Drowning While Fly Fishing Is Always on the Table

The first thought of a fly fisher as the river water pours over the top of the waders is losing his or her fly rod.

No, no, no!

The first bodily response to the 55-degree water is hyperventilation, muscle spasms, an adrenaline burst. The next thought, Oh god! And then, again: Rod!

It’s late summer. Steve (my podcast partner) and I inch single file and thigh deep against the heavy current, fly rod in one hand and the other on the scrub brush and rocky ledge on the river’s edge. We have no business wading the ruthless currents of the Yellowstone. No matter how low it seems this time of year. Up ahead fifty yards is a stretch we’ve never fished before. We’re almost there. We make it and start to cast. It’s hopper season, and the cutthroat are naive.

Within a half hour, Steve has moved about 50 yards above me, hidden behind a rock outcropping the size of a small car. I am in the middle of a side channel, casting downstream. I shift my weight too quickly, stumble, and start to flail downstream.

It’s said that drowning is a silent affair. I thrash in solitude and in silence and tumble for what seems to be a hundred yards. It’s probably only ten. I roll over onto some gravel in shallow water and spy my fly rod another five yards downstream, caught on some dead fall. I make it to my knees and lurch forward to grab the rod. It’s still whole.

I gather myself on the sandy bank. I still can’t see Steve.

Re-rigged and Chastened

An immersion in the Yellowstone even on a warm afternoon in late summer is like a surprise bucket of Gatorade after a playoff win. I peel off my waders to empty the water out of my boots and then twist and pull the entire sopping apparatus back on. Chilled and chastened, my adrenaline ebbing, I re-rig my rod and head back into the river. I mention my baptism later when I catch up to Steve, but oddly, not until years later do we discuss the danger of the moment.

On that day, had I drowned, Steve may have not known I was missing for another hour or more. I’m sure my body would never have been found, given how far into the back country we had hiked.

It’s also said that fly fishing is no extreme sport, and I am a physical testimony to that. I couldn’t do anything extreme. For a lifetime, though, I have tromped around in what’s called the great outdoors. That day on the Yellowstone, I had a bit of God’s luck, as some of my father’s cronies call it. Others have not been as lucky.

Last fall in Montana, a fly fisher succumbed to an assaulting current on the Boulder River, which is not much wider than a city street in some places. His fiancée was nearby, and I wonder if she had her back turned to the river or whether she saw him fall, watching as he made his last cast right before the river knocked him downstream. They say he likely struck his head on a submerged boulder, as he struggled to gain his footing.

His body was never found. The locals say it is probably at the bottom of one of the deeper pools on a stretch where the river cascades about a hundred yards downstream.

Almost two months later, Steve and I stopped by Fourmile Campground where the fly fisher had slipped. We had fished all day about a mile below the area. At the exact spot where he ostensibly fell in, the river didn’t seem that all that intimidating, though the current was likely much faster two months earlier. I’m not sure what compelled us to stop.

Maybe as moment of silence for someone who had succumbed to the wild places.

Gift and Risk of Fly Fishing

Drowning while fly fishing is always possibility.

Even with all the disciplines that fly fishers put into place (no wading above the knees or fishing only with a partner or always using a wading staff), the moment we step outside our trucks and into the river, we add to our day a new element of risk. I accept, and maybe even enjoy, the risk that comes with life in the outdoors.

As spring arrives, however, and I anticipate more days on the river, I am reminded once again that fly fishing is both a gift and a risk. Life is truly fragile.

15 Replies to “Drowning While Fly Fishing Is Always on the Table”

  1. Great reminder! I once parked at a bridge and, upon side stepping down hill to the stream, was met by two kids leaving the water. They climbed up to me from under the bridge. No rods or poles. Locals. Seeing me they immediately inquired if I knew about the fly fisherman who had drowned at this bridge yesterday. He slipped coming down the hill and his wadders (no belt) filled up with water. I didn’t fish much that day.

