In its simplest form, etiquette is nothing more than doing the right thing at the right time given a particular situation. Some of these rules have been written down, but most have not. So without a formal written code how do we know the correct conduct for a particular situation? Generally, determining the right thing to do -- following the rules of etiquette -- can usually be accomplished by leveraging common sense and always taking into consideration how you'd like to be treated if your role in the situation at hand was reversed.
When it comes to drifting rivers, adhering to these concepts and following the proper etiquette will help insure that everyone can have a pleasant experience while on the water. What follows is a quick list of the unwritten "rules of the road" as they apply to waders and boaters, or maybe better said, waders vs. boaters!
Often, you won't be alone in wanting to launch your boat. Other fishermen with drift boats, canoes, kayaks or pontoons will also be at the ramp, with the same goal as you. To keep everything running smoothly, it is important that everyone respect their place in line and their time on the ramp. Have your boat rigged and loaded before you back down on the ramp. If you're not ready and there are others waiting, it is okay to let them ahead of you.
Once you have your boat in the water, move it to the side so others can launch. If there's current, the downstream side of the ramp is a better choice so as not to interfere with others when you get underway. When in doubt, ask someone.
Now you're fishing, and low and behold, there's a guy wading. Now what? The best thing is to go behind him, causing minimum disturbance as you do. Don't dip your oars unless you need to do so to maintain control of your boat. If the water is too shallow to float, quietly get out of the boat and -- as quietly as possible -- walk your boat behind him. Do not fish the water as you go by. Doing so is just plain rude, and you'll be down river soon enough to start fishing again. The wade fisherman always has the right of way.
Sometimes you have a situation where there isn't enough room to go behind the other angler. There are several options here. First, if the section of river is wide enough, you can hug the opposite bank as long as you are well out of the water he's fishing. Another option is to pass close to him on the center river side, but only after letting him know of your plan. If he objects, get out and drag the boat behind him. Wade fishermen are allowed to step back toward the bank to let a boat through, and most will in tight situations. There's nothing wrong with friendly communication.
Okay, you got through that situation. Now you come upon another vessel ahead of you. If the other boat is anchored and they obviously are fishing toward the right, pass far on the left. The reverse is also true. If you can't tell, or aren't sure, just ask what side you can pass on. Always give as wide a berth as possible.
If the boat is underway and drift fishing, pass on the opposite side that they're fishing, again giving as wide a berth as possible. The wide berth will keep you out of their back cast and you from getting hooked. Keep in mind that the vessel being overtaken always has the right of way. This is the law and has nothing to do with etiquette. Once you pass the other boat you should never cut in front of him and start fishing. Go down river a long way, even to the next pool or riffle before you start fishing. If you absolutely must fish that water, hold your boat back and fish behind them.
Never jump in on anyone else's fish unless invited. Don't even ask. Just go find some different fish. Don't anchor in casting range of anyone else. Since you don't know how far anyone can cast, assume it to be a fly line length. When you anchor, do it quietly and when it's time to move on, leave quietly too. Never put down the fish you were fishing to. Let the next guy have a crack at them.
Be mindful of where you anchor. Sometimes you just need to stop, maybe for a rest or a bite to eat. When you do, you should notice where you are. Be careful not to block a narrow channel and make it difficult for other to get by.
Well, all in all, it's been a great day on the river. You landed some monster browns, netted some rainbows and even had a few "Kodak Moments" and nobody fell in. The sun's getting low and you really don't know the river that well. What should you do? Head for port! Unless you have enough experience and have confidence in the dark, don't stay out in the dark. If you do, make sure you have the required safety equipment with you, and yes, pontoon boats have the same requirements as other vessels. When you get to the boat ramp follow the same courtesies you did when you launched.
At night on the ramp try to avoid shining vehicle headlights or other bright lights upriver. This only serves to blind other operators and make navigation difficult. If you are shining a light upriver to help someone find the takeout, see the previous paragraph. You may have to wait your turn to take out and when your turn comes you should be ready. Once your boat is on your trailer, pull it up out of the way and then secure your tie down straps, put your tackle away, and take off your waders and anything else you need to get done. If you are waiting for a shuttle, let the next guy ahead of you.
All you need to do is remember to treat others the way you want to be treated. Unfortunately, you are bound to run across idiots, whether they be on foot or in a boat, and when you do, there's no sense going crazy because you're not going to ruin their day, only yours.
Joe Demalderis is a revered guide on the East's most famous waters, those of the Delaware River. He was recognized as the Orvis Endorsed Fly Fishing Guide of the Year in 2010. He is also a pro staff member for ClackaCraft Drift boats. Learn more about Joe at Cross Current Guide Service