Fishing Etiquette

Fishing Etiquette Makes Friends and
Improves Your On Stream Experience

Take a moment. Relax and imagine you are on your favorite stream.  You have been stalking a large rainbow maybe some 19 inches.  You have spent 15 or 20 minutes making cast after cast, changing flies, changing your casting position slightly to improve your presentation, still no fish.

Suddenly, a fisherman walks down the bank, enters the water right where your fish was holding and starts to cast into the pool.  You can see your rainbow heading upstream at warp 5.  Obviously, this newbie either didn’t know fly fishing etiquette or just didn’t care.  Let’s give him or her the benefit of a doubt and assume they didn’t know. So let’s talk about “Stream Etiquette” or “Fly Fishing Etiquette”

Fishing Etiquette is really a matter of following a few simple rules and courtesy for your fellow angler.

Why People Fly Fish

In this day and age most fishermen don’t fish to feed their families.  Especially fly fishermen.  Fly fishermen fish for relaxation from the ‘daily grind”, enjoy some peace and quiet, enjoy the smell of being outdoors in cleaner air than the city or for the thrill of outwitting a wild creature on a fly that they tied.

In my opinion, fly fisherman fish for some of the same reasons that hunters hunt.  Except by practicing “Catch-and-Release” fly fishing, we can help to conserve our quarry for other fly anglers to catch too.

Give Other Anglers Their Space

As with most other outdoor sports, the angler enjoys the peace and solitude of the sport.  Fortunately, we in Colorado are blessed with over 6,000 stream miles.  Much on public land or assessable through DOW leases.  Generally, a fly fisherman can find a quiet time and spot to practice the sport with a little planning.  If you know your stream will be crowded by 10 am, start at 7 am.  This gives you 3 hours of quality fishing time.

When you get to your stream, take a little time and explore for likely places to fish.  For me this is part of the fun of the sport, the exploration.  Generally, I will do this upstream.  Fishing some spots along the way and then fishing others on the way downstream back to my vehicle.

If you observe, a fisherman catch a fish, watch how they play it, land and release it.  No matter how much you think you know, there is always more to learn.  And DON’T rush down to the stream where they caught a fish and start fishing.  Most streams have more than enough fish to satisfy everyone.

Tip — If you are on a crowded stream, look for an unused run or riffle.  Often large fish will lie quietly at the base of a riffle sipping in midges or emerging mayflies.  In October on the Cache La Poudre river west of Ft. Collins, CO, I have caught 19″ rainbows lying in 5 inches of water sipping tricos.  So I know that these often overlooked places can hold large fish.  But you will need a stealthy approach, the right flies and a good presentation.

Fly Fishing Etiquette” consists mainly of a few simple rules, respect for others, the fish and some common sense.

  • First Come — First Served
  • Don’t Spook Another’s Fist
  • Stay Quiet In and Near the Water
  • Respect Your Environment
  • Respect the Fish
  • Respect the law
  • Respect Private Property Rights

First Come — First Served

This is the #1 Cardinal Rule of Fly Fishing.  The angler that is in or on the water first “owns” that stretch or pool until they leave.  Generally most fly fishermen will work upstream.  But I have seen them fishing their way back downstream too.  If you can’t tell by observing them, ask which way they are going.  If you ask to fish the water they have fished, be sure to give the other angler plenty of space so you don’t spook any fish they may be fishing to now.

If they are sitting on the bank by a stretch or pool, don’t assume that they are done.  They may have been fishing to a fish they spotted and are “resting” the water waiting for the fish to quiet down.  If you want to find out, simply ask them if they are done fishing that stretch.  Most fly fishermen are friendly and willing to share stories, flies and often water if you ask first.  As in most places, rudeness is not welcome.

Tip — Try and locate two nearby pools or stretches of water to fish.  Then alternate between them to rest the fish where you have just been fishing. This also gives you an alternative should another fisherman take over one of the pools or stretches you had previously “staked” out.

