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Fly Fishing - Stream Manners And Safety

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The fly fisherman should, and usually does, lead the field in his regard for stream manners. It doesn't take many trips to a trout stream to discover that "Do as you would be done by" is practical as well as polite.

In trout fishing there are certain time honored rules of behavior and as they are readily applicable to stream fishing, it doesn't take long for the novice to learn them, either from friendly advice or just plain first hand experience and observation. It stands to reason that a man fishing a dry fly upstream is not going to appreciate seeing another angler step into the same pool above him ... in other words, cut him off from the pattern he has laid out for fishing that pool.

I remember one occasion when I had inched my way across a treacherous rapids in order to get to the ideal spot from which to cast to a riser I had spotted. I had crept up on him carefully, then stood there motionless for several minutes to let the wave subside, that I had put up with my wading. I wanted everything to be right because this was a big-looking fish.

Then, just as I was about to cast, a fisherman suddenly appeared from the woods at the head of the pool, waved an arm at me and splashed in and started to cast. The trout I had been stalking so carefully pushed up a wave a mile high as he headed for shelter. No one caught any fish out of that pool. Yet if that brash, though friendly fisherman had only stopped to think, both of us might have taken trout. I could have had my try for that big one, and gone on to the next pool, and he could have come in behind me fifteen minutes later and probably caught fish, too.

For it is surprising how quickly trout forget. They have short memories and even when the water is fairly heavily fished, an angler who uses a careful approach can usually make contact with a properly presented fly.

If a second angler must fish that same pool, then he should certainly come in at the lower stretches, the only exception being a very large pool, say 400 feet long, where it is reasonable to go in at the head, even though another angler may be fishing the tail of the pool or the middle, or vice versa. In that long a pool there is usually room for two or three rods.

When moving up or downstream it is always best to walk well back from the banks of the stream so as not to disturb the fish for others. Another of my bitter memories is of a friend from the East who discovered me on my favorite dry fly river, the Big Hole, in Montana, last summer. I was again working up on a nice trout that was feeding just under an overhanging bank, where the current came around a curve. Suddenly I heard a loud halloo and looked up from the pinpoint spot to which I was casting. There was my friend, waving his arms joyfully, full of good fellowship.

"I've been looking for you all up and down the river," he yelled. "Sure am glad I found you."

I couldn't reciprocate in kind! There he was, standing immediately above that fish, thumping his feet gladly, so that even if the trout had not been able to see him silhouetted against the sky, it could certainly hear him. It was the end of a good day's fishing, and also of a great friendship. Never come out on the bank above a fish!

Even when quitting a pool, the angler should move quietly, making as little disturbance as he can, so that the fish will settle as soon as possible, for the next comer.

Of course, it is easier to practice good stream manners in the western part of the country than in the East. Out there the trout streams are more numerous, and there are comparatively few fishermen. But even on crowded Eastern waters it shouldn't be necessary to behave as a crowd of anglers did on one occasion I witnessed on Beaver Creek in Maryland.

I was watching a fly caster working his way along a pool, when only five feet from shore he hooked a trout. While he was fighting it, fishermen seemed to appear suddenly from all directions, as if alerted by radio beam. They threw flies over that man's head, under his raised arms. Spoons whizzed past his ears. Everyone seemed to expect to catch fish, just because he had hooked one, when all the while his hooked fish had, of course, stirred up the pool so much that all the other trout were hiding under rocks on the bottom.

Finally one of the over-anxious anglers did whoop: "I've got one!"

What he had was the first fisherman's line, and in the resultant tangle the fly fisherman lost his trout, and again no one got a fish.

Not to discredit my native Maryland, the Maryland State Game and Fish Association was one of the first to post streams with a code of stream manners, and it did plenty of good. With the exception of a few cases such as just described, Maryland stream manners today are something for trout fishermen of other states to strive for. And certainly if sportsmen's groups do not look after such niceties of fishing, then it is up to the State Game and Fish Commissions to do so.

Another important phase of stream manners which all too many of us leave to "the other fellow," is the angler's treatment of the stream he is fishing, and the land around it. The fisherman should regard it as his privilege, not his right, to fish on private property. Permission should always be sought from the owner, and the property should be treated, not as so many are apt to say "as if it were your own," but rather, definitely as if it were not your own but someone else's and you were there on sufferance. Gates should be carefully closed, field crops treated with respect, and trash should be properly taken care of. John McDonald, Fortune Magazine editor and crack fly fisherman, has a word for some of the sights the fly fisherman comes upon on his trek up a stream-"wilderness slums," he calls them, and it's an apt description of the slovenly mess of old tin cans, beer bottles and scraps of paper so often scattered to the winds by careless people who should never be allowed out of a cage. And these are usually the very ones who will wonder why, when next time the farmer says "No" when they want to fish.

