Why Fly Fishers Should Stop Wading

stop wading

I have a novel proposal for fly fishers who are not catching fish. It may seem a bit extreme. But hey, if you’re not catching fish, you’ll try anything, right?

If you think you have the right fly size and pattern, if you mend your line to reduce the drag on your fly, if your casts don’t send fish fleeing for cover, and if you’re getting your nymphs deep enough, then here is my suggestion:

Step away from the river.

That’s right, stay out of it. Stop wading.

What Fly Fishers Do

I told you my suggestion sounded a bit extreme.

Wading in the river is what fly fishers do. That’s what a friend figured the other day when he heard I was a fly fisher. He is not. But he was interested and said, “Oh, is that the kind of fishing where you stand in the water?”

Yes, I suppose that’s our mental image of fly fishing. And yes, I will admit there’s something enchanting about standing in a river as you cast—especially on a late fall morning when the snow is softly falling or at dusk on a warm summer day.

But I’m more and more convinced that fly fishers who are not catching fish should stop wading. It’s not a punishment! Nor is it always and forever. But fishing from the river’s edge should be your default mode; wading is the exception. There are at least two reasons why.

Fishing near the bank

First, follow the lead of the fly fishers in drift boats. They typically cast to the banks. That’s where the trout are lurking. Sure, there may be some runs on the other side of the stream or perhaps fifteen feet away from the bank. But a lot of feeding lanes crowd the bank.

If you must wade, find an entry point between runs and walk out far enough so you can cast back toward the bank.

Whenever I hike up the Yellowstone near Tower Fall in Yellowstone National Park, I leave my waders in the truck. I’m not a fan of hiking 3-4 miles up the river in waders before I start fishing. Surprisingly, there are few places where not having waders puts me at a disadvantage.

Honing your observation skills

The second reason is related to the first. If you commit to fishing from the bank (at least for awhile), you will likely pay more attention to what is happening near the river’s edge.

I remember a time on Montana’s Madison River when I was getting ready to wade out to a run about 20 yards from the bank. Seconds before I stepped into the water, I saw two trout rise five feet in front of me. If I had not seen them, I would have sent them racing for cover when I walked through the little run where they were feeding.

Have I over-stated my point? Perhaps. But with so many prime places for trout to feed along the bank, it’s worth fishing that area before you think about setting foot in the water.

So, when all else fails, step away from the river.

Summer’s Greatest Danger for Fly Fishers

summer's greatest danger

Summer’s greatest danger for fly fishers may be the least obvious one. I typically worry about rattlesnakes, grizzly bears, and drowning when I head for the river on a hot summer day. But summer’s greatest danger for fly fishers is lightning.

It’s a danger that can strike almost without warning — although there are usually some advance signs such as dark skies and a drop in temperature. Here are a few tips I’ve read over the years for staying safe from summer’s greatest danger:

1. Stay alert when a storm is brewing or ending.

According to outdoor writer Keith McCafferty, most lightning strikes occur near the start or the end of afternoon storms.

“This is when positive and negative charges,” he says, “which collide to produce the flash between clouds and the ground, build up the most electricity.”

2. Put down that “lightning rod” (a.k.a., fly rod).

It’s no secret that that a graphite rod serves as an effective conductor of electricity. So put it flat down on the ground —not leaning up against a tree.

While you’re at it, avoid metal fence posts and tall trees.

3. Stay in your vehicle, not outside it

Mark Leberfinger, a staff writer for AccuWeather.com, says the notion that rubber tires protect occupants of a car is a myth. It’s the metal frame on which those tires sit that makes the difference. Lightning charges typically go around the outside of a vehicle (the reason why you want to be inside).

Plus, the metal frame directs lightning to the ground. Keep those windows shut, though. Backhoes and bulldozers with enclosed canopies are safe, too, during thunderstorms. But I’m guessing most fly fishers don’t use heavy equipment as their mode of transportation to the river.

4. Go low and get down.

Are you standing on a ridge? Get down! Take cover in low shrubs — not under tall trees.

Keith McCafferty recommends squatting like a baseball catcher. This gets you low to the ground but with minimal body contact — just your two feet. This works especially well for folks like Yadier Molina, All-star catcher for the St. Louis Cardinals.

However, middle-aged folks can’t do it for too long. Believe me, I’ve tried it. But do it if your skin tingles, your body hair stands up, and your mouth tastes metallic. Those are signs of an impending strike. Don’t get too low, though. By that I mean, avoid damp depressions. These act as conductors for lightning as it travels along the ground.

5. Row to shore

If you’re fly fishing from a drift boat, row to shore at the first sign of a storm. Then move away from the boat and take cover in small shrubs. If you get caught in a storm, stay as low in the boat as possible, keeping your arms and legs inside. Make sure your fly rod is lying flat.

According to the National Weather Service, lightning kills an average of 47 people in the U.S. per year. Hundreds more are severely injured. So don’t worry about being overly cautious.

When a storm approaches, do what you can to stay safe from summer’s greatest danger. The trout will still be there when the storm passes. Make sure that you are too.

