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“Fishing by the Rules”

by Jason Schratwieser

I’ve been lucky enough to work for the International Game Fish Association for the better part of 13 years now.  It’s a pretty fantastic job in that it allows me to marry my fishing passion with my scientific background.  However, even though I work at IGFA, I don’t chase records and I’m not really into fishing tournaments.  That’s just a personal choice even though I do have a number of good friends that do both.  Still, work and weather permitting, I fish pretty much on a weekly basis from my own skiff.

Whether I’m in the office or on the water, IGFA rules and, more specifically, when to follow them is a common topic in conversations.   More often than not, I end up hearing something like, “Well, if I’m not fishing for records or in a tournament, then I really don’t worry about following IGFA angling rules.”

I disagree with this logic for several reasons.  The first is because I believe that fishing is a true sport and that every sport needs rules.  Secondly, I know of very few anglers that don’t consciously or subconsciously compare themselves to their fellow anglers.  You may disagree but, like it or not, that’s just the nature of the beast.

IGFA Rules for Fly FishingThe common thread about rules, in any sport, is that they are designed promote fair-play and establish standardized practices.  And it is standardization that allows an accurate, objective comparison of performance.   Just as rules for golf are governed by the USGA and the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, IGFA is regarded as the international body that governs rules for the sport of angling.  

Every spring when the tarpon start swimming, I’ll talk to friends to inquire how the fishing’s been for them.  As is typical, there will be reports where the fish show in abundance but are uncooperative, as well as tales where good numbers were put in the air and a fair few brought to hand.  In the latter case, I’ll casually ask what class and bite tippet they were using that day.  Over time, I’ve found that a few of my friends play by the books and stick to no more than 20 lb for their class and 12 inches for their shock.  But I also know some (many of whom are excellent anglers) that use “homeboy” leaders of straight 50 or 60 lb, or, if they’re using it, scale their class tippet up to 25 or 30 lb.

Legendary guide and IGFA Hall of Famer Steve Huff had this to say about the subject: “When I hear a guy tell me that he caught a tarpon on fly but was not following IGFA rules, I immediately tell him he wasn’t fly fishing.  He might have caught a fish using a fly rod, but unless you’re following the rules you are not fly fishing.”

On the flip side, some of the folks that I know that don’t adhere to IGFA rules are guides—a truly tough profession to do well in.  As far as most of them are concerned, catching their clients fish is the primary objective.  Period.  And I can totally understand that guides feel an enormous pressure to catch their clients fish.  But, at the same time, people book guides not just to catch fish, but to learn how to fish better, to fish the right way.  As such, guides have tremendous potential to educate new and novice anglers on the importance of playing by the rules.  Sure, they may catch a few less fish that way, but letting a client pull on a tarpon or snook with straight 50 lb or netting a bonefish or permit 40 feet from them isn’t doing them any favors in regard to teaching them to be better anglers.  

IGFA Rules for Fly Fishing

Still don’t believe that IGFA rules apply outside of records and tournaments?  Think of this way.  Even if you’re just playing a friendly neighborhood game of softball, do you allow a batter four strikes instead of three?  Probably not, because that’s not how the game is played.  Does this make it somewhat harder to score a hit?  Probably so, but angling luminary Sandy Moret has been quoted as saying this about difficulty associated with rules: “I fish by IGFA rules every time I’m on the water.  My approach may be harder and I may catch fewer fish, but that’s OK.  I find meaning and substance in tradition.”

In reality, IGFA rules are not that onerous to the angler so playing by them isn’t too difficult.  The bulk of IGFA fly fishing rules really boil down to making a few measurements on your leader and adhering to normal customs and accepted practices when casting and retrieving the fly.  Sure, there are a few additional details that need to be adhered to, but it sure as hell ain’t rocket science.

Next time you go fishing think about whether or not you’re playing by the rules.  If you’re not, consider if you’d think it would be OK if you were playing a round of golf with your buddies and one of them used a spud gun to tee off instead of a golf club.  Every sport needs rules.

