wade fishing etiquette

Wade Fishing Etiquette

It’s evident that there has been a rise in the popularity of fly fishing in Colorado. A decade ago you would drive Highway 6 along the Eagle River and would be lucky to see 10 vehicles with anglers fly fishing. Fast forward ten years and now the Eagle River is packed with anglers accessing the public waters 365 days out of the year. Whether it’s been more people getting into the sport or the rise in popularity of the local rivers like the Eagle River and Gore Creek, having more people out on the water can make your fishing day a little different. While most would agree that the more anglers there are, the less desirable the fishing experience might be. The increase in pressure on the rivers can also lead to conflict with other anglers out there. So what can we do to reduce conflicts on the river so we all can enjoy a beautiful day fly fishing in “Trout Country”? Read on below to learn more about wade fishing etiquette and be sure to share any useful feedback you may have for other anglers.

Approaching the River and Finding an Area to Fish: 

Finding an area to fish can sometimes be the most stressful part of the day. You never know what the day might hold. Whether there is going to be a lot of other anglers out on the water or no one. One tip that many guides abide by is when deciding on which spot to fish, make sure you have a Plan B, C, and even D. Don’t set your sights on fishing your “honey hole” as someone could already be there. Be alright with fishing a new area and having a couple of backup plans of other wade fishing locations to hit. As fly fishing pioneer Bill Cairns once said, A section of water belongs to the first angler fishing it. It is inconsiderate to crowd them, and just how close an approach is permissible is an obvious variable.”  If someone is already in a fishing hole, they have the right to fish it. 

How Close is Too Close.

A good rule of thumb is to give other wade fishing anglers at least 100 feet of space. While this of course varies from river to river, it is best to give as much space as possible. The unwritten rule of wade fishing is to fish your way upstream. Meaning that you start fishing one piece of water and then begin working upriver. When approaching the river, if you spot an angler, take a second to see if the angler is fishing upstream or downstream. If it looks like the angler is working upstream, feel free to begin fishing below and working up as the other angler works up. If the angler is for some reason fishing downstream or camping at an area, it may be best to find another area to fish or simply strike a conversation to ask “Are fishing upstream or downstream? Do you mind if I work in behind you?”.

Nobody likes to get “high holed” or “low holed”. Meaning another angler goes upstream or downstream of you where you were planning to fish. If the other angler has just arrived at the area they might want some space to fish it or if they are planning on leaving, they will typically let you know.

The Angler Working Upstream Has The Right Away. 

Another unwritten rule of fly fishing is that the angler working upstream has the right of way. For example, say you are fishing your way upstream and you come upon another angler working downstream. You technically have the right away. While fishing upstream may not be preferred for every fishing area, it is a general rule to abide by. So do your best to fish upstream and if you are fishing downstream understand that if you run into someone coming upstream they have the right of way. 

Communication is Key. 

The most important part of wade fishing etiquette is to have proper communication out on the river. When you encounter other people, especially other anglers, be friendly and say hello. If you are interested in fishing the area that they are currently fishing, ask them how long they will be fishing and if you could work in below or above them. You can typically tell by the response whether or not to fish alongside the other anglers. It is also a great way to see how the fishing is and create a relationship with a fellow angler.

Getting waders on

Parking and Vehicle Etiquette. 

This article wouldn’t be complete without discussing the parking lot of wade fishing areas. When pulling into a parking lot to stop to fish, GO SLOW. Don’t be the jerk who is ripping dust all over the parking lot. Go slow and observe the other anglers and recreationists. Don’t rush out of your car to beat another person in the parking lot to the fishing hole. Communicate with other anglers who may be getting their waders on and ask them where they are planning on fishing. It drives anglers crazy to have someone hop out of their car, run down, and claim a fishing hole when you were just getting your gear on. When parking your vehicle be sure to not block any other cars in and make sure you are parked enough off the road that the shoulder is not being obstructed for bikers passing by. 

Understand Where Public Access Is. Don’t Trespass!

