For many, fly fishing isn’t necessarily considered a dangerous hobby, there are typically no giant cliff drops, avalanches, motorized racing vehicles, or flesh-eating bacterias. But there is one uncontrolled variable that can lead to risky situations out there…water current. Every time you step foot into the river, you should take a second to pay due respect and realize that the river is more powerful than you and it can claim your life in a matter of seconds. One off balance step or loose rock can knock you off balance and swimming. Your waders can fill with water making it challenging to swim to shore and stay afloat and it’s all down river from there. So how do you make wading safer? Well, below you will find some simple tips, techniques, and fly fishing gear to tighten up your wading safety out there on the water.
Tip 1: Know Your Limits
No fish is worth your life. Understanding that while you may really want to wade out to the center of the river in order to get that perfect drift, it’s not worth risking falling in a turbulent deep current. Understand and assess every wading scenario you are in. Take a step in the water up to your knees and test how strong the current is, how slippery the bottom is, air temperature, water temperature, are you alone, and any other variables that might come into play if you do go for a swim. Make an educated decision if you want to wade out and always side on the air of caution.
Tip 2: Make Sure to Have Two Points of Contact
It sounds pretty straight forward right? If you have two points of contact on the river bed you will most of the time have complete control and can safely wade. So how do you have two points of contact at all times while wading? One simple purchase can make this a reality…a wading staff. If you have never used a wading staff before I highly recommend it. While at first it seems a bit tacky and might bruise your ego a little bit, but in reality, it does wonders out on the river. Every step you take when wading you can plant your wading staff into the ground and boom you have another point of contact. I highly recommend purchasing a wading staff for your fly fishing kit, whether you might venture to some sketchy wading areas or take out an elderly person who struggles with balance.
Guide Tip: Utilize a boat net with a long shaft as a wading staff. The lightweight Fishpond Nomad Nets work great for this. If you don’t have a net or wading staff look around for a streamside stick to use. Some guides claim that applying a little water pressure onto your rod can center your balance.
Tip 3: Go With the Flow and Step Sideways
In water below your knees you can walk naturally right across it into the center of the river, but once the river gets a little deeper walking straight across can be almost impossible. So once you reach deeper water stagger your feet, lean into the current and step sideways. Have your weight on the stationary foot as you step and then shift your weight after your stepping foot is secure. A wide athletic stance is ideal and never cross your feet. In really fast currents short shuffles of your feet can be effective as the least amount of time your feet are off the river bottom the better. Making smaller steps with control will give you more balance through fast currents.
Another key point to keep in mind is it can be easier to slowly wade on a slight downstream angle or upstream that just wading straight across the river. So if you are planning to cross a river, walk a little bit above where you want to end up or vice versa. Just be sure to take your time when walking downstream as the current can begin to sweep you away if you go too fast.
Tip 4: Proper Foot Placement
Proper foot placement is key when wading technical water. Utilize polarized sunglasses to see the river bottom to see exactly where you are stepping. Always try to step in between rocks not on top of them, as rocks can have algae on them which makes them slippery. Look for gravel, small stones, sand or other similar substrate and understand that bedrock and big rocks pose threats. Also, utilize natural breaks in fast currents like behind rocks, sandbars and in eddies. Place extra caution on fast current seams forming off of boulders and eddies. Standing on the arch of your foot can be more secure than the ball of your foot. Making sure your foothold is secure is key before taking another step.
Tip 5: Utilize the Buddy System
In Tip 2, I recommend always having Two Points of Contact on the River Bottom. Well you can add one more point of contact by grabbing your buddy. If you find yourself in a sticky wading scenario, grab your fishing buddy link arms and slowly cross the river taking turns as each one of you makes a secure step. It does take more time so be sure to be patient. Placing the more experienced and person with better balance upstream is recommended as the current will be stronger for the upstream person.
Tip 6: Tighten that Wading Belt!!
Wading belts are the number one safety item to have when wading. Why….? If you were to fall in the river with waders on, the water will begin to rush uncontrollably into your waders filling them up. Making it feel like someone just poured freezing cold concrete into your waders. Swimming becomes inhibited and challenging and you are now at risk of drowning. By wearing a secured and tight wading belt it will keep the water from rushing below your waist and filling up your legs.
