S3:E48 Fly Fishing Safely in the Summer

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Fly fishing safely is harder than it sounds, For sure, fishing is no extreme sport. Recently, however, while we were fishing in Yellowstone National Park, two fly fishers were attacked by a grizzly – just a drainage system over from us. Besides bears, there are other risks, of course, such as lightning. In this episode, Dave tells a harrowing story about a friend who was struck by lightning and lived to tell about it. But not before her heart stopped.

Listen now to “Fly Fishing Safely in the Summer”

Great Stuff from Our Listeners. At the end of each episode, we often include a feature called “Great Stuff from Our Listeners.” It’s the last segment of each episode, where Steve reads one of the comments from our listeners or readers. We enjoy hearing from you, and appreciate your advice, wisdom, and fly fishing experiences.

What did we miss? What are other important safety concerns when fly fishing in the summer? Tell us your stories of “close calls”!


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That is the most simple way to help us grow!

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The Fly Fisher’s Book of Lists

We’ve published a book for regular-Joe-and-Jane fly fishers called The Fly Fisher’s Book of Lists: Life is short. Catch more fish.

One person who purchased the book called it “cliffsnotes for fly fishers.”

To switch metaphors, perhaps it’s more like a handful of potato chips. It’s an entire book of lists. The goal is to help you find practical help quickly and in an easily digestible format!

Buy it today on Amazon for only $13.99!

Safety Devices for Fly Fishers

safety devices

Fly fishing is not an extreme sport. But it can be a dangerous one. Every year, fly fishers drown, break bones, and hook themselves. They get lost. Caught in storms. And stung by insects and bitten by snakes.

So the next time you head for the river, consider taking along some of all of these safety devices:

1. A first-aid kit

This is critical if you plan to fish very far up the river. I prefer a first-aid kit the size of a small fly box. You only need the basics—band-aids, antiseptic cream, pain reliever, and a couple larger bandages or gauze dressings.

You might include moleskin for blisters. In fact, this may be the most important element in your first aid kid.

2. Your smartphone

No, you don’t need your smartphone to check email or Twitter.

But you might be surprised at the places you have cell service — like on certain spots on the Yellowstone River in Yellowstone National Park. Well, I should say I do, but Dave (my podcast partner) doesn’t. We use different carriers.

I have a flashlight app on my phone that I’ve used when hiking in or out of my fishing spot in the dark. The GPS might allow someone to track you if you break a leg and simply can’t move.

3. Bear spray

This is an absolute must in grizzly country.

Last fall, a couple was scouting fishing spots on the Lamar River in Yellowstone National Park when they spotted a grizzly feeding on carcass. The bear was in no mood for competition, so it charged. It came within nine feet before their bear spray turned it away. It charged again, but retreated and ran away when it encountered the cloud of bear spray a second time.

Dave and I were fly fishing just a few miles away one week earlier, and we saw grizzly tracks along the river. Yes, we were carrying bear spray.

4. A wading staff

I’m a big believer in wading staffs. Their most obvious use is staying on your feet in the current. A wading can also help you walk if you sprain an ankle. And also serves as a means to ward off a rattlesnake.

5. Two-way radios

These are great for those spots where you don’t have cell phone service.

Dave, my podcast partner, and I regularly carry two-way radios when we’re fishing in the backcountry. Yes, we admit sharing fishing info (“Hey, they’re starting to take Caddis flies over here!”). But we take them along in case one of spots a bear or falls and twists an ankle. Even some of the places we fish in the Driftless (southeastern Minnesota and southwestern Wisconsin) have limited cell coverage.

Must Have vs Nice to Have

The five items above fall into the “must have” category. But there are some “nice to have” items you might want to consider:

    A change of socks can help prevent blisters;

    A rain jacket can provide warmth as well as protection if you get caught in a fierce rainstorm;

    A fire-starter is an extra measure of caution if I’m hiking a few miles up river in the mountains of Wyoming or Montana. I’ll also thrown in a small lighter and some folded newspaper (in a plastic bag); and

    Water purification tablets might even be must-have if your destination is a lake or stream a few miles from the trailhead.

