Today I read a post from Tar Hill Fly Fishing about a 65 year old man who drowns while wading. This really got me thinking about what many of us take for granted, when it comes to fishing moving waters. I for one thought I knew everything you need to know as far as safety is concerned when fishing your favorite stream. As it turned out I learn some things after reading the following suggestions I found on the net.
Practicing water safety requires that we acknowledge that accidents in water are usually life threatening. If a mishap occurs, it will usually happen so quickly one will barely have time to think. Nevertheless, knowing that water can kill you is only half the battle. Keeping it from doing so requires care, mental and physical preparedness, and practiced skill. One must have the knowledge of what to do to prevent dangerous situations and be completely aware of what actions to take should an upset transpire.
Wading safety starts with quality equipment. Waders of neoprene, rubber, or the breathable materials that fit properly are a given. Neoprene provides better insulation and an added degree of buoyancy absent in other materials. Boot-foot models and boots for stocking foot models should fit comfortably. Choice of boot sole material is critical. Felt is the best choice, providing the angler with sure footing. Plain rubber is not a recommended for freestone streams. The new stealth sticky rubber provides a degree of traction, but is probably not the best choice in fast water. In some situations, carbide studs on the boot bottoms are a good addition to navigate slippery cannonball sized rocks.
A flexible wader belt cinched tightly at waist level will slow the water from pouring into your boots should you fall. They simply slow things down giving the angler a chance to become acclimated to the situation. There has been much questionable information around about water filling ones boots acting like an anchor. Physics tells us that water in the boots weighs no more than water outside the boots so the anchor effect is unlikely. However, freedom of movement is restricted thus increasing ones expenditure of energy in maintaining stability. This can lead to fatigue, thus increasing the risk of drowning. Do not be deceived; wader belts will not keep the water out completely.
A stout wading staff such as a ski pole with the snow basket removed or a wooden hiking staff with a securely wrapped handle and a breakaway cord should be basic equipment. The collapsible models are fair in moderate water and convenient to carry but beware of getting the end jammed between rocks so that pulling on them can cause it to come apart. A staff gives the angler at least two strong points of contact with the river bed and in time of difficulty it provides three points in the manner of a tripod increasing the anglers upright stability. Carry a staff! It could save your life.
Personal Floatation Devices, or PFDs, are now more affordable and effective. The passive vests are uncomfortable and many anglers tend to discard them in warmer weather. Several smaller inflatable devices are now available. They mimic the “Mae West” of World War II fame, but are less bulky and restrictive. Many have Coast Guard Type 5 approval. If you do not swim well or will be wading treacherous water, consider using a PFD.
Polarized sunglasses and a small hands-free flashlight are a basic along with a loud whistle that can summon help at a distance. If you are with a group, someone carrying throw bag with 50 feet of rope is not a bad idea. Keep a towel, a dry change of cloths, and a fleece jacket or sweatshirt and fire starting gear handy even in the warmest weather. In the wilderness, hypothermia can kill you just as effectively as drowning.
The first rule of safe wading is never wade unless you must. Unlike trout, humans are not made to move through water efficiently. When we wade, we send sound and pressure waves in all directions, which will spook fish. You will increase your chances of catching fish, have less of an impact on the rivers ecosystem, and you will greatly reduce the chance of an unfortunate accident keep your wading to a minimum.
If you must wade, evaluate the situation by some rules of thumb. Try not to wade alone. If you are alone, always let someone know where you are going to be and when you expect to return home. What time of the day is it? If it is late and you have been wading all day, you are not at the peak of your physical strength. It probably would be best to leave the tough water for another day.
Wading can be strenuous, particularly in fast water. Are you in good physical condition? Are your knees in good shape? Can you swim well? Can you see the bottom of the stream clearly? If you answered no to any of these questions, do not wade the fast water! However, if you have tested your physical condition and you are confident in your abilities you may begin to chart your course.
