wade fishing safely

Wading 101: 18 Tips On How To Wade Safely

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Sounds simple enough doesn’t it? Wading. Walking in the stream, walking in the shallows of a lake, walking in the surf. How difficult can it be? Tips for wading? You bet.

I have fished with beginners and veteran anglers alike and have seen all kinds of risky, even stupid, behavior watching them wade. I have seen a close friend cross a stream which at best is only 15-feet wide, (not enough to be dangerous right?) and he got caught up in a wicked current and swept downstream twenty yards. He was okay, wet and embarrassed but it could have turned ugly, especially if he had hit his head on a rock. He paid for it later with our chatter around the campfire to be sure, but a little foresight and strategy and my friend would have crossed the stream without incident.

You’d be surprised how many anglers develop strategies for casting and catching but never consider how wading can both make their excursions safer AND help them catch more fish. My first rule of wading rivers and streams? Don’t wade if you don’t have to wade. So many anglers feel some sort of urge to get in the water because they need to get their waders wet or they’ve seen too many flyfishing advertisements with the angler shadowcasting in the middle of the Firehole River. All too often, anglers wade in the very areas they need to be fishing, walking right through productive lies.

Every year, in both big and small rivers, in 1-acre lakes and lakes best measured in square miles, anglers drown. Wading is inherently dangerous. Even if you are a world-class swimmer, currents and impediments can work against you so all anglers need to learn how to wade more safely.

Even my best fishing buddy, my own brother-in-law Kenny, is an aggressive wader, always wanting to toss one cast in that toughest to reach spot to catch that elusive big fish. He gets himself drenched and in tight spots all the time. But he is built like a Mac Truck, has no ankles and is strong as a water buffalo. Nevertheless, he uses caution.

Top 18 Tips for wading safely:

  1. Use a wading staff. I recommend a solid staff instead of the collapsible kind.
  2. Wear proper footwear. Wear felt soles on rivers, cleats on rocky streams, wading boots in the surf. And you need to make sure that your footwear has good ankle support to avoid getting sprained ankles.
  3. Wear waders. Being soaking wet is one of the worst feelings. Don’t buy into the myth that if you wear waders and you fall in you will turn upside down when your waders fill up. Water weighs the same as the water around you. It’s not heavier. But it helps to wear a wading belt with your waders to keep your waders from billowing out like a parachute — the currents will carry you and move you in ways you don’t want to move. So wear a belt.
  4. Keep one foot on the ground when you wade. In tempestuous water, I like to move one foot forward, the other forward, come to a stop, plant both feet, re-evaluate which direction I am moving, then move again.
  5. Don’t make rapid or aggressive moves when wading.
  6. Read the water just as you would read it gauge where the fish are. Using your polarized glasses, project a course to wade where it maximizes your ease and safety while also putting you in position to make the casts you want to make. Find a safe route.
  7. Shuffle your feet. Sounds simple enough but it keeps you from making rapid or aggressive moves and ending up in the drink. In the surf, it alerts stingrays and other naughty creatures. If you move slowly, it also doesn’t spook the fish.
  8. On big water, both lakes and streams, wear a floatation device. I know it sounds cumbersome but manufacturers make u-shaped flat floats that lay flat and unnoticed until you pull a string and voila! Instant float. When you wade in the surf, you ought to wear a lifejacket or inflatable device in case you step off where you didn’t mean to step off.
  9. Don’t fish without a buddy. This is the best advice I can give you. When you fish with a buddy, and are crossing big water, interlock arms for increased safety.
  10. Wade a stream diagonally, moving downstream. Take the angle, take it slowly. You will be surprised when you get in fast-moving water that is more than 2-feet deep because it can lift your feet off the ground and sweep you over in a flash. Look for slower water and solid footing.
  11. Point your forward foot toward the current. Keep your back foot planted firmly.
  12. Do not cross on big submerged boulders. They are likely slippery and any rapid or accelerated movement leads to problems.
  13. If you fall, especially in a big river, pull your knees up, face your feet downstream and lean back, using your hands as best you can to navigate and get to the bank. You don’t want your head underwater banging into rocks. If you stay calm, you can reach water where you can stand up or swim to the bank.
  14. Do not panic. Measure the situation and have forethought about what you should do. Then do it.
  15. If you do not carry a wading staff, keep your rod in your upstream hand and if you slip or start to fall, jab the rod handle in the water to immediately stabilize yourself. The current tends to push you upright.
  16. If you fall in and get soaked, dry out your clothes to avoid hypothermia. And pruney feet will get blisters quicker than dry feet.
  17. Don’t wade on spawning fish redds.
  18. Keep your balance. Don’t cross your legs. Don’t lean over too much.

The bottom line: the less you wade, the less you spook the fish, and the less you put yourself in harm’s way

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