7 Ways to Become a Better Steward for the Places You Fly Fish
Updated: Mar 18, 2021
The evening air was humid and heavy leaving my shirt sticking to my skin, but the bluegill were striking at any ratted and torn up fly which made it hard to pack it up for the day. With sunlight fading, I finally stripped the line in to release the last bluegill, around the urban pond other anglers were reeling in as well. Peering across the pond, I spotted one of these anglers walking along the bank. They walked over to a candy wrapper and soda bottle, bent over, and picked them up. Another angler saw this and also grabbed a piece of trash on their way out. It was just one small example of being a public land steward but it is something we can all do.
Many of us look for ways to be involved in taking care of the outdoor places we love whether its stream restoration, trail maintenance, or helping to mentor new anglers. However, the easiest way to become involved every time you go fishing are through simple acts of stewardship. The places that you love to fly fish need you as a steward. An urban pond, public beach, or some remote stream in a National Forest could be the local place you enjoy fishing, and they all provide opportunities for you to look after them. Not only can you play some part in conserving these places it also is a way to show that people really care about the health of these waters.
Below are seven ways to think about your role as a steward of our public waters and to think about the positive impact you can make. There are plenty of other methods to look after your watershed, but what is listed below can be applied to most places and provides a chance to self-reflect on your service as a steward for your waters.
Leave No Trace
Plenty of anglers have not yet heard of the organization Leave No Trace (LNT) or their 7 Principles for minimizing your impact on the outdoors. Or maybe you have heard of Leave No Trace (LNT) or seen it on an information kiosk at a trail head, but it is always a good idea to revisit the information they provide and to re-familiarize yourself with the LNT practices. The LNT principles can be applied to not just fly fishing but to any outdoor activity you enjoy.
One of the principles to really focus on as anglers is disposing of our waste properly. Rather than clipping off that tippet and letting it fall into the stream (which can take hundreds of years to decompose, especially fluorocarbon) place it securely in your pocket or pack and dispose of it properly when you finish fishing. Also, if your flies and tippet break off in a bush or tree limb, and you can safely retrieve them, then it would be best to gather them as well.
Bringing a small bag (like one of the plastic shopping bags you may only use once) with you to the water and filling it up with trash on your way out is a helpful habit to get into. If you fish the same body of water regularly it can be a really positive impact that you can visibly notice. Believe me, this can be daunting especially if you predominately fish urban waters, the garbage just seems to always reappear after every major rainstorm. But at the end of the day you are giving back to these places that desperately need stewards to look after them.
A few other things to think about with LNT's 7 Principles:
Rock cairns, those stacked rocks you might see along the bank, don't do that. Yes, they have a purpose in hiking or mountaineering to help find an obscure trail in order to keep you from wandering off-route and into a potentially dangerous situation, but they serve no similar function along a streambank. This is more of a personal pet peeve, but nothing is more irritating than seeing a river bank or lake shore with an expanse of miniature rock towers scattered everywhere, it takes away from the natural beauty of the place. (I take great pride in knocking these down and it provides a way to let your frustration out when can't seem to catch anything that day)
Clean your gear before fishing in a new watershed. This helps to prevent the spread of invasive species (like didymo) from one body of water to the next. Wading boots and water shoes should be washed with clean water and scrubbed with a brush then allowed to dry completely before going into a new watershed. Felt-soled wading boots are especially notorious for harboring invasive species and in some states are banned completely. Kayaks, paddle boards, rafts, etc. can all carry battalions of invasive pests and need proper cleaning as well. The main take-away, if you are going on a road trip and will fish some new water then check with local park officials or conservation groups to see what recommendations they have on preventing the spread of invasive species to their waters.
Altering the landscape can come in the form of hiking off-trail, carving your name into a rock or tree, but for the angler something we do not think much about is when we affect the riparian zone along the water. The riparian zone is that narrow habitat situated right along the bank, it may only be a few yards in width but it is incredibly important to the health of the river, stream, pond, etc. and its species. Get your flies stuck in that overhanging branch again? You might want to break the branch off, but that branch serves to help cool the water temperature and provides overhead safety from predators going after fish. Rather than destroying it, use it as a chance to improve your casting and techniques, or just consider it a place best left to the fish.