Don’t Spook Another’s Fish

Trout are spooky creatures.  They are particularly sensitive to overhead shadows that may indicate an eagle or osprey to them.  They are also very sensitive to your pressure wave when you wade.  Sound carries well in the water.  Tests have shown that trout as far as 200 feet down stream from a careless wading angler will spook and run for cover.

When you enter the water upstream from another angler, do it as quietly as possible.  Try to keep your wading noise to a minimum.  Your fishing experience will be better and so will the downstream angler.

If you are watching another angler fish a pool, don’t stand where you cast a shadow on the pool and spook a fish he may have been fishing for over the last hour.  This won’t win you any friends.

If you must walk along the bank, try and stay as far from the water as possible.  Walk slowly, quietly and with a low profile.  Try to keep your shadow off the water.

If you have children on an outing, there is a fascination with kids, rocks and streams.  Don’t let them throw rocks around where an angler is fishing.

My personal observation is that fish in a park stream where there is constant stream activity like kids, horses crossing and such tend not to spook as easily as those on quieter streams.  In other words, trout in such conditions have become conditioned to more noise than their cousins in a high mountain stream.

Stay Quiet In And Near The Water

Sound carries well in the water.  Tests have shown that trout as far as 200 feet down stream from a careless wading angler will spook and run for cover. Clanking wading staffs or moving rocks will scare fish upstream and downstream for long distances.

If you are moving to another spot, try and take trails if possible.  It is a lot less work for you to move on land than in the water.  And you won’t have spooked the fish along the stretch where you were wading.  Another angler may be just behind you and want to fish that stretch where you scared all the fish with careless wading tactics.  Remember respect for others.

Trout have a lateral sense line that is highly responsive to vibration.  Sight a fish sometime and then jump up and down on the bank.  See how fast that fish will run for cover.

Tip — On streams with undercut banks, BIG trout will often hug the bank for cover and ease in feeding.  If you absolutely must walk along such areas, do so with well back from the bank and tread lightly.

Respect Your Environment

In an outdoor sport like fly fishing, use common sense again.  If you pack it in — pack it out.  When changing leaders, save the old leader package to store the used leaders in when you are done with them.  This practice also makes it easier to throw away old leaders properly.  Don’t throw them on the ground or in the stream.  They may get washed into a place where a trout could get gill caught next year or an angler catch a foot while wading.  Ducks and Geese can become entangled in these kind of items.  Another major item is the plastic that holds six packs of soda or beer.  Ducks and Geese can get these wrapped so tightly around their necks that they will starve to death.

Most streams end up being someone’s drinking water somewhere downstream.  Think about that the next time you need to go to the bathroom out in the boonies.  Go to the bathroom well back from the stream.  Even biodegradable toilet paper takes a long time to decompose in the arid high country we live in.  It is better to burn it or try using leaves or grass.  You will leave less trace of your activity that way.

Streams are delicate ecosystems.  Try and leave them the way you found them.  Don’t build mini-dams or trout holding areas.  Even with good intentions, you may change the way the stream acts during spring run off.  Such seemingly harmless actions may actually cause bank erosion next spring.

Before making any new trails, consider what erosion effects you may cause.  Keep well away from banks to prevent sediment from falling or washing into the stream.  You will also move upstream easier without spooking the fish.

Respect The Fish

Fish are living creatures.  As such they should be treated with the same respect as other living animals.  If you must kill a fish, do so quickly and humanely.  Wild trout are becoming increasingly rare.  If you must kill a fish try for a “stocker” or better yet the grocery store.  See related article on “Catch-and-Release” fishing

Stressed Fish

As water in a stream or river warms during the summer the amount of dissolved oxygen goes down.  Lower oxygen content creates a deadly situation for trout.  Often stream levels and flow rates will drop very low during the hot months of July and Aug.

Hooking and playing fish during low water conditions may exhaust a fish so much it can’t recover.  If you must fish during these conditions, make sure any trout are well recovered before letting them go.  See how in the “Catch-and-Release” article.

