Fishing – and especially fly fishing – is a world unto itself, complete with a complex culture and subtle, but meaningful, societal rules that usually aren’t stated outright, but are learned over time. One of the few written rules in this sport, though, is that you don’t ask another angler about their fishing spot, especially if they haven’t offered that information.
I had to explain this phenomenon to my mother-in-law once, and I don’t think she still fully understands. A buddy and I were headed fishing, and my mother-in-law asked me where we were headed.
“A river,” I said.
She glared at me. “Oh come on, I just wanna know where you’re going!”
“It’s a secret.”
She rolled her eyes. “Yeah, and I’m gonna go fish your secret spot and ruin it, aren’t I?”
I shrugged. “No, but you might tell someone, who tells someone else, who tells someone who fishes, and then I’ve lost my favorite fishing spot.”
My mother-in-law rolled her eyes again, and I left.
If I’m completely honest, I was that cagey on purpose. My mother-in-law and I have a special relationship, built on giving each other unbelievable amounts of crap. It’s to the point that anyone who doesn’t know us well wouldn’t be blamed for thinking we hate each other.
But as over-the-top as that example may be, I’ve had that situation play out countless times. Whether it’s on Facebook or Instagram, or at a local bar and grill in some far-flung Rocky Mountain town, it’s still the same old song and dance. Someone asks what I’m up to, I say I went fishing, and the follow-up is almost always, “where?”
I could just not mention fishing, but that’d be like asking Jeff Bridges only about the two Tron movies he starred in. I’d leave a lot of myself out of the conversation, and most of us anglers aren’t wired that way. It’s not that we’re inclined to bouts of braggadocio; rather, it’s that when you love something as much as we all tend to love fishing, you can’t help but talk about it as often as possible.
So why, then, are we so cryptic about our favorite fishing spots?
For a lot of us, I think it’s about the effort put into discovering something that feels like your own. With the ever-increasing encroachment of the concrete jungle – and its suit-clad citizens – on the last vestiges of wilderness, finding a place that feels relatively untrammeled is as close as most of us will ever get to the exploration and discovery of anglers who came before us.
That’s not to say real discoveries and adventure don’t exist, but they’re largely beyond the reach of the average angler. Nunavut, the Northwest Territories, and parts of Alaska, Russia, and South America are likely the last strongholds of water that have never seen a fly angler. Getting there is cost-prohibitive for most of us, though, and the fishing seasons are short. Who’s to say there’d even be fish in some of these places, anyways?
Perhaps that’s another reason that so many of us like to keep our fishing holes to ourselves. Often, a honey hole is a place we’ve fished for years, that we know inside and out, a place where we’ve spent enough time to either know or anticipate the variables it presents, and how to overcome them. These spots become as close to a sure thing as you’ll ever find in fishing, and who would want to give that up?
John Gierach once wrote that the only difference between a fishing guide and a therapist is the latter can write prescriptions. I’ll add to that and say that a therapist can’t help you catch fish either, and even though catching fish isn’t what makes fishing so addicting, there are days when the tug of a fish on the end of your line heals what words and meds never could. Through that lens, keeping your fishing spot a closely-guarded secret makes a great deal of sense.
Now, I should address that some people have a false sense of ownership over a stretch of water. This is different than the feeling of discovery and exploration – this is a get-off-my-lawn attitude that pushes a fair number of new anglers out of the sport. The anglers who act like the entire river belongs to them, simply because they’ve fished it since the 90s, or their grandfather used to guide there, aren’t keeping anything a secret. They’re just incorrigible.
I reckon it’s best that we all make a habit of not asking each other where we caught fish, with the obvious caveat of close friends and family. For most of us, the reason we keep honey-hole locations on the down-low has less to do with the boorish behavior of entitled jerks, and more to do with feeling a true, undisturbed connection to fish and to nature.
A few years ago, early on in spring when Forest Service roads are still a muddy mess and runoff is either starting or mere days away, I made a trip to one of my favorite fishing spots. It’s a stretch of creek a half-mile walk off a main dirt road between two small towns in central Utah. Years ago, it was probably full of native cutthroat trout. Today, it’s home to some of the prettiest wild rainbows I’ve ever seen.
A popular hiking trail parallels the creek for a few miles, and it’s usually churned up from horses and foot traffic. That day, I saw boot prints that looked fresh, but didn’t give them much thought. I enjoyed the half-mile hike through aspen and pine, reveling in the raw smell of the awakening wilderness.
Then the trail dropped down into a hollow, and two beaver dams created the perfect set of pools for fishing small dry flies. I’d never run into anyone else fishing up there. The only company I had were the garter snakes, deer, and one time, a black bear.
This time, a father and son stood together, trying to cast downstream to the few trout that still rose warily to midges. The water is crystal-clear, and I saw dozens of trout hunkered on the bottom, obviously spooked by the anglers standing directly upstream of them.
The father and son duo were obviously new to fly fishing, and I sat on the sloping hill of the hollow and just watched. Their casts were mechanically sound, but their insistence on a downstream drift in dead-calm, clear water was killing any chance they had of catching fish.
Eventually, they got frustrated and moved on. I waited another half-hour until the rainbows resumed their normal feeding habits. I don’t remember how many fish I caught that day, but I do remember looking at the boot prints where the father and son stood on the muddy bank. As great as the day was, it felt different. My fishing spot wasn’t just mine anymore. I knew, of course, that other people fished it, and I’d taken a few buddies there over the years. But I’d never seen anyone else there, and the creek kept its unsullied illusion.
That is, I think, why we work so hard to keep our secret spots so secret. I don’t begrudge the father and son who fished there before me. I hope they found success in the riffles and pocket water upstream of the beaver ponds. For that day, however, the creek felt different.
I haven’t seen anyone else on that creek since. I doubt I will. The last time I went, it felt as untouched and new as it did the first day I laid eyes on it, more than two decades ago.
Spencer Durrant is a fly fishing writer and guide from Utah. He’s the Lead Guide/Owner of The Utah Fly Fishing Company, the News Editor for MidCurrent, and a columnist for Hatch Magazine. Connect with him on Instagram/Twitter, @Spener_Durrant.