Fishing ethics and etiquette are examined in this feature story by Dave Atcheson.

In one sense, aren’t we all guests when we visit a river? Whether it’s our home waters or a long-awaited dream destination, we would all do well to remember that we are only visitors. That means taking into account how our behavior will impact the place we are visiting, as well as those we are enjoying it with and those who will come after. This is all a part of being an ethical angler, a multifaceted proposition that entails everything from etiquette and how we share the river, to how we harvest or handle our quarry.


Being an ethical angler starts with how we treat our fellow anglers. Etiquette, just like a river, is

fishing ethics

Be sure to remove as much meat as possible when filleting fish. © Alexa Millward

something fluid, different throughout the country or world, and on each and every waterbody. It is a concept that, especially in Alaska, seems to be somewhat nebulous. Maybe that’s because we have combat fishing, a practice that as far as I know is unique to the 49th state, or at least to the extent that we practice it. In Alaskan-style combat fishing, it is acceptable for salmon anglers to nudge in close and fish shoulder to shoulder. Nevertheless, there are still common rules and customs depending upon the type of fishing we are participating in. These are customs that vary widely depending upon the type of water one is fishing or especially upon the species one is targeting. There are an entirely different set of traditional practices, for instance, employed by trout fishermen compared to what is considered acceptable in the salmon combat zone.

While it might initially appear that these customs are based on how crowded the fishery is, they are actually based upon the habits of the fish. Salmon, especially sockeye, are on the move, heading upstream in groups, and when anglers find a good spot on the bank it pays to stay put and wait for the pulses of fish to pass by. Trout, on the other hand, will remain stationary for long periods and anglers need to go to them. That’s why trout fishermen are constantly on the move and if they’ve landed on a gravel bar, they intend to fish the whole thing without interruption, usually starting at the top and working their way down. It can be especially maddening to longtime trout fishers when someone interrupts that flow, as has happened to me many times. Just this past summer on a small Kenai Peninsula stream, I had four young trout anglers literally stop right on top of me. These guys were outfitted with all the fancy gear and looked like they knew what they were doing. Yet, with no one within miles of us, two of them crossed the stream and began fishing literally within inches of me. On most streams in the U.S. and around the world you wouldn’t encroach within 100 yards of another trout fisher, yet this has become a much more common occurrence than it once was.

Billy Coulliette, owner of Alaska Troutfitters, who has been fishing the Kenai River since the early 1990s and in that time has seen common practices dramatically shift, once explained it to me this way: “A lot of it is the salmon mentality,” he said. “There’s a whole new crowd just getting into trout fishing, which is great. But they got their start combat fishing for salmon, before they got into trout. They aren’t doing anything wrong; it’s all they know. But trout and salmon etiquette, and the fishing itself, is not the same. Trout etiquette is passed down, and a lot of anglers just haven’t received that education.”

Part of being an ethical angler is education, learning the proper etiquette and taking it into consideration, which starts with not crowding other anglers when trout fishing. If stopping on a gravel bar, always ask first. It only takes a little effort and common courtesy to ensure we all have a better experience.

Treating The Land and Water with Respect

Fishing, for many of us, goes beyond simple sustenance. It is a renewing of our relationship to nature, in many cases a nourishing of our very souls. Yet, as our global population reaches eight billion and we face the very real threats of climate change, habitat loss, and ocean acidification, it becomes a connection ever more tenuous and vital to nurture and one inextricably tied to how we treat our surroundings.

In striving to do what’s right and be an ethical angler, we need only follow a few golden rules. First and foremost: LEAVE NO TRACE. It is an oft-repeated phrase seen on signs throughout our refuges and parks, yet this simple refrain can’t be repeated enough. On my home-waters of the Kenai, especially with today’s crowds, we are constantly confronted with it: bottles, cans, wrappers, and cigarette butts carelessly left streamside. And even more disgusting, toilet paper and the remnants of human waste. There have been reports from western Alaskan guides that this is even becoming a problem on remote wilderness waterways. Yet, the remedy is simple. If you carried something in carry it out, and if you have to go to the bathroom, if not toting along one of today’s fancy porta pots remember the Three Bs: bury, burn, or bag. Many of us have even taken it a step further, not waiting for designated clean-up events and regularly toting along trash bags to pick up after those less considerate.

fishing ethics

Pack it in, pack it out. No one wants to see trash alongside a river. © Matt Boline

Next, at a minimum be aware of invasive species. Keep waders and boots clean between visits to different watersheds so that invasives aren’t transported. Better yet, become educated on identifying invasives and reporting or even removing them.

Finally, respect the rights and privileges of other user groups. Take the time to learn a little about the habitat of each individual stream, limit bank trampling, and stick to designated trails as much as possible.

Reverence for the Resource

Perhaps the easiest way to be more of an ethical angler is through education. Learn about the habits and lifecycle of salmon, for instance, so that you can identify spawning areas, and in that way be less likely to disturb them. This is something even more critical with resident species, fish that spawn multiple times throughout their lives. A good example of this is knowing that our resident rainbow trout spawn in the spring and being able to identify a typical spawning area and avoiding it.

Another key to being a good steward is proper fish handling. When practicing catch-and-release, use appropriate gear, matched to your target species and land them as quickly as possible. Limit fish handling, and if you must, wet hands first and avoid contact with eyes and gills. Use a de-hooking device, barbless hooks and a rubber net.

Keep fish in the water and use a rubber net when practicing catch-and-release. © Marian Giannulis

When keeping fish, take only as many as legally allowed, always dispatch them humanely and take proper care of them. It’s common, especially for newcomers to Alaska, to get “salmon fever,” and take more fish than they will eat throughout the winter. There are reports every spring of thousands of fish being wasted at landfills because people got greedy and harvested too many.

These are only a few ways for people to become more responsible, ethical anglers. For those wanting to make an even deeper commitment, consider joining a group like Trout Unlimited or one of the many organizations devoted to protecting and restoring habitat and fisheries resources.

Trout Unlimited’s mission is to protect, reconnect and restore North America’s coldwater fisheries and their watersheds. Learn about our work in Alaska at Dave Atcheson is with Trout Unlimited Alaska and based on the Kenai Peninsula. He is also the author of several books including, Fishing Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula. For more info:

If you’re looking for more reading about fishing ethics, etiquette and conservation check out Fish Alaska’s entire Conservation Blog.