Stop, don't do it

Avoiding problems makes for better fishing and happier anglers
never turn your back on a bear
Photo: Todd Tanner

If you hang around enough fly fishing guides, you’ll hear every one of these lines on a regular basis:

“That guy can’t fish.”

“That guy can’t cast.”

“That guy can’t mend.”

And then there’s my favorite: “Wow, that guy just sucks.”

Do you want to be that guy? No? Then pay attention to the advice below and stop trying to convince other anglers that you have absolutely no clue what you’re doing. How? That’s easy. Don’t do it.


  1. Don’t advertise your lack of angling acumen by showing up with the wrong stuff. When you hit the water, make sure you have the appropriate gear for whatever situation you’re likely to encounter. If you don’t know what that gear is, then ask someone who can help you out (but who isn’t looking to make money from your decision), or jump on the web and do a little research. Long story short, the rods you bring to the Henry’s Fork are probably not the same rods you bring to Belize.
  2. Don’t automatically assume that a high price tag or a well-known brand is the best way to go. Instead, focus on fishing with the best gear you can identify and afford. How do you make that distinction? Read fishing magazines. Talk to experienced anglers and guides. Watch video reviews. If you spend a little extra time on your due diligence, odds are that other folks won’t snicker at your reel or laugh at your waders.
  3. When someone tells you that they like to fish with slower action rods, do not dismiss them out of hand. Instead, pay attention. The best fishermen I know avoid overly stiff, ultra-fast-action rods.
  4. Would you buy a drink for the person who’s trying to hit on your wife or your girlfriend? (Or your husband, or your boyfriend?) No, you wouldn’t. So don’t buy gear from a shop, a website, or a brand that focuses solely on fishing and ignores conservation. If a business or brand doesn’t support conservation, it’s not worthy of your patronage.


  1. Guess what? It’s a really bad idea to tell yourself: “I’ll practice my casting when I’m out on the water.” Practice is practice, and fishing is fishing. Practice before you fish.
  2. Try not to practice around quicksand, power lines or poisonous snakes.
  3. Don’t always practice with your eyes open. Shut your eyes from time to time and try to feel what the rod is doing. It can make a huge difference in your timing.
  4. Unless you’re doing it on purpose, your backcast should not hit the water. So don’t let it hit the water.
  5. People will tell you to watch your rod tip when you’re casting. Don’t watch your rod tip. Watch your thumb instead. It’s way easier, and both your thumb and your rod tip are pointing in the same direction.
  6. When fly fishers talk about their “wind knots,” they’re lying. It’s not really a “wind knot.” It’s a “casting knot.”
  7. Don’t know how to double haul? Better learn.
  8. Don’t know how to make a reach cast? Ditto.
  9. Your casting sucks? Get help. Don’t settle for shitty casting. Life is way too short.


  1. Don’t mend it if it isn’t broken. (Take just a second and think about that for a minute. I’m not being glib, and I’m focused solely on getting you the best possible drift ... which, in turn, will help you catch more fish.)
  2. Don’t make a water mend when you can make an aerial mend.
  3. If you don’t know how to make an aerial mend, it’s time to learn.
  4. Once your dry fly is on the water, you don’t typically want to move it around. If your mend moves your fly (without prior intent), you’re not doing it correctly.
  5. The same thing goes for your strike indicator. Your mend should not move your indicator unless that was your desire beforehand.
  6. Don’t wait too long. Mend it just before it starts to drag.


  1. Don’t start fishing immediately. When you’re on the water, take the time to look around and digest what you see. By the way, that’s much easier to do when you’re relaxed and reasonably mellow.
  2. You can’t always see what you’re looking for, so listen as well. You’ll be surprised at how many times you can hear rising fish that you can’t see.
  3. Never piss on an electric fence. It might not be “on” ... but what if it is?

Playing Your Fish

  1. Don’t baby that fish. Put the wood to him.
  2. Use the heaviest tippet you can get away with.
  3. Don’t baby that fish. Put the wood to him.
  4. Get him on the reel, or strip him in, but don’t screw around.
  5. Don’t baby that fish. Put the wood to him.
  6. Nothing screams “neophyte” (or alternatively, “asshole”) louder than playing a fish too long. It’s way better to lose a good fish than to play him to exhaustion.

