The 10 Commandments of Wading

A couple years ago, I decided to cross a side channel in the Yellowstone River to an island which would give me access to a superb run. Dave, my podcast partner, and I were fly fishing in Yellowstone National Park. The side channel was only about 25 yards wide. But the current turned out to be stronger than I anticipated. The side channel was deeper than it looked.

I made it halfway across before I decided to turn around. Even then, I wasn’t sure if I would make it back safe and dry. But I did, thanks to obeying a handful of the “10 commandments of wading” which I was tempted to break that day.

The lawgiver who delivered these to me was not Moses, but Duane Dunham – a veteran fly fisher and friend who used to teach fly fishing at a community college in Oregon. Dave and I have obeyed (most of) these commands over the years because we have no interest in drowning or taking a bath on a 40-degree day in March.

Or, if that unwelcome bath happens (it hasn’t yet), we want to survive it.

1. The faster the river is flowing, the lower the depth level you can wade.

This means wading only mid-thigh in swift water. I’ll go deeper than that in some slower stretches of the Lower Madison or the Wyoming Bighorn. But I stick to shallow stretches when I’m on a stretch of raging river.

2. Keep your strides shorts.

Panic leads to larger strides which can result in getting “stuck” in the current with your feet about a yard apart. This makes balance difficult. Besides, when you try to take a step, the current assaults the one leg on which you are standing and raises the odds that you will end up making a splash.

3. Make sure you have the right soles.

Felt soles, though controversial, are still the best, especially in fast-moving rivers with smooth-rock bottoms, like the Yellowstone River. They are controversial because for years, it was thought that fly fishers who didn’t fully dry out their soles and then fished in a different stream contributed to the spread of invasive species.

If you take the time to wash your felt soles and to let them dry before going to another river, you eliminate almost any chance of spreading an invasive species. Metal studs work well too – either as an alternative to or (better) in addition to your felt soles.

4. Use a wading staff.

For years, I’ve simply used whatever stout branches I could find along the river’s edge. Finally, last fall, I purchased an Orvis wading staff. Simms make a good wading staff, too. But you can assemble the Orvis in much less time.

5. Angle downstream when crossing a river.

This enables you to work with the current, not against it. The current will actually push you along. Remember command #2 and take short strides.

6. Don’t try to turn around in fast current!

This is where a lot of anglers get into trouble. Either use a sidestep. Or back up carefully. Remember to take short strides and to angle downstream as you back up towards the bank.

7. Wear a wading belt with your chest waders.

Seatbelts save lives (like the time I rolled my truck and landed upside down in a small creek). So do wading belts. They keep your chest waders from filling up with water if you slip and take an unexpected bath.

If you forget your wading belt, forget about wading for the day. I’m serious!

8. If you fall in, don’t try to stand up too quickly.

And keep your feet down river. Stay in a sitting position and wait until you reach knee deep water before you try to stand up.

9. Let your fly rod go.

If you need to use your hands to stroke to shore, give it up. Better to lose your fly rod than your life. You might even recover your fly rod downstream. If not, you now have an excuse to buy the latest and best fly rod you’ve been drooling over in your local fly shop.

10. Don’t wade fish alone!

It’s not worth the risk. At least avoid certain rivers or stretches or runs.

If you’ve rolled your eyes at any of the ten commandments of wading, let me I remind you how shocked your body will be by the cold temperatures of the big freestone rivers in the West.

Let me remind you, too, that one slip can lead to a broken arm or (worse) a head injury that can limit or incapacitate you. So when you break these commandments, you put yourself at risk. Keeping them will protect your life.

Wade safely, my friend. Wade safely.

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24 thoughts on “The 10 Commandments of Wading

  1. I’d have to disagree about felt shoes. They can’t compare to the rubber soles used in most shoes today. There is a reason most boot companies have gone to the rubber soles and I don’t think the spread of invasive species is the only reason.

    • Thanks, Doug, for your comment. What kind of rubber soles have you used? Both of us have not found the rubber soles on our Simms or Corkers boots as effective as felt soles when wading on the boulders in the Yellowstone River. We’d love to hear about some other alternatives which would perform better.

    • In my experience, there is no absolute rule regarding wading sole material such as “only rubber”, “felt is always best”, “metal bars grip most”, “always studs”, etc. To be sure, modern rubber compounds have significantly-improved stickiness; but wading factors and conditions are simply too varied for a single sole material to perform best in all curcumstances. That’s why I use Korkers and own three different pairs of soles.

  2. I’ve fallen more times this year than in my entire fishing life. Felt soles are banned in our state now, so I picked up a pair of “Sticky Rubber” wading boots earlier this year, let me tell you something, they’re not so sticky afterall!!!! A little addendum to #7 is that gaining 250 lbs. in three seconds is one of the oddest sensations you’ll ever experience! My waders filled up instantly and it was a real eye opener. My waders have built in Velcro belts on each side, and I usually fasten them pretty tightly around my waist, but it didn’t matter, they still filled up rather instantly. WEAR A GOOD BELT, and don’t think it’ll never happen to you, because it very well may…Be Careful out there!!

