The Perfect Sport for Social Distancing

Outdoor types have the perfect hobby for these trying times

By Rob Breeding

I’m not going to trivialize the coronavirus pandemic. I believe we’ve got a serious health crisis on our hands. Fortunately, it appears most of us, if or when we contract it, will get sick and then recover. But we need to exercise extreme caution for the next few months, at least, in order to protect our most vulnerable neighbors and loved ones.

Social distancing is the new normal. Sporting events have been delayed or canceled. Schools are closing. Toilet paper may soon be exchanged as currency.

The good news is that outdoor types have the perfect hobby for these trying times. Social distancing is what we do.

This occurred to me as I watched a news report from Italy, where they are adding stripes to the sidewalks so folks know how to avoid invading one another’s space while they’re waiting in line or window shopping. Boundary reminders like these aren’t normally necessary when you’re fishing, however, unless you’re standing in a river in Alaska during a king salmon run.

There are rules of etiquette on crowded coastal rivers. When crowds form on popular steelhead waters, courteous anglers don’t camp out in a favorite spot. Protocol suggests they instead enter the river at the head of a run, work the spot a reasonable number of casts, then move their way downstream, repeating the process until the run plays out. You then head back upstream and repeat the process, or move on.

On inland waters the rules are a less formal. If I’m wading I can’t say there’s an exact distance from another angler that’s considered appropriate — and I suppose it depends on how crowded the river is — but I prefer to be out of sight if possible.

If out of sight isn’t possible, I like to get far enough away that the other angler has room to relocate in my direction without crowding.

This assumes everyone learned proper manners from mom when they were growing up. We’ve all had an encounter or two with folks who never learn these important life lessons. I usually don’t bother confronting streamside miscreants as it’s not worth the bother. I just move on.

Social distancing on rivers grows more complicated when it involves the old row vs. wade dispute. River etiquette instructs boaters to defer to any bank anglers they encounter. The logic should be obvious. If you’re in a boat you’re drifting downstream and you don’t have a stake in any particular spot the way the shore-bound angler does. When you’re on the oars you should always have one eye out for shore anglers. When you come upon one, the proper thing to do is hug the far bank until you’ve drifted well downstream.

And then there are row vs. row conflicts. The North Fork Flathead River can be a circus when the weather warms, especially the reach from West Glacier to Blankenship. On hot summer days you can expect to encounter every form of human life drifting down river on every form of inflatable device.

It’s been my experience that teenagers floating downstream on a pool toy usually don’t have a clue about river etiquette or appropriate social distancing.

If you’re fishing on the North Fork expect people to crowd your space. When I guided there it was common to anchor up in fishy-looking spots as we drifted through the canyon. More than once I had other floaters drift up and off load a boat load of cliff jumpers, within casting distance.

I don’t think I’m going out on a limb to say that people cannonballing into the river 20 feet away has a tendency to turn off the bite.

While bad manners are eternal, the good news is that we’ll eventually get through this coronavirus thing. Until we do, be careful and take care of yourself.

Rob Breeding is the editor of

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