On a recent trip to the Waitahanui River on the edge of Lake Taupo, I observed the silence of the lake. It was occasionally broken by quiet words shared among those fishing, all the while aware of another silent dialogue shared among us as we adhered to the rules of the river.
Like many activities, fly fishing has rules and regulations that must be followed, those set out by the local governing fishing authority. Perhaps one of the more challenging aspects of fly fishing is that there is another set of rules that is mostly obeyed in silence. After all, an angler who makes a racket won’t catch fish, and unfortunately there is no-one on the river or the lake to referee the proceedings and make sure that everyone ‘plays nicely’. For this reason, tension can brew among anglers especially if one is more experienced than the next; the inexperienced angler breaking those rules without even knowing it, all the while struggling to interpret the sideways glares and huffs from their neighbour.
The rules of the river aren’t taught in school, rather they are usually learnt from more experienced anglers, or from guides, or from books.
Unfortunately, in some cases, even anglers who have been returning to the same spot for a number of years do things that negatively impact the experience for those around them, and the fish that brought everyone there in the first place.
This article is by no means a comprehensive guide to the rules… Rather it aims to help those who want to fish in locations like the Waitahanui River where you are in close proximity with other anglers, and also want to maintain a good rapport, with those around you — especially if you are only visiting the region for the first time.
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Waitahanui River – Fishing the Picket Fence
Even if you’ve only seen post cards of this stunning part of NZ, there is a good chance at least one of them included a shot of a long line of anglers, waist-deep in the strong currents of the outflow, elbow to elbow fishing the famous run — the ‘Picket Fence’ as the spot is commonly known.
Fishing in close quarters like this is challenging, and at the very least requires an accurate cast in order to avoid hitting other angler’s lines mid-air. But, even if you are skilled enough to drop your fly on a dime, you can still mess it up royally if you don’t follow a few simple rules of etiquette.
Arriving at your spot
Arriving at a river or a spot such as Waitahanui, it is important first to observe. Spend some time watching what other anglers are doing. If you are fishing a river, are they moving up river or down? Are they holding their ground? Don’t enter the water ahead of them immediately blocking them off – this is sure to get a quick reaction. In a spot like Waitahanui, if the picket fence is in full form, observe the distance each angler has allowed between him/herself and the next and allow (at least) the same. If you are not confident in your ability to cast in such close proximity, move further along the water’s edge before wading.
You can still catch fish there, too!
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Break the silence (or don’t)
When you first wade in to join the line, it’s obviously important that you do so quietly. But while fly fishing is a necessarily quiet activity, it doesn’t have to be completely silent all the time. Quietly chatting to your neighbour is unlikely to cause the fish to swim away. Soundwaves from your voice don’t transition well from one medium (the air) to another (the water).
However, the sound of your boots crunching on gravel underwater makes a hell of a racket. So tread lightly, and try to move slowly. You can test this by putting your head underwater while swimming and trying to listen to your mate talking to you above water and comparing that with moving rocks on the seabed.
It’s always polite to quietly say ‘hello’, even if your neighbour appears content focusing on the fishing. If you are wading into a river or casting from the shore and there is another angler already there, ask them what their plan is so you can adjust yours accordingly to maximise everyone’s chance of success. Try and read your neighbour’s response, if they prefer to fish in silence it’s best to respect that wish.
On the picket fence in particular, when your neighbour is into a fish, make sure that you cease casting and / or retrieve your line to ensure that it doesn’t interfere with them landing their fish. If you are into a fish and your neighbour is busy tying a fly unaware that you have hooked up, let them know quietly and ask them politely to stop fishing until you are confident that you have retreated close enough to the shore that you can land the fish.
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Moving to a new position
Trout and other fresh water dwelling fish are easily spooked, so it’s always good to keep movement to a minimum. If you are moving up or down a river, do so in a slow, controlled manner – you’re less likely to lose your footing that way as well. Think about the trout’s sightline: if you stick out above the trees in the background you’ll be easier to see. Keep a low profile if the tree line behind you is low lying.
If you plan to walk up the shoreline or the river bank to another spot or a higher pool, ask your neighbour if they don’t mind. If you do go ahead, try and leave a run between you and other anglers so that they are not walking into disturbed water as they follow. If you find a pool that’s working, don’t sit there all day while other anglers wait, hoping to fish it too. While the ‘first come first serve rule’ generally applies, it’s good manners to let others have a go, and move on in search of other opportunities.
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Fly fishing might be a solitary endeavour, but if we all acted with the intention of helping our neighbour to land fish as well, it might just make the whole experience more enjoyable for everyone. If you are able to help your fellow angler by netting their fish for them, there is no harm in offering. Just make sure you wet your net and hands before handling their fish, make sure to handle it as little as possible, especially if they plan to release.
Criticising another angler’s technique could get you in hot water. And there is always the possibility that what looks like poor technique is actually one that is simply foreign to you. What looks ridiculous to you might just be the most effective technique in the region.
If you do spot and angler wo seems to be struggling, or is doing something that could negatively impact the success of those around them, ask them a couple of questions to gauge whether they think they know what they are doing, or whether they are new to fly fishing and would in fact love some help! Not only are you helping everyone by getting them on the right track, but you might just learn something yourself.
Dealing with negative fishos
Occasionally, someone joins the fence with a bad attitude and little regard for everyone else. In this case, it’s best to talk to them quietly and first make sure they are aware that what they are doing is negatively impacting others. If that’s no use, you might be better to just create some distance and let them scare away the fish in their area, rather than belligerently holding your ground, letting them scare away a potential catch for you as well.