Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Company vs. Crowds

When I was a young lad, I often played with a number of neighborhood friends. Two of us would play without incident until a third kid joined in. Somehow, two of us always ganged up on the third person. Who the third person was didn’t seem to matter, and I was the odd man out as much as not. Parents required to break up the fray would often mutter the cliché, “Two is company, but three is a crowd.”

The other day, I was reading an essay about the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River in Idaho. Those who practice the art of far and fine presentation to spooky trout consider sections of this water sacred. Accompanying the story was a photo of dozens of anglers lined up helter-skelter in the water. The article was full of praise for the river and its fishing, but my mood as I was reading it became soured. Why?

Somehow, the beauty of the trout, the scenery, and the holiness, history, and tradition of the place was lost for me when I looked at all those fly-fishermen. It looked like a convention of graphite, cane, and floppy hats.

What constitutes a crowd differs with each angler. Some of us like to fish alone, or with a carefully chosen partner. Others form in groups to fish. However, I would venture that there is some hidden number for all of us that defines the razor’s edge between comfort and discomfort in the numbers of people fishing near us. It may vary depending on the water type and size, or the type of fishing.

We fly-fishers have a lower tolerance for crowds and need more space for our fishing and peace of mind than most. Here in the Midwest on any weekend in summer, area lakes abound with dozens of boats jockeying for position within yards of each other. This is considered normal in the bait and hardware world. Place the same pressure on our fly-waters and I along with the rest of us would skulk off into the bushes muttering misanthropic thoughts.

This past year I ran into a few situations that pushed the buttons of my crowding alarm. One weekend day on a large western steelhead river, there must have been a drift-boat conclave. I have never seen that many boats on the river. They had every run sewn up. I started high on the river in an attempt to find an open run. I drove to a hidden spot, made my way through the poison ivy and loose scree down to the river, and was beaten into the run by seconds by a drift boat. The run is big enough for only one or possibly two anglers, as it has a defined sweet spot. The boat dropped four anglers. I drove off muttering to myself. For the next six hours I dodged drift boats, got sandwiched between boats, got low-holed by boats, etc. Finally, I got the idea of going back to the upper stretches of the river above or close to where the boats launch to find peace. Since it was now late in the afternoon, I figured there would be fewer boats. I was correct, as were the four or five other anglers that had the same idea I had. Now we got to compete and crowd each other for the few runs open to us. Sigh.

On another occasion, I was fishing a trout stream in my home state, when I noticed a pair of anglers working down toward me, as well as another pair of anglers moving up towards me. I was busy catching brook trout on dry flies during a sporadic hatch, and as the anglers approached, I began to feel as sociable as a pissed-off rattlesnake. The numbers line had been crossed. My personal space had been invaded. The worst effect of crowding actually drove a fishing partner and I off a river this year and sent us over a mountain pass to another river in search of seclusion for a few days.

Success and misery love company. Toward that end, many fishermen gather in groups or eventually gravitate towards each other in the river. When the number of people reaches a critical mass, thinking persons like me can no longer hear our inner-voice. Our sense of harmony is disturbed. Our place in relation to nature and our surroundings becomes unbalanced.

Some people like to fish in crowds. Others like to take the path less traveled by, and find themselves in a remote or spiritual place where they can practice their art in silence.

The nice thing is that it is usually our choice. There are exceptions to that rule though. As steelhead populations decline and dwindle, and more rivers are closed to fishing, more pressure is placed on the few rivers with healthy populations of fish. The same can be said of areas with trout streams that are suffering from drought. Healthy rivers with water concentrate both fish and anglers.

Weather can play a role too. Most people these days are soft. Raised on a couch in front of a television, they are afraid of snow, ice, wind and rain. Dark clouds send them scuttling back to the SUV. This opens an opportunity for others of us that enjoy getting a bit muddy or wet, and consider a few mosquito bites or a twisted ankle a right of passage.

Sometimes getting away from the madding crowds is as easy as putting as much distance between you and a pullout or bridge as possible. I found this out once again this year when I passed up several anglers fishing within a hundred yards of each other on a little trout stream. I drove upstream into a remote section and went exploring. I found myself alone in a cathedral setting. Granite walls a hundred feet high on one side and forest on the other. For the next four hours, I never saw another soul, and buttery brown trout were caught.

As the environment suffers, and consequently, opportunities for quality fishing decline, some of us will have to travel farther or crawl through more brambles to find the peace we seek on the water.

Back to that picture of the Henry’s fork, you can keep it. I will be somewhere else where I can listen to owls, and nobody can witness when I put down every fish in the pool with my first sloppy cast. Fly-fishing was never meant to be a team or spectator sport.


  1. When you're a sheep, you end up in the herd.

    Think harder. Work harder. Simple as that.

  2. In addition to the general overcrowding of our rivers for various reasons there is (as noted) something of a herd mentality amongst certain types. As busyness has become endemic, so also has a kind of "social compression." Not only do many people tolerate a higher level of social contact than I can, many of them cannot function without it. They must have social interaction to feel comfortable. I was snooping around on the net a while back, and a fellow had remarked how lonely he felt in a deserted campground, wishing he had chosen one with more people. I recently spoke to a man who refuses to fish a certain river at the beginning/end of the regular season because "it's freaky up there by yourself." I constantly see groups of four or five anglers, spaced out a rod length or two apart, flogging the water in a run, not moving out of earshot even when there is room enough to spread out. This is actually a blessing in disguise. If you are willing to (gasp) walk up 'round the corner you will have as much untouched water as you could want. At least until the next paved/obvious turnout with it's attendant corporate therapy group. By the by, there is apparently a new technique for catching trout. By whipping the water to foam, one may simply net the poor fish as they struggle to swim in the meringue. Granted I've not actually seen this work, but it must since they keep trying it. fortunately, to a large degree the people who are the most likely to contribute to the crowds are often the least likely to "waste" time hiking in somewhere for a handful of eight inch West Slope Cutthroat.--AJ

  3. AJ,
    Excellent comments. Thank you. Yes, for many anglers out there if there is no audience to reinforce the conquest then fishing is boring. It amazes me how some individuals just will not break from the herd and go it alone. To me, sometimes those almost spiritual experiences on the river are best when one's own thoughts become part of nature's rhythm.

    One of the best days I ever had trout fishing was for foot-long cutthroat on the Lochsa. I was all alone in the upper reaches. Sublime. Especially for this Midwest boy who never fished a true cascading freestoner before. What would the experience be like if the river was filled with anglers?
    As you put it, trophy fisheries attract crowds, but many opportunities exist for us if we measure the experience of fly-fishing vs. the fish itself.


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