Look upstream and down and catalog any hazards that may be present. Always cross well away from any hazardous areas. The head waters of a deep pool are usually unpredictable, containing eddies and drop offs. The tail out of the pool will be shallower with a flat gravel or sediment bottom. Try to cross downstream of where you intend to fish. Failing that, move upstream of the pool far enough to give you shallower water, less current, and enough room to recover.
While you are wading, always keep your front at a right angle to the current. This way you present the least amount of resistance to the oncoming water. Keep your staff to the upstream side so that you may lean into the current. Should you lose your footing the current should push you upright. Keep your feet in a wide stance. Probe the bottom in front of you with your staff. Try not to lift your feet completely off the bottom but move with a shuffling gait keeping two of your three points of contact down. Do not move one foot unless the other foot is planted firmly and your staff is securely down. Take your time! In fast water wading, patience is indeed the virtue that may save your life.
Large boulders can sometimes offer refuge from fast water, but be wary of the unsure footing on the soft sand adjacent to such rocks. Be cautious of getting boots trapped between or under boulders. Your wading staff can prove invaluable as a pry bar to extricate your foot, but try not to place your feet in crevasses and cracks near large rocks as they may become inextricably lodged.
Take care not to wade too deeply. The human body sans floatation device has a slightly lesser specific gravity than an equal volume of water. Buoyancy can be increased by the type of gear you are wearing and how full your lungs are of air. Air trapped in your waders also adds to your buoyancy. You may weigh 200 pounds, but ultimately, the water’s volume will displace your weight and you may find yourself floating above the bottom and out of control.
If you are wary of your stability in the current, retreat the way you came. Tuck your rod into the top of your waders and free both hands. Plant your staff upstream of your position. Grasp the handle of the staff with both hands and leaning forward facing into the current shuffle your feet, around the staff keeping the staff upstream of your position and taking care not to cross your legs at any time. The more surface area you present to the oncoming current, the greater the downstream force you must resist by leaning forward into the current. Continue shuffling until you are facing the opposite direction and your body is once again at a right angle to the oncoming water.
Despite precautions, everyone who wades eventually looses their footing and takes “Toad’s Wild Ride” downriver. Should this happen, here is what to do. If you find yourself in real trouble and unable to get back to shore drop your equipment. Do not lose your life clinging to gear that can be replaced or recovered later in safer conditions. No piece of paraphernalia is worth the price of your life; drop it!
Above all, do not panic! Not keeping your cool spells almost certain disaster. Lie flat on you back, spread your arms out to your sides raise your feet towards the surface bending your knees slightly to trap air in your boots and float with the current. Inflate your PFD if you have one. In this position, you will not drown. If you are with someone or if there are other anglers present, call for help to alert them to your predicament. Here is where a throw bag would be invaluable. Failing that, your companions should not consider diving in and swimming to get you. Better not to have two anglers in the same dilemma.
Go with the flow. Try to expend only the energy necessary. Point your feet downstream and turn yourself at an approximately 45 degree angle with the top of your head inclined towards the direction of the closest bank and your feet pointed downstream. This will allow you to see obstacles downstream and avoid them by using your arms as oars by pulling away from the object and towards the nearest shore. If you see a log or other obstruction in front of you, do not attempt to go under it. Roll over on your stomach face downstream and use your arms to push yourself over the object. Then return to the “back float” position. Gradually the current will move you towards the shore until you find yourself in quieter water. When you are close enough in to make for shore, your downstream progress will have slowed substantially and the water will be calm and warmer. Your waders are now full of water and if you stand, the excess weight will throw off your balance and perhaps pitch you back into the faster water. Make sure you crawl well onto the land before you carefully stand.
Empty what water you can from your waders, but do not remove them, as they will provide you with insulation until you reach your dry cloths. The human body loses heat twenty to thirty times faster in cold water, which can result in hypothermia induced unconsciousness. Get into a warm dry place and change cloths. Once in the confines of your shelter, you can take a sip from your supply of anti- snakebite tonic and reflect on how you will someday tell your grandchildren about the time you were the one that got away.