Trouts Journal

Mind Your Manners: Stream Etiquette 101

Ivan Orsic / Nov 12, 2015

The other day I was talking to a buddy of mine -Ryan- as we were en route to the river. The topic of Denver's population growth (and particularly what it's projected to be over the next few years) got brought up. This inevitably led to the mention of our local rivers becoming more crowded than they already are on some days. I've no doubt spent some time thinking about this very topic and wish I could say I'd come up with some sort of magical answer on what this will look like, how it will affect the fishing, etc. The only summary I can come up with at this point however is that 'yes' the rivers will undoubtedly become more crowded (although this argument could be made for any river in the country to one degree or another), but trout still have to eat for a living, which will still make them very catchable. Ryan then told me about a recent experience he had in Cheesman Canyon that blew me away. Not long ago, he and a couple friends were in the Canyon for a day of fishing. They hiked in early and were getting ready to spend 10 or 15 minutes working through a favorite riffle run that always holds a few fish. Having zero reason to be in a hurry that day they were taking their time, taking turns fishing the run allowing each to hopefully catch a fish or two before moving on. Not long after they got set up, another angler hiked in from the opposite bank and started casting into the exact run they were currently picking apart. Initially quite confused (pissed off could be another appropriate term) by the lack of etiquette exhibited by this angler, they mentioned something along the lines of, "you know sir we were actually fishing here first. There's really not room for both of us in this run". I will add this was during the week and the Canyon was not crowded. The rebuttal to this comment- which came with a heavy topping of attitude- was "This is Cheesman Canyon! It's combat fishing in here! You fish were you want!"

While this may be one of the most extreme instances I've heard concerning a lack of respect for your fellow fisherman, I still hear countless (and I really do mean countless) stories from friends/guides/customers of poor displays of etiquette on our local waters. By the time 2015 comes to a close, I will have spent over 130 days out on the water this year- with about 85-90% of those days being on public stretches of Colorado rivers. Given this amount of time on the water, I've no doubt had my fair share of etiquette-less encounters as well. Whether it be through my own personal experiences or ones shared by others, one common theme seems to stand out above the rest- and it could all be avoided with a simple question "Are you working up or down?"

That's it! "Are you working up or down?" You've probably put the puzzle together by now that the most common frustration I hear is about anglers getting cut-off by other anglers. I know I've had it happen more times than I can count over the past year, and I'd be kidding myself if I thought it would never happen again. I think all of us would agree that the perfect day of fishing is going to involve having a stretch of river to call your own, where the thought of crowds never enters your mind. While this can still be found (even with some regularity) in this state, the ultimate reality is that 9.5 times out of 10 you're going to be sharing the water. For the seasoned angler, proper etiquette can easily become an afterthought because, just like anything you do for years on end, it will become natural. Many of the anglers who fall into this category likely came from a fishing family as well where all things related to this sport- including etiquette- where instilled from day 1. While there will always be the type of angler mentioned in the first paragraph, I firmly believe a lot of the questionable acts seen on the river are simply due to a lack of knowledge. We see a lot of new-to-Colorado customers in the shop who are ready to give fly-fishing a try for the first time and just like learning how to tie a clinch knot or distinguish a midge from a baetis is something they need to master, so is knowing what to do when they show up to a riverside parking lot full of cars.

So back to my suggestion of the simple question of "Are you working up or down", here's how it works on the river. If you approach the river and realize you're not alone, once you select the location you want to fish, simply approach the nearest angler and ask them which way they are working- up or down? If they're working upstream, ask if they mind you jumping in and work downstream. If they say they're working downstream, ask if they mind you jumping ahead and work up. It's as simple as that. I use this strategy almost every guide trip I run- particularly on the weekends where finding some empty water is next to impossible- and I've never once got a negative reaction from the angler I approach. In fact, nearly every time the angler is extremely appreciative I took the time to ask and is more than happy to share the water with my clients and me. Next time you find yourself on the river when it's extremely crowded, I encourage you to try this out if you've never done so. I have no doubt you'll quickly see how a little courtesy can go a long way in keeping the day much more relaxed and enjoyable.

