Unwritten rules of fishing are as important as those on the books

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Fishing rules and regulations are in place to protect fisheries, but some rules anglers need to abide aren't on the books
Fishing rules and regulations are in place to protect fisheries, but some rules anglers need to abide aren't on the books

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When it comes down to it, fishing is like any other pursuit: you’re going to have to deal with the good, the bad and the ugly — just hopefully not all at once.

Here’s a fish tale that’s not all that uncommon as anglers jockey for position with others in search of their own piece of the angling prize.

The slight buzz of an outboard grew from a mosquito-like whisper into an earth-shattering wave of power. Out of nowhere, a bass boat came barreling around a bend in the lake and headed right for the boat of anglers who had been flipping topwaters and crankbaits around some drop-offs not far from the bank in hopes of finding a post-spawn largemouth. Just when the anglers thought they would have to bail out because it appeared the boat running wide open was going to plow through them, its driver shut it down and gently nudged them a few seconds later.

“What you doin’ in my spot?” the driver bellowed after popping out of his seat like a jack-in-the-box, while also launching a quick burst of profanities — and saliva — at the confused anglers. “This is a public lake,” one of the anglers shot back. “Well, if you boys was from ’round here, you’d know you was in my spot,” the man said. “I’m a guide on this lake … you better watch yourselves.”

And with that, the guide fired up his boat and it lurched in the opposite direction before getting up on plane, leaving the anglers to wipe off an undeserved spray of liquid.

While this anecdote may seem far-fetched, it is astoundingly true, as relayed by the recipients of that cold shower.

Fishing in a group setting

I’ve heard fishing tales of irate anglers driving back and forth between another boat and the bank because they thought someone was catching fish in their honey hole.

I’ve also heard tell of anglers in the other boat attempting to sink a bass plug into the side of someone’s head as they blew past them in hopes of either scaring away “their” fish or making someone mad enough to motor out of the spot. It still astounds me when I hear stories of anglers nearly coming to fisticuffs because they thought another person was encroaching on hallowed ground — their fishing spot. Ninety-nine percent of anglers, including fishing guides, are probably respectable people who will obey the unwritten rules as well as the ones on the books, but there are a handful out there who think they don’t have to answer to others on the water.

It sounds relatively reasonable to assume the average angler would do the right thing if they happened to find another angler in a particular spot they were hoping to fish and simply go somewhere else. But often, it gets personal when that’s not the case. The person who fished a spot before you was out trying to do the same thing you were.

One of my favorite locales to dap a fly is the Gunnison River in Colorado. It’s the perfect amount of pools and riffles and everything in between, but it also has miles and miles of public access. In the many afternoons I’ve spent flinging loops through the air on the Gunnison hoping to find a chunky brown trout, I’ve also had to deal with looking around a bend and seeing another angler having their own fun time. Instead of getting upset about someone already hitting the spots I might have wanted to drop a fly, I just had to chalk it up to experience and tell myself to try and come back earlier or later next time.

It also should be noted some anglers grow up or are used to fishing around many other people and don’t think anything of hurling a bait out when surrounded by a large swath of anglers. In places like Alaska, where salmon runs are like clockwork and always occur in the same locales each year, there are going to be lots of people trying to get theirs. If you’re going to try and fish in some spots like those, you’ve got to accept doing it with company on some occasions.

Fishing’s rules — on and off the books

While there are numerous boating and angling laws on the books, there are plenty most people already know, which aren’t written down. As far as unwritten laws you should know concerning boating, the main one is to give others their room. It’s understandable that on a small body of water or in a cramped river setting boaters might get a little close for comfort, but on an open lake, bay or ocean, there’s no reason to intrude on someone’s space.

On the Texas coast, as in many other shallow-water locales, drift fishing is one of the main ways to locate speckled trout and redfish. On an outing some years back, a fishing companion and I were drifting on a crystal-clear flat looking to pick up feeding redfish. After a long drift, we came within 100 yards of another drifting boat. Within seconds of crossing that football-field boundary, someone on the other boat screamed that we were too close, which obviously wasn’t the case, and were going to mess up their lines, breaking another unwritten rule: while it’s fine to keep your personal space, you don’t own the water, and to think you can tell someone else what to do on their excursion isn’t right.

An unwritten rule that goes along with not thinking you own the water is to not hog an area if you think others might want to fish there. I’ve seen people stick out five or six fishing poles to make it look like they’re just trying to maximize their chances, only to learn they were actually only fishing one rod. One rule not on the books you think anyone would understand is to not be destructive to a fishery.

As far as picking up after yourself, that’s self-explanatory, but anglers should also be conscientious about only harvesting fish they plan to utilize. I’m all for going out and catching a mess of fish for dinner, but only take what you will use. Size and bag limits are on the books, and are meant to protect that fishing hole for your kids or your kids’ kids. In the end, most anglers know wrong from right, just like they know the difference in their daily lives.

However, if you find yourself in a situation where someone is buzzing between you and the shoreline without prejudice, a certain Lake Texoma fishing guide told me the best advice is to build up a good-size lead before you let go of that double-treble bass plug.

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