Particularly in the western part of the country, the angler should always treat cattle with respect. I know of one ranch in Colorado where anglers booed at, waved at and chased and otherwise disturbed the cattle, which had been gentled in preparation for showing at livestock fairs, until the rancher finally had to post his land. Except in very rare instances, cattle will not annoy the angler, if he does not annoy them. And to be sure, for his own safety, that he is not entering a field with one of those very rare instances, he should obtain the rancher's permission. No rancher will knowingly allow him to go into such a danger spot.

One of the best examples of good farmer-sportsman relations may be seen on 23-mile-long Spring Creek, which runs through Lewistown, Montana. There is not a single "posted" sign along its entire length. Instead there are notices erected by the ranchers, telling anglers where to park their cars, and the ranchers have cleared such parking spots wherever there is an entrance to the river. Not to be outdone by the ranchers, the Lewistown sportsmen, led by Nate Mane and Hash Nelson, have erected stiles over all the fences, in order to prevent damage, and have painted them white so the fishermen can readily see them.

That is one stream where everyone, rancher and angler alike, is happy. Another thing which all fishermen should remember is that the other fellow may be out for his only day astream in the whole year. It doesn't hurt to give him a chance, give him the big end of the bargain, the best part of the pool, tell him what flies you've had luck with that day, where the fish are and where they are hitting. I don't think such everyday politeness has ever cost me a fish, in all my years of fishing. And a little effort on the part of each angler, in that way, will eventually pay off in big dividends in the overall picture of stream etiquette. While lakes are much wider and roomier than rivers, the same laws of fishing etiquette apply-when a fisherman hooks a fish in a certain spot, other anglers should not immediately crowd over, hampering his fishing, and probably scaring any other fish that may be around. Give him room-and take room for yourself.

Even with a whole ocean to fish in, I have seen some horrible things happen in the salt. One time I was knee deep on a Key Largo, Florida, flat, stalking a particularly large bonefish that was tailing up a fit in his search for food. The very way he was working showed that he was hungry, and I felt that my chances were good if I could just get close enough to put the fly in front of him. For 100 feet I sneaked along, putting each foot down carefully, so as not to make a noise in the water, or grind coral rock beneath my feet. Then I was ready. He was just 50 feet away from me, his tail still waving in the sunlight, quite unaware of any danger. I got my fly in the air, started the backcast-but I never completed it. Just at that moment a skiff hit the edge of the flat, with motor going full blast. Within seconds the bonefish was pushing a big wave in front of him as he sped for the deep.

A few minutes later, when that carefree outboarder asked me if I was catching anything, I couldn't even answer. He probably thought that I was dumb. It's all right with me, I think he was dumb, in a different way. Any fisherman who has fished at all, or read about fishing, should know better than to roar into shallow water with a motor going full blast, and not expect to spook fish. And it's twice as bad to spook them for the other fellow as for himself. This business of motors in shallow water has become so serious in the salt that there's a whole tribe of fishermen who probably don't know that to the fly fisherman (or other casting enthusiast) they are known as "barracuda people," as if they were little men from outer space, scarcely human. These are the boys who troll through water so shallow that they are always either dredging the bottom with the propeller or hooking up their trolling outfits on rocks and weeds. They catch barracuda -sure-but if they would move out beyond the edge of the flats, where the water is a little deeper, they would catch more barracuda and bigger barracuda, and would not run all the bonefish out of the shallows, and then light tackle anglers would be able to enjoy their sport, too.

Similarly, when anglers are trolling, either in fresh or salt water, and see a caster working the shoreline, they should give him a wide berth. The caster does not cover nearly so much ground as the troller, and therefore should be entitled to at least a polite amount of room around him, in which to wave his rod.


Most of the good fishing spots in the United States are also the natural habitat of poisonous snakes. Rattlers are found in various areas-the diamondback in Florida, the mountain rattler in Pennsylvania, the small rattlers of the Rocky Mountains in most of the Western states. The Florida rattler is deadly, the others often extremely dangerous, and fishermen should learn to watch their steps at all times, especially along river banks or rocky ledges. In the South, the cottonmouth moccasin and coral snake are also hazards in certain places, and all Southern snakes seem to carry more venom than Northern ones. The copperhead is another menace throughout the central part of the country.

