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Wading Safety

NOTE: This section contains many articles and excellent suggestions for wading safety.  It is organized by author for ease of review.  Several interesting personal experiences are included in the Trout Unlimited (TU) blog at the end that are worth reading.

Orvis Tips for Safe Wading

Written by Mac Huff, written for Orvis

These tips for safe wading will make your fishing a lot more fun — and could save your life!

Minimum beginnings. Felt soles are minimum wading equipment on your shoes in rocky rivers. Studs and cleats will increase the security of your shoes on rocky surfaces.

Try it! A wading staff is an indispensable piece of equipment when wading conditions are difficult, giving you a vital, third point of support. The third point of support will make all wading easier by letting you maintain two points of contact while one foot is making a stride. A wading staff may make the difference between staying dry and falling in, and lowers your anxiety level during difficult wading.

Give ‘em a belt. A wading belt is mandatory when using waders. It will slow the flow of water into the legs and boots of your waders and make escape from the river easier. When I fall in, my legs and feet usually remain dry until I get into shallow water and stand up to walk out. I have learned, even as uncomfortable as it is in icy water, to stay horizontal as I approach shore and drain the water out of the tops of my waders before I stand up. My arms are already soaked and will probably require dry garments, but if I drain the water out of the waders and keep my pants and socks dry I can finish my day of fishing in comfort.

Go slow. This has broader implications than you may think. It obviously includes being careful while wading, but also encompasses taking time to evaluate current conditions and particularly to evaluate conditions when you are visiting unfamiliar rivers or locations. When entering the river and moving through the water, make your moves slow and controlled to minimize the risk of falling. With experience "slow" will become much quicker, but wading is always slower than traveling on dry land and as the hazards become greater your approach demands greater caution.

Stand firm. Create a wide base to stand on when you are on a slippery surface. Widen your stance so your feet are shoulder-width apart; flex your knees to lower your center of gravity. When I enter a river or stream I automatically shift into a stance with my feet slightly wider than my hips and with my knees flexed. As the wading gets deeper and more difficult, my knee flex increases just as athletes sink deeper into their stances to achieve greater agility. Learn to slide your feet and, as with other athletic activities, never cross your feet. This stance will seem foreign and awkward in the beginning, but practice will make it feel natural - besides, you will have great reinforcement to use this advice when you fall in because your feet are close together or you lose your balance with your feet crossed.

The mechanism that usually makes you fall is having your foot slip under you, or toward the center of your body. By having your feet wide apart your slipping foot tends to shift your center of balance to the opposite foot. With wading experience and practice you will probably find that you are able to wade faster by taking advantage of this phenomenon. In "easy" wading situations you will, in effect, "skate" across the bottom, allowing your boot to slide into a secure position by sliding outward and forcing your weight onto your other, secure foot, followed, at roughly a slow walking speed, by the next successive step.

Foot placement and balance are other important and critical elements of safe wading. Typically, your foothold will not be flat and uniform, like a floor, so you must adjust your foot position. Your foot must be turned inward or outward, as well as up or down, to fit the foothold. Precise foot placement is essential to safe wading. Most of the time the foot must be placed precisely in a small area.

In addition, I find that placing my foot in a secure foothold among cobbles or boulders is most secure when I stand on my arch, rather than the ball of my foot. Visualize that you are securing your foot in the junction between rocks so the boot heel holds the foot from sliding forward and the curve of the arch holds the foot from sliding back.

If you are constantly searching for your balance or your foot is constantly slipping from your chosen foothold, then you should evaluate your foot placement and determine whether you are fitting the terrain or hoping that the terrain is fitting your step. Only experience can teach you to recognize the feel of secure footholds and the more you practice wading the easier wading will become.

Find the low places. In the water, when you can’t see where your feet are landing let gravity help. Slide your feet into position and work them into the valleys between rocks and cobbles, rather than standing on rounded top of slippery rocks.

