Give Me Some Space!

The etiquette of angling

How much water is enough water? In fishing, it’s all relative. Truth be told, we all want a little more, but is there such a thing as fishing etiquette? Old timers would argue, “not anymore,” and they might be right. 

The problem is, much like the mood of the fish (or the fishing widow), the rules seem to change every day. If you are fishing the spring walleye run on the Maumee River in northwest Ohio, your personal fishing space may be measured in inches. If you happen to be wading the bonefish flats of Turneffe Island in the middle of the Caribbean, anyone within 2 miles is crowding you. 

Extremes aside, what does fishing etiquette mean in practicality? On Lake Murray, proper etiquette might mean you avoid doing donuts around my bass boat with your jet ski or run the pontoon boat blaring Luke Bryan through my striper planer board spread. If you see me wading the Saluda casting for trout, maybe your floatilla of inner tubes, coolers and co-eds could maybe not just, you know, run right into me … and if you do, could you at least offer me a beer?

Okay, so are there really some rules of the road, or water, as it were? The short answer is “yes,” and it happens to be the Golden Rule — do unto others as you would have done unto you. Think elevator etiquette. If you have the place all to yourself, you can stand wherever you want. The more people on board, the closer you need to stand, and you may have to let some people by who have the right of way. 

The same applies to fishing. In general, the idea is that you should create enough buffer that the anglers in question do not feel like you have invaded their personal space and also have enough room to continue to fish in the direction they were heading.

It is the latter that really gets lost these days. Give fellow fishermen enough room to fish and give them space to continue in the direction they are going. While only the “elevator rule” applies to still-fishing, most fisherman are moving from here to there. For example, if a bass boat is slowly moving down a bank casting to shore, jumping in ahead of him 50 yards away is rude because you have effectively cut him off. The best policy is to fall in behind him. The same can be applied to river fishing unless you head quite far up or down stream from him. When all else fails, or if you are not sure, ask. Most people will be all too glad to tell you if you are getting too close. 

Unfortunately, things can go too far the other way. Many people take a little too much ownership of public water. Regulars on the water can be rude and unwelcoming to a new angler, even if he has the legal right of way. The Midlands recently had a high-profile incident during a professional fishing tournament. A local homeowner and angler was filmed screaming at a tournament fisherman who was fishing “his” favorite spot. While there are plenty of valid opinions on both sides, the fact is that high-profile tournaments make an important economic impact to our local businesses, and it is a public lake. Modern GPS mapping software, electronic sonar, depth finders and fish finders mean there just aren't secret spots anymore. The art is now not in finding the fish but enticing them to bite.

There are other regional etiquette subsets that may come into play here in the Carolinas. For example, setting up a stinky bucket of cut bait in the middle of sunbathers at the beach and lobbing your surf rod rig at little Timmy swimming in the breakers is sure to win you a visit from the self-deputized MBP (Mommy Beach Patrol). A good rule of thumb is to stay at least 50 yards away from the nearest swimmer so that you do not run the risk of someone becoming entangled or hooked in your line or, worse, suffering a nip from Jaws attracted over by your bait. Also, South Carolina requires a license to fish from the surf, but no license is needed to fish from a public fishing pier. 

Our thousands of waterways, both inland and coastal, mean that we have hundreds of bridges. Bridges can create real controversy because there are at least three groups of people who all believe they are right. Bridge fishermen want to set up and drop lines wherever they want, creating a vertical maze of barbed death. Boat fishermen want to access the underwater fish-holding structure of the pylons and to anchor and cast wherever they please … including over anyone’s line. They certainly feel like visiting royalty to the local bridge fisherman minions. 

The third category is the trolling fisherman or pleasure boater just trying to get under the bridge and through to the other side. These poor unassuming boaters have no idea that they are the sworn enemies of both the bridge dweller and the anchored boaters. Here again we have three groups of people who all have some legal stance to be doing what they are doing, yet all believe that the other two groups need to yield to “my” inherent superiority and right of way. 

My best advice here is don't fish where someone else is fishing, and slow down with no wake. Also, be sure to stay in the main navigation channel when boating through. Regardless, cover young children's ears when passing by and perhaps wear a hard hat. Chances are you will hear some language you haven't heard since your days in a naval submarine, and you may well have a lure cast at your head as a warning shot. Make sure to bring a knife to cut lines that get tangled on the boat and prop as you cut through the spider webs of America’s favorite pastime.

Lastly, when fishing in a boat with a friend or two, whether it is a canoe in a pond or a deep sea vessel, two main rules apply. Look behind you to see if there is anyone in the way and call out “low bridge!” when swinging your rod and line back to cast. That gives everyone a heads up so that you don’t end the day early with a mad dash to the emergency room to get a hook out of someone’s nose! Then when you cast, make sure you aren’t casting across someone else’s line or in the general area of water where someone else is casting. 

In conclusion, do you know why God invented golf? To keep half the world outta’ my fishing hole! Bless your heart...