Nothing cuts into your fishing time like death. – A.K. Best quoted by John Gierach
After learning in a July email from Michael Alwin of the wading misadventure he eventually wrote about in the August 2023 article titled The Grim Reaper as Your Guide, I did what I’ve been doing for decades: I wrote a response to him pointing out everything he’d done wrong and what he should have done instead. Well, that’s not true; Mike has been invaluable to me as both a mentor and friend over the years and thinking about his near drowning was mortifying to me. I did respond to his email with some suggestions on wading safety and I’d like to share them with you and expand a bit on them as well:
The first consideration in wading safely is constant situational awareness. You should ask yourself this question frequently: What happens if this doesn’t go well? This may make you rethink your approach and develop a new plan, or you may have no choice but to proceed, but at least asking – and answering – this question will force you to look for contingencies. The link (https://howtoflyfish.orvis.com/how-to-articles/trout-fishing-articles/tips-for-safe-wading) to the Orvis Learning Center that Michael included in his article provides excellent advice on instream wading. Since I can’t improve on it, I’ll stress only two points regarding technique. First, one of the most common mistakes that I’ve made and have seen others make is trying to wade while casting. This is an invitation to disaster. You’re striding along, watching to see if a fish will rise again, when you trip on an unseen rock, stick or sudden depression in the bottom and plunge forward in a desperate but futile effort to regain your footing. The second thing I’ve seen, and to my misfortune have done myself, is stepping backward while turning around. It’s so easy to forget about the big rock immediately behind you, the one you waded around carefully a bit earlier, while watching a friend land a fish. This is mostly something done in shallow water, so while the danger of drowning is minimal, getting wet and cold is extremely likely. Worse, it’s likely that you’ll land hard in shallow water, which can lead to bruising and contusions if you’re lucky, or to broken bones or a skull fracture if you’re not. This may sound alarmist, but this is exactly how Datus Proper, the author of the book What the Trout Said, came to a bad end when he hit his head on a rock in shallow water while fishing Hyalite Creek outside Bozeman, Montana several years ago.
I would like to discuss some equipment that can help us wade more safely:
Leggings and quick-dry shorts: You hear about the value of a belt that tightly cinches your waders about your waist to prevent filling your waders with water in case of a fall. That’s true, of course, but how about, when it’s practical, ditching the waders altogether and investing in some leggings and quick-dry shorts instead? You’ll present a sleeker profile in the current, which will lessen the hydraulic pressure on you and, if you do go down, you’ll not be weighted down by the water in your absent waders. Also, I think I’m correct when I say that most of us are averse to the chilling effect of cold water on our nether regions, causing us to think twice before we wade deep enough to dunk said regions.
Wading boots: Yes, most of us already have specialized wading boots, but are they ones that will do the best job of keeping us vertical? For many years felt soles were the standard of the industry. They do work well on bedrock and on cobble, but I’ve never found them particularly grippy on large rocks or on algae-covered substrates. They’re lousy on muddy or snow-covered banks and none too good on grass. While their performance improves with the addition of studs, they’re implicated in the spread of invasive species, so it may be best to give them the go-by. There are a great many variations on the rubber sole boot. The high-end boot from the Orvis Company features a sole developed in concert with the Michelin tire folks. I’m not sure what that guarantees, but I note that the boots can be outfitted with studs, which are always helpful. The Simms Co. offers a plethora of boots with felt, Vibram and rubber soles. Many of them can be equipped with studs as well (Simms offers multiple types of studs, too). The Simms website has a chart that compares things like traction, support, and weight. You may have noted that I’ve mentioned studs several times. I think they’re a godsend and wouldn’t be without them. My personal choice for really tough wading conditions are Patagonia Foot Tractor boots with leather uppers by Danner and rubber soles equipped with replaceable shaped aluminum crossbars secured to the boots by Allen bolts. I can’t say enough good things about them. I can say that, on the downside, they are hellaciously expensive and that I was fortunate to find cosmetically imperfect ones on sale at a deep discount. In the big picture, though, at a time when top end fly rods have pushed past the thousand-dollar mark, half that amount for the most comfortable and effective boot I’ve ever seen may be a value.
