Wading for Your Life

How to keep your next fishing trip from being your last.

Field & Stream Online Editors

In the summer of 2003, a friend of mine whose elegant prose once graced these pages drowned in Montana's Hyalite Creek, apparently after he tripped and hit his head on a rock. The water where Datus Proper cast his last fly was shin-deep-a sobering reminder that death does not always lurk in frothing currents or emerald pools. It can be a step away, anyplace that you fish.

Each year, some 2,000 people drown in North American rivers, most within 10 feet of shore. Michael Stegemann of Rescue Canada, an organization that teaches wading safety courses to angling groups and professionals who work in water, points out that in British Columbia's Chilliwack River alone, two to four wading fishermen drown each season. Sixty to 90 percent of the incidents that Rescue Canada investigates are "flush drownings," in which the angler is swept off his feet. Up to 30 percent result from entrapment, where a foot or leg is caught in submerged roots or between rocks. The rest occur when a fall knocks the wader unconscious.

Stay Upright
Besides common sense, the three most important tools for maintaining your balance are polarized sunglasses that let you see the streambed, soles that grip the bottom (felt, spiked, or sticky-rubber soles for smooth rocks and moss; rubber cleated bottoms for sand and silt), and a wading staff. Use the staff as a third leg. Establish it ahead and downstream of your position, place your weight on your upstream leg, then step to the staff with your downstream leg. Keep two points of contact with the streambed at all times. Wade with your body sideways to the current to reduce water pressure, and cross at a downstream angle. Avoid stepping over boulders. Take advantage of pockets of soft water and shuffle your feet near the bottom, where the current is least powerful.

**Avoid Traps **
According to Rescue Canada's research, if your foot becomes trapped, causing you to fall, and the current is 3 mph (that's walking pace) or faster and too deep for you to brace a hand against the bottom to keep your head above water, you will drown unless you can free your leg. If you're wearing a personal flotation device, you can buy time by arching your back and raising your face out of the water to gulp air, but unless there is someone nearby to rescue you, drowning is inevitable.

What can you do to save yourself? Plant your staff as you fall forward and brace against it to give yourself leverage to kick back with the trapped foot. If that doesn't free it, the only hope is to extract your foot from its boot. That's nearly impossible if you wear laced-up wading shoes over stocking-foot waders. With boot-foot styles you have a chance of pulling your foot out of the boot, or of cutting yourself free with a knife. That makes them a better choice for brushy streams or rivers where the bottom may be snarled with monofilament. In most other situations, stocking-foot waders provide a better feel for the bottom and offer more stability. [NEXT "Story Continued..."]

Float to Safety
And if you are swept off your feet? In deep, slow water, crawl or sidestroke at a downstream angle toward shore. For fast, boulder-strewn runs, assume a "drift-boat position": Float on your back with your legs pointed toward obstructions to cushion the blow, while backstroking at an upstream angle. If you cannot steer around a logjam, turn onto your stomach and vault on top of it to avoid being swept underneath. When you reach the shallows, don't attempt to stand. Crawl until you reach the bank.

How to Wade in Heavy Water
**[BRACKET "The Swivel Step"] **To turn around in heavy current, tuck your rod into your belt, anchor your staff downstream, and grasp it with both hands. Swivel your feet to face the staff, then step around toward the bank.

** [BRACKET "Buddy Wading"] **When crossing a deep or strong current, two fisherrmen are more stable than one. The stronger wader should take the downstream position and lead the way with his staff. The partner carries both rods. Each wader holds on to the upper wading belt of the other.

Survive A Dunking
The essential kit for wading fishermen is an elastic wading belt (preferably two), a PFD, and a staff. Cinch both belts around your waist for comfort, but reposition one around your chest if you're going deep. That way if you do fall, you won't ship water, which drags you under and is a leading cause of drowning.

PFDs with low-volume flotation foam buoy you in the most natural position. Self-inflating suspenders and safety belts such as those made by Sospenders (800-333-1179; sospenders.com) make swimming more awkward but will keep your head above the surface if you pass out from immersion shock.

A staff will prevent you from falling in the first place. One-piece models are the sturdiest. Shock-corded 1/2-inch-diameter collapsible staffs like the Folstaf (607-397-9133; folstaf.com) are convenient to carry in a belt sheath and will instantly link together when needed.

An excellent wading safety video produced by Simms Fishing Products in conjunction with Rescue Canada is available free (shipping is $6.95; 406-585-2557; simmsfishing.com). Contact Rescue Canada for information on their wading seminars (800-663-8931; rescuecanada.ca).