Fish safely

Published Feb 11th 2012

You know Murphy's Law; what can go wrong will go wrong. Even on a fishing trip, so be prepared.


A friend

I was fishing with a friend recently and I climbed up on the bank and ended up tearing a muscle in my calf. Simply climbing up the bank created a sharp pain, which I won't even begin to describe. The Doctor had some fancy name for it. The basic fact is that I am getting older and stuff like this is going to happen. I was lucky I was fishing with a friend, Mitchell, who helped me back to the car. If Mitchell hadn't been there I would very likely have had a hard time getting back on my own. As it ended up, I am healing up quite nicely, but for the near future, I won't be doing much climbing around.

Earlier in the day I had chided Mitchell for carrying his phone with him as he had shown me his new waterproof case for his smartphone. It ended up that I got hurt and I didn't have a few things with me like my cell phone, wading staff and I was quite a ways from my truck and also from the side of the stream. This made me think about wading safety and how I got lucky fishing with a friend. I have some ideas that can help and in the future I will try to follow my own advice.

So here are some tips to make your trip safer:
Fish with a friend
I was lucky that I had a friend with me. This makes a difference because if you get into trouble your friend can help you. Doesn't seem like that is going to be a problem but if you are back in the woods, a mile from your truck, imagine trying to go back to the truck if something bad happens.
It's also a lot more fun to fish with somebody. If you are a member of a Trout Unlimited Club or Federation of Fly Fisher's group, call some of the members and go out with them. Take a younger member or even a neighbor. With a fishing buddy you can trade stories, talk about flies, compare casting techniques and also talk about politics, football or solve world issues. If you don't have a fishing buddy, tell someone where you are going and when you will be coming back.


Carry a phone
Pretty much all of us have a cellphone. There are lots of waterproof bags on the market for these things now. Loksak, Aquapac, Hi and Dry are a few of the names that come to mind. A simple ziplock folded over with a rubber band can work also. Most waders have front pockets. Put the phone in there.

Carry a wading staff
I have gotten into quicksand, been up to waist in mud and I have gotten stuck with my feet wedged into boulders.
The quicksand scared the crap out of me. I was walking in the river and hit a sink hole and a spring and was very lucky I only had one foot in.
Another time I walked on the edge of a bank and stepped off the bank into the shore of a lake and sunk in to mud up to my waist. I actually had to dig my feet out. If it looks soft use the staff to check it out. A staff can also help you push off if you get stuck. Make sure the staff is sturdy and can actually support your weight. If you are big, plus size the staff so it won't fold in half under pressure. Hiking staffs made of wood , are useful but they are quite long and don't fold up. Folding staffs are the way to go.

The staff

Most folding staffs have a bungee cord in the middle, such that when you pull the staff out the pieces fall together. For years I have used the Folstaf brand which is very heavy duty and well made. It is made of aluminum tubing with bell ends. The end is cork and there is a string that is tied to my wader or fishing bag. I pull the staff out the ends tighten up and the sections slip together. The end is a high carbon point and I've never replaced the end. In a pinch, an old ski pole that is adjustable will work.
One tip I can pass on about staffs is this: wax the male ends lightly with a candle or fly tying wax, this allows the ends to slip together. If you have an unwaxed staff, give it a karate type chop on a section that is stuck. If that doesn't work give it a hard wrap with a stick to put it apart, being sure not to dent the tubes. Usually, the ends stick more when it is cold and when you push the ends together hard or if you pushed hard on the staff.
To size a staff, extend you arm straight from your side bent at a 90 degree angle. The staff should touch the ground when gripped in your hand , if it doesn't, its too short. If there is too much staff, it is too long. Shorter folk need a smaller staff, likewise, taller people need a longer one. If it is the wrong size, it won't work as well for you.
If the water is swift you can use a staff by leaning on it. By putting your weight on the outside or upstream side, you can keep your balance. When I cross streams I go down with the stream and up against the stream at an angle. If you slip, point your toes up, lay back and point yourself toward the shore. Eventually, you will float to the shore. It always works best if you have a wader belt on, as a tight belt captures the air inside the waders, allowing you to float.