The next time you hit the river, don’t forget the devices that can help you avoid or deal with dangers. And of course, you always need to carry a good amount of water.

Red Means Stop, Green Means Go – at the River’s Edge

Movies tend to romanticize the fly fishing experience. The natural beauty, the sound of the rushing river, and the rhythmic motion of the cast – all conspire to create an image of tranquility. The entire experience appears to be one speed: slow motion. But when you’re at the river’s edge, it’s not slow motion.

The reality, though, is that there are at least three speeds to fly fishing: go, slow, and stop. In the spirit of the stoplight, green means go, yellow means slow, and red means stop! In this post, I identify nine fly fishing moments that require one or more of these three speeds.

1. Before you step into the river to flyfish – RED

As you approach the river, stop a few yards before the river’s edge. Observe. Even if you’re wading into the river at a public access area, don’t simply traipse into the water and move upstream (or downstream). Wait a few minutes. Do you see any fish rising? Is the stream or river lower? Higher? Do you see any insects in the air or on the water?

Start your fly fishing with a modicum of observation.

2. After you fish for 15 minutes – GREEN

Beginner fly fishers tend to find a decent run and cast in the same spot for hours. Unless you are working a steelhead run in a larger river, most likely you need to move to the next run more quickly than you are.

After ten to fifteen minutes, move to the next run. Truly. Don’t keep flailing the pool or run. Just move on. If there is another fly fisher in the run in front of you, go around him or her – perhaps to a stretch of river that is several runs ahead of him or her. There are exceptions to every rule, but in general, green means go when you are fly fishing in smaller streams and rivers.

3. Approaching your next run – YELLOW

This is a corollary to #1 and #2. Most stretches of rivers do not have unlimited runs – ergo, places where the trout lie. Treat each run like the treasure that it is. Don’t just step into the river and begin slinging.

Slow down to look for rising trout. Check to see if you are casting a shadow over the run you’re trying to fish. Don’t waste the opportunity that is in front of you. Be methodical as you fish. Act as if every run is the last run of the day.

4. Tying knots – YELLOW

It’s tempting to cave in to your excitement (or anxiety) to get back to fly fishing after you have snapped off your fly. Don’t. Slow down and tie a good knot. Make sure you haven’t weakened the monofilament when you tightened the knot.

5. Reeling in fish – GREEN and YELLOW

This requires two speeds. The time you hook the fish to the time you release it is crucial to its survival. Never should you “play” the fish. It’s green all the way. The goal is always to release the fish as fast as you can.

However, if you hook a large fish, you will suddenly realize the impossibility of simply cranking in the fish. You’ll need to slow down to work your drag, pull the fish from side to side to wear it out, and move downstream to a shallow part of the river to net it.

If you want to catch a large brown trout on your three-pound tippet, you’ll need to slow down.

6. Wading – YELLOW

Nothing good comes from trying to move through the river quickly, even in slower moving streams. Speed increases your risk of falling. Slow down to enjoy the experience and to preserve your life.

7. After you see lightning or hear thunder – RED and GREEN

This is patently obvious, but you’ll want to stop (“red”) fly fishing and run (“green”) to find a low spot (not under a tree!). Make sure you leave your fly rod in a safe place but a good many yards away from you. Or your Winston rod may become a lightning rod!

8. When you encounter a bison or moose or grizzly – RED

It’s never a good idea to saunter up to any wild animal or even to run away from a startling encounter. Stop. Maybe even curl up into the fetal position if the wild encounter is a grizzly bear. Hopefully, you have a canister of bear spray around your waist. Some say it works on even on other wild animals.

9. After a great day on the river – GREEN

Green means go to the nearest supper club or rib and chop house. Go with a cold beverage, and go with the largest rib-eye on the menu.

