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.

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 (, 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.