  2. This is an excellent reminder. The combination of slippery rocks, river current, attention redirected from the actual situation your in can all lead to drastic consequences. I’ve been fly fishing for many years now and I have slipped in the river. Fresh snow runoff making the stream murky, just a little deeper than normal, but considerably faster flow. The stream was not even 20 ft across. Should be an easy wade. Well, a few steps out into the stronger current showed me the a little bit of what was to come. Still, I’m only 15 ft from the far shore, I can do this I think. Because the water was murky, I couldn’t see where to place my feet. One more step and I thought no, I have to turn around. Rather than take small steps backwards, I tried to turn. Big mistake, the current grabbed my foot, spun me sideways and down I went. I was very fortunate, I’m still alive. Stupid as it sounds, my first thought was to hang on to my rod. As I was being swept downstream, I regained my footing 3 times only to be swept down again. Through 2 of those slips, I held on to my rod. The third time down I dropped the rod. By this time I was in shallow water and could stand up again. My rod was gone. Then the long process of stripping my gear off, drain the water began.
    If I could leave one thought for my fellow fisher people, it’s PAY ATTENTION TO THAT LITTLE VOICE IN THE BACK OF YOUR HEAD. It might save your live some day.

  3. Here on Long Island, the Long Island Flyrodders recommend that our members fish with a buddy. We also offer whistles on a retractor as raffle and door prizes as well as sell them at a discount to our members. We remind members that our wonderful sport is not without risk.

  4. I really like the whistle on a retractor idea when fishing with a “buddy”. Correct in that we can’t always see each other when fishing.
    Blowing a whistle might not be your first thought when you fall in, but it could save your life depending on the circumstances.

    Good idea!

  5. Very good reminder. I’m a big, strong guy and i have gotten myself in predicaments several times while wading that caused me to wonder if I was getting out alive. Thanks for keeping safety to the forefront.

  6. I arrived at this thread because I very, very nearly drowned today. I was trying to access a new spot, which included traversing a steep/slippery rock section. Naturally I slipped at the top of the rock and slid all the way down into the water, which quickly dropped off to be about 8′ deep. I was in up to my neck with just a fingertip grip in a crack of the rock. That was just enough for me to pull, kick and thrash my way back onto a little shelf. I lost my rod of course. If it weren’t for the wading belt and that little crack in the rock…it would have been much worse.

    I’m a very fit guy in my mid-30’s and that was nearly the end of me. I always knew on some level that there was danger, but today has forever changed how I fish.

  7. Many years ago I had an incident while fishing. Afterwards I promised/ pledged to my wife and family that I would double my safety practices in the field. I kept my pledge and have been rewarded with many great times out fishing and then sharing the experiences with my loved ones.

  8. The article and comments here immediately bring to mind one nearly treacherous encounter I’ve had while fly fishing. Now in my 40’s I’ve been fishing the great lakes and finger lakes tribs in upstate NY for over 30 years and now recently have one very engraved memory that’s changed my approach to entering the waters edge forever. Accidents happen but my mistake was downright careless. Early spring with some snow still on the ground, water level just a little high (so I thought) and very murky, I confidently stepped off a slippery bank into what I expected to be about 8-12 inches of water. I’ve fished here and entered here what seems like hundreds of times, hence my naive and misguided confidence and I knew better but my eagerness to lay line on the water got the best of me. I immediately found myself nearly up to my neck in the freezing cold, chocolaty water. It was like I stepped right into a man hole with no bottom. Panicked but still dry, I was lucky enough to shimmy my way up and out to the safety of the bank. I collected myself and surprisingly my gear and went to find my brother about a hundred yards up stream. I was glad he didn’t witness my mistake but he would have never known where I went if I weren’t so lucky.

  9. My son and I were fishing the Salmon River in northern New York State. As we walked to the river I realized that I had left my wading staff in the car, but said I would be OK. The rocks were slippery and the river was fast. One extra step sent me down into the cold water. I had my belt tight. My feet were pointed downstream. I reached down and could grab bottom rocks that kept me from going downstream. I could not right myself but my son who was fishing nearby helped me up and out of the river. I was done for the day but not for life. Several fishers have lost their life on the river.

  10. My brother drowned a year ago while fly-fishing the Snake River. He was 57. He was an experienced outdoorsman. I’m still in shock. Thank you for sharing your experience and warning.

    1. I am so so sorry to read about your brother. That is heartbreaking. Crushing.

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