Landing Your Fish

  1. You didn’t land him? Who cares? You hooked him and played him. That’s what matters.
  2. You did land him? Sweet. Now keep him wet, treat him with respect, and let him go without any undue harm or hesitation.
  3. You don’t need a photo of every fish you catch.
  4. Don’t carry a huge net unless you absolutely, positively need it. And chances are good that you don’t need it. So don’t carry a huge net. If you really want to look clueless, it’s much easier to leave the price tag dangling from your hat.


  1. Embrace the Golden Rule.
  2. Be polite to other anglers.
  3. If you think you’re fishing too close to someone else, then you are fishing too close to someone else. A good rule of thumb is that you shouldn’t be able to reach the water they’re fishing even if you’re bombing it out with your longest cast. If you want to be safe, give other folks a hundred foot circle around their position and don’t wade or cast into it.
  4. If you’re in a boat, then keep in mind that wading anglers have the right of way.
  5. Don’t cut off other anglers.
  6. If you’re fishing with someone else, make a habit of offering them the best water.
  7. If you bump into an asshole, try to model the best possible on-stream behavior.
  8. If that doesn’t work, keep in mind that getting in a fight will likely ruin your day.
  9. Don’t litter. If you pack it in, pack it out.
  10. When you’re out on the water, don’t shout profanities or scream to the heavens unless it’s absolutely necessary. Nobody else drove to the river to hear you curse the cruel hand of fate.
  11. Every once in a while, share a bit of advice, or a favorite fly, with a stranger who looks like they could use extra help.

General Advice

  1. If you want to learn from other anglers, dial back your end of the conversation. Instead, watch and listen.
  2. Don’t accept everything that people tell you. (Including fly fishing writers.) All fishermen are liars. It’s just that some lie more than others.
  3. Don’t be oblivious to your surroundings. Wade with caution, and pay attention to deep water and other potential hazards.
  4. Don’t wade deeper than your waist in fast or dangerous water.
  5. Don’t rely on store bought flies. Tie your own.
  6. Don’t fish if the water is too warm, or if the fish are stressed for some other reason.
  7. Don’t fish when you’re angry. You’ll fish like shit, and you’ll end up even more bummed than when you started. Wait until you calm down.
  8. Don’t think you’re going to learn it all by reading articles or watching YouTube videos. Experience remains the best teacher, and time on the water is incredibly valuable.
  9. Fly fishing isn’t rocket science, or heart surgery. You’re not saving the world. It doesn’t matter how many fish you catch, or how big they are. So focus on the most important thing - which is enjoying yourself while you’re fishing.
  10. Don’t be greedy. Give something back. Mentor kids. Leave the landscape in better condition than you found it. Support your favorite conservation organizations.

A few final “Don’ts” for 2018

Don’t exaggerate the size of your fish. In fact, make a mental habit of knocking an inch off every trout you catch, unless you’re fishing with a buddy ... in which case you should knock two inches off. I know, it sounds crazy. But try it and see how people react.

Don’t get into a competition with other anglers. If you want to be competitive, challenge yourself to catch larger or more difficult fish.

Don’t believe everything I just told you. An old teacher of mine once said, “Your job here is not to believe what I tell you. Your job is to listen to what I’m saying and either prove me right or prove me wrong.” That was excellent advice. So think about the information I’ve shared and then go out and put it to the test. If it works, use it. If it doesn’t, then don’t. And either way, have as much fun with your fishing as you possibly can.


good read - but I take exception with one point....about not using a ''huge net"......i find the opposite true. I switched to a deep fishpond net years ago because I felt ridiculous trying to net a 20'' plus football sized brown in the standard trout nets they used to sell.....i could barely hit 1/2 the fish in it.....not good for me or the fish. I fish the upper delaware and farmington rivers alot....the larger net allows me to 'keep em wet' the whole time....i can admire te fish yet never take it out of the water....versus - I see a guy with a small net and I think amateur. Some of these nets are so small I figure why bother.....just palm the fish in the water and take the hook out.

I'm w/ you, Walter. 100%

To be fair, the net advice was qualified with “unless you need it”. If you’re fishing where 20+ is legit probability, you need a larger net. Blue lines and stocked waters, not so much.

Fantastic advice. Keep it going!! What do you think of Trout Unlimited, the organization. Thanks.