The Classic 3 R's
If you routinely round up trash after a day of fishing you will quickly realize that it can be a frustrating uphill battle. Sadly, while cleaning up riverside trash is a noble necessity it is going after the symptom of the problem. Living in a society that is centered on single-use products, it can be daunting trying to change into a behavior that minimizes the amount of waste you throw away everyday. However, this is the real change that needs to take place if we want cleaner watersheds and healthier ecosystems to fish in. Reverting back to our childhood lessons of the 3 R's (reduce, reuse, and recycle) is an excellent place to start for each of us.
Making incremental changes is perhaps the easier way to reduce the amount of trash you throw away, buying and reusing products, and recycling what you can. While cleaning up garbage after a day of fishing, you can also use it as an opportunity to reflect on how to make some small behavioral change in order to live more by the 3 R's. It is a tall order, and really something that needs to happen on a societal level, but it must start with us as individuals and reduce what we toss into landfills.
Keep Fish Wet
Like Leave No Trace, Keep Fish Wet is an organization that promotes stewardship/conservation principles, but these principles focus on the safe handling of fish species. If a lot of your angling is catch and release fishing then the Keep Fish Wet principles are incredibly important for how you handle fish. Some species are definitely more sensitive to how you handle them than others, but the principles and tips provided by Keep Fish Wet are a great baseline for when you fight and land any fish.
If you fly fish for trout routinely then an inexpensive piece of gear you should purchase is a thermometer. As water temperatures rise the amount of dissolved oxygen decreases which puts stress on fish species that need higher dissolved oxygen levels (like trout and salmon). Carrying a thermometer helps you to read water temps to know when the water is too warm to fish for trout (a general guideline is to not fish for trout above 65F). A water thermometer can also help you now when trout are most actively feeding, which is generally 45-65F. Using a thermometer will also show you how quickly a stream or river can change in temperature throughout the day and lend further insight into what time of day you should be fishing.
Consider using a rubber landing net to minimize the time it takes to land a fish and then to unhook the fly. Rubber nets are better for fish as they are less abrasive than knotted nylon nets, and a net can be a spot for the fish to recuperate in the water or to take a photo. Also, going with barbless hooks (or pinching the barbs on hooks) adds to the ease in handling fish and won't ruin your day if your backcast lands a fly into your arm or back of your neck.
Avoiding Spawning Fish
Spawning fish are vulnerable fish. I am guilty of catching largemouth bass while they were trying to protect their spawning beds in a lake. Plenty of anglers have done the same because you can visibly see these large males and females in plain sight. I gravitated to fly fishing because of the additional challenge in pursuing species on the fly however, targeting and catching these vulnerable bass just left the experience feeling hollow. Looking back on the experience, there is very little to be excited about with catching a spawning fish.
Spawning trout, bass, bluegill, and so on can not only be hooked and caught innumerable times in a season, when they are hooked they are not there to protect the eggs from predators (check out this video on what happens when you pull a fish off of the spawning bed it is trying to protect). Without protection, predators can easily eat all those eggs, and those eggs are your future fish populations.
The best thing to do is to avoid spawning beds. Bass and panfish beds look like perfect circles cleared of vegetation. Trout and salmon spawning beds (called redds) look like ovals of cleaned gravel in a stream or river (video on identifying and avoiding trout redds). If you are wading you should also stay clear of the spawning beds so you don't crush the eggs or bury them under silt and gravel.
Spawning season happens differently for each fish species, and if you want to know when these spawning seasons are then it is best to do a little internet research before hitting the water. Typically, smallmouth and largemouth bass spawn in the spring along with rainbow trout and bluegill. As for brown and brook trout they are fall spawners.
When in doubt, and you find yourself on the water peering at a fish that oddly seems to be right in the open exposing itself to danger, just watch the fish's behavior. Fish that are protecting their spawning beds typically will not be actively feeding, they will likely snip at any fish that cruises too close to them, and they will hold in the same spot (or return to it after being spooked). Additionally, if it is over a relatively tidy or cleaned up circle/oval area of gravel chances are pretty good that it is protecting a spawning bed and its eggs.
Now, fly fishing during the pre- or post-spawn is generally thought of as ethical, and it can be your call to make. Some thoughts to consider though:
Is this an area that already receives heavy angling pressure? If so, it might be best to let the fish do their thing and come back once the spawning season is over.
Are there some fish that are already protecting eggs in nearby nests? Then you might consider against casting your fly in case you hook the wrong target.
Check the state fishing regulations, as the particular body of water you are fishing could already be closed to angling for that time period.
