Respect Fish and Fellow Anglers
Story by Eric Booton
Fish and Fellow Anglers Deserve Respect
With more than three million lakes, rivers and streams that are home to an unmatched abundance and diversity of native and wild fish, Alaska is an angler’s paradise. While there may be seemingly unlimited places to wet a line, the reality is that most of us are in the same boat and that boat is limited to the road system.
Somewhere along the line as an angler, you’ve likely either witnessed poor etiquette, or perhaps you were unwittingly the perpetrator yourself. Beyond complying with all angling regulations and boating laws, a basic set of principles can guide anglers, whether Alaskan or visitor, to ensure we all enjoy our time out on the water.
For those of you skimming for the cliff notes, here’s the short takeaway: Recognize and appreciate that you are in a world-class fishery and treat it and your fellow anglers as such.
Sometimes overlooked, ethical angling practices are necessary for the health of the habitat, the strength of the fishery, and to ensure our future generations can also enjoy quality fishing. It’s as important to show the river and fish the respect they deserve as it is to be considerate of other anglers.
A critical rule of thumb for every outdoor experience is to leave no trace. On the surface, this means picking up after yourself. Earn extra fish karma by picking up what other, less courteous anglers may have left behind, too. But moreover, be conscious of your footsteps and tread lightly.
On rivers where developed trails, stairs, boardwalks and access points have been established, use them and avoid trampling vegetation and eroding riverbanks. Respect all fencing, bank closures and habitat-restoration sites. Riparian areas, or land and wetlands alongside waterways, are especially sensitive to overuse, which can cause erosion and streambank instability. It’s likely that local volunteers who care deeply about the river invested sweat equity on the project, so respect their investment of time and money for the benefit of everyone and abide by the signs.
One of the beauties and appeals of Alaska’s less-traveled waters is there often is no clear sign of prior human presence. While exploring these waters, travel accordingly on gravel bars or several paces back from the riverbank to avoid trampling vegetation and damaging banks.
We also must be attentive to the world beneath us. A new effort gaining popularity across many trout streams of the Western U.S. is to “Mind the Redd.” This means to be mindful of critical fish habitat, to know what redds (fish spawning beds) look like and where they are found, and to never wade or drop anchor through them. Even when a redd appears abandoned or otherwise not in use, fragile eggs may be just beneath the surface. Additionally, don’t target fish on a redd. Let spawning salmon lie and keep in mind that steelhead, rainbow trout, Arctic grayling, Dolly Varden, lake trout and other fish spawn in similar, but potentially not as obvious, manners. Heed their time to procreate, respect closures, fish away from spawning fish, or even find another activity during spring and fall spawns. If you have questions about spawning activity in your local waters and the habits of the fish they house, take a moment and ask a trusted angler, a fish biologist or your local fly shop.
Whether fishing with intent to harvest or release, use proper gear and tackle. When practicing catch-and-release, always use barbless hooks or pinch down your barbs, don’t overplay the fish, use a fish-friendly landing net, and keep the fish wet. For fish that aren’t as abundant or that are susceptible to overfishing, such as Chinook salmon or trophy rainbow trout, catch-and-release can be an important tool to help sustain fish populations for future generations. Put every effort into handling the fish as little as possible or avoid fishing populations with especially low abundance altogether.
When filling the freezer, treat your catch with care. Respect your harvest from the cooler to the table by cleaning it with pride, keeping it on ice, and making sure not to waste your catch. Filling bag limits is never a requirement. Always be thoughtful in your harvest and only keep what you and your family will truthfully consume.
Walk & Wade Fishing
Fishing on foot offers the most intimate experience with the water as you move at your own pace, read the water and strategically fish its features. When navigating a river on foot, especially along some of our more popular fisheries, one can also anticipate more interactions with anglers as we simultaneously seek out solace and jockey for the best water.
Two overarching principles for an enjoyable walk-and-wade experience on a busy river are to be mindful of your fellow anglers’ intentions and be the angler you expect others to be.
Salmon anglers may stay put and let the fish come to them, while trout anglers may hike several miles and cover lots of water. When you turn a corner and spy another fisherman in the area you wish to fish, a moment’s observation can tell you if they are covering water, what direction they are headed, how quickly they are moving, and other information that will help you leave enough space and allow you to fish alongside one another with contentment.
Apart from the sockeye season, which has its own set of rules, try not to hog the water as fishing gets crowded. Remember to mind your distance when playing with sharp objects, acknowledge each other and communicate if you are unsure or concerned. No matter what, try not to crowd someone who is catching. We are self-respecting anglers and not seagulls, after all.
With the ability to cover more water and target areas out of reach of many shore anglers, fishing from a boat can provide some of the most memorable fishing experiences. Of course, fishing from a boat comes with its own etiquette and the courtesies begin before you are even on the water. On a busy day, a boat launch can prove to be the most stressful. Again, be conscientious of others and don’t launch until you are fully ready to hit the water. Likewise, at the end of the day when you get to the takeout, retrieve your boat as soon as possible and make room for other boats to land.
Just like reading the water, read the other boaters to determine where they are headed and how fast. Provide a wide berth to avoid colliding or disrupting angling efforts. If you are in a motorized watercraft, pay attention to your wake and be particularly careful when passing smaller crafts and wading anglers. If you must pass close by another angler, slow down and pull your line out of the water until you’re clear of them.
On crowded rivers, it’s important to know the established pattern of traffic and go with the flow. Use the main channel as a highway, drift in the slower water, backtroll on the flats, and never try to thread the needle for a selfish drift. Park or anchor your boat in a logical area that is out of the primary channel and flow of traffic to protect you, your boat, and others.
While Alaska’s lakes, rivers and streams make for incredible fishing, they are resources that require our fellow trout bums and salmon lovers to work together to preserve. This fishing season, let’s make a conscientious effort to enjoy each other’s company by leaving plenty of space on the water while giving the resource the respect it deserves.
This blog originally appeared as the Conservation column titled ‘Fish and Fellow Anglers Deserve Respect’ in the June 2020 issue of Fish Alaska.