Close Encounters of the Worst Kind (and What to do About Them)

By Luke Patrick

What's the most harrowing situation you've endured on a fishing trip? Angry rattlesnakes? Salmon-crazed grizzly bears?

Creepy or clawed critters can rank pretty high on the fright-meter, but most fly fishers will tell your that their most distressing encounters on the water are with two-legged creatures: their fellow anglers.

For most of us, bristly run-ins with humans are the most aggravating aspect of our otherwise peaceful sport. As fly fishers, we value our solitude. When it's intruded upon, it can be an awfully tall order to resist the urge to get confrontational.

Even if we manage to bite our lips and avoid conflict, we can end up walking away resentful and let down. Suddenly we're wondering, "What happened to my peaceful day on the water?"

Wouldn't it be nice . . .

Wouldn't it be pleasant if a simple lesson in etiquette, or a posting of some basic Rules of the River, would solve conflict problems in our increasingly pressured fly fishing locales?

Unfortunately, the solution is not so simple. Local norms will always vary, and what's considered shoulder-to-shoulder on one river may be deemed shouting distance on another. Moreover, there will always be recreational interests on the water that conflict with even the most considerate of fly anglers.

Without any hard-and-fast rules that will work in all interactions, the angler is left with two options: head for the backcountry, or learn to deal effectively with the folks with whom we share the water.

If you choose the former (it is a viable option), then I can't recommend much beyond investing in a good GPS and a set of USGS maps. But if you're the kind of angler who would prefer to enjoy a good day's fishing without having to retreat to the Styx, then some basic pointers in effective communication are in order.

These guidelines are more like a topographical map than a set of directions from Point A to B: they don't list out turn-by-turn instructions to a particular destination, but they do provide a general sense of how to navigate no matter where you're headed.

Styles of Communication

There are endless ways to describe how people communicate, but for our purposes it's not an oversimplification to boil down interaction styles to four basic types. Each has its own message. Each can work some of the time. But there's one style that's usually your best bet for dealing with sticky situations on the water. We'll get to it in a bit. First, let's look at three less-than-optimal ways to interact on a fishing excursion.

Aggression

One type of less-than-optimal communication you've probably experienced on a fishing outing gives the basic message, I'm here to do my thing, and if you don't like it that's your problem! Psychologists call this type of communication "aggression," but terms like "rude," "domineering," and some others not fit for print probably come to mind.

There are different levels of aggression, from name calling to rock hurling to physical threats or worse. This type of communication makes it hard to enjoy the moment, and that goes for the "disher" as well as the "taker." It might get you what you want in the short run, but there's usually a price to pay.

Passivity

The message of passive communication is something along the lines of, Don't mind me, you just have your fun. We don't typically have the strong negative reaction to passive communication that we have to the aggressive stuff. Deciding to silently reel in and move on downstream when somebody steps into your run is an example of passivity. It does feel good to get some solitude without causing a scene, but sometimes the resentment can really build. Later we may find ourselves stewing about the situation; or worse: blowing up at the next person to crowd "our" water.

Passive Aggression

A third--and particularly aggravating--form of poor communication combines the two styles above. Its message is, I'm going to get my way, but I'm not going to just come out and show it. All kinds of confusing and frustrating interactions are the result of passive aggressive communication. It usually comes out when we feel we're getting a raw deal, but aren't comfortable confronting the person about it directly. Ever consider double-hauling your size 2 Woolly Bugger right into that group of rafters who floated by your run a little too closely, then apologizing for your "poor aim?" That would be a dandy example of passive aggressive communication!

A More Effective Alternative

Fortunately, there's another option for fly anglers who want to make their voice heard without fueling the fires of frustration. Effective communication (what psychologists term "assertiveness") usually takes a little more effort to pull off, but almost always turns a better outcome for both the communicator and the communicatee.

