do some necessary bailing. Not these clowns. They must’ve thought it would be fun to see how much water a boat can hold before it starts to sink.

There were a few irate fishermen who were concerned about making it back to town before the restaurants closed. It was understandable why they were losing their patience. Thank goodness an older gentleman was able to defuse the situation by convincing them to finish the job once the boat was trailered and out of the way because it felt like things might escalate into a physical confrontation.

UNWELCOME GUESTS 

And if you think conflict only exists in places where people are known to congregate, think again. My biggest WTH moments occur where I think I have a spot all to myself and unexpected visitors decide to join me. Alaska is huge and the runs of fish are abundant, so it’s hard to comprehend why some anglers can’t find their own water to fish.

I once stayed at a remote tent camp where the only way to get there was to land a plane on the river, so you would think that seclusion would be guaranteed. Well, we still had guides from other camps surrounding us within easy casting distance from our boat.

I am not familiar with the proper amount of distance that boats should be apart in that scenario, but it’s probably too close when you can identify the type of lunchmeat that’s on the other fishermen’s sandwiches.

Everyone was busy hooking plenty of salmon, so we didn’t really care that they were on top of us, but it was conceivable that there could have been some tension if the fishing slowed down. The experience was fantastic and fishing was off the charts, but it felt far from a wilderness adventure at times.

Of course, not all of the fishing in Alaska occurs in solitude. There are plenty of fisheries that involve sharing the river with other anglers, and people need to understand that river etiquette can vary depending on the location.

What is standard practice on one river might not be acceptable on another. This becomes problematic when anglers feel that they don’t have to conform to that particular river’s protocol, and it’s alright to follow the same guidelines as they are accustomed to using on other bodies of water.

A few years ago, I was at a lodge having breakfast with my buddy Danny Kozlow when we met three men sitting at the table next to us. “Nice guys” was my initial impression during our brief conversation.

We discovered that they were steelheaders from the East Coast and they have been fishing some of the fabled Lake Ontario tributaries for over 10 years. We spent about 15 minutes talking to them before mutually agreeing that it was time to go fishing and we wished each other good luck before heading out.

About midmorning, Danny and I were bank fishing a long, sweeping bend of the river known as the “Corner Hole.” We were about 40 feet apart from one another when we recognized our new friends approaching us at the top of the run in their drift boat.

Danny and I simultaneously reeled in our lines and waived for them to push through. As they slowly advanced towards us, I noticed the guy on the oars starting to take a few backstrokes. “Maybe they want to pull over to talk,” I thought to myself.

I instructed Danny to step out of the river to give them some extra room. Then it happened! The oarsman positioned the boat in the middle of the run and held it in place while the other two guys started casting into the exact part of the run where Danny and I stopped fishing to let them pass.

They didn’t even have the stones to look back at us while they peppered “our water” with their fly rods. “No @%$%#& way!” I said to my partner as I opened my bail and belted out a cast over one of the guy’s lines.

Danny had the same idea and chucked his spoon out to cross the other dude’s line. We were sending a message that we were here first and uninvited guests were not welcome. They quickly got the hint and bolted downstream once the lines were untangled.

I don’t know what made them think that it’s alright to stop and fish someone’s run without asking permission, unless they have previously pulled that type of stunt back at home. I looked for them at the lodge that night so I could extend an olive branch, but I felt they purposely went out of their way to avoid us.

I don’t care if you are dying to fish a favorite run where you clobbered them the day before; if someone is already there, you need to find a different spot, or at least wait until it becomes available.

I have actually had guys who have tried to fish my run while I was fighting a fish in it. The first time that happened, I thought it was my partner messing around when I saw a bobber drifting dangerously close to a 14-pound hen I was attempting to tame.

Then, I realized it was attached to the line of a side-drifter who didn’t seem to think there was a problem fishing through while a hooked steelie was zipping around in front of him. My initial reaction was to break the fish off so I could teach him a lesson, but instead I took the high road (well, the middle road) by ordering him to reel in his line and sternly asked him to “Get the hell out of there!”

The chastising continued until they vanished downstream out of earshot. Looking back, maybe I could have handled things differently, but I’m not ashamed of my intentions because that kind of B.S. isn’t acceptable anywhere on the continent.

Danny Kozlow with a nice Alaska steelhead.