S3:E22 From Guided Float Trips to Fly Fishing Solo

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Fly fishing solo can be confusing when you’re first starting out, especially if all you’ve ever done is guided float trips. Making the transition is not a snap for everyone. Many folks take a guided float trip and never make the time to learn the sport. In this episode, we identify several ways to make the journey from guided float trips to fly fishing solo.

Listen now to From Guided Float Trips to Fly Fishing Solo

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.

How did you make the transition to fly fishing on your own? What advice would you give someone who wants to start the learning curve to fish on his or her own?

By the way, we’d love for you to refer our podcast to a friend, your TU chapter, or fly fishing club. Be sure to pass along our podcast to others.

Other Articles for New Fly Fishers

    How New Fly Fishers Can Increase Their Odds of Success

    7 Streamside Habits of Highly Generous Fly Fishers

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The Fly Fisher’s Book of Lists

For this episode, we are the Sponsor!

We’ve published a book called, The Fly Fisher’s Book of Lists: Life is short. Catch more fish.

We like to say it is a book of bite-sized snacks. Maybe even 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!

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S2:E50 Our Top 7 Lessons from Hiring Fly Fishing Guides

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Hiring fly fishing guides is core to how we improve our craft. It’s not cheap, and we do it sparingly (about once a year), but we have found great value in learning from the experts. Click now to listen to “Our Top 7 Lessons from Hiring Fly Fishing Guides.”

Listen now to “Our Top 7 Lessons from Hiring Fly Fishing Guides”

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 portion 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 experience.

What are some of the best lessons you’ve learned from hiring fly fishing guides? Please post your comments below. We’d love to hear from you!

Download a Podcast App on Your Smartphone

Be sure to subscribe to our podcast feed. You can do that on your smartphone or tablet by downloading a podcast app. The most common app used by 2 Guys feed subscribers is “Podcasts.”

Or you can simply subscribe to the RSS feed here:

Subscribe to 2 Guys and A River2 Guys and A River

To see every episode that we’ve published, click on “Every Episode” on the top navigation.

Our Sponsor

For this episode, we are the Sponsor!

We’ve published a book called, The Fly Fisher’s Book of Lists: Life is short. Catch more fish.

We like to say it is a book of bite-sized snacks. Maybe even 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!

Visit Amazon to get your copy today!

5 Unlikely Places to Catch Trout

A few years ago I caught a 12-pound salmon while fly fishing a few minutes from an NBA arena. The tree-lined river gave no hint of its urban surroundings. You might be surprised at some of the unlikely places where you can catch trout on your fly rod. Here are five places you might not want to overlook.

1. In town

The salmon I landed on a Woolly Bugger a few years ago was within the city limits of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I was fly fishing the Milwaukee River in Estabrook Park—about nine minutes north of the Bradley Center where the Milwaukee Bucks play basketball.

Recently, I was eating in a little restaurant in downtown Estes Park, Colorado. One of my sons and I were seated on a patio a few yards from the Fall River. As we ate, we watched a rainbow rise to the surface to to take a fly. Later, I chatted with a fly shop owner who confirmed that there is decent fishing in town. The reason is not surprising. Nobody fishes it. Don’t ignore the city limits if a river runs through it.

2. In shallow water

This will come as no surprise to veteran fly fishers. Trout will make their way into shallow waters to sip flies. But I shake my head when I think of how many times I’ve overlooked the shallows.

Once I was sneaking up to a small run in the West Gallatin River not far from my home near Manhattan, Montana. The run was about six feet from the bank. As I approached, I suddenly saw a nice trout cruising the shallows. The sight startled me, and I froze. About thirty seconds later, I tossed my streamer just beyond it. On the second strip, I hooked it. The fish turned out to be an 18-inch brown.

On another occasion, I was concentrating on a long run in the Owyhee River and turned to the side to wade a few yards up river. As I turned, I happened to see a couple feeding trout in extremely shallow water near the bank. I never expected to see trout feeding at that spot. My son ended up catching one of them — a 15-inch rainbow — on a size #18 Pale Morning Dun.

So pay attention to what is going on in shallow water before you neglect it or wade through it.

3. Near a fishing access

It seems like a waste of time to fish within a hundred yards or so of a fishing access because everybody else does. But the truth is, they don’t. They assume everyone else has fished these spots. So no one does.

Plus, the fly fishers in the drift boats are putting away their gear or getting it ready. This means the fifty yards up or down the river might be a prime place to cast your fly.

4. Where someone else has just fished

I like to fish untouched water. If someone else has fished a run a few minutes before, I’m tempted to skip it. But I know a few runs which are so good that they are worth fishing shortly after the previous fly fisher leaves them.

Even if you’re not as skilled as the fly fisher who preceded you, the different look you provide might turn out to be the right magic. Perhaps the fly pattern you use or the different depth at which you fish will coax a trout to take your offering.

Keep in mind that your chances increase with the size of the river. If someone else has fished a run on a small stream, the trout will generally need more time to get back into their feeding patterns. The disturbance factor is simply greater than in a run on a large river.