Some good advice but I say fishing is great fun be like me get out there & have fun
I fish all over the world & find most of the people I have met are like me just want to have fun but some are just nutters !!!!!!!
Keep away from them you can tell them from the others they have all the gear BUT No IDEA

You are so full of ....Good advice. Hah, fooled you, huh? Seriously, you wrote some good stuff and we all need to practice it, eve longtime flyfishers, if we believe you that is. Thanks

Dude don't give away all the secrets. I especially enjoy following someone upstream and catching all the fish they missed or standing upstream and catching fish at their feet. It's nice to fish serene and all by my lonesome but on spring trout opener were I'm from you can find yourself elbow to elbow with browns, rainbows, brookies, and Rookies. To the innocent looking guy who finds me on the stream, please be considerate and fish downstream from me. There's a lot of country and good spots nobody will ever find you again

God I hate fly fishermen

I like all the advice in this article, except for the part about caring whether other fishermen are laughing at you. Obviously you want the right gear, but if you can only afford a cheap reel, use a cheap reel (I wouldn't skimp on the rod or line if you can help it). Point is, whatever it takes to get you fishing.

Bingo! And, never - ever - think twice about someone laughing at you. If that ever happens, you can be sure that they just plain don't get it...

There are occasions where I get a kick out of people laughing at me. I have enough humility and life experience to actually end up laughing at myself on a lot of these occasions (and that's really important), even if a little belatedly sometimes.

As sure as the sun comes up in the East, the people doing the laughing are only temporarily in between their own mistakes, big and small, and will also be laughed at soon enough. Maybe they're laughing partly out of relief that for once they are not the ones being laughed at!

But there are also occasions when I don't enjoy people laughing at me. I try to be self aware enough to maintain a sense of humility, and I have enough experience in life to know it can be a struggle sometimes, and it's at these times I don't enjoy it. Even then I can sometimes make the laughter a positive - because I can definitely use it to build my resilience!

I also know that the laughter sometimes draws more negative attention to the person doing the laughing, than me. Because although not all laughter is about ridicule, sometimes it is - and at those times it can be an indicator of narcissistic or sociopathic traits in that person. Or it could just be that they're ignorant.

Stay humble, laugh at yourself, and make sure if you're laughing at someone else, that they can laugh too!

Each year, a group of us go on a gamefishing adventure, hunting marlin. We've been successful too (Some might say "we ARE successful, but my humility tells me success is both subjective, and perishable and that it's only a matter of time til we make another mistake that someone finds hilarious). But, with four guys in a 20' trailerboat for up to twelve hours a day for a week (and staying in the same house too) we share all the 'ups', and the many 'downs'. And no way are we always laughing - so there's a reminder sticker in a prominent position in the boat that reads "Don't Take Life too Seriously, No-one Gets Out Alive!"


Wonderful advice. I cannot nit-pick it. Three things I'd add. 1. In general when you get with guides, teachers or mentors, it is hoped that you came to learn. They know more than you. Listen. Learn. Take it in. That which doesn't seem to serve or fit, release it. 2. Don't try to impress them, with who you know, where you've been, what you've done. It just tends to show you aren't there for the right reasons. We'll know pretty quickly where you are on your fishing path. Good or bad; high or low; experienced or not. 3. Finally, you cannot stand outside of yourself and see your self. Hire a teacher (or coach if you prefer) to help learn casting, fishing, fish fighting and tying techniques. Books, magazine articles and video are nice, and while you think you are doing what you are seeing, you are probably not. Four thousands of years, mentors and elders have taught the new how to do. Human to human. There are no good books on how to throw a football or a baseball or dribble a basketball. We learn by doing with others.

Initially it seemed the "don't do it" was a bit of good christmas spirit about not judging other anglers like many of this guys guide friends apparently do. Unfortunately this article went on to support that prejudice and provides an amusingly long list of arrogant and sanctimonious cliches compiled to save us from mockery (as well as inflate the author's ego and fill in some blank space around sponsors).

Great post! Some things that really struck a cord were:
*The landing and playing a fish - 100% agree if you hook them quickly fight and release. If you lose the fish - that's fine.
*Etiquette - Everyone whose on the water is there for a reason. Until you know what that reason is - give them room and a smile.

The author sounds like an insufferable @$s

I have fished for over 50years and there is some great advice here,,read it again,then again and then go fishing.

I'm a newbie (I only started fly fishing last year), great advice! For any other newbies out there I would highly recommend one-on-one casting instruction with a certified casting instructor otherwise you'll build bad habits, or bad muscle memory, that has to be undone. Also I would recommend a reputable fly fishing school. I got a 2 day class lined up in April. Great list of do's and don'ts. I'm going to pick some of the ones I have to work on each time I'm out fishing or practicing. Thanks!

Mike as a certified casting instructor I could not agree with you more.As I tell people with regards learning to drive, learn from an instructor not you Mom or Dad as you may pick up some of their bad habits.