June 03, 2015
I've said it before and I'll say it again, just because the water is a little high and off-color, it doesn't mean the fish aren’t willing to bite. We'll talk more about fishing during runoff in another article very soon. For now, let's talk about how to safely wade a stream. After all, it doesn't matter if you have the perfect flies tied on and know exactly where/how to fish them, if you find yourself bobbing down the river after taking a wrong step.
The good news with fishing during high water is that you don't generally need to do a lot of wading. The fish are usually holding tight to the banks, seeking refuge from the heavy currents. There's a good chance you're going to catch the majority of your fish while your feet are on dry ground.
If you do find yourself having to get your feet wet, here are a few tips I recommend you put to use while waiting patiently for the water to recede and clear.
Several of these tips are applicable year-round. However, when the conditions on the river are less than ideal, they are especially important to keep in mind. Embrace the “high and dirty” and make it happen.
1. Know Before You Go
This may seem like a no-brainer, but if you're planning to take the river on during less than ideal conditions, I recommend going to a familiar river you're already comfortable fishing. This is especially true if you're new to fly fishing. By going to a familiar river, you most likely already know the easy spots to cross. The areas will always be the easy spots, regardless of flow. This should help you wade with greater confidence, since you most likely won't be able to see the bottom, which can be intimidating if you haven't done it before. Learning this skill in an area you're already comfortable with will make the process much easier.
2. Wear Your Wading Belt
I mention this because I see a lot of people not wear one. Wearing both a hip pack and wading belt isn't always the most comfortable option. However, when the river is roaring, I want every ounce of protection I can get to ensure my waders don't instantly fill with water should I take a dip. The old saying “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” is definitely true here. No matter what type of pack/vest you wear, make sure the wading belt is nice and snug.
3. Take a Wading Staff
Wading staffs continue to get better, more reliable and easier to use. Most of them also include a neoprene sheath that attaches perfectly to your wading belt, keeping it out of the way until it's time to be put to use. I would especially recommend using one if you're fishing a river that you know will require crossing. Aside from offering stability when crossing a river, wading staffs also work great this time of year to simply check the depth of water along the bank. Keep in mind, if the river you're fishing only has 10-inches of visibility, the bank along the edge is going to look exactly the same, whether it’s 11 inches or 4 feet deep. I'd rather have it and not need it, than need it and not have it.
Note: These next three tips are applicable all year, but this time of year they will especially make your wading life that much easier.
4. Keep It Sideways
The sideways reference from this tip is referring to your body position in the river. Standing sideways in the river will allow you to maintain much more control and stability. Avoid facing straight up or straight down river at all costs. I've seen it countless times – even during low flows – where a wading angler (or perhaps a client) turns around to talk while crossing the river. Their leg will be instantly swept out by the current. While this may not always result in taking a spill, it can definitely happen much quicker than you think. Add in the fact that some rivers are flowing with 10 times, or more, the amount of water we typically fish them at, and you can see how important proper body position can be when wading.
5. Take a Wide Stance
Now that we know how to properly stand in the river when wading/crossing, make sure to give yourself a good wide stance as well. My recommendation is to always keep your feet at a width wider than your hips.
6. Lead with Your Downriver Foot
Here is another easy one that can make all the difference between staying upright and going for a swim. As you cross the river, always feel your way across the streambed with your downriver foot. Plant your downriver foot firmly and then slowly slide your upriver foot forward until it's even with your downriver foot. Once the upriver foot has found a firm hold, repeat the process of feeling your way forward with your downriver foot. Unless you're wading through very shallow water, having your upriver foot overtake your downriver foot throughout the crossing will never be the most stable way to wade in swift, off-color water.
7. Use Your Angles
Never attempt to cross directly across a river. Taking your crossing at an angle will make things much, much easier. The important thing to remember here is that assessing your exit location is just as important as your entry location. If you're new to wading, keep in mind that the deeper/swifter the water is, the greater angle you'll likely need to take to cross. As a general rule, a 45 degree angle is a good starting point for planning your crossing. If the river turns out to be easier to wade than you had anticipated, then you won't end up needing to use this steep of an angle. I'd rather give myself a little extra cushion for the crossing than find myself standing mid-river, realizing I'd underestimated the current, and wondering how I'm going to get across.
Interested in a guided fly fishing trip or just more about fly fishing in general, visit Trouts Fly Fishing.