4 Benefits of Fly Fishing with a Buddy

I enjoy solitude when I fly fish. Yet I rarely fly fish alone. I like to fly fish with a buddy, if only because there’s someone to take pics of my big fish (or buffalo bone).

The truth is, it is better to fly fish with a buddy or a brother or a sister or a spouse. In the past year of fly fishing, I have been on the water eighteen days (I know, it doesn’t seem like enough). On every one of those days, I have fished with someone else — either my podcast partner Dave, my brother, my sons, or another close friend.

Why is a fishing partner such a big deal? Here are four benefits of fly fishing with a buddy or someone else.


This is at top of the list for a reason. Your life might depend on it.

Four years ago, my sons I and hiked into a high mountain lake in Rocky Mountain National Park. The trail took us up the side of a waterfall. On our way back from fly fishing the lake, we came across a hiker who had broken her ankle. She was in a group, and one of them had hiked out to find a park ranger. By the time we made it down the waterfall, we heard and saw the helicopter that came to rescue her.

The buddy system results in a timely rescue.

A couple weeks ago, I slipped at the edge of a small stream I was fishing and fell forward in some shallow water. The only casualty was a cracked fly box. But I reflected later on how I could have hit my head on a nearby boulder and passed out. If I had been alone, that could have been disastrous even in shallow water. I was glad that my podcast partner, Dave, was only thirty yards away. It was a win-win situation.

Since I wasn’t hurt, he got a good laugh. But had I been hurt, he was there to help.

Dave and I regularly fish in grizzly bear country, so having two fly fishers — each armed with bear spray — is critical. Sometimes a bear can attack you so fast that there is no time to unleash the contents of your canister. But a friend can. One of my bow-hunting partners saved the life of his friend a few years when a grizzly attacked faster than his friend could get to his bear spray. Then, he was able to help his friend back to their SUV before the bear returned and before his friend bled to death. The recovery required a couple surgeries. But the attack might have led to death if my friend’s friend had been hunting alone.


Another benefit of fly fishing with a buddy is having another brain.

Recently, Dave and I were fishing for fall browns in the Gardner River in Yellowstone National Park. We took turns drifting our nymphs through the same run. We were catching fish, but Dave pointed out to me that I was missing some strikes. He suggested that the almost imperceptible hesitation of my strike indicator was a subtle strike. So I started setting the hook every time my strike indicator made a slight bump. Every time, taking Dave’s suggestion resulted in hooking a fish.

Later in the day, I returned the favor on another run that I had fished a couple days before. After watching Dave’s casts, I suggested that he cast about 10 feet further upstream so the nymphs he was using would be deeper when they reached the hot zone. It worked. Sometimes it takes a friend to spot the obvious or not-so-obvious solution to those times when the fish are not biting.

Sharing the Joy

There’s something satisfying about sharing the moment with someone else. When Dave and I catch fish, we whoop it up together. I can honestly say I enjoy watching Dave catch big trout (okay, as long as I’m catching them too!). Then there are the hilarious moments. I was glad Dave witnessed the 20-inch buffalo bone (the picture above) I landed when we fished the Gardner together!

Like any other joy in life, fly fishing is meant to be shared. This goes beyond catching trout, though. It extends to seeing the sun flood a beautiful meadow, watching a couple of wolves saunter along the bank of the Yellowstone River, or hearing the piercing bugle of a bull elk on a September morning.


As much as I try to slow down in the moment and take in the experience, I find that I forget certain aspects of a day on the river. That’s why I force myself to share dinner at the end of the day with my fly fishing buddies. Well, okay, I really don’t have to force myself to do this! Dinner is the capstone of a great day. Often, the dinner conversation I have with Dave or my brother or one of my sons will remind me of moments or experiences I had forgotten.

Sometimes, even years later, I’ll be talking about a certain trip with one of them, and they will remind me of some moment or experience that had vanished from my memory.

As a wise writer once said, “Two is better than one. . . . if either of them falls down, one can help the other up. . . . Though they may be overpowered, two can defend themselves” (Eccl. 4:9-10, 12). While that applies to all of live, it certainly relates directly to your next fly fishing adventure.