    • Wow! Thanks for sharing this cautionary tale, Bruce. Yes, it can happen so fast, and it can happen to any of us. We, too, have found the “sticky” rubber wading soles to be “not-so-sticky.” Glad you escaped safely.

      • I want use the rubber soles any longer, and still will only use felts, I don’t care about the legality. That law is very much misplaced and will eventually kill someone. I use the fishpond belt that you can hang tools from f you want (I do on float trips where I’m wearing a life jacket). It’s a great belt, sturdy and supportive.

  3. Interestingly enough i heard from a guy at a fly shop that the bad thing about the felt soles isn’t so much the transmission of invasive species as that can be avoided but rather the effect on juvenile fish.
    The issue being that as you walk across rocks and what not in the river small pieces of the felt soles tear off and float down river. These small pieces of felt appear to be edible to smaller fish that then in turn can’t digest them causing issues when the fish can’t pass the pieces of felt. The small pieces of felt have an impact on fry mortality as they may stop feeding and die. That is just what i heard but something to also consider.
    No doubt for me felt provides the best traction in rivers though.

      • Yeah i live in CT but that is what a guy in VT told me once. Not trying to say the spread of invasive species isn’t a real concern but that the damage juvenile fish especially on unstocked wild rivers is also a real concern.

  4. If the water is swift I wade side by side with one arm around or holding on to my buddy. This provide great stability. Even on the YSR. I agree with felt sole and always add studies to them.

  5. I have to add an 11th , I have to use the assistance of a cane or staff to walk now and this does make wadeing a little more difficult. And with the deep, swift rivers we have here in Oregon I have added a PFD to my equipment list . Especially during Steelhead and Salmon seasons .

    • No doubt, that is the 11th. Great addition to the list.

      I’ve not fished much in Oregon, but the PFD is a must-have for your rivers. Thanks for posting!

      Dave

  6. My wading boots have felt soles but I always soak them in bleach/water after I fish or if I go from one river to another. I carry a gallon jug if going river to river. If everyone did this our clean rivers would be safer.

    Most everyone has learned the hard way with wading. I learned the advantage of wader belts many years ago on a slippery rock. I learned that you will be carried downstream a long ways if you fall and your waders fill. You could drown in waist high water. I was able to roll on my side and push up in moderately flowing shallow water. If I had been in faster and deeper water I would not have rolled over and continued at the mercy of the river, hoping to find an overhanging sweeper. Even with a belt it is not easy to get back on your feet. But it is better. These commandments must be remembered and not ignored to be safe.

    • So true about drowning in waist-high water …

      Super idea for soaking boots in bleach … we will mention that in a future podcast – and give you credit!

      Thank you for reaching out,

      Dave

  7. I fell a few years ago trying to cross the Gallatin on its greased-bowling-ball rocks. Needless to say, I violated most of your ten commandments of wading and learned them that day, the hard and scary way. I had a bruise on my hip for over a couple of weeks that looked a big rib-eye steak. FWIW, I change soles on my Korkers constantly to match the stream conditions and personally have found studded felt to be the stickiest, even more so than aluminum bars.
    Be safe out there and heed these rules.

    • Love the studded felt boots idea. I need some new wading boots! I have the studded rubber soles, and I have found them useless on the Yellowstone and even the Boulder in Montana. Not so bad on the Madison. Steve has Korkers …

  8. I purchased the Patagonia foot tractor boots. Yes they are expensive but I value my life. I feel that investing in good wading boots can be justified by the safety factor they provide. we all know that you can get seriously get hurt or get killed from a fall in the river. The foot tractors are in my opinion the best boot on the market. I have owned felt sole, sticky rubber studded and even studded felt, nothing compares to the foot tractors. The aluminum bars are like magnets on the rocks. I sometimes have to stop my self from wading to deep as I feel invincible with how the boots grip the rocks. The boot itself has great support and comfort and are great to hike in as well. I also always carry a wading staff with me no matter how shallow the water. tight lines all.

    • Nice post… I have considered the foot tractor for some time but, on a limited retirement income, put my annual equipment budget money (and a bit more as usual) in a nice new rod I wanted badly after sampling it. I manage okay with my felt boots. Also do well with my older rod so that is not a good excuse. I have resoled before so may resole my older wader boots with aluminum bars cut similar. I could use them on rivers banning felt. I could mount them by drilling for flanged barrel nuts to be inserted from the inside. The foot tractor boots have the best rating and probably are the safest you can get. I may get them next year if I don’t fall in love with something else.

    • I’ve got the Tractors. On rivers like the Arkansas where you do a lot of boulder hopping along the river, they’re horrible to walk/climb around in. On last week’s trip, I ended up buying an updated pair of Simms felts which had great ankle support and stuck to the bottom pretty well. And I’m using a Simms wading staff 100% of the time, now. I don’t even carry the sheath.