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.