Tip 7: Assess Your Boots – Rubber Versus Felt – Studs and Cleats
Boot traction is something that is very important when it comes to wading safety. Wading boots typically come with either felt or rubber soles. For years and years felt wading boots were the standard for wading boots. As a felt boot sole gives you more traction than a rubber one. Then biologists discovered that felt sole wading boots were carrying invasive species to different watersheds and many places (Alaska and New Zealand) then banned felt wading boots. Rubber became the standard for many anglers.
In short a felt sole will provide an angler with more traction. A felt sole typically will not hold up on the trail as long as a rubber one. A felt sole is not ideal for snowy conditions as the felt collects snow on the bottom and snowballs. A worn rubber sole will provide almost no traction in the water.
Protip: Studs or Aluminum Bars/Cleats can be added to your boots to add more traction. It is highly recommended for anyone looking to add more traction to their boots to purchase studs to put into them. The shop at Vail Valley Anglers is happy to install them into your boots for free. You can purchase some online here. Some boots like the Korkers Brand have interchangeable soles for different wading scenarios, this can be very handy when fishing different conditions. Especially if you want to do some wade fishing with studs and then want to float in a drift boat.
Tip 8: Assess the River for Hazards
This one seems like a no brainer, well with fish on the mind we can often overlook this. Assessing the river for specific hazards like manmade obstructions (fences, dams, pipes, cars, debris, bridges), strainers (logs, trees, branches, etc.), rapids, and ice shelves can make you more aware if danger strikes. Avoid walking on any ice shelves as these are prone to breaking.
Another thing to keep in mind when wading in the winter is watch your back for floating ice shelves. When temperatures warm up and the rivers begin to unthaw, ice shelves will break free and can become a floating missle down the river. They can sweep you right off your feet. The same goes for rising water levels and branches. Like they used to say in sports practice have your “head on a swivel”.
Tip 9: Personal Floatation Devices, Whistles, and Wading Jackets Can Help Out
If for some reason you really want to or need to fish a specific piece of water, look to whitewater safety gear to aid your adventure. Wearing a life vest can be a great safety addition as well as adding a whistle to it. A wading jacket can also be something that can prevent water from rushing down your waders. So if you think you are going in deep, pop on your wading jacket and life vest, and be sure to have a buddy below you with a throw bag ready if danger strikes.
Tip 10: Have an Escape Plan
Like any dangerous scenario, you find yourself in life always have a backup plan or escape plan. If you do fall in the water, what do you do? Well, maintain the whitewater position (feet forward, head back, like your laying in a lawn chair), when you see feasible swim to shore. Always practice White Water Safety Techniques, use the buddy system, and know basic safety measures like where the closest hospital is.
Ultimate Wading Safety Gear Guide:
In the tips explained above, it should be clear that specific technical fly fishing gear can assist you in wading more safely. Having the proper boots with studs or felt bottoms, a wading staff, and a tight belt are simple steps to take to make sure you are prepared out there on the water. Check out the links below of some of our favorites.
- Patagonia Danner Foot Tractor Wading Boots $549.00
- KORKERS DARKHORSE WADING BOOT – KLING ON / STUDDED KLING-ON $199.99
- KORKERS TRIPLE THREAT ALUMINUM HEX DISC SOLE $59.99
- Simms G4 Pro Wading Boot FELT $299.95
- Simms G4 Pro Wading Boot VIBRAM Rubber $299.95
- Simms Alumibite Clear 10-Puck $21.95
- Simms Replacement Laces $9.95
- Orvis Rip Cord Wading Staff $149.95
- Simms Pro Wading Staff $149.95
- Simms Wading Staff $99.95
- Simms Wading Staff Retractor $24.95
- Simms Wading Staff Rubber Tip $7.95
- Umpqua Guide Wader Belt ZS $49.99
- Simms Neoprene Wading Belt $24.95
- Simms Back Saver Wading Belt $54.95
- Simms Back Magic Wading Belt $99.95
- Polarized Sunglasses
- NRS Life Vest, Throwbag, and Whistle
Happy and safe wading out there!
Patrick Perry, Former Guide and Content Contributor, @patperry