Wading staff: I was fortunate to win a Simms wading staff at a Wisconsin State Council TU banquet several years ago. At the time I was just trying to get rid of some bucket raffle tickets and had given little thought to how I might use a staff. I discovered how when I ventured to southwest Montana. It was instrumental in helping to keep me upright when I found myself on the wrong side of a river with no easily fordable crossing in sight. Using the situational awareness I wrote about earlier, I picked the “least worst” option and set out. The staff hummed and throbbed in the heavy current when I leaned on it more heavily than I thought possible, but I inched my way to safety on the other side, arriving there with a stratospheric adrenalin level and a pulse rate to match. Admittedly, my leg strength isn’t what it used to be, and I’m walking around on a couple of artificial joints that don’t offer the support of the original equipment, but as the philosopher said, time and tide wait for no man, so it’s wise to be ahead of the game and to start carrying a wading staff today, even if you’re not superannuated like me. Simms sells a staff equivalent to mine for around one hundred fifty dollars. Patagonia has an elegantly designed one for ten dollars more. Former chapter president and frequent angling companion Tom Schnadt tells me that he’s taken to carrying an old bamboo ski pole with him. It’s lightweight and floats on a tether behind him. The downside here, he acknowledges, is that the pole could possibly shatter under heavy load and effectively become a punji stick on which to fall.
The dangers are not solely in the stream and a wading staff can be useful in other circumstances. It can help you negotiate a steep or muddy bank when you enter or exit the stream and it can serve as a test probe as you travel the heavily vegetated banks along it. There are often little gullies, beaver holes or even logs hidden by overlying grasses.
Stationary bike: I can picture you shaking your head in disbelief about now. What I’m getting at is that we should all do our best to tend to our most basic piece of wading gear – our legs. A regular exercise program can help you maintain leg strength, flexibility and, consequently, balance. A stationary bike is but one tool you can use. A health club or YMCA may be able to help design a program for you using additional or other equipment. Even long walks involving substantial changes in elevation are a huge improvement over doing nothing.
Now get out there and have fun and come home safely.
Sometime early in the century when I was helping out – or so I claim; Mike may have a different view – at Mike Alwin’s Bob Mitchell’s Fly Shop, a guy named Paul Wiemerslage, would drop in, usually near the end of the day and usually accompanied by his pert and perky wife, and just sort of hang around, often well past closing time. By that time of day my supply of bonhomie had run low and I found him kind of irritating. He obviously came to talk to Mike and didn’t seem even to notice me, which, when you get down to it, is likely why I found him irritating. I learned that he was a high-level executive at a large local manufacturing concern and presumed that with that came a certain level of disdain for the help. I have never been more wrong in my life. I had mistaken a sense of respect for disdain. Sometime in the Christmas Holiday season in my days as a putative Lutheran, probably when my daughter was participating in a Sunday school show, Paul, who was a co-parishioner, stopped me in a hallway and asked me how my steelhead season had gone. I was surprised that he knew I’d been fishing. That one question breached the metaphorical levee between us and led to a conversation so long that I was, much to my wife’s consternation, late to my seat for the performance. Subsequently Paul and I forged a friendship that led us on adventures with venues as disparate as Paul’s home kitchen, the north woods, and the famous trout streams of Montana.
Paul had held many different positions with his employer and had excelled in all of them, but the job he had liked most, and was certainly best at, was in sales. He had a preternatural ability to earn people’s trust and to put them at ease. This wasn’t some sort of technique or act; it was simply and genuinely Paul. The first time I traveled with Paul we took his travel trailer deep into Wisconsin’s Driftless Region and set up at a campground on the upper reaches of Timber Coulee Creek. It had been a wet spring and the water table was high. The campground was soggy in many spots, but we’d parked the trailer in a high and dry spot. One afternoon I heard a group of campers talking. One of them was grousing loudly about where and how we’d parked and what jerks we must be. I told Paul about it. He shrugged and said he’d take care of it. He strode out to where the men were talking, introduced himself and asked them where they were from. “La Crosse,” the chief grump replied. “Me, too,” said Paul, “My father worked at Heileman Brewing for years.” This established Paul as a local and within minutes the entire group was laughing at Paul’s storytelling. There was no more grumping. I saw Paul build or reinforce relationships wherever he went. When we traveled, he brought along good bottles of wine and blocks of aged Wisconsin cheddar cheese from the Cady Cheese factory. He presented these as gifts to fly shop workers who gave him good information and to campground hosts who treated him well. Some of this was done, of course, as a means of ingratiation, but the real driving factor was Paul’s genuine respect for the knowledge they possessed and the effort they put in. These folks never forgot Paul, either. Perhaps they recalled the gifts, but I always felt it was more likely that they remembered Paul’s big heart and even bigger personality.