MOVE IT

People come to Alaska hoping to experience its widespread, phenomenal fishing, so a trip’s success shouldn’t have to be contingent on obtaining a magic hole that you must fish, or else the day is going to be a bust. There are plenty of fish returning, so instead of competing over the same water, why not do some exploring?

You’ll be surprised how many fish will hold in those discreet, overlooked places that fishermen oftentimes miss because they are focused on getting to the next honey hole. This is where another breach of etiquette usually occurs. It is when other anglers blatantly race one another to the next spot because they need the mental security that they’re fishing a proven area.

Every year without fail, I see guys rowing like they were trying out for the Olympics or bankies who break into a full sprint, just so they can get ahead of any approaching anglers to stake their claim on the holy grail of holes. I don’t have a problem with conceding spots as long as the other anglers decide to spend some time there, and I’m alright with fishing behind them.

My concern is when they decide to leave shortly after I go by because they want to get in front of me again. This unsolicited game of leapfrog results in only being able to fish every other hole, which does everyone involved a disservice.

Whenever I feel that other fishermen want to implement the “stay in front at all costs” strategy, I purposely hold back and give them their space because I want to fish at a relaxed pace, instead of constantly looking over my shoulder and prematurely contemplating the next move I should make.

Now, if you are fishing from a boat on a river that is congested with traffic, you will eventually end up having to pass some, and there is a correct way of doing it. Don’t attempt to pass a boat if it’s moving at a decent speed. The correct etiquette is to keep a comfortable distance behind the boat until it slows down or stops.

If a boat happens to be moving super-slow or the anglers are fishing while transitioning downstream, then feel free to pass when it’s safe to do so. Make sure the section is wide enough and obstacle free before you attempt the maneuver.

I’ve had guys try to go around me in tight quarters instead of waiting for an open stretch. Their impatience has caused some precarious situations. If you are about to go by an anchored boat, ask the fishermen which side they would like you to go. If they happen to be fishing, the choice will be obvious to slip by on the opposite side where they are casting.

If there isn’t enough room behind their boat or it might be unsafe, then it’s perfectly alright to go in front of them. Try to float as close as possible to their boat to prevent disturbing the run. Some fishermen are super anal-retentive about boats going over the holding water, and I have seen meltdowns when anglers feel their water is being disrespected. Personally, I welcome boats to go over the hole because I believe that boat traffic can actually turn the bite on at times.

MAKING SENSE OF THIS 

When it comes down to it, river etiquette is basically using some common sense by showing respect for other fishermen. There isn’t a better example that requires keeping a level head more than when you’re fishing in a shoulder-to-shoulder environment, also known as combat fishing.

I spent most of my adolescence fishing in extreme crowds around the Great Lakes, so I have seen it all. I have witnessed guys stealing someone’s spot while that person was off fighting a fish. I have fished in lines of anglers who were standing in ankle-deep water and some genius decides it would be wise to see how far he can wade out in front of the crowd.

I have sat patiently watching someone fight a fish way too long in front of me because the angler was using light line, when he should have been using stout tackle. There have been countless incidents when the entire area was fishing in complete harmony, then one guy comes along and decides to follow his own agenda by trying something different that totally disrupts the order of the stream.

Conformity is the name of the game when someone decides to engage in combat fishing. For example, if everyone is floating bobbers, then maybe it’s not the right place to set out a couple of plunking rods. If you’re not familiar with combat fishing or new to the area, I recommend observing the other fishermen to get a feel for the situation. Even if you’re an experienced combat angler, every river has a different set of rules, so it will always be best to show some patience before jumping in.

Alaska attracts scores of anglers from all around the globe, so finding isolation on some of its world-famous rivers might not always be an option. In fact, with the increasing amount of fishing pressure that the state annually absorbs, some fisheries might feel closer to an urban environment rather than a remote wilderness destination.

RESPECT THE RIVER

If you are planning a trip to the Last Frontier this season, please remember to be respectful towards others. And if you see another angler who seems to be acting out of line, don’t automatically assume that he is an insensitive jerk who only cares about himself. Perhaps offering some helpful guidance can correct the problem better than starting a confrontation.

Finally, please don’t take the game too seriously. Fishing is supposed to be a relaxing activity that is meant to distract us from the rigors of everyday life. River etiquette usually becomes overlooked when certain individuals decide to take the sport to that next level instead of remembering that is supposed to be fun.

Good manners might be dying in society and it feels like they won’t be restored anytime soon, but respecting our fishing brethren should never be an issue. ASJ

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