5. In the grass

Yes, this works – but only if we’re talking about a side channel that runs through the grass. Admittedly, this venue can be frustrating. These channels are narrow, and the blades of grass that flank them love to grab your fly if you don’t get it exactly in the center of the channel.

I’ve caught some big brookies, though, in these grass channels in meadows where rivers flow. Beaver dams often create this phenomenon, but so does high water.

Keep your options open

I’m not ready to abandon the wild places. A trip to downtown Milwaukee is not at the top of my list of trips for this next year. Nor am I planning a trip to fish all the great fishing accesses on Montana’s Yellowstone River.

Quite frankly, my favorite places to fly fish are the most likely ones. But there is a thrill of catching a trout in an irrigation ditch or in a run right along the highway. I’ve learned to keep my options open.

The 10 Commandments of Wading

10 commandments of wading

Commandments of wading are many, and for good reason. A couple years ago, I decided to cross a side channel in the Yellowstone River to an island which would give me access to a superb run. Dave, my podcast partner, and I were fly fishing in Yellowstone National Park. The side channel was only about 25 yards wide. But the current turned out to be stronger than I anticipated. The side channel was deeper than it looked.

I made it halfway across before I decided to turn around. Even then, I wasn’t sure if I would make it back safe and dry. But I did, thanks to obeying a handful of the “10 commandments of wading” which I was tempted to break that day.

The lawgiver who delivered these to me was not Moses, but Duane Dunham – a veteran fly fisher and friend who used to teach fly fishing at a community college in Oregon. Dave and I have obeyed (most of) these commands over the years because we have no interest in drowning or taking a bath on a 40-degree day in March.

Or, if that unwelcome bath happens (it hasn’t yet), we want to survive it.

1. The faster the river is flowing, the lower the depth level you can wade.

This means wading only mid-thigh in swift water. I’ll go deeper than that in some slower stretches of the Lower Madison or the Wyoming Bighorn. But I stick to shallow stretches when I’m on a stretch of raging river.

2. Keep your strides short.

Panic leads to larger strides which can result in getting “stuck” in the current with your feet about a yard apart. This makes balance difficult. Besides, when you try to take a step, the current assaults the one leg on which you are standing and raises the odds that you will end up making a splash.

3. Make sure you have the right soles.

Felt soles, though controversial, are still the best, especially in fast-moving rivers with smooth-rock bottoms, like the Yellowstone River. They are controversial because for years, it was thought that fly fishers who didn’t fully dry out their soles and then fished in a different stream contributed to the spread of invasive species.

If you take the time to wash your felt soles and to let them dry before going to another river, you eliminate almost any chance of spreading an invasive species. Metal studs work well too – either as an alternative to or (better) in addition to your felt soles.

4. Use a wading staff.

For years, I’ve simply used whatever stout branches I could find along the river’s edge. Finally, last fall, I purchased an Orvis wading staff. Simms make a good wading staff, too. But you can assemble the Orvis in much less time.

5. Angle downstream when crossing a river.

This enables you to work with the current, not against it. The current will actually push you along. Remember command #2 and take short strides.

6. Don’t try to turn around in fast current!

This is where a lot of anglers get into trouble. Either use a sidestep. Or back up carefully. Remember to take short strides and to angle downstream as you back up towards the bank.

7. Wear a wading belt with your chest waders.

Seatbelts save lives (like the time I rolled my truck and landed upside down in a small creek). So do wading belts. They keep your chest waders from filling up with water if you slip and take an unexpected bath.

If you forget your wading belt, forget about wading for the day. I’m serious!

8. If you fall in, don’t try to stand up too quickly.

And keep your feet down river. Stay in a sitting position and wait until you reach knee deep water before you try to stand up.

9. Let your fly rod go.

If you need to use your hands to stroke to shore, give it up. Better to lose your fly rod than your life. You might even recover your fly rod downstream. If not, you now have an excuse to buy the latest and best fly rod you’ve been drooling over in your local fly shop.

10. Don’t wade fish alone!

It’s not worth the risk. At least avoid certain rivers or stretches or runs.

If you’ve rolled your eyes at any of the ten commandments of wading, let me I remind you how shocked your body will be by the cold temperatures of the big freestone rivers in the West.

Let me remind you, too, that one slip can lead to a broken arm or (worse) a head injury that can limit or incapacitate you. So when you break these commandments, you put yourself at risk. Keeping them will protect your life.

Wade safely, my friend. Wade safely.

Episode 39: Wade Fishing vs Floating

fly fishing guides

Wade fishing vs floating – it’s not either-or, of course. There is a time for each. But if you plan to take a fly fishing trip to the American West or some other area with bigger rivers, you’ll have a choice to make: should I use one or all of my days on a drift boat? Listen to this podcast, in which we help newbie fly fishers with the pluses and minuses of wade fishing vs floating. We also have thrown in some recommendations for your next float trip.

Listen to Episode 39: Wade Fishing vs Floating Now

How often do you float the big rivers? What do you prefer? Let us know your thoughts on this episode by posting your comments below.

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