Etiquette May Save Crowded Waters

I simply cannot stand daylight-saving time. If you want more time to farm, or fish, get up earlier. But whether you like daylight-saving time or not, you’ve got to admire its inventor, Ben Franklin. He was a jack of all trades, and master of most, with a brilliant mind. And like most folks that know a good thing, Franklin angled fish in his youth. No doubt, he knew the pleasures of the quiet sport. His maxim of the certainty that the grim reaper and the tax man cometh like it or not, is as applicable today as it was in 18th-century Boston. And I bet if Franklin were alive today, he would add a couple more to the maxim, high cell phone bills and crowded waters.

Craig Springer

There was nothing extraordinary about our conversation, two strangers meeting on a trout stream. It’s the same script exchanged everywhere people fish together.

“Hey, you doin’ any good?” I asked.

“Not bad, not bad,” the stranger warmly replied. “Caught a few small ones. They seemed to be taking anything with red on it earlier.”

“Yeah, it’s slowed down a little since this morning. Those trout got lockjaw this afternoon,” I quipped. Pondering the stranger’s origins, I asked, “You up from Albuquerque?”

“Fort Worth. My boy and I get up here at least once a year,” he replied

And who could blame him? Two-foot-long trout are as rare as water on the moon in the land of white license plates. I was, in fact, due to meet friends coming from Colorado to partake in the river of large trout. The near-constant temperature and steady flows create wonderful trout habitat that grows them good and plenty. Thus, the San Juan is a big draw.

Our chatting lagged. The river water lapped on my waders as I held a fly and considered a change, one last try at fooling some San Juan River trout in the fleeting, streaking sunlight. The noisy, tumbling water in the background was like music in a doctor’s office, the kind you hear but don’t really hear. My hushed mood of contemplating trout behavior and food habits while picking a new fly was invaded by the splash of oars a few feet away.

“Adios. See you later,” nodded the stranger as he pulled away in the drift boat. His oarsman heaved the heavy boat in a few strokes a yard or two back upstream. They lumbered to the top of the pool to set adrift again.

I did indeed see the fly fisher again — six more times in fact. His oarsman repeatedly took him back up to the tail of a riffle and then drifted right back over to the same pool where I stood.

Drift Boats Vs. Wading Anglers

The most extraordinary thing is this wasn’t an isolated event. As I thought about doing something I shouldn’t, like casting into his boat or asking if he wanted me to tie on something for him, I looked downstream and a flotilla of drift boats jockeyed about like a cloud of black flies in the face of wading anglers.

We are a gregarious species, but you don’t invade someone’s space in an elevator and it’s rude to cast where another fishes. Rude. But that ethic stops nothing.

I know it sounds like an old-timer’s lament, but things are changing. I remember fishing the San Juan as a teen and folks were few and far between. Moreover, there used to be a stigma associated with sliding in another’s space to cast a line tantamount to helping yourself to a piece of pie you were not offered. Maybe it’s different for one perched on a boat, I don’t know.

fishermen on boat
Drift boat anglers and wade anglers must show some fishing etiquette or regulations are sure to follow.

As the population grows, along with the popularity of the San Juan, what’s going to happen when more and more anglers get in the water and in the boats? There’s going to be unspoken competition for casting space. The drift boat guides that earn their beans on the river and the wading anglers ought to think about ethics and etiquette before it comes to regulating who, when, and where we fish the San Juan. It’s not a far-fetched notion. In sparsely populated Montana, overcrowding is occurring on the Missouri, Big Hole, and Beaverhead rivers.

Montana is bigger than New Mexico, has half the population, and more water. Yet, fishing waters are getting crowded. Acting in the interest of the resident angler, the Montana Fish and Game Commission faced the problem head on. Regulations now exist limiting fishing for non-residents and guide services.

The state legislature ordered the commission to find a remedy to overcrowding on popular streams. The commission has instituted commercial-free zones and limited launches on selected river reaches. It’s probably the non-resident angler that is most deprived. Resident anglers are beneficiaries. Such regulations could come wherever you fish. And the regulations may not be science-based to any extent, but simply sociological — to influence human behavior — with little or no regard on what the impacts could be to the fishery.

As Franklin wrote in his “Poor Richard’s Almanack,” “Necessity never made a good bargain.”

Maybe some good, old-fashioned etiquette can stave off a bad deal.

Make sure you visit Sportsman’s Guide for a selection of fishing gear.

When not penning stories about the outdoors, Craig works in communications for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He is an outdoors’ columnist for the Albuquerque Journal and ESPN Outdoors, and a frequent contributor to Flyfisher and North American Fisherman magazines. He holds degrees in fisheries and wildlife management from Hocking College and New Mexico State University, and an M.Sc. in fisheries science from the University of New Mexico. He’s a candidate for an M.A. in rhetoric and writing at the University of New Mexico. He writes weekly for

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