By Jonathan Jacobs
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.