Voices from the River: Angler etiquette

Combat fishing in Alaska at its finest.

By Dave Atcheson

My reasons for fishing vary. Sure, sometimes it’s utilitarian; to fill the freezer, but more often than not it’s about the experience. It’s about connecting to the outdoors, to something larger than myself, the sense of peace and relaxation that only comes streamside.

This is accentuated, of course, with some elbow-room, which can sometimes be a bit of a compromise on the Kenai, and this is where the question of etiquette arises. What exactly is etiquette, and where does it come into play? Just like a river, it is something fluid, different in different parts of the country or world, different on each and every water-body. It is a concept that especially here in Alaska, seems to be somewhat nebulous. Maybe that’s because we have combat fishing, a practice that as far as I know is unique to Alaska, or at least to the extent that we practice it, where it is acceptable for salmon anglers to nudge in close and fish shoulder to shoulder.

Still, there are common rules and customs depending upon the type of fishing we are participating in. These are customs that vary widely depending upon the type of water one is fishing or especially by species, and they are customs that should be taken into consideration so that we all have a better experience.

Fishing with friends or guides is one thing, but give those you don't know space on the river. Josh Duplechian/Trout Unlimited

Many of us who have been fishing the Kenai for the past several decades, however, have seen common practices shift over the years, and not necessarily for the better. Billy Coulliette, owner of Alaska Troutfitters, who has been fishing the Kenai  River since the early 1990’s, equates some of that to the fact that there are simply more anglers, but also to a changing dynamic, and new generation of fishers who maybe didn’t receive the same education he did.

“Back when I started fishing the river,” he says, “there were a lot of old timers who had begun fishing in other parts of the country, where you didn’t go near a run they were working. If you did you’d quickly be schooled on the proper protocol.”

  “A lot of it is the salmon mentality,” explains Coulliette. “There’s a whole new crowd just getting into trout fishing, which is great. But they got their start salmon fishing, combat fishing, before they got into trout. They aren’t doing anything wrong, it’s all they know. But trout and salmon etiquette, and the fishing itself, is not the same. Trout etiquette is passed down, and a lot just haven’t received that education.”

 A large part of that education is about the fishing itself and being aware of the reasons these differing customs evolved in the first place. It’s really based on the habits of the fish, and thus the way they are approached by fishers. Salmon, especially sockeye are on the move, heading upstream in groups, and when anglers find a good spot on the bank it pays to stay put and wait for the pulses of fish to pass by. Trout on the other hand will remain stationary for long periods and anglers need to go to them. “That’s why trout fishermen are constantly on the move,” says Coulliette, “and if they’ve stopped on a gravel bar they intend to start at the top and work their way down.”

That’s why it’s especially maddening to longtime trout fishers when someone stops and interrupts that flow. On most streams in the US and around the world you wouldn’t encroach within 100 yards of another fisher. If people are going to stop where someone else is, they should always ask before starting to fish and only fish behind the anglers they are intruding upon.

   “It gets crowded on weekends, and sometimes it seems like there’s no place to stop,” says Coulliette, “I understand that. But if people are going to stop where someone else is fishing, they should ask if they can fish. It’s a matter of respect and asking before just jumping into someone’s hole goes a long way.”

 Of course, where to fish is only the beginning of a discussion on ethics and etiquette. How we treat our land and our natural resources, and the respect we show them, is also a large part of the equation.

 With all this in mind, here’s a list (modified slightly) that I received from Shann Jones, a fly fishing instructor in Fairbanks. While it is a list entitled “fly fishing ethics,” it has good advice for anglers of all kinds: 

Fly Fishing Ethics and Etiquette

Realize we each have our own points of view, even when it comes to fishing.

Always respect other anglers, using different, legal tackle; in other words, No Elitism.

Respect rights and privileges of other user groups.

Read and obey all fishing laws.

Familiarize yourself with the local customs of each stream.

Attempt to give other anglers plenty of elbow room, 50 feet is a good rule of thumb. Always ask, before squeezing into crowded water.

The pool, hole or gravel bar belongs to the person fishing it and the direction they are fishing.

Scouting, stationary, or slow anglers have a right to their position or hole. Walk widely around them and never disrupt their fishing.

Wade through an area as if you were going to fish that section of water, careful not to disturb that water or the fishing.

Never interfere with an angler landing a fish unless asked to help.

Respect the land and water. Set a good example, for instance pick up other people’s trash and fishing line.  Think about helping in conservation or restoration projects, perhaps joining a conversation group like Trout Unlimited or Alaska Fly Fishers.

Be willing to share your knowledge, your passion, even your secrets. What goes around comes around and one day you will be in need.

ALWAYS do unto others . . . If you do, the fishing karma is sure to always shine brighter upon you.

Dave Atcheson is a board member for the Kenai Peninsula TU Chapter. Dave is also a writer and his latest book is Dead Reckoning: Navigating a Life on the Last Frontier, Courting Tragedy on its High Seas.” He is also the author of the guidebook Fishing Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula, and National Geographic’s Hidden Alaska, Bristol Bay and Beyond. For more info: www.daveatcheson.com.

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