Look before you walk
I have an old fishing friend that is from Hawaii. He never grew up playing in creeks or the river either swimming or boating. Regardless of where we were fishing , he almost always found the deepest spot in the river. For the life of me, he never understood the concept of "shoal and a hole" as they say down South. The shoal is a sand bar, the hole is the outside edge.
Rivers are generally "S-shaped" and the outside edge of the snake is the hole, the inside is the shoal. As you progress down stream move from inside edge to inside edge. If you walk straight, you will go "in the hole" nearly every time and very likely will be doing some swimming. Watch where you walk and stay on the inside edge and follow the sand bars.

Eye protection

Bring spare clothes
Put extra clothes, a blanket, socks and gloves in the car. Also keep some candy bars, snacks or energy bars in the car. Where I live in New York we can get weather that changes dramatically in early spring or late fall. The air can seem very nice but the water can be quite cold. If you slip and get wet, you can get hypothermia.
No fun. I did that once and I have never been that cold - and I never thought I would get warm again. If you have a change of clothes, you can switch out and keep warm. Blankets will also help.

Wear sunglasses
I always fish with Polaroids. I have several pairs and depending on the water color, I use gray or brown. The glasses help me spot fish and see rocks and such, so that I don't walk in bad spots. More importantly, if you are fishing, get snagged and yank on something and it chooses to come back in your face, you won't be wearing a hook as a new fly fishing eyeliner.
Glasses protect eyes from sticks, hooks and UV light. Very bright glare can hurt your eyes. I personally don't like white against white with glasses, this reduces glare. Choose pairs you are comfortable with. In some cases, it might be best to get prescription glasses or use clip-ons to regular glasses.

Laces and belt

Lace up wading shoes snugly
If your shoes are tight, you are less likely to twist your ankle. I wrenched my knee hiking in the Adirondacks and it was painful to hike back up the side of hill with a twisted knee. If you have loose shoes you can twist an ankle.

Wear a pack or wading belt
Wading belts trap air, so if you fall in the river you generally float. Packs that have belts should be snugged down, if that is the only belt you have. As an added bonus, I tie, clip or snap everything.
If it is attached to my pack, I clip it on. To check how good of a job you did, turn the pack upside down and shake it. If stuff falls off, it needs to be attached better. Likewise zip up pouches, this will save you money from not loosing flies, boxes or the like.

If you are boating, wear a jacket!
I have my own really cool fishing kayak jacket and I also have a nice fishing boating vest. I wear both. If a jacket isn't comfortable, you won't wear it. Get one and use it. I've seen tons of videos and photos with guides in guide boats with no jackets on in white water. If you don't like it chances are you won't wear it. I don't know about you but I am worth the $50- $100 that these cost.

Learn to remove hooks
If you stick a hook in you or your buddy there are several ways to get it out. The best way is cut a 12" piece of mono. Slide the mono through the bend of the hook, push down on the head and tug hard with the folded loop. You can do the same thing by gripping the bend with a locking hemostat or a pliers. To release the hook, you must make a sharp pull at about a 30 degree pitch.
I've gotten flies stuck in my lips, ears, fingers and arms. If I stick flies in my clothes, I push the point through and cut the end off. The worst one I did was stick a fly on the side of my finger, almost all the way to the bone. That one I had to have the ER remove. I stuck my wife one time on the Green River and we were along way from town. Had I bent the barb down, she wouldn't have screamed so much when I tugged it out.

Hook removal

Bring a safety box
My wife gave me a hard time about my fishing safety box I took to Yellowstone this summer. If you are hiking in the back country get one of these.
I bought supplies from camping stores, box stores and sporting good stores. I had a waterproof locking box.
Inside I put the following: flat compass (GPS's and phones need batteries and/or cell towers, this is very low tech but works), bear bell, folding foil blanket (these are small blankets that fold up), small first aid kit, waterproof matches, bio degradable toilet paper, packable flashlight with extra batteries and a metal whistle. I also added a folding knife, extra water bottle and some snacks. Heck of it was, last time I was in The Park I had none of this and hiked into a remote area by myself. I also had bear spray, which I found was pretty much a waste. If the area is very busy, you usually don't need this stuff. I had my staff tied to my pack.