So, while snakes usually become fewer as man moves in, still there are enough to worry about even in the more settled areas, if it is the natural habitat of any of the above species. In Florida, when fishing canals, special attention should be given to watching for cottonmouth moccasins. The cottonmouth is a baleful looking, white-throated, yellow-eyed, chunky crawler. He travels as easily under water as above, and can strike under water, too. Although there are occasional stories about moccasins attacking a boat and being fended off with an oar, on the whole these creatures are sluggish and will not bother the angler unless he inadvertently steps on or otherwise disturbs one.

The angler who is fishing on foot should always scan the ground carefully, look under bushes before stepping up beside them, and listen for the rustle of a snake going through grass, or the warning signal of the tail-wagging rattler.

While the cottonmouth is seldom found near salt water, the same cannot be said for the rattler. Rattlesnakes have been found swimming far offshore in the ocean, and only two years ago, the great golfer and fishing enthusiast, Sammy Snead, killed one that measured 7 feet in length. It was swimming 5 miles offshore from Miami. Another was killed as it swam ashore at Islamorada. And as such stories are heard fairly frequently, it always pays to watch for them on any of the keys as well as on the mainland. The Florida rattler is the most dangerous of all American snakes.

The coral snake is probably more venomous, as far as the potency of the venom goes, but fortunately this snake has such a small jaw, and the fangs are set so far back that it would be almost impossible for one to bite an adult who was conscious, as the snake would have to chew its way into a finger or toe in order to get a hold and inject the poison.

During the dry season in mountain areas, snakes frequently move in near the water, and in both Maryland and Pennsylvania I have seen mountain rattlers and copperheads along trout streams, yet I have never heard of a fisherman being struck by one. However, perhaps like myself, they see a snake and immediately go in the opposite direction, because there might very well be another one around.

Most snakes do not want to strike, they want to get away, and will, unless the angler crowds them.


Wading is fun, whether in lake, ocean, or on the trout stream, and often enables the angler to reach fish he never could get to otherwise. But it can be dangerous, too, unless the angler is constantly on the alert and understands the nature of the surroundings. In rivers it is easy to become so engrossed in a rising fish as to wade too deep, or move downstream with the current into deep water and then find that returning against the current is a different matter-and perhaps be able to discover no downstream path to the shallows. So it is always wise to more or less chart the path through the pool, or at least always be sure that you know a good, safe way out.

When moving from one casting position in the stream or lake to another, the wader should go with feet slightly spread, for better balance, "pushing" the feet along, rather than stepping out the way he would on dry land where he can see what is in front of him, feeling his way along, so as not to step into a hole or trip over an unsuspected rock. When casting to the shoreline from mid-stream (or vice versa, from inshore to the current), and moving downstream, the safest, quietest way is to move the feet sideways, first moving the downstream foot, getting it firmly planted, and then pulling the other up to it. It is important to always get one foot firmly settled before moving the other.

The wader should also know something of the state of the bottom, as some rivers and lakes are much more slippery than others, and in fact, some are quite unwadable except with felt soled boots.

In salt water, waders use the same pushing movement of the feet to prevent excessive splashing of water and as an added safety measure because of the fact that frequently in the salty shallows there are small sting rays lying asleep in the sand. If stepped on, the natural reaction of the ray is to strike out with his tail, and a leg wound from an average size ray might put you in the hospital for a month or so. But if the feet are slid along as described, the movement will push the ray away and he will swim off without striking with his tail.


With all the sunburn lotions on the market, there is no need for even the one-day-a-year angler to be burned to a crisp. Yet year after year, around fishing camps and holiday resorts, dozens of people spoil their own sport by not preparing for wind and sun. Every fisherman should apply some kind of protection before starting out, and at least twice more during the day. Then, even though he may be pink at sundown, he will not really burn or blister and can enjoy the next day's angling, too. The same thing applies to combatting the various insects such as mosquitoes, sand flies, chiggers and black flies that lie in wait for those who venture into the out of doors. There are plenty of excellent repellants now on the market, some in cream form as well as liquid or spray, which will keep most of them under control. It is also a good thing to remember the old Florida watchword: brush the mosquitoes off arm or face, and they won't bother you. But slap them and draw blood, and the whole works will descend on the unhappy angler with jabbing stingers.

There's a good deal of truth in those words.


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