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To Help or Not to Help, That is the Question...

This is an idea I wrestle with from time to time. If I see someone struggling, do I "butt in" or mind my own business? Should I speak up if I see someone fishing a stream that I know is 72*F? Do I say something about a breach of etiquette? Do they do dumb stuff like high-hole another angler because they do not know any better? Or are they simply an asshole? I do not know that there are simple or consistent answers to these questions.

Blue River, Wisconsin
Wisconsin's Blue River where I caught my first trout over 30 years ago - with a fair bit of help.

My own journey was helped by the kindness of a stranger. My very first fish caught on a fly was on a fly given to me by an "older" gentleman - ironically enough he was probably around the age I am today but when you are 18, everyone is old. He put me in "his" spot and showed me what he was doing to catch fish after fish. I watched my bobber, er, strike indicator closely and in but a couple of casts, I hooked into a 12 inch Brown Trout on the scud imitation he had given me. I hooked a couple more fish with him looking over my shoulder before thanking him and venturing off to catch a few more trout. I looked for places like he was fishing - where a riffle dumped into a pool - and I had success. I felt accomplished, finally. I had probably fly fished at least three other times before this encounter. An encounter that only happened because he took a bit of pity on me, seeing me go fishless while he was having great success. I did not ask for help but I was grateful that he took a bit of time out of his day to give a struggling rookie some help.


It is not easy being a beginning fly angler. Maybe we forget that some days. Take a bit of time and reflect on your own first few days of fly fishing. I doubt they were much prettier than mine. I had so little confidence that I carried my spinning rod with me as I knew that would not fail me. And I will be the first to admit that I had a pretty good leg up on most rookie fly anglers. I had been trying flies for at least six months by the time I caught my first trout. I had built my own fly rod - the one I was using to catch my first trout. And I had some very good casting instruction before hitting the water on my own. For more on my early journey, read In Praise of Mentors.

George Close in his Kiel, WI home.
George Close helped me tie my first flies, build my first rod, and was a great fly casting instructor to this, then aspiring fly angler.

Over my years in college, I slowly became a much better angler. I grew confident, particularly with a nymph under a strike indicator, that I could catch the then mostly stocked trout of the Blue River and a few other Grant County streams. Slowly, I ventured out to the (more often) wild fish of the Big Green River and the "PhD." trout of Castle Rock Creek. Maybe this happens without the intervention of the unknown angler - after all, I was pretty committed. Maybe it is just a bit of a slower journey had he not intervened?


Back to the Questions at Hand...


I tend to get sidetracked but I thought that little story was important to the bigger picture as it is something that is often in my mind when I see a struggling angler. But I do not always jump in and I do not think that helping is always the best course of action. I find it a lot easier to help - and to offer to help - when I know somebody a little bit. I have taken a number of people fishing around Trout Unlimited work days. I am always happy to volunteer for a women's, youth, or veteran fishing outing or clinic. But these people are looking and asking for help.


What if they are not seeking out help? How bad do they need to be struggling before offering a hand? I suppose you can always ask but I can not say that I do all the time. It is much easier if it is a solo angler rather than a couple of buddies out fishing together. It is also much easier if they are a younger male. Nothing sexist about that. My assumption is that a solo female on a stream is NOT looking for a strange man to come up and offer them help. How I have most often helped strangers is after talking to them and hearing their questions or sensing their frustration. I remember that frustration myself.


Etiquette


Stream fishing etiquette reminds me a bit of the unwritten rules of baseball only that breaches of stream etiquette may lead to an altercation but probably not a 90 mile an hour fastball in the ribs. While I suppose a lot of etiquette is really common sense yet we have all seen and maybe been guilty of breaches of etiquette. Etiquette is dependent upon the situation and often different places have their own etiquette that have evolved over time. The best examples of these tend to be on crowded streams and Atlantic Salmon fisheries where anglers are expected not to claim a hole for themselves.

In my experiences, most breaches of etiquette are typically crowding and high-holing / low-holing related and often - but not always - by people that do not know any better. Again, based on observation and experience, I see a lot of people that seem to not know where to fish so they fish the same place again and again. They are in that stage of trying to build some confidence and they had a good day or two in one spot so they are going to fish there. If you are there before them, they do not know what to do. At least that is my explanation for the several times I have had people seen fish behind me - despite it being obvious I am ahead of them - on some popular Driftless streams. I would go elsewhere but I am convinced that some others do not know or are unwilling to go elsewhere - they simply lack the confidence to go somewhere they have not fished before.


