Fishing Etiquette on the Water

Tips to avoid altercations with other boats and improve everyone's chances for success

trolling motor for fishing boat
Use a trolling motor, push pole or drift along shorelines where fish congregate.Capt. Dave Lear

Fishing etiquette is as important as having the right tides and tackle. Some rules are particular to particular areas, while others offer universal. This includes offshore, where you typically have miles of ocean without another boat in sight. But even offshore there are times when congestion occurs, like North Carolina’s Big Rock or St. Thomas’ North Drop when the bite is on.

If you’re fishing these circumstances, maintain as much distance from other boats as possible. If not you’re likely to tangle lines, cut off someone’s fish or end up with an angry marlin in your cockpit. And that doesn’t include the irate neighbors you’ll encounter when you return to the dock. If you’re unsure of an offshore situation, the best bet is to hail the captain to find out what’s going on and how you can avoid a predicament. After all, you would want them to do the same for you. In fact, the Golden Rule is one of those universal guidelines for fishing etiquette.

fishing near another boat
Unless you’re fishing with buddies, never get this close to another craft.Capt. Dave Lear

Nearshore spots like passes, shoals or rips demand more nuanced manners. Perhaps the best known scenario of this type is Boca Grande Pass in southwest Florida, where each summer hundreds of tarpon congregate. Consequently the boat traffic is worse than a Wall Street intersection at rush hour, so the time-honored “rule” calls for an orderly drift through the pass, after which you slowly motor around outside the following boats and queue up again for another drift. Many Northeast guides use this same method when working productive rips or shallow shoals for stripers, bluefish and albacore. Problems occur when boats deviate from the pattern (or a 125-pound tarpon decides to go airborne in the opposite direction of the traffic). The bottom line? Practice common courtesy and you’ll never go wrong.

Skinny water or flats fishing has another set of parameters. You should never motor up on a flat or shoal. Besides the possibility of damaging your boat, motors spook the very fish you and fellow anglers want to target. Stop well short of the shallows and use a push pole, an electric trolling motor, or drift quietly into position instead.

fishing near bridge
Always maintain a large buffer from others.Capt. Dave Lear

Avoid areas with other boats or wade fishermen. If a flat is large enough to support more than one craft, always come in quietly and behind the first boat. On the more popular flats, ease in too close to another skiff and you’re liable to have a lure or push pole coming in your direction. It’s best to maintain a 100-yard distance, keep noise to a minimum and avoid confrontation, regardless of the locale.

using pole for flat boat
When someone is poling a flat, always come in quietly from behind if you intend to work it, too.Capt. Dave Lear

“There are so many anglers fishing our area that ‘River Rage’ is the phrase-of-the-day as guys get into shouting matches over schools of fish,” says Capt. Mike Hakala, who targets Florida’s Mosquito Lagoon. “I try to follow the Golden Rule and treat others as I want to be treated. The key is to relax and remember it’s just fishing, and it’s supposed to be fun.”