Tell someone where you are
In The Park there is a log book you sign when you enter a trail and you log back out when you return. My wife also insisted I notify the front desk of the hotel where I was going and when I would be back. So in back country areas, check in and out.

Murphy's law
Long ago my friend Dave Whitlock told me if you are around this stuff long enough, eventually some bad stuff will happen, he is quite right. I've gotten flies stuck in many places, twisted my ankle, cut my hand open from slipping on rocks, got into quick sand and mud and now a torn muscle. Obviously, I am no longer Superman. I am an aggressive wader and fisherman but I need to be more careful, so should you. Take your time, if it seems dumb don't do it and let people know where you are going and when you will be back. Simple ideas sometimes are the best solutions.

User comments
From: David - Full name and email anonymized  Link
Submitted September 23rd 2012

If at all possible - Never, Ever fish alone. I slipped on a rock sideways until my foot caught but then broke my leg. Thankfully I was fishing with a buddy who was less than half my age who helped me get back to the car. We were only about 100 yards from the car but it took us about an hour to get there. Not sure how long if would have taken me on my own. Ended up getting a plate and 5 screws in that leg.

From: Dave - Full name and email anonymized  Link
Submitted February 28th 2012

It is law in Australia to wear a buoyancy vest in a boat in most situations & just plain common sense to use one if you can. Auto inflate models are great.

Cellphone coverage is non existent in most worthwhile fishing areas. Many fishermen now carry Personal Locator Beacons (PLB) with the satellite GPS location accuracy of about 45 metres.

Snake bites are a very real threat in Australia as my nephew will attest. He was bitten through the lower leg part of heavy Scierra waders. Snake bite is treated by applying several layers of compression bandage to the limb and keeping it elevated and immobile. Try getting to medical help if you are by yourself, cannot walk & have no cellphone coverage.

If by myself, I generally carry more survival gear than fishing gear, even for a day. As well as complying to all the above suggestions my vest / backpack / shoulder bag / wader pockets contain a very loud whistle, 3 compression bandages, a few adhesive bandages, waterproof matches, gas lighters, fire start tablets, space blanket, food & drink, warm jacket, waterproof jacket & PLB.

I do now wade & walk very carefully but have had a couple of minor mishaps, luckily, when I was with someone.

From: Ed · e.null·at·  Link
Submitted February 17th 2012

One more tip I can attest to. Wear polypro or the like under and over. I took a dunk one cold morning in March over a mile from the truck. I was wearing a belt, so not much got down the waders. I wrung my fleece shirt and polypro top out, put them and my jacket back on and kept fishing. Only shivered while I was topless!

From: Erik - Full name and email anonymized  Link
Submitted February 13th 2012

A friend of mine almost drowned when he fell into a river a couple of years ago. He had to undo his waders while under water. It was a very close call. He made it, but only to be diagnosed with cancer. He died within the next year. I sometimes wish he'd drowned that day. Be careful, yes, but don't think you can manage the future.

From: Pit Renz · alepitrenz·at·  Link
Submitted February 12th 2012

whatever happens to me while fishing it wont be worse compared to skiing, creeking, biking , drinking, kiffing. watching TV or falling in love.... So go out and fish as long as you can, there is nothing better for my mood and health then to be near a fish with a rod in my hand

GFF staff comment
From: Martin Joergensen · martin·at·  Link
Submitted February 11th 2012


" go to your church and I'll go to mine..."

Amen to that!


From: Ed · e.null·at·  Link
Submitted February 11th 2012

I heartily agree with 90% of the above--especially the staff. I don't own a cell phone and probably won't. I fish alone because the solitude is my therapy. I tell my wife, you go to your church and I'll go to mine. The river.

From: Bob - Full name and email anonymized  Link
Submitted January 30th 2012

Here here. I tore the cartilage in my knee alongside Horse Brook Run when I was fishing by myself several years ago. I thank the lucky stars that I was on the road side of the river and could manage to inch my way up to the road and back to my car under the highway bridge. Another time I had a flat tire at the Beaverkill covered bridge before the season - just scouting some water. It was a long drive back to town on mostly rim. No phone either time. I was just lucky.

Comment to an image
From: Roger - Full name and email anonymized  Link
Submitted February 8th 2015


For proper support, the wading back-support belt should fit lower in the lumbar region.


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