The water was calm and, for the moment, so was the group of boats waiting for something to happen. Then the moment everyone had been hoping for came to pass: birds started diving and bait started jumping as the striped bass pushed them to the surface. And every boat driver seemed to temporarily lose his mind to get to the fish, cutting off other boats, throwing big wakes and gunning it to be first. Inevitably, the first boat ran right into the middle of the bust, sending all those stripers down in a panic. And everybody had to wait again.
The problem with fishing from a boat is that, while the written rules of the road can be found in Chapman’s or a local Power Squadron course, there are many unwritten rules that must be picked up through experience—usually the hard way. If you see a fellow angler hoist two middle fingers in your direction or throw egg sinkers over your bow, odds are you breached fishing etiquette. To avoid issues on the water, here are nine of the unwritten rules, in writing.
1. Don’t Drive into Busting Fish.
A cardinal sin. You may get a shot, but the fish will go down and no one else will. Best to idle up to the surface action, position your boat, and kill the engine. Or set up a drift in anticipation of intercepting the working fish.
2. Don’t Troll Through Busting Fish.
Nothing against trolling, but it’s meant to draw fish to the surface that might otherwise be down. If the fish are already up, trolling seems like a lazy way to catch fish. Plus, it truly irritates every angler trying to enjoy the visual surface action, gets in the way, and puts fish down. Bring in the lines, grab a rod and make a cast.
3. Don’t Anchor in a Drift Pattern.
When fishing a rip or a current seam, the first boats to arrive usually set up a drift pattern. Once your drift is completed, swing wide and motor up to the top of the drift. Dropping anchor when the rest of the fleet is drifting kills it for everyone else and will make you many enemies.
4. Don’t Cut the Line in a Drift Pattern.
If someone has already established a drift, don’t tuck your boat in down current and poach the fish he was expecting to catch. Ease into the drift up current and wait your turn.
5. Don’t Cut the Line Trolling.
See above. If someone is trolling a weed line for dolphin, and he was there first, fall in behind, leaving plenty of distance between you and his spread.
6. Do Idle Past Anchored Boats.
This is an especially considerate thing to do inshore, when people may be anchored on the edges of a channel or along a bank. Throwing a big wake in their direction is not only thoughtless, it could be dangerous. The same applies to boats working an area with an electric trolling motor or a poling skiff.
7. Don’t Poach the Flats.
If you see someone poling a skiff across the flats with an angler on the bow, odds are they are stalking fish. They got there first, so find another flat to pole or, if the area is large enough, start your fishing far enough away to avoid spooking their fish.
8. Don’t Buzz the Flats.
This is a relatively new phenomenon, as boats are now being built that can run under power in inches of water. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. Get up on the platform and pole, or use the trolling motor. Some people do it in effort to herd fish and get a shot at them, but that’s a short-term benefit that ruins the fishing once the fish disperse. Plus, running the flats can leave prop scars and tear up the grass beds, ruining habitat for baitfish and gamefish alike.
9. Always Offer a Tow.
If there’s a boat in distress, karma dictates you help, no matter how it affects your fishing day. This hinges on whether your boat is capable of towing a stranded vessel and if it’s safe to do so in the sea conditions. If not, stand by until help arrives via Sea Tow, Coast Guard, or whomever.
And if you don’t abide by these rules, well, karma can be a bitch.
Pete McDonald writes for Boating, Yachting, and other marine and fishing publications. In the past, he has written for Power & Motoryacht and Salt Water Sportsman, and spent 11 years on staff as a technical editor at Boating. All things considered, at any given moment he would prefer to be fishing.