Trout Talk

The high-holer ... and how not to be one

If you see another angler in the water, keep walking. Find another stretch of river or stream and give everyone their space. Don’t be a dreaded high-holer. Chris Hunt photo.

Late last summer, I visited a beautiful stretch of a small stream in eastern Idaho, nestled up against the Wyoming border. The portion of the creek I fished is public land, managed by the U.S. Forest Service, but it’s surrounded by a lot of private land, so a lot of anglers assume that, because it’s not marked as public, it’s inaccessible.

I hope the Forest Service never posts it, and the secret stays safe among the few who know of it.

But the secret is getting out. In years past, I rarely witnessed another angler on the mile-long stretch of meandering creek. Last summer, though, I shared the stream with other anglers both times I visited.

Despite the stream’s relatively short length of publicly accessible water, it meanders across the meadow and offers plenty of room for a couple of anglers to fish for hours without crossing paths. But that, of course, completely depends on the anglers. The unwritten rule among fly fishers is to avoid “high-holing” another angler … to avoid stepping into the stream just above someone who is already fishing upstream (or below an angler fishing downstream, in which case the new angler would be the “low-holer”). Think of it as cutting someone off in rush-hour traffic, or cutting in line that stretches around the block at a concert or a theater.

In its best incarnations, it’s bad form. At worst, it’s rude. Fist fights have resulted from high-holing incidents on the water. Truth be told, there might be nothing worse in the fly fishing community than to be labeled a “high-holer.” Most of us who’ve fished for a while have been high-holed, and every single time, it gets our blood boiling.

Sometimes, the behavior is completely innocent. Perhaps the late-arriving angler didn’t see the existing angler, who might have been shielded by willows or hidden from view by a bluff or a high stream bank. If that’s the case, a simple waive and a mouthed “I’m sorry!” is all it takes, as the new angler slowly backs out of the creek and finds another stretch of water. Sometimes, though, the behavior is inexcusable, and the late-arriving angler treks on a straight line to a preferred stretch of water in order to get there first.

Bad form. Very. Bad. Form.

A lot of folks discovered — or rediscovered — fly fishing last year as the world was ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic, and people looked for new ways to recreate safely. All indications are that many of the anglers new to fly fishing are here to stay, at least for a while, and that means there will be more pressure on our resources, more boats at the put-in … and more potential conflicts from anglers under-educated in fly-fishing etiquette.

In its best incarnations, it’s bad form. At worst, it’s rude. Fist fights have resulted from high-holing incidents on the water. Truth be told, there might be nothing worse in the fly fishing community than to be labeled a “high holer.” Most of us who’ve fished for a while have been high-holed, and every single time, it gets our blood boiling.

A couple of polite suggestions to the newbies out there to avoid becoming a hated high-holer:

  1. When you arrive at your destination and notice another angler (or anglers) already plying the water, consider fishing another stretch of stream altogether. Find unoccupied water, if possible. If it’s not possible, carefully gauge how the angler is approaching the water he or she is fishing. If they are fishing upstream, do not approach the creek directly above the angler. If the angler is fishing downstream, the same rule applies to keep from low-holing the angler already on the water.
  2. If you arrive to your destination, and an angler is already there, gearing up for a day on the water, the solution is easy. Just strike up a polite conversation, and ask her or him how they intend to fish. This will accomplish two things. First, it will show that you’re not there to ruin their day by horning in on plans they’ve already made. Second, it will give you, as the later-arriving angler, the opportunity to make a plan of your own so you, too, can fish unimpeded.

The first time I visited that prime stretch of “secret” trout water last summer, I was the second angler to arrive. The angler already on the water was fishing upstream, and almost directly in the middle of the stretch of trout water. I, too, wanted to fish upstream (it was hopper season), so, to avoid high-holing the angler, I simply walked to the downstream boundary of the stretch of water and began fishing below the angler who beat me to the water. This way, I was fishing well below the existing angler, and in water that, at worst, had likely rested more than an hour or so.

When my day was up, I wandered back to the truck, and met the guy who got there first. We compared notes, enjoyed a cold PBR and went our separate ways.

The second time I visited the creek, I was the first to arrive and was already on the water when another angler pulled up to the unmarked access point. I was fishing upstream, throwing hoppers against deep, undercut banks and enjoying maybe the best fishing of the summer. I assumed, given that high-holing is such bad form, that the new angler would give me some room to continue about my angling day — either they’d get into the stream well below me, or they’d go elsewhere to another stretch of stream.

I kept fishing and enjoying success for another 20 minutes or so, only to notice the water flowing downstream toward me took on a slightly chalky color. I rounded a bend, and the water was full-on muddy. I stepped up on the bank and noticed, not 50 yards upstream of me, the newly arriving angler standing in the middle of the creek, casting upstream over a sweet stretch of trout water.

He cut me off. He cut in line. He high-holed me.

I reeled up, walked upstream and made sure he saw me coming.

“I just wanted to make sure you saw me,” I said, as I approached, hoping that the incident was one of innocent — I’d have even accepted ignorant — behavior. I wanted to give him the opportunity to see that he’d violated the unwritten rule, and that he’d become a high-holer. He looked over his shoulder, seemingly annoyed that I was interrupting him while he fished.

“Yeah,” he said. “I saw you. I gave you a couple of bends the in the creek.”

A couple of bends? Of muddy, disturbed water? Geez. Thanks, bud.

I nodded, kept my cool and just started walking back to the truck. I’d had a great afternoon on the water, and a high-holer, who knowingly stepped in front of me to fish prime water, tarnished the experience.

Don’t be a high-holer. Don’t be the angler who selfishly ruins the day for others. It’s easy to avoid earning the ire of your fellow anglers by simply showing a bit of respect. The best determining factor to avoid being a high-holer? Put yourself in the wading boots of the angler who’s already fishing.

How would you like it if somebody stepped in the stream above you? A little consideration — especially as more of us are likely to be on the water this coming summer — goes a long way.