Step sideways. In shallow water, less than knee deep, you may be able to walk "normally" with a modified, wide stance. As water gets deeper and footing becomes obscured by water depth or turbidity sidestepping will maintain a wide, stable base. NEVER cross your feet while stepping! When I am exploring the bottom with this sidestep method, most of my weight is on my stationary foot, which helps prevent me from falling by either tripping forward over a high rock or slipping spread-eagle over the far edge of a smooth rock ahead of me. The idea is to not commit to the moving foot until you know you can stand on it. Typically, when I’m using this stride I’m in fishing water, so it is an easy method to move and cover water. In these difficult conditions if my next move is 30 feet or more I will wade back to shore, walk down the bank, and then back out into the water.

Go with the flow. This recommendation is aimed primarily at efforts to cross a stream. It’s easier and safer to move at a slight downstream angle with the current than move directly across or against the current. There is often a trick to finding the balance between shallow water with fast current and deeper water with a slower current. Either situation can be disastrous, knocking you down and sweeping you into faster, deeper water, so test the current as you proceed. This is the perfect place to use a wading staff. If you don’t carry one, it might be worthwhile to use a stream side stick.

While fishing you will often want to move upstream. Take advantage of slower current while fishing upstream. Move through shallower water or use current breaks behind boulders.

There will be times when you must move against the current to cross or get out of your location. Don’t let yourself wade down a gravel bar above deep water to discover that you have to wade back against a current that is too strong to move against! Sometimes apparently moderate currents can be treacherous when the water gets well above your knees, and wading that was easy with the current becomes seemingly impossible when trying to move back against it. Always approach moving water with a great deal of caution until you know your capabilities.

Move ahead. Try to make your movements sideways or forward. Your balance and recovery are better in these directions, where you can see well. If you hook your heel while backing up, your chance of falling increases dramatically. If you must back up, rather than turn around, feel behind you with the lead foot (usually your downstream foot), set it securely and bring the other foot into position. Hooking your heel is often the problem that tips you over while backing up in a stream, but any slip is more hazardous while trying to move backwards. Getting into a predicament that requires you to back up is a situation where you would trade your fly rod and all your flies for a wading staff.

Choose your substrate. Sand and gravel bottoms are usually secure and safe bottoms to wade on. Wade here when you can. Cobbles are more difficult because there are irregular surfaces to deal with and the surface of each cobble is an algae-covered, zero-friction trap looking for a victim. Why hasn’t NASA discovered this stuff? Next up the difficulty list is boulders. These add the problem of navigating among large obstacles to the slippery problems of cobbles, and, there are more "tall" rocks to trip you than you find on a cobble beach. The same "tall" rocks that may trip you may provide relief from the current and make wading easier by moving into the slipstreams of upstream boulders. Boulders also will hold pockets of sand and gravel, which cobbles don’t, and you may find secure footholds amidst treacherous footing. Once you learn to recognize these substrates they may give you an opportunity to move aggressively from a tenuous position to absolute security.

Mud bottoms may seem safe, but they also hold many pitfalls. Firm mud or clay bottoms are very slippery with felt soles. If the bottom is flat, you probably won’t fall, but be careful that you don’t get stuck and have difficulty climbing out of the stream. Mud accumulates in slow-current areas, and logs and sticks left by floods may trip you, and the silt you stir up will continue to obscure your vision. Finally, the erosion that occurs in muddy backwaters may create unexpected and slippery drop-offs.

The most treacherous bottom type is bedrock. These are areas with large surfaces of solid rock that have been polished smooth by eons of water erosion. The obvious problem is the large slippery surface. While cobbles are equally slippery, your foot can soon find a joint between rocks for a foothold, but on the large, flat surface of polished bedrock there is no redemption for a misplaced step. Even with careful sidesteps, if your foot slips it may skate so far out that you lose your balance and fall

Are you ready to move up? It’s often tempting to fish from the top of a midstream boulder. The problem comes when it’s time to get back down. Be sure you have a safe route back down before you climb up.

Plan your escape. This starts before you even enter the river. Should you even be wading here? What will you do if you fall in?

