Wading is not one of my favorite fishing subjects, but it deserves some comments. It is one of those evil necessaries associated with steelheading. Unless one fishes solely from a boat, river anglers have to develop skills needed to move about in the currents. If one is dedicated to cast from the best possible position to put a fly in front of eager steelhead, he (she) has to do whatever is necessary to get to that spot. But it should not be done without a plan or at least a quick look around to see how complicated ingress and egress could be. So, let’s talk about it.
First things first. Never, but never wade in water that you haven’t put a fly through. No matter how close to shore it might be. Before stepping in the water, strip out enough line to reach the water in front of you with enough depth to cover a fish. Then gradually make your way into deeper waters. When I used to guide and teach fishing schools, I sometimes took clients to the Kalama River, Washington, to the canyon waters below the falls. At the end of the steep trail to the river, the water was rock filled but only about 1.5 to 2 feet deep. When I had the opportunity, I would take the client in below this place; tell him to walk softly and not go close to the shore. We would cross the river downstream of the trails end and position ourselves where we could see into the water next to the opposite shore where the trail stops at river’s edge. We could see fish holding right up next to the shore and as luck would have it one time; some other anglers came down the trail. Watching the fish closely as the anglers approached the trails end, I told my client to watch the steelhead, there. When the unsuspecting anglers walked up to the river’s edge the steelhead (3 of them) split before the fishers got within 20 feet. They never knew the fish were there. A great lesson for both of us. On future trips, I hooked several fish from that spot.
When I was much younger and stronger, wading was second nature to me (as it is for most steelheaders), but I was a little more cautious than my friends. I wasn’t what you would call a bold wader, but a strong wader and I never really paid much attention to wading until I was fishing alone on the Madison River in Montana in the Slide area. The month was August and the water was fast, but fairly shallow where I started out and I needed to get to the other side. So I stepped in and picked my way across the fast, rock-filled riffle. The current pushed me downstream quite a ways, but I stepped out of the river without shipping water.
I fished and caught fish all the way down that shore for several hours. Then, I needed to get back to camp. I was at a deeper but slightly slower part of the river and thought I should just cross it there. But its depth made me uncomfortable. So I made my way back up stream for quite a ways only to find too fast waters with impossible shorelines to get out of the river on the other side. I went back to the deeper water because the other side looked like I could get out of the river OK. But getting there would prove tricky. I had my Nikon camera with me and I unhooked my wading belt; let my camera hang low in front of me inside of my waders, then reconnected my belt above it. I inadvertently trapped a lot of air in the waders. It proved a most advantageous move. I stepped in and the current was more powerful than I thought.
I was immediately moved physically downstream skating over the smaller rocks. I kept stepping forward; I was crotch deep, then waist deep, then nipple deep being pushed downstream, literally tip toeing across the tops of the boulders in the deeper water in the middle of the river. The air trapped in my waders allowed me to float downstream from boulder to boulder. I could see into the river so I picked the boulders and toe-hopped my way to shallow water. I was lucky. VERY LUCKY! I had an inch of dry waders left after getting out of the water. My camera was dry also. Sometimes very buoyant waders can make a wader loose traction on the river bottom causing problems. This time it worked out for me. I realized as I walked out on the other side, I needed to think before wading very deep. Always have a plan to get in and get out of the river. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen anglers (including myself) wading down a gravel bar in the river to a point where there is too deep water behind, downstream and in front, so now it is time to retrace steps upstream against a strong current. Sometimes it is too strong to wade back upstream. Bad situation.
When wading downstream nowadays, I always look to the shore behind me to make sure I can back out if needed. Just a quick glance back to be certain I can get out if needed: Or be sure I can wade back upstream if the current is not too strong.
When guiding, I always waded just upstream of my client. They wouldn’t realize it, but I was blocking the current-pressure against them making their crossing much easier. I always had my hand closest to my client ready, just in case of a stumble or momentary imbalance. They never knew what was going on. I was like a boulder in the river blocking the river pushing against him (her). It abated any fears of wading across a potentially dangerous crossing. Keep this in mind when wading in fast water with a friend who might not wade with the same confidence as you.
I learned about Steam Cleats after wading the Deschutes River in Oregon. It is not unusual to be wading when visibility is not very good. Wading is among big rocks and boulders that you cannot see. It is like wading by brail with your feet. You cannot see your boots or the river bottom. The cleats gave me super-good traction and the ability to get to the right place to make my casts. As I got older and my knees got weaker, I started using a wading staff. This is like admitting to having to use a walker, or crutch, or wheelchair to some anglers. I have never felt embarrassed, though, about using a wading staff, but I talk to many who won’t use one, citing the reason of not being old enough. I have also witnessed many of those “young” anglers floating their hats and filling their waders.
Other wading accoutrements to make an angler feel safer and have more confidence in wading include: felt soled wading boots, studded-felt-soled wading boots, Stream Cleats, Korkers, wading staffs and inflatable vests. Don’t feel embarrassed about using any of these products. I personally know several anglers who attribute their still being alive to using them. Keep in mind to use a wading staff on the upstream side of you. It provides better balance this way. In a fast, rock-filled riffle place your feet behind the rocks; they will block the pressure against your legs. If caught in very fast waters, one-step your way across, resting the downstream leg in the lee of the upstream leg (breaking the current). Wading is no big deal 90% of the time, but when caught in the 10%, keep your head and keep some of this in mind.