By MATT DICKERSON
As an angler, my first conflict with kayakers came a few years ago in North Carolina on the Nantahala River near the Nantahala Outdoor Center, a popular destination offering kayak instruction, excellent water, and a kayak course.
For the same reasons the kayaking is good, the area also offers excellent fly-fishing. My brother and I were fishing for trout upstream of the center, but knew there might be kayakers and kept to the far shore away from the kayak course. So we were surprised when, as the first party came downriver, the lead kayaker, seeing us fishing, left the course, paddled directly at us while staring straight at my brother, splashed and swirled right where he was casting, then turned and left.
The next kayaker came near us — though not so close as to interfere with our casting — and apologized. We never did figure out why the first kayaker had acted as she did. Was she anti-fishing? Or did she see us as competition for the “resource” of the river, and try to drive us off?
Three weeks ago on Maine’s Rapid River, I had a similar experience. This time, the kayakers were even more aggressive, and the reason for the their behavior was almost certainly the second motivation. My friend Dave, my nephew Michael and I had spent three challenging hours negotiating rough terrain to reach this spot. The river is swift with steep wooded shores, and is inaccessible to fishing for most of its length.
We had been at the pool for less than 20 minutes when several kayakers emerged from the woods on the opposite side of the river.
The first kayaker — who proved to be the guide and trip leader — paddled across to where I was casting. He landed his boat on a rock 10 yards away, making it impossible for me to cast safely, and got out. He waited until I left, and then he got in his kayak and went back out onto the river. Meanwhile, a second kayaker paddled 40 yards to where my nephew was casting, and splashed around the river all around him until they had driven him off.
I was astounded at their lack of courtesy — no asking if I minded if they did some kayaking, or how long we would be there, or how far out into the river we wanted to cast.
If they had asked me if it was okay for them to paddle, I would have explained our own long trek to get there. But then, understanding that they had also put in considerable effort to use the same 75-yard stretch of water on a three-mile river, I would have volunteered to move upstream if I could have just 15 minutes more to fish where we were first. Assuming I had those 15 minutes, I would have felt good about the result.
Instead, I was irate. Dave, being more noble-minded, struck up a friendly conversation. He took pictures of them, and asked a few questions about their sport. Then he asked if they previously had to share the water with anglers, and if so what sort of ethics they thought would work. The guide had no answer. Dave asked him how long they’d be there. “Until our arms fall off,” was his reply.
Then I learned the sadder truth. Michael is also a kayaker. He told Dave and me, “Well you know, kayakers are taught to do that.” He said he’d seen new kayakers learn from their instructors how to drive off anglers by paddling around the area they are fishing, knowing that anglers will get frustrated and leave because the fishing has been ruined. Apparently, it is easier than trying to be courteous or learning to share the water. Or maybe it’s just more fun.
I’m not writing just to bash kayakers. We also had a similar unpleasant encounter a few miles away with a fly-fishing guide and three clients. Dave and I were fishing a small hole, just big enough for two of us, on another famous river. The guide appeared with his clients. Without a word two went to each side of the river and started casting almost over our lines. This time we held our ground on principle and outlasted the intruders, who obviously hoped we would get frustrated and leave.
When I returned to Vermont, I called Middlebury Mountaineer co-owner Steve Atocha, both a fly-fisher and a kayak guide and instructor. He’d never heard of behavior like we described, nor witnessed kayakers trying to drive off anglers. In all of his experience guiding and kayaking and fishing, the parties had always worked well to share the river and respect each other.
Then it dawned on me. My bad experiences — including others with anglers — were on famous rivers where people come from far away. When fishing locally, the anglers and kayaker I meet on the water are usually the same folks I bump into around town. By contrast, on famous rivers that people travel far to paddle and fish, there is little sense of community. The river is just a resource, and other users are competitors to be defeated.
This discourtesy is a new experience for me. I have decades of fishing experience during which, even on famous rivers far from home, I have been treated in a friendly courteous manner. Until recently, anglers I’ve met — complete strangers — would bend over backwards not to invade water I was fishing unless specifically invited.
But that is changing, perhaps because there are growing demands for recreation on fewer waters. I’m not sure what will happen, or what I should do, but I hope somebody figures something out. Until then, basic courtesy would be a good place to start.