Some things should never be shared with people: social security numbers, credit card information, and of course secret fishing spots. If you fish often, you most likely know a few places reserved only for yourself and your closest friends.
With the knowledge of a secret spot comes a great responsibility. Give up your own, and you may find a lot more people there the next time you fish. Give up your buddy’s, and you may no longer be friends.
Simply seeing a stranger near your favorite hole can cause a rise in blood pressure. As Steve Rinella has pointed out, when you’re heading to your spot, only the people in your group are tolerable, and everyone who isn’t in your group must be an asshole. They’re thinking the same thing about you.
The ethics of secret fishing spots
The ethics behind fishing spots and how they’re shared are a bit murky, but generally seem to follow an unwritten code among anglers.
Sharing your own spots is obviously fine, as long as you’re willing to risk more traffic to them. It starts to get hairy, though, when there are some degrees of separation. You may be okay with your buddies fishing your run, but not your buddies’ buddies. After a certain point, it’s really no longer a secret spot.
Some people don’t even like their friends fishing their spot alone. They’ll assume a sort of tour guide mentality. “If you want to go, I’ll take you, but don’t go in there without me.” Regardless of whether the ethics line is drawn here, it can be a tricky situation to deal with, since it’s unlikely to come up until the line has already been inadvertently crossed by the offending fishing pal.
Sharing a spot you’ve been gifted with other people can be a quick way to never hear of another spot, especially if those people show up to the spot without you. While this is a pretty established ethical no-no, what’s hard about secret spot ethics in general is that it’s completely at the discretion of whoever’s “spot” it is.
While some ethical lines — theft, violence, driving slowly in the left lane — have been collectively decided by society, fishing spot morals live solely within the fishing community, meaning anglers decide the rules and have to self-police. Because of this, there isn’t really one singular set of rules. Knowing your audience is key.
If a guide shows you a spot, is it ethical to then go and fish the spot yourself the next day? Opinions vary on this. Some people think that out of respect, you shouldn’t fish your guide’s run. On the other hand, you paid your guide to take you fishing and give you information, including where to fish.
Personally, I think it’s very situation-specific. As someone who has guided, and has had people come back to fish those spots after the fact, my opinion on it has depended almost solely on what type of person we’re talking about.
I’ve had people who were a joy to take out, have been engaged and eager to learn, and have even asked if they could come back to that spot. I have absolutely zero issues with this person coming back to fish my run. I’d even encourage it, regardless of whether they asked for permission.
Conversely, I’ve taken people out who didn’t want to take my advice while fishing, were rude, would like to slither back to my spot in hopes I never found out, and would probably share with all their friends. For those people, I view it as unethical to come back.
There are other factors that come into play as well. Is the person coming to fish when they know the guide is actively working there? Are they treating it as sacredly as the guide does, or are they sharing it with the world?
As with nearly everything regarding right and wrong, I don’t think there’s a clear answer on swiping a guide’s spot. And, as with nearly everything else, trying not to be a jerk will generally keep you on the side of right.
An argument that came up on Joe Rogan’s podcast (related to hunting, but relevant to fishing), is that if you’re an advocate for using our public lands, you can’t ethically hide your public land secret spots. In doing so, the argument went, you’re trying to treat public land as your own private set of spots. If you were truly a proponent of public land use, you’d tell everyone where you were.
On this topic, I wholeheartedly disagree. I think a more appropriate example of a public land low-blow would be actively trying to prevent people from accessing a public area, by illegally fencing it or posting it. Simply failing to share a location you worked hard to find is well within your fishing rights and says nothing about your support of public lands.
Going to great lengths
It’s hard when you see a picture of an awesome fish to not wonder, “Where was that caught?” It’s only natural. Most people will leave it at that, but a few will go to great lengths to find the spot.
Some will put a mild effort into the cause, by simply asking for the location. While this doesn’t often work, occasionally you’ll catch someone on a good day and get the information you seek.
After that, there’s a group who will study photos, videos, maps, and reports in hopes they’ll come across something that will give them their answer. I’ve even heard of some hunters and fishermen including irrelevant shots in their blog posts or videos just to mislead people and avoid giving away their honey hole.
While on one hand I can understand the frustration of someone whose spot was discovered based on online documentation, I can also applaud the effort put forth by those studying said documentation. At the end of the day, I don’t find this to be an ethical line-crosser. Someone willingly put something online, and someone else used it. It can be a lot of work to suss out locations this way, anyway.
In 2017, though, someone blew these last two groups out of the water. After fishing for massive brook trout in Algonquin Provincial Park (home to thousands of lakes) and posting a video of the trip online, Mike Borger received a letter in the mail informing him that someone had filed a Freedom of Information request for his location.
While I commend this person for their creativity, it also leaves a sour taste in my mouth about the lengths people will go to to avoid putting work in themselves. While studying photos and videos online isn’t the same as discovering a spot completely on your own, it still requires an admirable amount of effort.
Filing a FOI request, on the other hand, strikes me as both extremely lazy and completely unethical. It reeks of entitlement and is reminiscent of the public lands argument, in which it’s seen as the fisherman’s duty to share his spots with the world. Created to keep the government in check, and never intended for people to sniff out big fish, the Freedom of Information Act is being abused in cases like this.
On the subject, Mike Borger has expressed his desire for the government to use common sense in this case. I agree, not just for the sake of his secret spot, but also to discourage others from doing the same.
In 2016, Orvis published a letter titled “What’s the Deal with ‘Secret’ Fishing Spots?” In it, the author expresses his frustration with the idea of secret spots.
He argues that for a pastime often based on camaraderie, it seems against the spirit of fly fishing to keep one’s spot to oneself. Additionally, he says, keeping a spot a secret discourages beginners from jumping into fly fishing, as they need all the help they can get.
What this article proves is that fishing ethics aren’t black and white. Although I spent this entire article expressing what I believe to be the proper ethics of secret spots, there’s really no solid set of rules that everyone follows.
I disagree with every point discussed in the letter. I don’t think having a hidden honey hole is anti-camaraderie, and with thousands of perfectly good fishing spots publicly available online, I doubt many people have given up on learning to fish because someone wouldn’t share their money spot. But that doesn’t matter, because I don’t write the rules of fishing, and neither does the letter’s writer.
At the end of the day, fishing ethics don’t actually stray that far from the rest of society’s rulebook. Try to be a good person, and things will probably usually work in your favor.