5 Reasons You Need a Fly Fishing Wading Staff

A year ago, I bought a wading staff for use on the big rivers of the American West — particularly the Yellowstone and the Missouri. I had visions of strapping it to my side only for use in thigh-deep or even waist-deep water. But last week, I discovered that it’s worth wearing on small streams when I’m only wading ankle-deep water.

Dave, my podcast partner, and I were getting ready to fish Willow Creek south of Three Forks, Montana, with a good friend. I was mildly surprised to see our friend strap on his collapsible wading staff. But when he explained to me why he always wears it, I decided to take mine out of my duffel bag and give it a try.

Now I’m a believer. Here are the reasons why it makes sense to use a wading staff even when you’re on a small stream in shallow water.

1. Traction

This is one of the two reasons my friend cited. Even with state-of-the-art wading boots (we both wore Patagonia Foot Tractor boots that day), moss-covered rocks can be slick. I was pleased how my wading staff helped me stay upright when one of my boots slipped.

2. Stability

I’m in reasonably good shape at 54. But my legs are not as strong as they were at 44 or at 34. I found that a “third leg” gave me more stability when I walked on the rock banks as well as the boulders in shallow water.

3. Stamina

I was also surprised how my “third leg” took pressure off of my two legs. We fished three miles up Willow Creek in a canyon which lacked any trails or gentle banks. Then we walked three miles down in and along the creek. My legs were not nearly as tired as I expected after the six-mile trek.

4. Snakes

This is the second reason my friend always carries his wading staff. We were in rattlesnake country, and even though it was mid-October, some fishing buddies of his encountered a rattler a few days before on the stretch of creek we were fishing. I’m no advocate of killing snakes. But I like the idea of packing something that can ward off a rattler when a surprise encounter happens.

5. Climbing

Again, I’m writing as a 54-year old. I found that my wading staff made it easier to scramble up steep banks and rocky inclines. Now I understand why another friend of mine raved about the walking staff he carried in the Swiss Alps a few months ago.

If you’re in the market for a wading staff, check out the ones made by Simms and Orvis. I tried them both, and I give the nod to the Orvis model because it snaps into place almost instantly. Both of these staffs are collapsible, although I kept mine assembled most of the day. It didn’t get in my way when I let it drag behind me (the staff was connected to its sheath via a retractor).

There are more affordable alternatives, too. I know fly fishers who use an old ski pole or even a mountaineer’s staff.

When King David composed the twenty-third psalm, he was not referring to a fly rod nor a wading staff when he wrote, “Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.” But still, I find comfort in taking both a rod and staff with me – even when I walk through quiet waters.

8 Tips When You Fall into the River

On more than one occasion, I’ve enjoyed watching my podcast partner, Dave, flail as he has started to head downstream at the speed of the river. Okay, I’ve done it too. Fortunately, neither of us has fallen into a deep, rushing section of river.

Several years ago, Duane Dunham, an outstanding fly fisher in Portland, Oregon, shared with me some tips for getting out when you fall into a river:

1. Don’t panic. Easy for me to say while I’m warm and dry. But even if you cannot swim, you can emerge safely from water over your head.

2. Don’t attempt to stand up too quickly. Wait until you are in knee deep water.

3. Never fight the current. Let it take you, but angle toward shore. Otherwise, you’ll get exhausted.

4. If the water is deep, you can take a breath and push off the bottom toward shore. Do this enough times, and you’ll get there.

5. Keep your feet down stream. If you are out of control and headed downstream, this will help you avoid hitting your head on a rock. Stay in a semi-sitting position. This may be the most important tip!

6. Don’t fish dangerous water alone. Okay, that’s not going to help you if you’ve already fallen into a rushing run. But it’s worth the reminder for strong-headed, stubborn fly fishers (which Dave and I can be at times!).

7. Let go of your fly rod. This allows you to use both hands to stroke towards shore. Obviously, this is not the first step you take. It’s for emergency situations. Better to lose your Sage rod than your life.

8. Learn to swim. Remember, though, cold water is extremely shocking to your body. An excellent swimmer will quickly tire, so don’t get cocky and take unnecessary risks. It doesn’t matter than you are an expert in a warm pool or lake.

Here’s one more that I didn’t learn from Duane Dunham:

Don’t laugh at your fly fishing partner when he’s floating down the river. I’m sure Dave would appreciate it if I worked on that one. Seriously, falling into a river is no laughing matter.

Stay safe, my friends!