Fishing Rules of Etiquette

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Photos by Mark Fiorentino

There being no rule to the contrary, I laughed hysterically at Dorman’s tangled mess.

You might think my fishing buddies and I have a certain level of sophistication and refinement. At a minimum, you’re thinking, enough to establish rules of etiquette that govern our behavior when we are out on the boat together. Rules that prohibit, or at the very least, discourage, inappropriate behavior.

If you were actually thinking about this: 1) no offense, but COVID may have kept you cooped up too long; and 2) you don’t know my fishing buddies very well.

I, on the other hand, facing a looming deadline, had no choice but to think about it. I thought and thought. But, as I racked my brain, all I could come up with were rules that we should have. Rules governing things like:

Smelly Jelly

Smelly Jelly is a fish attractant, a product you use to coat your lure or bait with the hope that some combination of its smell and chemical make-up will entice fish to bite more and/or hold on longer. In theory, there is nothing wrong with fish attractants, except Smelly Jelly is a particularly putrid brand. To get a sense of how putrid, you need not move past its name. Say it slowly: “Smelly… Jelly,” with the emphasis on “Smelly.” Other popular brands have names like Baitmate Dip, BANG, Gulp Alive and Hog Tonic.

Take my word for it, it’s gorge-retching. But because there is no rule against it, my friend Dave regularly uses, and often spills, his favorite jar of it. I have nearly vomited days after fishing with him merely walking past my boat. 

Common Courtesy

Imagine this scene. My buddies and I stop for coffee and a bagel on the way to the lake. We are all partial to pumpernickel bagels, but the bagel shop always has a very limited supply. As we get out of the truck in the parking lot, almost before the truck comes to a complete stop, I purposely trip my friend John. He executes a perfect gymnast’s role and tackles me. Dave, seeing us so engaged and sensing an opportunity, bolts for the shop’s front door. John and I disengage and race to beat him to the door, where we all push each other to be the first inside.

We, of course, would never act that way for a bagel. But we routinely do such things for a big fish. Or, even the prospect, no matter how remote, of a big fish.

The key to catching big fish is often making the perfect cast when you first reach a new fishing spot. And the key to a perfect cast is often timing and having the right casting angle. So, naturally, we jockey to be in position to make the first cast. Whoever is steering the boat will approach in a way that best cuts off all angles but his own. As the boat begins to slow, and most times long before an accurate cast can be made by anyone, everyone rushes to cast around, past and over each other. This usually results in, best-case scenario, spooked fish, and worst case, severely tangled lines.


Believe me, there are times when I almost instituted a flatulence rule on the spot. There have also been times when I thought about putting such a rule in writing and making my buddies actually sign something before they board the boat. But I never actually do it because, frankly, if you’re not going to have a rule prohibiting Smelly Jelly, what would be the point?


Back in the bagel shop. If Dave dropped his wallet, and if when he bent over to pick it up, his shorts slipped down just enough to expose a little butt crack, you would not expect the rest of us to laugh hysterically. Nor would you expect us to point out his mishap to everyone else in the shop. And on this point, you would be right (I think).

But there is no such restraint when we’re fishing together. I have laughed until I cried seeing things like Dorman with his line tangled so badly that he would undoubtedly miss significant fishing time trying to fix it. And heaven forbid if you should lose a big fish that everyone saw right at the boat. If you do, you are likely to be subjected to some combination of mocking, lecturing and scorn. 

Which brings me to the one rule we do have:

Manning the Net

On its face, the rule is simple. If you hook into a fish that you think is worthy of assistance landing, you say —or yell— forcefully and clearly: “NET.” The person closest to you is then required to stop whatever they are doing, grab the net, and properly land your fish.

But, being who we are, the rule isn’t without nuances. There can be no hesitation or ambiguity in your declaration.



“This could be a nice one.”

“Can someone grab the net?”

All of these authorize, and will result in, everyone on board ignoring you. They also prohibit you from complaining about losing a big fish, and from even claiming you hooked one at all.

And you must take great care to never, ever call for the net when you have hooked an unimpressive fish, or worse yet, a sunken tree branch. Two things will happen. First, for a period of at least an hour, everyone will ignore your calls for the net. And second, you will be subject to ridicule for no less than the rest of the trip, and possibly for weeks to come.

For a complete understanding of this, see the discussion above regarding our lack of rules governing empathy.

Luckily for me, a buddy unfamiliar with the rules fell for: “This is a big weakfish.”