During these critical warm and low water times, you may find big trout stacked up with smaller trout in the head of a pool fed by a fast run or where a cooler streams enters a larger one.  You may want to ask yourself if it is really ethical to fish for such vulnerable fish.

Spawning Fish

Different species spawn at different times of the year.  Rainbows in the spring and Browns in the fall.  But you should check local fly shops where you intend to fish for more information.

Trout will generally try and pick a clean shallow gravel bed for a spawning bed. The female trout will dig a shallow bed or “redd” in the gravel to lay her eggs.  She will guard her redd ferociously.  She may even strike at your fly out.  But probably out of anger or territoriality not hunger.  Spawning is a high energy project for a trout.  The last thing a female on guard duty needs is to be caught and stressed by a fisherman.

If you spot a female on guard, take some time and observe the activity, then leaver her alone.  You will be doing your part to help repopulate a stream.  Also be careful crossing those innocent looking shallow water gravel beds in the spring and fall, you may be killing off future generations.

Foul Hooking

Occasionally you may hook fish in some part of it’s body other than the mouth.  Such a fish is considered to be “foul-hooked” and not “fairly caught”.  Even with barbless hooks, trying to remove the hook may damage the fish by tearing it’s skin and leaving it open to infection.  It is best to just cut the leader as close to the hook as possible, revive the fish and let it go.  The hook will rust out and the fish will be harmed less this way.

Never try and “snag” fish.  It is unethical since the point in fly fishing is to fool the trout into biting the fly.  It is cruel and in most places, it is illegal.

See our Colorado Fishing License page for information on the current license requirements.

Respect the Law

You must have a license to fish most waters.  Children under the age of 16 don’t currently need a license but MUST HAVE a second rod stamp if they are using two rods.  (So must you have a second rod stamp for more than one rod.)  Licenses can be purchased from most fly fishing shops, sporting goods stores or directly from the Dep’t of Wildlife via the internet or phone. 
See our

There have been changes in the license requirements for the Colorado Fishing License.

Fines can be heavy if caught fishing without a license.

Non-resident fees are usually higher than resident fees.  In every state, the fees go to the fisheries and wildlife or equivalent department to maintain hatcheries, stocking programs, education programs to involve more women and children in the fishing sport, studies of whirling disease and related conversation projects.  In Colorado, 25cents of every license goes into a search and rescue fund to help find lost fishermen.

Please don’t complain about the cost of the license to the store where purchased.  They offer licenses as a service to their customers and don’t make any money from the sale.

When you purchase your license, ask for a current year Colorado Fishing Regulations and Property Directory booklet or download one from the internet on the license page.  Take time to familiarize yourself with it as many streams have special regulations and section closures.

Respect Private Property Rights

In some states, the state owns the streams and land they run on.  That is not true in Colorado.  While blessed with 6,000 cold and warm water stream miles, some this water flows on private land.  While such water may be accessible, don’t assume it is.  ALWAYS ask for permission first to fish their water.  Many will say yes if asked nicely.

Also ask

  • Where they would like you to park.
  • The path they would like you to use to the river.
  • If there are any cattle in pastures.
  • Are there any gates that need to be closed.  Nothing will get a rancher hot faster than finding his cattle wandering down the road because you forgot to lock the gate.  You will likely ruin access for any other fishermen too.
  • Are there any rattlesnakes in the area.  Yes, Colorado does have them.  In 35 years out here, I have seen only 3 but that doesn’t mean they weren’t there.  Generally rattlesnakes won’t be found above 7,000 or 7,500 feet but this is only a general rule.  So ask the landowner, they will know.

Show respect for the landowner and his property.  He will likely allow you a return visit and other anglers too.
As I said at the beginning of this article.  Fishing Etiquette is really a matter of following a few simple rules and courtesy for your fellow angler.

An ancient book put it this way. “Treat others as you would like to be treated”  This is over 2,000 years old and is still good today.