A few more thoughts on etiquette:

1. When it comes to trout fishing, if the river is crowded and you're trying to find a place to get in, it's always safe to assume the anglers you see are working upstream, (which by the way for the new angler, is 99.9% of the time always going to be the best way approach fish. Again though, if you're not sure just ask. Side note: If you happen to be on a Steelhead river, the anglers you see will be working downstream.

2. An angler working upstream always has the right of way to a person working downstream. If you happen to be working downriver and come upon an angler working up, reel up your rig at least 40 yards before reaching that person, take a wide berth as you go around, and resume fishing once below the other angler. It is especially important to take a WIDE berth when passing to avoid the possibility of spooking any trout, which could likely happen as a result of walking directly down the river bank. As a general rule, taking a wide berth when passing any angler should be advised to avoid spooking any fish that angler may be fishing to.

3. Working upriver/downriver behind a slower moving or stationary angler: This is a situation I encounter a lot as well. I like to fish fast and cover water- moving upriver I'll add. If I see an angler is 'camped out' in an area, once I get to within 40 yards or so, I'll reel up and go ask them (you guessed it) "Are you working up or down?" Many times you'll get the answer, "Oh I'm just fishing right here for the time being. I don't mind if you go around me and keep working up."

4. Don't 'camp out' in one run all day. Aside from the fact that you're likely sacrificing the number of fish you catch by not covering more water, this is also not very courteous to your fellow anglers. Sure there will always be spots that warrant a little more time spent in than others, but keeping on the move throughout the day will keep the flow on the riverbanks moving along much more seamlessly. This will inevitably lead to better fishing for all. Remember that our public waters belong to ALL of us, and as such we should all be willing to share the bounty.

5. How close is too close? This is another question I get a lot. While the answer truly depends on how crowded the river is, my 'blanket' answer for this would be about 100 feet. If the crowds that day truly force you to be closer then there's not much you can do about it, however think of it with a 'treat others as you'd like to be treated' mentality. I'm still yet to meet an angler who is working a run and delights in another angler continuing to encroach on their piece of water. 100 feet will leave plenty of room to allow both anglers to cast without having to worry about catching eachothers fly-lines (i.e. if you both happen to be making 50 foot casts, which there is rarely a need to do so on our local rivers). Obviously more space than this should always be the goal, and even on the busiest of days I can't recall a time where there was no other option than to be this close to another angler.

6. Unless you're on a river the size of the Bighorn, fishing directly across from someone should never cross your mind (such as in the example from paragraph 1).

7. Tip for the floating angler: So you've decided to take the leap and are now grinning ear to ear over your shiny new drift boat or raft parked in your driveway- when it comes to boat ramps, your boat should be completely ready to go when you back in. Nothing will cause congestion at the boat ramp more- or annoy (effing P.O. would also work here) the other anglers around you- if you back into the top of the ramp and then proceed to get out and put the oars in the oar locks, take off your tie-down strap, attach your anchor, toss in boat bags and rods, etc. Take care of this prep work off to the side of the ramp. The boat ramp is only for boats going directly in, or coming directly out of the water.

8. Leave it better than you found it. Somewhat of a side here as well but if you see some trash on the river, pick it up. I can't remember the last time I went fishing where I didn't carry out at least a few peoples empy water bottles/beer cans/granola bar wrappers/etc. Chalk it up to earning some karma points if nothing else.

Hopefully this little chat has cleared up a few things for at least some of you. I know you all have your own stories as well of less-than-desirable interactions with other anglers over the years. Feel free to share them in the comments section below. Also- if you think of something I missed on here, or perhaps disagree with my personal thoughts on river etiquette let me hear it. The more we get the discussion going, the better off we will all be.

Got an idea for a post or discussion you'd like to see on here? Let me hear it! If one thing could be said with certainty, it's that this Blog isn't for my personal benefit- it's for yours. I'm always more than happy to take any thoughts/suggestions/advice/criticisms/etc on how to make it better. Email me directly at

As always, thanks again for keeping an eye on the Blog!

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