MidCurrent Fly Fishing
Jason Schratwieser is the Conservation Director for the International Game Fish Association. He is an avid fly angler that has fished around the world but calls the shallow waters of south Florida home.
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  • Cascade Exploration Group

    “people book guides not just to catch fish, but to learn how to fish better, to fish the right way”

    Not true at all. Most people book guides to catch fish…period. A lot of people who book guides are on a once in a lifetime vacation and don’t normally fish. This is their one chance to catch an exotic (to them) fish. IGFA has no say in the matter.

    • Ted Margo

      I think that there are basically two types of fisherman out there. Most fish the salt once or twice a year and just want some fun and maybe a pic with a tarpon they can show their friends. Then there are the few afflicted ones that pursue flats fishing with passion seeking excellence and understanding. Ultimately, I think it’s up to the guide to determine which kind of fisherman is on his boat and taylor his approach to the client’s desires.

  • 10 WT

    Don’t the “rules” encourage people to kill fish in order to weigh them for records and lead to potentially much longer time fighting the fish which may also weaken and kill them? I find it hard to respect or follow rules like that.

    • Ted Margo

      you can pull hard enough on a tarpon with 16# class to land him quickly. however, with 16# there is no room for mistakes in reacting to jumps or unexpected bursts or runs. i think your point is valid though when fishing light leaders and pursuing world records. fortunately, those situations represent a tiny fraction of all fish hooked and, are essentially inconsequential in the big scheme of things–IMHO.

  • Catskill Kingfisher

    As far as I know IGFA is an organization that keeps records of large fish caught on different strength leaders.Thats fine to be able to catch a hundred pound tarpon on 20 pound test but ultimately it could be shear torture for the fish.I apologize if I have the wrong concept but I think this is the way many of us understand it.I’ve been taught to fight em hard and bring em in especially if you intend on releasing the fish.We all develop our own standards of fair chase on everything we do and there are as many different opinions as there are fishermen…. Catskill Kingfisher

  • Nathaniel Linville

    I read the above with great interest. I live in a fishery where, particularly for tarpon, people often deviate from the IGFA rigging rules. There is a culture of “strength is better” when it comes to leaders. Catch ’em fast, cut ’em loose. There is also the point that people make when they’re fishing that they’re having fun, on vacation, and not interested in rules. I didn’t always adhere strictly to IGFA rules when making a leader, and I said both of those things at that time. Having made the change, I feel qualified to make the following point: When I wasn’t fishing IGFA leaders, I was wrong. Here’s why:

    The idea that I am doing the fish, or myself, any favors by fishing an unlimited leader system is incorrect. When I used to rig with 40 pound “class”, I couldn’t break a fish off. If I hooked ten fish, provided they stayed on after the hook set, I was good to go. If a shark showed up, it would likely get my fish. If I got greedy and pulled too hard, I wouldn’t lose that fish. I felt entitled to land the fish I hooked, and wanted every advantage. For a single fish, I might be able to pull a little harder and catch it quicker. But for the other ones that would have broken off, I extended the fight for every single one.
    Honestly, I felt entitled to catching a fish once I hooked it. What I forgot was that the whole point of fly fishing was that it was more difficult. By dismissing the rules that other fly fisherman came up with when this whole thing started, I dismissed the very value that attracted me to it in the first place.
    We don’t scent our permit flies. If you put a crab on a hook and tied it to a leader on a fly rod and caught a permit, I wouldn’t say you caught it on fly. If you trolled a fly for a marlin and caught one that way, I wouldn’t say you caught that fish on fly. I want to fly fish for these amazing animals, and that means I’m going to catch fewer. But when I do, I enjoy it more. Because I did it right.
    If I rig right and start to catch a few fish, and want to enter a tournament, I can rest assured that the fish I caught were in compliance with the rules of any tournament. If I want to compete, even with myself, I know my leaders are all tied the same way. And I can’t tell you how much I’ve learned from making this sport harder. I know more about how to pull on these fish, how to actually catch them fast, instead of how to convince someone on social media that I’m “fishing heavy leaders to catch them fast” which is, having done it both ways, totally untrue. And the best part? I learned how to catch them fast by breaking them off, letting them swim away, not keeping them greedily to myself. By evening the playing field I took better care of the fish, learned more, and respected both the game I was playing and the people that played it before me.

