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HomeFeaturesRight Rod to the Rocks—Trolling Etiquette

Right Rod to the Rocks—Trolling Etiquette

It seems that every fishing season we hear dock discussions about conflicts between recreational fishing vessels trolling the tack. In my years on the water I have seen instances of chaos created when people cut across the tack trying to get the inside tack or position. This usually happens in places where the fish are stacked up against structures, creating a limited hot spot that everyone is trying to fish.

In practice, what I see on the water is that most vessel operators understand and practice a simple rule of “Right Rod to the Rocks” to avoid conflicts and collisions while fishing tight tacks along structures such as rocks, underwater ledges, reefs, and shoreline features. When practiced by a group of vessel operators, this simple rule ensures orderly fishing, prevents collisions, and affords everyone an opportunity to fish the tack closest to the shoreline features that are often very productive fishing spots.

The “Right Rod to the Rocks” Rule

This is a simple unwritten West Coast fishing rule that essentially follows international regulations for prevention of collisions at sea. Vessels that are fishing close to rocks, shorelines, or shallow underwater features will give right of way to vessels that have their right or starboard side nearest to the rocks or shallows. If two vessels travelling in opposite directions meet, the vessel with its right or starboard side facing the shoreline will become the “stand-on” vessel and the other vessel with its left or port side facing the shoreline will become the “give-way” vessel.

Boating Right of Way. Diagram IFM
Marine navigation on approach. Diagram IFM

In other words, when two vessels meet on the tack, the vessel with its right-hand side to the rocks will maintain course direction and the other vessel approaching in the opposite direction will alter course to the outside or turn to the right to allow the stand-on vessel to continue the inside tack. When all vessels fishing an area practice this, the tack becomes a counter-clockwise circuit. Rule 14 of the Convention on the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (COLREG) describes the collision-avoidance actions required by each vessel when they meet one another head on, which is each vessel should alter course turning to the right.

CORRECT! Right Rod to the Rocks. Diagram IFM
WRONG! “The Cluster *” Diagram IFM

In most circumstances vessels tacking close to the shoreline are not in a position where they can safely alter course to the right. Therefore the safest action will be to maintain course while the opposite vessel alters course to their right to avoid a collision. In some circumstances, where a vessel is so close to shallow water that it is impossible to make course corrections to avoid collision, the best action may be to simply stop the vessel and give an audible alarm to alert the other vessel captain. Tossing fishing weights isn’t an appropriate form of warning, however using a horn or yelling out (nicely) usually works.

Best Practices: Fish On!

Fish on! Deryk Krefting Fishing RRR. Photo: Joel Unickow

Another good practice when fishing the tack in tight quarters is when you get a fish on the line, keep moving forward following the established tack as closely as you can. Obviously, in some situations that is dictated by what the fish does. If you are playing a fish and there is an opportunity to turn out of the tack to pull the fish away from other vessels, this can avoid situations where you might get your line tangled in another vessel’s downriggers.

Fishing Etiquette

On approaching a group of boats fishing a tack, boats will move to the outside of the pack to find a spot to join. Photo: Joel Unickow

Rule 8 of COLREG sets out that both vessel captains are to take all necessary actions to avoid collisions regardless of which has right of way or is the stand-on vessel. The rule also goes on to require captains to make course alterations quickly and in a way that demonstrates to other vessels their intent such that a course change is readily apparent.

Crossing conflicts are some of the most common (and frustrating) events that I observe on the water, most often created when people see the hot spot is close to shoreline and try cutting across the usual tack to get into the hot spot. If everyone follows the Right Rod to the Rocks rule, all will have their time in the best tack along the shoreline structure that holds fish.

Situational Awareness

Maintaining proper and adequate lookout is always the captain’s responsibility. However, it often helps if the whole crew is charged with looking out to keep the captain informed that a potential collision conflict is developing. I have observed situations where a collision took place because everyone on the vessel was watching the captain struggle to untangle some gear or net a fish. When there is a lot of activity distracting the captain’s attention, someone else on the boat needs to be a set of helpful extra eyes.

I’ve personally been on both sides of the “being distracted” situation. When that happens, it’s always best to quickly apologize if you are the offender (and a little forgiveness goes a long way if you’re not), to keep calm, and fish on.

When first approaching a local hot spot, and vessels that are working it using the Right Rod to the Rocks rule, the best way to join the tack is to look for an opening on the outside portion of the tack where you can slip into the line of boats. If you are one of the first into a spot, set up your tack using a Right Rod to the Rocks, counter-clockwise rotation as that will make it easier for others who come along later to join in with a minimum of conflict created in the process.

Patience can go a long way to helping inform people who don’t appear to understand the Right Rod to the Rocks rule. Sometimes a few kind words to explain the rule, and what is going on with other vessels trying to follow it, will do the trick. Other times, when people just ignore advice and signals to encourage proper adherence to the rule, they usually learn the hard way going against the grain, because the tempo of feedback escalates with the increasing number of people upset with them.

Boats following the Right Rod to the Rocks rule. Photo: Joel Unickow

Offshore Fishing

I have been asked what people should do when fishing offshore where there is no obvious shoreline structure to follow. That’s a great question, and it’s difficult to answer because it really depends on the normal fishing pattern that has been established by everyone fishing that area. Generally when fishing offshore, people tend to fall into a pattern of trolling with the current and then against it. In some situations where the current is very strong, I have resorted to tacks that cut across the prevailing current, however eventually you are blown out of the hot spot and need to troll or run back up. Regardless, offshore can be especially challenging because it’s a big chunk of real estate that gives everyone a sense that there is lots of room, so you let your guard down. That’s usually when bad things can happen.

The key to successful and safe trips is always have your crew helping maintain a watchful eye to avoid collisions, practice the Right Rod to the Rocks rule, signal your intentions (course direction) early, and even when you have the right of way take steps to avoid a developing collision situation early. When meeting other vessels head on, always alter course to your right.

This article appeared in Island Fisherman magazine. Never miss another issue—subscribe today!

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