In the State of Colorado, the landowner owns the riverbed/bottom of the river, therefore you cannot wade fish into private property. This is different from other states in the west like Montana, where you can walk up a riverbed into private property. This is not the case in Colorado. Especially on the Eagle River and Roaring Fork Rivers, there is a lot of private lands. You are responsible for knowing where the public and private land is, the landowner is not required to post any no trespassing signs. Be sure to download a GPS app like OnX Maps to understand where the public and private lands are. Don’t be the one to get a ticket from the sheriff, there are incidents like this each year on the Eagle River. If you are approached by an angry landowner it can best to apologize and leave the area. If you think the area is public, take some photos, and do some research on your own.

Know the Fishing Regulations. Especially seasonal spawning closures!

Lucky for us in Colorado, we can fish year-round for trout. However, there are some “bubble closures” on certain rivers due to seasonal spawning rituals. Specifically, on the Eagle River and Roaring Fork River, there are sections that are closed each spring for the rainbow trout spawn. Be sure to check your regulations booklet and be vigilant about signage at wade fishing areas. There are also barbless regulations in many wild trout waters as well as specific bag limits. If you plan to harvest any trout be sure to check the regulations on this.

A “Voluntary” Closure is a Mandatory Closure for Catch and Release Anglers.

Another important aspect to consider in regards to regulations is in the warmer months there have been numerous “voluntary fishing closures” or “hoot owl” regulations put in place due to high water temperatures. When the water temperatures go above 67-69 degrees the trout are at risk of dying when caught. Be sure to check out our updated fishing reports for any sort of voluntary fishing closure. And for what it’s worth the closure may be “voluntary” but if you plan on releasing the fish during these closures they are most likely going to die, so unless you are harvesting fish you should not fish during these closures! Always carry a thermometer during the warmer months to monitor water temperatures throughout the day.

Sharing the River with Other Recreationists.

Anglers are not the only other people out on the river enjoying what our wonderful public lands have to offer. Many recreationists like hikers, bikers, rafters, dog walkers, and just people will be out on the waterways. As anglers, these recreationists can sometimes be obstacles in our fishing adventures. Do your best to communicate kindly with these people about where you are planning to fish and make sure to give people space who may be already at a certain part of the river. 

rapid float fishing

Sharing the River with Float Anglers.

On many rivers, you will most likely encounter float fishermen. The general rule of the river is that wade anglers have the right away, so typically float anglers will do their best to avoid you. At times, float anglers may not be able to see you, so if you do see a boat coming make sure you are visible so they can easily give you space. On some waterways at low water, there can only be a certain channel that boats can get down safely. Be aware that if you are fishing in this area the boats may have to float very close to you. More often than not be kind, wave, and communicate. If you think a boat might ruin your fishing hole, communicate effectively that you are trying to fish a certain piece of water and give you space if possible. 

Other Important Wade Fishing Etiquette Tips to Keep in Mind: 

Educate Others:

Like most etiquette, education is key out there on the water. Educate the anglers you fish with, the anglers you encounter, and the other recreationists you encounter. By spreading the word of proper fishing etiquette we can all enjoy these great resources. Let’s be the stewards of the waterways! 

Leave No Trace: 

Let’s take care of the public lands that we so much depend on. Pick up any sort of trash, fill your net, pack out your beer cans and leave no tippet or leader scraps on the river. As we see more and more people using these resources trash will become more of an issue, so pick it up and join annual river cleanups.

Take Photos:

If you ever encounter any sort of conflict out there on the river, take photos instead of engaging in any sort of arguing. Don’t let someone’s “river rage” get the best of you. Document your encounters via your cell phone, take photos and videos.  

Proper Fish Handling: 

This article wouldn’t be complete without the mention of proper fishing handling. Do your best to use barbless hooks, handle with wet hands, use a rubber net, limit air exposure on fish, and keep fish wet. And be sure to check water temperatures and updated fishing reports. 

Hopefully, this article will lay some groundwork on proper wade fishing etiquette. If you have any more tips for wade fishing etiquette please comment below. For up-to-date fishing reports and fishing closures be sure to check out our fishing reports. If you ever have a question pertaining to access or regulations about a specific river or area that we guide and fish, give us a call at 970.926.0900.  Be sure to check out our previous blog, Float Fishing Etiquette. 

Patrick Perry, Former Float Fishing Guide, and Content Contributor.