Final safely considerations. A personal floatation device is necessary for waders that can’t swim and may be a good investment for anyone in big rivers and cold water. Both CO2 inflatable suspenders and solid, kapok-filled vests can be found in stores selling whitewater gear. A whistle is one of a mountaineer’s 10 essentials and is an excellent safety item for waders to carry for emergency location.

Mac Huff has lived in and fished northeast Oregon for the last 28 years. He received a degree in Wildlife Biology in 1976, worked as a biological technician for Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife that summer, and continues to contract biological work for the U.S. Forest Service.

When you have to go for that swim!!!

Ralph Cutter - January 24, 2014, California Fly Fisherman Magazine

“Fly fishing isn't an extreme sport. You will never see the One Fly entered as an X Game challenge; yet, every year, anglers of all ages, sexes, and skill levels drown while playing the fly game. Last July two back-to-back drowning events involving two anglers each brought home the finality of losing the game. No two drownings are identical and these four were as widely disparate as they were tragic. None involved alcohol or drugs, inordinate risk, or doing much beyond the ordinary nature of a fly-fishing trip.

In the last week of July, well-known guide Chester Marion was rafting the Boulder River with a longtime friend and client Sheldon Goldberg, and his wife Ramona Crowley Goldberg, both of Frederick, Maryland.

Marion was no stranger to the Boulder—in his 73 years he had drifted and waded the river hundreds of times. All three started the day wearing waders with wading belts. No one on the raft was wearing a lifejacket. The trio stopped the raft on a shallow gravel bar and got out to fish. That's when the two men removed their wading belts.

The winter of 2010-2011 buried the Rockies under an enormous snowpack, and the spring runoff was spectacular. In the verbiage of fluvial geomorphologists, the runoff achieved "channel-changing flows." These flows undercut a group of cottonwood trees, causing them to collapse into the Boulder, thus creating one of the most dangerous situations in moving water. The river sweeps through the obstruction and the trees seine anything that can't squeeze through the branches. These death machines are known as "sweepers."

Marion had been warned that new sweepers were being born on the river, but he apparently misunderstood where they were, or simply miscalculated his ability to row past them. His raft slammed into the sweeper, capsized, and all three were dumped into the icy water. Ramona's wading belt was buckled firmly, and she was able to swim to shore and call 911. The two men without wading belts were swept downstream and drowned.

The best drown-proofing is to be prepared. Carry a wading staff. A staff can be used as a probe to feel for ledges, drop-offs, or slick boulders. It is invaluable when used as a brace or third leg when crossing unstable terrain. One of the trickiest things to do while wading is turning around in heavy water in midstream. Allowing the current to pivot your upstream leg around a solidly placed staff makes doing a 180 a piece of cake. It's kind of fun and a move certainly worth practicing.

Expensive wading boots and waders are nice, but it is the ten-dollar belt that will save your life.  The only thing better than a wading belt is two wading belts. When you fall in the water without a belt, the waders fill up quickly. A wading belt can delay or even completely prevent water from filling the waders. The belt should be snug and preferably have a slight amount of stretch to follow your contours. A good belt should have a buckle that can be popped open even when under a load. The last thing you need is to take a swim, get your belt hung on a willow branch, and drown simply because you can't release the buckle.

Contrary to popular myth, waders full of water do not pull you under. The water inside the waders weighs the same as the water outside the waders. Swimming in waders is about as difficult as swimming in wet Levis.

Another widely held fallacy is that wading belts trap air in the waders and cause you to float upside down with legs in the air. The truth is, as you wade, water pressure squeezes the air out of the waders and past the belt. If for some reason you fall off a boat with air-filled waders, simply bring your knees up to your chest, wrap your arms around your legs and squish the air out.

Waders kill when they are worn with stretchy, loose belts or no belt at all. The typical position for swimming anglers to assume is on their back, head upstream and feet downstream. This is the position taught by the Boy Scouts, Red Cross, NOLS, and the military. Unfortunately for anglers, the defensive swimming technique is designed for someone wearing a life jacket and not a pair of waders.