5 Fly Fishing Safety Devices

fly fishing safety devices

Fly fishing is a gadget-intensive hobby. The stuff you need to land fish, to wade safely, to meaure water temperature, to tie on a size #20 fly, to waterproof that fly, and to weight your line seems to multiply at an alarming rate. Since I don’t want my fly vest to weigh as much as a WWII flak jacket (about 22 pounds), I regularly go through it and take out items I don’t need.

But in the interest of safety, there are five fly fishing safety devices that I never leave at home or in the truck. These devices are, ultimately, more important than split shot or forceps or fly floatant.

1. Bear Spray.

You must carry this with you whenever you fish in grizzly bear country.

Dave, my podcast partner, and I prefer UDAP (http://www.udap.com/), the spray developed by Mark Matheny of Bozeman, Montana. The spray canister is designed to fit into a hip holster so that you can shoot from the hip. There may not be time to remove the canister from the holster to spray a charging grizzly.

Why am I so insistent on carrying bear spray?

Several years ago, a friend and I bow-hunted in the Taylor Fork drainage northwest of Yellowstone National Park. The next fall, my friend took a business partner to the same spot. They were charged by a grizzly, and my friend’s business partner ended up with some broken bones and needed surgery. But my friend unloaded his canister of UDAP at the grizzly, and it fled before inflicting any more serious damage.

Keep in mind that a canister of bear spray does no good buried in a pouch somewhere in your fly vest. So you need to hang it from your wading belt (and that is the next device!).

2. Wading Belt.

This is not a luxury item, yet some beginner fly fishers forget to scrounge through their duffel bag in order to find it.

Ideally, you shouldn’t need to search your duffel bag. Keep the belt looped through the single belt loop in the back of your waders. You can’t afford to leave it behind. Without a wading belt, your waders can fill up with water if you fall or get swept into water over your chest. That means you will sink instead of float to the surface.

3. First Aid Kit.

A friend of ours got a hook deeply embedded in his finger while releasing a trout last summer. After Dave, my podcast partner, removed it, we were glad to have some Neosporin and a band-aid. Besides, you never know when you’ll get blister or sprain an ankle. I could keep listing the injuries which a first aid kit will treat. But hopefully you get the point.

4. Communication Device.

In some cases, a cell phone works great. Honestly, I get better cell reception at certain spots in the backcountry of Yellowstone National Park and Rocky Mountain National Park than I do in my office in the northern suburbs of Chicago.


Apparently, the team of Verizon workers who appear in those television commercials prefer the great outdoors to the ‘burbs. There are a few places, though, where Dave and I carry two-way radios. We’ve been known to swap information about what flies are working best or to brag about a trout we’ve just landed.

But we carry these to make sure we can call for help if needed.

5. Flashlight.

There’s no excuse to be without a flashlight. Twisted ankles happen. Or inclement weather slows down your return hike. Sometimes, even the most punctual fly fishers (if such persons exist) can’t resist the urge to keep fishing until Dark Thirty (or O Dark Thirty!).

One alternative is to load a flashlight app on your cell phone. However, this will drain your battery in a hurry. With so many compact, lightweight flashlights on the market, you’ll be better off keeping one of those in your fly vest.

If you hike in far enough to fly fish a mountain lake or a remote stretch of river, you might also consider fire starter (a butane lighter and a folded paper towel) and even a space blanket (a thin metal-coated sheet which folds up into a pouch the size of your wallet).

Water-purification tablets are advisable, too.

Even though you are anxious to get to the river, don’t forget the items that will help you avoid or at least cope with dangerous situations. Yes, you could lighten the load by removing the first aid kit that you’ve never used once in the last five years. You probably won’t need a flashlight, either, since you’re planning to get back to your vehicle before dark.

Chances are, though, that there’s going to be a fly fishing safety device that will help protect you during one of your fly fishing trips this year.

Don’t leave home without it.