Fly Fishing Stream Safety

Fly Fishing Stream Safety
by an Expert

The 30 Second Expert

In 1985 on my first trip to Montana, I was fishing the Madison River about 50 miles west of West Yellowstone. There were some class 4 rapids there with large trout hanging at the base of the big boulders in the rapids. While deciding if I was brave enough to get closer to those roaring rapids, I was standing on a big rock fishing the seams leading to the rapids. Suddenly a wave from the main current rolled over the rock and washed me off. Tucking my rod under my arm like a down hill skier, I skied water to the next rock, stopped momentarily and had to jump for the third rock in the series. Landing safely, I caught my balance. Then stepped off into the pool in water about 3 inches below my chest wader top. Turning I slowly waded ashore and sat down looking at the currents sweeping from the last rock back into the rapids. About 10 minutes later, I started shaking all over at the close call. Since then I have learned more common sense and become a lot more careful about river safety.

Fly Fishing Stream Safety Tactics

Over the 45 years I have fly fished, I have developed some common sense river survival tactics to maximize my river safety. If you apply these rules you will maximize your safety too.

  1. Proper Equipment for the Conditions — Use proper equipment for the river conditions. If you are going to fish fast water with a mossy rock bottom, wading shoes or waders using felt soles with spikes or the new aquastealth soles with studs are the just the ticket. If you are fishing in the winter, dress in layers for your local conditions. Polypropylene Undergarments and shirts help wick moisture away. A breathable fishing jacket can be a good investment for cold weather fly fishing. A case of hypothermia or frostbite takes the pleasure out of winter fishing.Wear a non-stretch nylon or similar type wading belt to help keep out water if you go for a swim.

    Sun Screen
    is a must. It helps prevent skin drying out and can lessen the occurrence of pre-cancerous skin growths from sun exposure. In Colorado a 30 SPF sun screen is recommended. If you have sun sensitive skin, try one of the 70 or 100 SPF ratings for UV A, B and C.

    Polarized Fishing Sunglasses All The Time. Protect your eyes from UV damage. It is darn hard to fly fish without your eyesight. Many Colorado Fly Fishing Guides recommend Smith Optics in Copper Brown or Amber for Colorado and Western States fly fishing. The Copper and Amber show the fish better against the light colored stream bottoms of many western streams.

  2. Never Hurry — On your way to the stream and especially when wading in the stream. On your way to streamside, take time to get your mind focused on your fly fishing and your river safety.Even if there are 200 fish rising in a pool, keep yourself under control. I know it is hard. But those fish are going still be there when you get to fishing.
  3. Stream Side — Never assume you know a river. They change every year from run off conditions or dam releases. Take time to “Read the Water” where you are going to fish. What kind of stream is it? Small 6 feet to 15 feet, medium 15 feet to 35 to 40 feet or large 40 feet or more. How fast is the stream flowing and how deep is it where you are going to fish? Misread these two stream characteristics and you could end up floating face down in a pool somewhere.Examine the bottom structure. Is it all similar sized medium rocks with a lot of moss. (This is a common condition of a lot of the Colorado’s Blue River.) Or is the bottom mostly smaller rocks with the occasional larger rock you will have to navigate around while wading. Is the bottom a pebbly structure that can roll out from under your foot easily. Is it a sand bottom or worse yet a mud bank you will have to cross.
  4. Current — Take time to study the current where you will have to wade and where you want to fish. Will you have to cross any heavy current flows to get to your casting position. This step is very important. Once you are floating down river in the grip of a strong current is not the time to wish you had taken more time before starting into the river.
  5. Path to SafetyAlways and I mean Always take time to map out your path to your fishing position and How to get back to safety. This one step can literally mean the difference between your life and death. If you are not sure you could get back, do not go there.If the water flow caught you, how would you get out? Is there a path to safety? Could you wade at a 45-degree angle to the current to a safe place?Never and I mean never start wading a river until you know how you are going to get back from where you want to go. Always err on the side of caution. We old guys want you beginners to hang around and become “old pain in the butts”.
  6. Wading Techniques — Some techniques to improve your safety.
  • Reel In Your Line — I generally reel in my line if wading across a heavy current or a long distance. Reeling In saves losing flies on rocks and helps to improve my balance. This one is up to you. If you can wade trailing a line, you just might catch your trophy fish. Who knows? But it is not a technique recommended for safety.
    Moving Slowly
    — will improve your safety by giving you a chance to get your balance and footing. (Important) Plus you will not make as much noise and create as big a pressure wave scaring the fish. Take time to get your downstream foot planted before moving your upstream foot. Make sure to have one foot and your wading staff planted firmly before moving the other foot. Keep your feet close to the bottom where the current is less (the fish know this). Feel with your moving foot for a secure hold before shifting weight onto it. Learn to think with your feet.
  • Look, Look, Look — Look at where you are going to go. Look while you are wading to get there. Look at what you have to wade over or around to get to your position.
  • Balance — Whether you use the toe to heel or the heel to toe method of “feeling” your way along the bottom. (Push your foot forward. Don’t try and walk like you do on land.) Get your foot firmly planted before shifting your weight onto it.Keeping your feet slightly spread will also improve your balance.Keeping your knees slightly flexed will improve your balance as you move. If standing in one casting position for a long time, keep your knees slightly flexed to improve your circulation and help avoid cramps.
  1. Wading Staff — When necessary use a wading staff. Either a commercial one or a stout branch from along the stream bank. Usually you can find one without cutting off a green tree limb. When I was young, I seldom had to use a wading staff. But at 62, I use one more often. A sprained ankle or groin pull from a slip takes the fun out of a fishing trip.


Remember — “There are Bold Fishermen. There Old Fishermen. There are No Old and Bold Fishermen.”

Tight Lines and Good Fishing,

Marshall, Editor
fly fishing colorado

copyright 2004 Marshall Estes