Rivers move much quicker than a human drifting downstream. With your head upstream, the moving water quickly flushes in and fills the waders. The current can keep the mouth of the waders flared open and create, in effect, a sea anchor that will drive you wherever the prevailing force wants you to go. Michael Phelps would be no more able to fight these hydraulics than Rosie O'Donnell.

A proper wading belt worn at the waist makes the sea anchor effect highly unlikely, and the same belt brought up around the chest will make such an event virtually impossible. A belt around the waist and around the chest can turn a scary event into a fun ride because you are nearly bullet proof.

With or without a belt, do not passively float down a river feet first in your waders. Get on your stomach and swim aggressively down and across the current toward safety. In a bony rock garden you might fend off the boulders with your feet, but the bottom line is that the less time you spend in the water, the better the outcome. Swim all the way to shore, then crawl out of the water. Do not try to stand up. The water in the waders will either slap you back down to earth, or the waders themselves will blow up and fall down around your legs. Having water-filled waders pulled down over your knees while trying to get out of a river is a recipe for disaster. Once on shore, lie on your back and raise one leg at a time to dump out the water.

When swimming, stay low in the water. For most people the buoyancy in one arm will make the difference between floating and sinking. Toss your rod or wading staff toward shore and keep both hands under water. Don't needlessly raise your arms in the air in a panicked attempt to draw attention to yourself.

Consciously breathe and think about breathing. It is amazing how the simple act of concentrating on something like breathing will calm you. Don't gasp in huge gulps because right before the gasp you will forcefully exhale and sink. Don't breath in shallow rapid pants where most of the air in your lungs doesn't get recycled. Exhale about half your lung volume to retain buoyancy and inhale as controllably as you can.

Against all instincts, inhale at the bottom of the troughs between waves. At the top of the waves there is relatively little water to buoy you, and your mouth and nose are invariably underwater. At each wave turn your face so the water slaps your cheek rather than your nose, eyes, and mouth.

While breathing, remember to keep your feet away from the riverbed. Keep your knees tucked or point your legs outward. Foot entrapment is one of the leading causes of drowning (right up there with sweepers).

Rivers are incredibly powerful. In water as shallow as knee deep you can get your feet trapped under a ledge or branch and be physically unable to pull your foot out. After a few minutes of entrapment, your knees begin to buckle under the relentless pressure, and you are forced into a kneeling position with your hands on the riverbed as you attempt to keep your head above water. In not much time your arms give out and you drown. I have gone through the foot entrapment drill under controlled environments (using rebar and webbing) a number of times and never get over how helpless you feel in such seemingly friendly water.

The USGS has developed a formula for determining safe wading conditions for government employees and civilian contractors. Multiply the depth (in feet) times the number of feet a stick drifts in a second. If the product is greater than 8, USGS warns people to stay out of the water. It seems to be a pretty reliable calculation when foot entrapment is an issue.

To free someone who is foot entrapped, simply wade in behind them and break the force of the current with your legs. If you reach the victim, try to get a rope or stick against his shins and, with a person on either end, move upstream. Self-rescue is limited to cutting the boots off your feet with a knife or pair of paramedic shears.

Sweepers are every swimmer's nightmare. They are tough to negotiate and you only get one chance to do it right. If it is a log at water level you can do one of two things. Flip on your back and extend your legs downstream. If done right and with a little luck, you'll be able to stick the log and literally walk to shore with your body planing on the current. This is a good technique to practice in a safe spot with friends nearby. Once learned, it can be a very safe way to escape a normally lethal situation.

The more traditional way to confront a sweeper is to swim as hard as you can toward it. At the last moment reach up as high as possible and while kicking furiously nonstop, climb up into the branches or kick up over the log. The trick is to never allow your feet to get swept under the log or sweeper.

Once your legs get under the obstacle, there is little chance of fighting the hydraulics and getting out alive.