Most anglers are not looking for conflict while out fishing. They are probably out there for the same reason you are - to relax, enjoy nature, and hopefully catch a few fish. Of course some people are just assholes and we can never rule that out either.

Bennett Spring Trout Park
Even Missouri Trout Parks have an etiquette. Maybe I should say especially Missouri Trout Parks need to have an etiquette as conflict could quickly get out of hand.

The "unwritten" rules of trout fishing etiquette are not unwritten; there are many good articles and videos on proper etiquette and they are probably worth another look, particularly if you are fishing in a new and different place or setting. The "rules" may be a little different on a saltwater flat, a stillwater lake, or from a drift boat than they are for the wading stream angler.

Fishing When it is Too Warm


This topic really received a lot of attention this past year (2021) due to the temperature issues waters all over the country were having. Many western states saw "hoot owl" restrictions and outright closures and here in the Driftless, an early June heat wave coupled with a lack of rain had our streams warmer, earlier than we normally see. I wrote about what to do when it is too warm already so no need to do it again. Here the question is what do you do if you see people fishing stream reaches that are too warm?

Too warm to fish
Temperature of the West Fork at noon after it had traveled through a series of riffles. Above the riffles, it was 79*F.

Certainly the risk is that the fish are more likely to have a bad experience. You can certainly tell someone about this and how catch and release mortality jumps significantly as water temperature approach or exceed the mid-60s Fahrenheit. Maybe a better tactic is to mention that the fishing is likely to be very poor because you took the temperature and it was XX. Where I see this much of the time is while I am camping on the West Fork of the Kickapoo River in Avalanche. This stream always has had the potential to get warm and the 2018 floods did little to help prevent warming. Experienced anglers generally know that there are times of the year that many other places fish much better and you should give the fish a break. Much like breaches of etiquette, less experienced anglers may not know any better and/or may not know other places to fish. Suggesting another stream or two that run cooler is a smart approach here. Of course, an experienced angler will offer up the streams they have already fished and have no plans to visit again soon...


Wrap-up


I do not think there are necessarily good or easy answer to the questions about helping struggling anglers or informing others about etiquette and warm water temperatures. I am not out camping or fishing looking for a confrontation. There are nicer ways to say things and phrasing them in a helpful and constructive way certainly beats a confrontational approach. As your typical non-confrontational midwesterner and a bit of an introvert, it is not something I am all that comfortable in doing. But I do try to think back to when I was helped and when people I respected taught me about the unwritten rules of stream etiquette and what I should be looking to do when streams get warm.


I would be interested in your thoughts and experiences. Thank you!

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Geoff Roznak
Geoff Roznak
Nov 17, 2021

People have helped me, so I help others...it's really that simple for me. As far as how to do it, if I see someone struggling, I might try to start a conversation, or watch them a while, and then start chatting, eventually working into a place where I might ask if they'd like a bit of advice. ...sometimes you can tell by body language that they'd like some idea, but don't want to ask. I play in a somewhat different "play ground" than most who might respond here - I'm a musky/pike/smallie fly angler much more than I am a trout angler...so my perspective is a bit different. I'll offer to take new, or learning anglers out fishing, whether it's wading, in the drift…

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I rarely see anyone else fishing because hardly anyone will fish where I will, and I do not stop at an access if it already has one car. When I do meet someone on the stream or at a public access I won’t make suggestions. Maybe they have a preferred method that is different than mine, or maybe they don’t have the equipment or flies to do what I am doing. I don’t want to suggest that I know more than they know. But I will answer questions truthfully about water conditions, where I have fished, what I have caught, and what flies I’ve been using.


I sometimes meet people who look at my apparel and gear and they assume…


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Good topic. If someone is willing to give me a few pointers I am willing to listen. I always had a strong willingness to learn anytime and anywhere if I had an interest in the subject.


Regarding giving pointers I usually attempt to start a conversation at the stream and see where it goes. Usually a fly fisherman's body language becomes strong when you approach them when they are wading. Do they stop fishing and turn towards you or do they just give you a token knowledge of your presence ?

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Melis A
Melis A
Nov 15, 2021

interesting topic! Your hesitation of walking up to a solo female to “make Suggestions” refkects great self- and situational awareness (as well as time with women’s fishing clinics 😊). I often welcome suggestions but I have the opposite concern: even if its a friendly stream side chat, I hesitate to ask for help or advice because after all they’re there to fish not answer a newbie‘s questions! So I gotta respect that.. On occasion I’ve asked a fellow Angler if I could follow along a little ways and just watch and ask a couple questions Especially if they’re fishing in a way or a style that I am not familiar with.. Because I learn a lot from watching even if…


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