We recently published a quick tip from friend, former guide and all around wildly skilled angler Todd Tanner. Todd's tip urged more experienced anglers to yield the best water to friends that are less experienced anglers, noting "You won’t catch more fish, but you’ll end up having a better time and cementing your friendships." Initially, I took Todd's tip to be a matter of simple common courtesy, one that I assumed all good and moral fly fishers such as myself follow without deviation. Given some more thought, I remembered not only many times when I had faithfully followed this credo, but many when I hadn't -- and how that choice affects us as anglers.
My guess is that most anglers will share similar memories -- those of times we've passed on fishing our favorite honey hole, instead setting up a beginner angling friend and instructing him or her on just the right way to ply its waters, or of times we passed up pods of steadily rising fish, yielding them to a friend that sees such opportunities less often than those of us who get to fish more often. And, as Todd notes, those choices almost always pan out for the best.
Many experienced anglers seem to have a bad case of amnesia regarding the frustrations that come along with being a novice fly fisher and the initial struggles to grow as an angler. Progressing, early in the game, is all about minimizing those frustrations and struggles and maximizing positive feedback. Yielding water to a less experienced angler greatly increases the chances that their day will stay stress free and produce learning experiences. Doing the opposite -- plopping yourself down in the productive water and leaving your neophyte angler buddy to work stretches of water that are more technical and hold fewer fish -- not only makes for a more difficult, trying day for your companion, it's a generally lousy thing to do.
Generally, I'm a dedicated tutor and a patient and willing guide when I hit the water with a less experienced companion. I yield the best stretches, explain how to read the water, help select flies, tie knots, pass on fishing myself in favor of observing and offering constructive criticism on technique and so on. I enjoy it. Ultimately, my goal is to share the sport and its joys with others, and help grow an angler that will pass those same values on to someone else.
But does that mean I haven't gone the other way from time to time? Sadly, I have, and I'm not proud to admit it. Most often, I've done it when traveling with novice anglers to rivers that I myself don't get to walk the banks of as often as I'd like, especially if those rivers are technical ones loaded with finicky fish, rivers like the Delaware.
"They're not going to catch fish anyway," I'll tell myself. Or, "when's the next time you're going to fish here?" There's always a rationalization, perhaps even a valid one, but the decision is always a mistake and one that Todd's tip has made me vow to avoid making in the future. Not only does it trample on the chances your buddy has to enjoy himself and learn something that day, while increasing the chances that his frustration will lead to bad habits or general malaise, it sabotages your own opportunity to grow as an angler.
Yielding the best water means challenging yourself. For a newcomer, every inch of the stream yields challenges, but for an experienced angler this isn't always the case. Giving up an easily read, fishy riffle or a juicy plunge pool to a friend means choosing the more difficult path for yourself. Doing so increases the chances that you'll need to study the stream, get creative and thoughtfully apply the knowledge and skills you've amassed over the years in order to find success. This is a good thing. Manufacturing success out of challenging on-the-water situations is what builds better anglers. You don't learn anything by playing on easy.
Sure, gracefully handing over the best water to a friend may mean the day doesn't end with you bringing the most or the best fish to hand, but they typically end with a group of happy fishermen and they maximize the chance that everyone will hit the stream a better angler come the next outing.
Does all of this mean I'll never again keep a big, happily rising and feeding Delaware River brown trout to myself? Probably not, but at least I'll feel bad about it when I do.