KW Morrow, White River

February 14th, 2005

Fly Fishing in a Crowd
By KW Morrow

Few of us prefer to fish crowded streams, but all of us are finding ourselves in this situation more and more frequently all the time on our favorite streams. Urban and suburban streams are almost always teeming with anglers, and even the fabled waters of places like Alaska and Montana are becoming congested with fly anglers during their peak seasons. So I thought some personal observations and recommendations from a guy whose home waters run right through town in one of America's top tourist destinations might do somebody some good. At least, that's the hope.

First of all, let me explain what I consider to be a "crowd." If I have to:

    1. Look for a vacant parking place in the designated parking area...

    2. Search for a spot where I don't feel I'm crowding someone else's established spot...

    3. Wait for a good spot to open up...

...then it's crowded. Most of the Ozarks tailwater fisheries experience a pretty high volume of anglers all year long. It's impractical and unrealistic to think you're going to find a big stretch of Ozark tailwater that you can have all to yourself. So we don't tend to feel crowded just because we see other anglers while we fish. In fact, the social interaction is a big part of fly-fishing in the Ozarks.

The first thing an angler needs to master when confronted with a fishing crowd is how to choose and claim a spot. Now, we all have different methods and opinions regarding how to pick a good spot to fish, but I'm talking about how to pick a spot in a way that doesn't intrude upon other anglers' enjoyment. Start off by identifying about three choices where you're likely to catch fish. Then pick one where your casting and your drift will not cross into someone else's casting or drift space. You have to stand back and watch each likely spot for a couple of minutes to determine which is best for you. While you're watching and waiting, be sure not to crowd another angler's backcast.

Now take your chosen spot. On the approach, be sure to avoid crowding the backcast of the angler on either side of you. In the event this cannot be avoided, speak up and politely inform one or the other that you need to cross behind them. Do so quickly. You don't need to ask permission to fish next to someone (in the same run or hole) on crowded waters. Only another newcomer to fishing crowded waters will be upset by someone else fishing in "their" run or hole. It's kind of rare to have one all to yourself. And when it happens it is considered good fortune, not the expected norm. But it never hurts to be courteous enough to ask. You'll rarely be told no.

Make sure you take up residence and plan your casting and drifting in such a way as to not interfere with the drifting and casting of other anglers. Your casting target should not cross into the downstream range of the angler fishing just upstream of your position, nor should the tail of your downstream drift cross into the zone of the casting target of the angler immediately downstream of your position. If there is an angler immediately across the stream from your position, make sure your drifts and casts don't overlap.

It's OK to change spots on crowded waters. Most of us do it with regularity, even if we're catching fish in our current location. First, walk straight back out of the stream if you're wading. Go to the bank immediately behind you and keep walking until you are clear of other anglers' backcasts. Now you can safely and politely walk upstream or downstream to find a new fishing spot. No need to pardon yourself or announce your presence if you're out of range of others' backcasts. If you must cross a section of bank that causes you to crowd someone's backcast, then wait for the right moment and announce your intentions. Once acknowledged, cross quickly.

Now here's a really sticky wicket you can get into on crowded streams. What do you do when you get a big fish on and he runs hard downstream, crossing into the "space" of other anglers? It's pretty simple. Again, those of us who regularly fish crowded waters are used to having this happen. The simple rule is that a fish on trumps everything else. Simply holler "fish on" and start moving downstream to catch up with your fish. Folks will clear a path for you. Don't get upset if someone is caught off guard, though. It happens. A downstream angler may very well get crossed up in your line if he was lost in thought and didn't hear your warning. Repeat the "fish on" warning as you move downstream until everyone in your path has acknowledged the situation. It never hurts to excuse yourself or thank anglers as they move out of your way.

There's also a wrong way to move from spot to spot. Never under any circumstances cross in front of another angler to get to a new fishing spot. This is simply rude and inconsiderate.

My last point is about the proper attitude for fishing in crowds. I bring this up because inevitably you will encounter one or more other anglers who do not want to play by these simple rules. If someone crosses your line with his or her cast, don't fly off the handle. Remain calm and solve the problem. When this happens to me I usually remain polite throughout the process of untangling the mess they just created. Then, when all is cleared up, I say something like, "You know, you'll probably find more space to fish farther down(or up)stream." Then, if they don't move on, I usually do. I find this happens more with spinning tackle anglers than with other fly anglers. I don't know why, but spinning anglers don't seem to mind casting across a fly line. This is largely why spinning and spin-casting anglers in the Ozark coldwater fisheries are usually referred to as "Zebco Warriors." They tend to practice something akin to full-contact trout fishing. For your information, other fly anglers will not look down on you should you decide to point out the errors of a Zebco Warrior in no uncertain terms after he/she has infringed upon the space of a fly angler. In fact, they'll usually thank you for it. Just remember not to fly off the handle. Make your remarks of admonition short, to the point, and without raising your voice beyond what is necessary to be heard clearly. It is also a plus if you can make your point with humor... even if that humor is at the expense of the offending Zebco Warrior.

However, your primary defensive weapon when fishing crowded waters should be your feet. If you find yourself confronted with something you don't like, simply move. It's OK to intervene on behalf of others and speak up about the problem, but it is generally considered more appropriate to move or ignore personal affronts unless they repeat themselves a few times. Think defensively. Don't lay your fly rod down if there are people around. It most likely will be stepped on. Park in such a way as to avoid door bangs and other parking lot mishaps from other anglers, even if it means you have to walk a bit farther than you'd like. Walking is good for you. And don't let your catch-and-release sensibilities become offended if you are fishing in an area where it is legal to keep fish. Speaking up about C&R when your neighbor is putting that trout on his stringer just makes you look snarky and condescending. If you don't like to see people harvest what they catch, fish in C&R-only zones. Remember, everyone who is abiding by the law (even the Zebco Warrior) has an equal right to be there and to enjoy themselves. ~ Ken (Silver Mallard)

About Ken:

Ken graduated from Southern Methodist University in 1988, and spent the next several years serving in the United States Navy as an intelligence analyst and Russian Language translator. He is a veteran of Desert Shield and Desert Storm. Leaving the nation's service in 1993.

Ken is also a published outdoor writer and historian, having penned articles and stories that have appeared in several national hunting publications like North American Hunter magazine, on, in regional and local newspapers, and historical and literary journals. He has also provided hunting and dog training seminars for Bass Pro Shops and other sporting goods retailers nationwide. He volunteers his time to Ducks Unlimited and Trout Unlimited, as well as several local charitable organizations. He is also a REALTOR with Coldwell Banker in Branson, Missouri; where he lives with his wife, Wilma, and their Weimaraner, Smoky Joe.

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