An assertive message says, I'm going to stand up for my own interests, and I also respect your needs. Proper execution of assertiveness requires learning and implementing at least a few basic skills; like most endeavors, success comes through practice. Fly anglers know about that! Here are some guidelines to get you on the path to more effective communication:

  1. Think first. If a fellow outdoorsman has done something to push your piscatorial buttons, take a moment to look at the situation from his perspective. What at first appears to be an all out assault on your peaceful day may actually be driven by something more naïve. Maybe it's just unbridled excitement or honest ignorance that's leading the person to bound into the water just upstream from you. Before you talk, give some consideration to whether your own perspective is reasonable. If it is, the rest will be easy.
  2. Educate, don't reprimand. What you see as blindingly obvious may be a completely foreign concept to a novice angler. For instance, most responsible fly fishers get positively steamed when they see people wading into trout or salmon spawning redds. That's a reasonable reaction, but scolding people about it just makes for bad feelings and puts the transgressor on the defensive. Be prepared to explain in a simple way why your point is important. If you can, offer better alternatives. You may find yourself being thanked rather than sneered at.
  3. Use good body language. Stand close enough to show you mean what you say, but don't invade people's space. Use posture that is upright and direct, but don't puff your chest out like that cartoon character, Foghorn Leghorn. Maintain eye contact, but don't stare them down. Speak loudly enough to be heard, but don't yell. (And, tempting though they may be, do your best to avoid obscene finger gestures!)
  4. Be direct. When you make a request, be succinct and to the point. Don't be snappish, but remember that beating around the bush diminishes the impact of your message.
  5. Listen actively. It may sound like touchy-feely overkill, but there's a lot to be said for giving a few interested head nods while the other person is talking. You can even repeat back what you've heard them say. This lets the other person know you're trying to see things from their perspective, and that leads to results rather than standoffs.
  6. Criticize actions, not people. If you must confront--and sometimes you must--register your complaint in terms of the person's behaviors, not the person himself. There's been more than one occasion in which anglers have ambled right into a steelhead run I'm working, close enough for me to snag their gravel guards with my Green Butt Skunk . I have to admit, my first thoughts upon encountering these folks have been silent labels along the lines of "Pompous jerk!" or "Clueless ignoramus!" But of course, labels don't get you far when you're trying to help someone understand steelheading etiquette. Better to objectively point out how their actions are cause for concern, than to start speculating about their character or motives.
  7. Describe the person's behavior in terms of its effects on you. A statement such as "I'm worried your raft will spook the fish" is a better approach than "You're drifting too damn close to my run!"
  8. Giving a little benefit of the doubt won't kill you. Assuming the worst in others just brings out the worst in us. Most outdoor recreationists, whether they are jet skiers, rafters, or other anglers, are there to have a good time, not to ruin somebody's day. Respond to them accordingly. Sure, you're going to run into the occasional, outright, self-interested jerk. But assuming positive intent in others lets you approach the situation in a more level-headed manner. And it can really throw a selfish jerk off balance!
  9. Mind the Big Picture. Fly fishing and other forms of outdoor recreation are just that: recreation. When it starts to feel like blood sport, it's time to recalibrate. It's easy to get a high and mighty attitude when we fly fish; after all, it is the finest outdoor pastime around! But if you find yourself constantly frustrated by the crowds, it's worth keeping in mind that you're part of that crowd. Remember, you have choices, and ultimately no one can ruin your day but you.

Improving Your Odds

Effective communication doesn't guarantee you'll never face a sticky situation, nor that you'll get your way every time. But it greatly increases the chances that your encounters on the water will be more pleasant and less pungent.

Most importantly, it allows you to support your unique interests as a fly angler, while preserving the integrity of this splendid endeavor for all of us.

Luke Patrick, Ph.D., resides in Portland, Oregon. He works as a licensed psychologist specializing in chronic pain management, sport psychology, and biofeedback relaxation training. His passion for fly fishing is a self-diagnosed obsessive compulsion, as well as his favorite form of self help.