Paul had a close friend, John, a brilliant architect and businessman. John, a giant of a man, had an appetite and a lust for life that equaled Paul’s. John had an expansive cabin on what was essentially a private muskellunge lake in northern Wisconsin and another utterly primitive cabin in a vast lake-dotted landholding in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. We fished hard on trips to these midwestern paradises, but we ate Paul’s gourmet cooking and drank John’s French wines prodigiously as well. John was never happier than in these settings and Paul once said to me, “I just love to watch that man have fun.” The feeling, I’m sure, was mutual. The only problem for me was keeping up with these two characters and I soon learned that I was a better observer than participant.
In essence, Paul loved to watch all the people he liked and admired have fun. In the last few years of angling author Jim Humphrey’s life, Paul hosted a mid-winter get-together at his house with Jim as the guest of honor. Paul didn’t know Jim particularly well, but, again, he admired Jim’s work and what he’d done to help others through his writing. These were titularly discussion groups with specific topics pre-selected by Paul. The guests ranged in age from Jim at the oldest to anglers Paul’s son’s age with several of us in late middle age in between. Everyone’s input was welcome, but Paul made certain that everyone understood that Jim’s word was gospel. There was food and drink, of course, with typically three different varieties of Paul’s delicious chili served as entrees. Paul put hours of work into those soups, expecting nothing more than the obvious satisfaction of his guests.
Paul was a born organizer. We (Friends of Paul and friends of friends – Paul subscribed to the idea that his friends’ friends were also his) made trips every spring to Cottonwood Camp on Montana’s Big Horn River for several years. The fishing was superb and the camaraderie was excellent, but the best part was that everything was taken care of! Paul secured the lodging, planned the menus, and did the grocery shopping. In almost everything Paul did he started at wretched excess and went on from there, so while it took half the crew risking hernias and ruptured discs to haul his massive Yeti cooler from the truck to the cabin, we could be certain that we’d dine like kings throughout our stay.
One of the very best adventures I ever had with Paul was a trip that the two of us made to Montana in the late summer of 2012. Paul asked me to go along with him to pick up a gorgeous, custom-made wooden drift boat he intended to buy. I had been downsized from my job that spring and felt that I ought to stay home and be responsible, but Paul worked his salesman’s charms on me, made an offer I couldn’t refuse, and it was off to Montana we went. We took a southerly route through Wyoming, country I hadn’t seen, staying overnight in Sheridan before heading up across the Big Horns and on to our lodging at the historic Chico Hot Springs Resort. Eventually Paul took possession of the boat and we fished out of it on both the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers before returning home. However, it looked for a time as though details might block the sale and we were both nervous. When the details were resolved and the deal done, Paul drove us back to Chico and produced a bottle of sixteen-year old Lagavulin single malt scotch whiskey he’d brought along in case a celebration might be in order. I’d somehow made it into my seventh decade without ever having so much as had a nip of this delightful potable, but I rapidly developed a taste for it and it took a couple of hours of soaking in the hot springs and several cups of the resort’s potent black coffee to make me whole the next morning.
I was to have another memorable experience involving Paul and scotch. Late in the afternoon last December 20th, Paul called and asked the name of a smoky Scotch I’d told him about. I told him it was Ardbeg. He asked me if it could be found in any of Hudson’s liquor stores. I suggested he try Casanova’s. Not two hours later there was a knock on the door. It was Paul. He thrust a bottle of Ardbeg into my hand and told me that he’d bought a bottle for himself, too, and intended to go home and drink a glass of it and suggested that I do the same. He turned and walked out to his Jeep and out of my life. Paul died of heart-related issues sometime late that evening or early the next morning. If you knew Paul only casually or only by reputation, it was easy to think of him as a sort of Falstaffian character – which he was. Paul was a man of huge appetites and interests, but he was also one of the kindest, truest, and most generous friends a man could hope to have and I will miss him always.
Paul loved the outdoors and he loved fly-fishing for trout. He was a long-time member of Kiap-TU-Wish and once served on the board of the Kinnickinnic River Land Trust. His family has asked that memorials in his name be directed to those two organizations.