In boats, even while on calm lakes, I wear a PFD at all times. There are many options to choose from and I strongly suggest hunting for one that suits you. I don't always wear a PFD while wading, but I always assess the situation before I make my choice. In hazardous wading conditions such as in high-volume runoff or wading at night, I wear a PFD. Hopefully when the time comes for the next big swim, my education and training will kick in. With luck, I can keep my wits, hold my own, and cross my fingers—underwater.

Excerpt from The Spirituality of Fly Fishing (Morgan Creek), 2016 - Chapter 13: Safety 

First, when wading, always wear a belt on the outside of the waders. Why?  Because, should you fall, the belt prevents water from entering your waders.  For that reason, nearly all waders, purchased or rented, come with a wading belt.  But don't just wear the belt, cinch it tightly around your waist or chest.  If you do fall, it will keep excess water from getting down into your waders.  Swimming, or simply getting out of a river, while wearing waders also presents challenges, and I urge everyone to read Ralph Cutter's article for that information too. To keep from falling, it also helps greatly to have a wading/ staff to maintain your balance and probe the water in front of you.  In fact, don't go wading without one.  This wading staff can be something as simple as a long wooden walking stick or as modern as a collapsible metal staff that you carry in a scabbard attached to your wading belt.  I have seen ski poles and hiking poles used for stability as well; anything that gives you security and better balance will do. 

Crossing a stream involves special considerations.  Try to locate the shallowest routes, which are obviously the easiest areas to cross a stream.  These are typically at the tail end of pools or in riffles.  When crossing, always wade in a slightly upstream direction, so that you can easily retrace your steps, aided by the flow of the water, if you should find that you cannot get across at that point.   Don't ever wade downstream if you don't know what's in front of you; retracing your steps against the current is difficult.  Be especially careful when planting your foot in heavy water with irregular rocks, brush or beaver debris.  You can easily be knocked over by the current and will be unable to free your foot.

When wading anywhere, move slowly and cautiously, shuffling your feet as you go, and feeling the bottom one step at a time.  Here too, the walking stick can help to probe the bottom before putting a foot down. Wear wading boots that have a good grip.  Keep your body turned sideways to the current to reduce your profile and thus lessen the impact of the water on your body.  An article by Mac Huff, reprinted as part of the Orvis series on fly fishing, covers all of these considerations.

From Trout Unlimited blog, April 2019 (individual blog entries with actual experiences)

“A few years ago, while fishing for Atlantics on Quebec's Cascapedia River, I misjudged the depth when crossing the foot of the pool to get to an area on the far side which allowed for a decent back-cast and went for a swim through a serious set of rapids. I'm lucky to be here to write this. I emerged on the wrong side of the river and had to re-cross it to get to my vehicle.I still had my rod, and wading staff which was attached to my wader belt. The only possible route was to re-trace my crossing so I fastened my rod to my vest and, placing both hands on the top of the staff which I pointed sharply downstream, I inched my feet into the torrent. My body was tilted downstream and all my weight was on the staff. the water was hitting me at the waist on the up-stream side and flowing over my downstream shoulder. Moving each foot an inch or so at a time, and ditto for the staff, I made it very slowly but safely. The secret to it was that, because my body was sloped so seriously downstream, the current was forcing my feet down onto the river bed so there was no risk of having them swept out from under me and taking me with them. Needless to say moving each foot ahead an inch or so at a time was quite slow owing to the down-pressure from the current but I made it; followed by a sincere prayer of gratitude.”

“Here is one aspect of using a wading staff that I don't think has been mentioned. I'm 66, and had been using a wading staff for many years. About a year ago, I was wade fishing with my son, who is a pro martial artist and Jiu Jitsu instructor. He pointed out that I was using my wading staff as a crutch, rather than as a tool to augment good balance on my feet. Since then, I have been doing simple yoga exercises to improve my balance (YouTube is full of examples of these exercises), and incorporating other simple exercises in my daily activities to improve balance, like standing on one leg while I brush my teeth, and putting on my pants while standing, rather than sitting or leaning on something. Since then, I find that my balance while wading has improved dramatically, as has my confidence that I can wade in moderately fast water without getting into trouble. I still use my staff 100% of the time, but I make sure that I am standing fully upright with my weight evenly distributed on my feet, rather than leaning on my staff. The staff is thus available for probing ahead, and for providing an additional point of balance if I'm in a particularly tricky spot. Hope that some of you will find this helpful.”