  • Frankie Marion

    I agree with Nathaniel, fly fishing is a sport of process and is meant to be more difficult. As Jason states above you don’t throw the rules out the window when playing baseball or football, you learn the rules and in learning them you are able to participate properly in that sport. I think that guides should take the time to explain to their charters the importance of this and in doing so will show their anglers, new and experienced, the proper method of rigging their leaders. Great article Jason, great points made.

  • Ted Margo

    I agree for the most part. But some rules, like shock tippet length on tarpon leaders, create inconveniences for both the angler and guide when it comes to making multiple fly changes. I see little or no fish fighting advantage to a 20″ bite tippet over 12″ but a huge practical advantage to a longer than spec shock tippet. To me the key equalizer in a tarpon leader is the class tippet which is always 16# mono. I know purists like Nathaniel will disagree with me on this but to me the spirit of rule is still honored when you fish 16# class but use a longer bite tippet for convenience. Can’t wait to hear the smackdown I’m gonna get for this. 🙂

    • Ted Margo

      After a phone conversation with Nathaniel, I will concede that you may get more bites with a longer bite tippet as the knot is further from the fly which may make a difference.

  • John O’Hearn

    There are two reasons to fish. To catch fish for consumption. Or to catch fish for “sport”. The former is self explanatory, the later less so. Compounding matters, many anglers mix, combine, merge these two “polarities”. Most on the water fish with a combination of virtues of each. The result is a muddled philosophical soup and arguements over “the right way to fish”. Distilled, the virtues of each become clear. They stand in direct opposition to each other.

    If the goal is simply to catch a fish (to eat or otherwise) then choices of how to do so are clear. Use the strongest and most effective tackle. Make it as easy and repeatable as possible. The less angler involvement the better. After all the point is to simply catch the fish, how it is done is not the point. It’s beside the point.

    “How” is the whole point of sport fishing. Sport fishing existed long before the catch and release ethic came into vogue, but the aim remained the same. How a fish is caught is more important than the catching of it. With this comes the expectation/realization of failure. With this comes the celebration of this failure. Each failure provides lessons. With enough of these lessons an anglers skill improves. That seems to be the appeal. That’s the point of it. While catch (and releasing) is the proof of success, the honing of skill is the priority.

    Problems arise because both “polarities” share the same currency; catching fish. The two logical ends catching fish and prioritizing how they are caught get muddled, confused and combined. It is up to each angler to decide why they fish. Then apply the correct virtues.

    The IGFA and their rules provide a clear and concise guideline for the self-imposed limitations required by the sport fishing ideal. I would consul anyone who considers themselves a sport fishermen to follow them. As a full time flats fishing guide, I didn’t always adhere to IGFA rules, but now do so religiously. The switch did not effect the catch rate of my clients and did not require much additional work.

    12″ shock tippets do not negatively effect catch rates. Any fish that swims a flat can be easily caught with 20lb tippet. For those concerned about prolonged fights with such s tippet, consider that the IGFA recognizes a fish as caught once the leader is round into the top guide. So unless the aim is a world record, “catching” is not an obstacle when following IGFA rules.

    And I do know if one is having trouble hooking. fighting and catching a large fish (tarpon or otherwise) on 20lb class leaders, they might need to consider a new sport. My 7 year old has little trouble with it.

    • Ted Margo

      Wow, just saw this John. Very eloquently put as always. I view the 12″ shock tippet vs something longer to accommodate fly changes as competitively insignificant and not a violation of the spirit of the IGFA specs. Kinda like rolling through a stop sign at a vacant intersection or not coming to a full stop before turning right on red.