The Unwritten Rules of Fly Fishing Etiquette

It doesn't get better than fly fishing in Wyoming.
It doesn't get better than fly fishing in Wyoming. Megan Baumeister
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Fly fishing is often a solitary sport, and many anglers like it that way. The experience of being alone on a pristine river with just a gentle breeze and the swish of the line playing out, not to mention the glory of reeling in a big one, is an almost religious endeavor for some outdoor lovers.

However, there are bound to be the encounters that are memorable for the wrong reasons—and not just because the big one that got away. Instead, it's the fellow fishermen (and women) who sometimes are to blame for a less-than-enjoyable encounter on the water.

So, with plenty of great fishing days still up for grabs this summer and into fall, here's a look at the unwritten rules of fly fishing etiquette. Put them to use around Wyoming or wherever else the fish are biting.

Dave Crowther landing a nice one.
Dave Crowther landing a nice one. East Yellowstone Chapter Trout Unlimited

Respect the space of others.

Unless you want to catch a fly in the back—or catch plenty of flak for being the one to land a fly on someone else's back—give your fellow fisherfolk plenty of room. If you walk down the river and find someone already there, find another spot a few runs up; generally there’s enough space for everyone. As Tim Wade, owner of North Fork Anglers in Cody, notes: “Just because someone is fishing there doesn’t mean that’s the only place to catch fish.”

If you're staking out your spot along with other anglers, all you have to do is either quietly observe which direction they're headed in, and plan accordingly. Or you can politely ask where they’re headed. “Communication is key,” Wade notes.

Respecting others' space also applies to boaters, too. “Proper etiquette is to give the fisherman around you room to fish," says Dave Crowther, a local fly fisherman and builder of custom rods. “Boat fishermen should make sure not to stop right where someone on shore is casting. There should be enough distance between the boat and shore not to overlap lines.”

Watch where you're casting (and back-casting), too, especially in more crowded areas: Don't be that guy (or gal) who's yanking and whipping his line like a cowboy with a lasso.

Anglers must know to catch and release the proper way.
Anglers must know to catch and release the proper way. East Yellowstone Chapter Trout Unlimited

Respect the resource, too.

Trout are fragile creatures. “It takes a long time to grow a fish in this area," says Crowther. "A 24-inch trout can be four years old and then they only have another couple of years left to live.”

Anglers who are fishing catch and release must learn proper release techniques, as improper or sloppy handling can also mean a dead fish. Keep the fish out of the water a maximum of five or six seconds when you snap that trophy photo. Proper fish handling helps protect a delicate resource.

Keep quiet and calm.

One of the most beautiful aspects of fishing is the serene sound of the wilderness: the river, birds, and wildlife, and of course, that glorious sound of the fly whizzing through the air. Keep the peace by keeping your voice low and if you do land a big one, keep the hooting and hollering to a minimum. It's fine to get excited about fishing, and to celebrate your catch, of course, but do it with some decorum. Similarly, if you're fishing mid-river: Don't splash around and stir up the water.

Beartooth Lake is a popular spot for fishing.
Beartooth Lake is a popular spot for fishing. United States Forest Service

Don't forget about the little things.

Keep in mind that something as seemingly insignificant as your shadow along the bank can alert the fish and disrupt someone's fishing; walk far enough off the bank to mitigate that issue. And, if your dog won't be winning any awards for obedience, it might be best to leave him or her home on this one. The only animals your fellow fishermen want to worry about are the ones with fins in the river.

Learn four powerful little words.

If you you spend enough time fishing, sooner or later you'll be the at the receiving end of some of the slip-ups mentioned above. And when that happens, don't get riled up or blow your cool. Instead, politely point out the problem, and if you're met with resistance, here's what you say: "You must be new." Then smile and keep casting.

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