“I am a big advocate of using a wading staff.  I was given my first wading staff as a tip from a client some 40 years ago. While guiding this 80-year-old gentleman, an experienced Dean River steelheader, for a day on the Gallatin River, I slipped and fell twice.  50 years my senior, wearing wading cleats and using his staff, he never fell. At the end of the day, he gave me his Folstaff and some advice on wading safety that has stuck with me to this day.  His basic advice was 1) always use the current to your advantage.  Try and take a downstream angle to enter and exit.   2) Always plan your wading route, both entry and exit.  Don't make your exit strategy include having to wade back upstream against the current or having to exit through heavy, deep, fast water. 3) Never take a step without having your wading staff firmly planted. 4) If you do fall in fast water, get on your butt with your feet downstream, backstroke into shallow water, and don't try and stand in fast water. 5) If your fall puts you in BIG trouble, don't worry about saving your fly rod.  “

“Wading safety doesn't get enough attention. I use all the equipment, staff, wading belt (cinched tight). The idea of the belt of course is to keep most of the water from easily entering your waders. I've seen to many macho fly fishers with the belt buckled, way to loose fitting and if they fell in their waders would quickly fill with water. Some advice I received and have then disregard and learned the hard way, when wading try not to stand on top of submerged rocks. They can be very slippery and also tip and move not to mention the current could knock you off balance. When wading in faster current, move slowly and widen your gate, make sure you have one foot securely planted then the staff planted before picking up the other foot to move. It is a slower process, but hey, we are out there fishing and enjoying the outdoors...enjoy.”

“We have a physical therapist member who has demonstrated equipment and exercises to help those of us who are not as steady in our feet in the stream as we once were improve our balance.”

“The Overlake Fly Fishing Club in Redmond, WA (near Seattle) rented time at a local public swim pool this weekend. We jumped in with waders and boots. Some had waist belts and chest-high belts; others had just waist belts with a draw-string at the top of the waders. Some used PFD's to see the difference. We started off in the 3-5 feet depth, then later moved to the dive tank, 13 feet deep. In the shallow water, I found I could rest on my back, and do a backstroke. I could also sidestroke, but the belly-down crawl was the most difficult.”

In the dive tank, I jumped in feet-first and found that I did not sink, even though I got a lot more water in my waders, from the waist down. The water in your waders weighs the same as the water in the pool. Trying to climb a ladder out of the pool was really difficult;  I felt like I was in 2 G's. The advice from our instructors was, don't try to stand up in the river, crawl to the shore, then lie on your back and raise your feet, so the water will drain out.

In the real world, it must be so shocking and one's chances of survival really would depend on being with others, proximity to dry clothes, heat source, etc. Nearly all of our rivers in the NW are glacier-fed, and until mid-summer, very cold.  I won't fish a river without a PFD."

"I've been outfitting and teaching fly fishing in Bozeman, Montana for over 40 years, and I always include a talk about wading safety.  I am a big advocate of using a wading staff.  I was given my first wading staff as a tip from a client some 40 years ago. While guiding this 80-year-old gentleman, an experienced Dean River steelheader, for a day on the Gallatin River, I slipped and fell twice.  50 years my senior, wearing wading cleats and using his staff, he never fell. At the end of the day, he gave me his Folstaff and some advice on wading safety that has stuck with me to this day.  His basic advice was 1) always use the current to your advantage.  Try and take a downstream angle to enter and exit.   2) Always plan your wading route, both entry and exit.  Don't make your exit strategy include having to wade back upstream against the current or having to exit through heavy, deep, fast water. 3) Never take a step without having your wading staff firmly planted. 4) If you do fall in fast water, get on your butt with your feet downstream, backstroke into shallow water, and don't try and stand in fast water. 5) If your fall puts you in BIG trouble, don't worry about saving your fly rod."

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