Lastly, if you do happen upon fish that are protecting eggs in a spawning bed consider it a prime opportunity to just sit and observe. It's a chance to not only watch and learn some of a fish's behavior but you can also train your eyes to spot fish in a river, lake or pond. Use what you learn and apply it after the spawning season is over.
Much of the fly fishing community looks down upon killing and harvesting fish, yet it is a part of the history, tradition, and joy of the sport. Cooking what you catch is a further connection to the landscape, and knowing where your food came from is a point of pride especially when so much of our protein is the result of factory farms that severs us from the process. Catch and release fishing absolutely has its place in order to look after fragile or declining fish populations and certain breeding areas, yet sustainable and responsible fish harvesting is part of the experience.
If you have never killed and cooked your own fish, but purchase fish fillets at a grocery or restaurant, then I highly recommend doing it at least once in your life. Even if you never kill a fish to eat it ever again, the experience will still impart a deeper appreciation into what you are actually buying at a restaurant or grocery store. If you are going to give it a shot, there are a few things to keep in mind.
First, read the regulations for where you are fishing because there may be particular seasons for harvesting certain fish species. You may even discover that keeping fish might be illegal for anytime of the year. Some species may also have a strict policy of returning them to the water while other species can be kept, so do some research in order to know exactly what fish species you are catching (fish identification information can be found in the state regulations and sometimes will be posted at kiosks near the river, lake, etc.).
Something else to consider are creel limits (the number of fish you can keep in a day). This varies state to state and watershed to watershed, and there are some absolutely terrible creel limits out there. West Virginia is an example, much of the state's waters have a trout creel of six trout per day. On smaller rivers and streams this type of creel limit is not a sustainable practice and can impact the overall population, especially if it is a popular place for anglers. So take the time to consider the water you are fishing, how popular it is for anglers to harvest fish, and if it is wise to "limit out" on your catch. On the flip side, some places may have no creel limits for certain invasive fish species and use anglers as a way to help reduce these populations.
Lastly, it is prudent to read the state regulations because there might be health advisories for certain watersheds, because even though that river or lake you are fishing looks pristine it in fact could be contaminating the fish populations. Invisible toxic chemicals from mines, paper mills, factories, etc. could be spilling or leaching into the watershed and making it a risk to eat the fish (toxic fish in the Clark Fork River, Montana). Some regulations will list out the acceptable amount of fish, or parts of fish, to consume in a month or year and at times health officials will outright warn anglers not to eat any of the fish. This is just another sobering look into the health of our waters, and is a further impetus to look after and protect your local landscapes.
Video on how to humanely kill a fish.
Video on how to clean a trout.
Advocating for the Places You Love to Fly Fish
If you love the waters you fly fish then chances are pretty good that other people feel the same way. They may not be fly fishers, or even anglers, but could care just as deeply about the health of the river, lake, or coastline. Doing a quick internet search and finding a local conservation group could tie you into further opportunities to look after, restore, and clean up your local waters. Being a part of these organizations can also keep you up to date on important local legislation that impacts the watershed, and these groups can collectively pull resources and people together to make a powerful voice in helping to stop or reverse legislation that is damaging to your waters.
If there are no local conservation groups then there are a number of national organizations that you can join. If there is an issue with the area that you fish, and you are seeking information or guidance on how to protect it, then reaching out to one of these groups can be a great way to receive invaluable insight and potentially provide resources to help in the conservation work.
Finally, there is the tool of social media to advocate for the places you love to fish. Posting pictures of beautiful places and the fish you catch is great to share, yet social media can also be a way to show others that someone is out there picking up trash, handling fish properly, calling out harmful pollutants that leach into the watershed, and showing an interest in the local fishing access close to home.
Fish for Garbage is a growing organization that provides a way for anglers to share the message of picking up and cleaning your local waters. After a day of fishing, use #fillthenet and #fishforgarbage to share an image of the bag or net of garbage that you pulled out of the river, beach, or pond. Spreading the message that anglers care about their landscapes can serve as a way for more anglers to do the same in their own fisheries.
You can also use #keepfishwet to show responsible handling of fish that provides a lesson to new anglers on how to properly catch and release fish species. In popular fisheries, a fish can be caught several times in a week, or even a day, and if we want to be able to continue fishing these areas we must do so in a way that tries to minimize the damage done to fish. Fly fishing with barbless hooks can still kill fish, it just happens, but we can still do a lot to catch, handle, and release these fish in a more responsible manner.