Staying Safe in Moving Water: Essential Tips for Fly Fishing Enthusiasts

Fly fishing, often considered a serene and tranquil pastime, can occasionally take a dangerous turn. Every year, anglers of varying levels of experience find themselves in perilous situations, with tragic outcomes. In this article, we will explore the importance of safety while wading and offer essential tips to help you navigate potentially hazardous scenarios.

Drowning Incidents in Fly Fishing

While fly fishing is far from an extreme sport, it’s not without its risks. Two separate drowning incidents in July serve as stark reminders of the potential dangers. These events, although distinct, shared the commonality of ordinary fly-fishing trips that took tragic turns. Both incidents occurred without the influence of alcohol or drugs and involved experienced anglers.

The Boulder River Tragedy

In July 2011, the Boulder River witnessed a heartbreaking accident involving well-known guide Chester Marion, his longtime friend Sheldon Goldberg, and Sheldon’s wife, Ramona Crowley Goldberg. All three began the day wearing waders with wading belts but omitted lifejackets.

Heavy snowfall in the winter of 2010-2011 led to a spectacular spring runoff in the Rockies. This natural phenomenon altered the river’s dynamics, leading to the formation of “sweepers,” which are perilous obstructions in moving water. Unfortunately, Marion’s raft collided with one such sweeper, capsizing it and plunging all three individuals into icy waters. Ramona, who had her wading belt secured, managed to swim to safety and call for help. Tragically, the two men without wading belts were swept away and drowned.

A Freak Accident in British Columbia

Just two days later, a young couple, Amy Wong and Justin Chan, faced an unforeseen tragedy near Whistler, British Columbia. They were on a guided walk/wade fly-fishing trip along the Cheakamus River, equipped with waders, wading belts, and felt-soled wading boots.

Wong hooked a fish and, while moving toward the shore, slipped and fell in calf-deep water. She remained unharmed, continuing to play the fish from the riffle. Chan waded upstream to assist her, but he, too, slipped and both were swiftly swept into a deep channel. The guide could only watch in helpless disbelief as the river carried them away.

Chan’s lifeless body was discovered downstream with a head injury, raising speculation that he might have been rendered unconscious. Tragically, Wong’s body was never recovered. While it is uncertain whether a lifejacket could have saved them, it is conceivable that Chan might have benefited from wearing a helmet.

Essential Safety Tips for Wading Anglers

  1. Carry a Wading Staff: A wading staff serves multiple purposes. It can be used to probe the water for hidden obstacles, provide stability when crossing unstable terrain, and assist in turning around midstream in swift currents.
  2. Prioritize Your Wading Belt: Your wading belt is a vital piece of safety equipment. It prevents water from rapidly filling your waders in the event of a fall. Ensure it is snug and has a quick-release buckle to facilitate easy removal.
  3. Dispelling Myths About Waders: Contrary to popular belief, waders filled with water do not pull you under. They have the same weight as the surrounding water. Moreover, the idea that wading belts trap air and make you float upside down is a misconception. Properly worn wading belts prevent this.
  4. Stay Low in the Water: In the event of a mishap, assume a face-up position with your head upstream and feet downstream. Avoid floating feet-first in waders, as this can lead to unwanted buoyancy and uncontrolled movement.
  5. Swim Aggressively to Safety: If you find yourself in the water, swim aggressively downstream and toward safety. Keep your hands submerged, and don’t raise your arms unnecessarily, as this can lead to exhaustion.
  6. Conscious Breathing: Focus on your breathing to stay calm. Inhale at the bottom of wave troughs to avoid taking in water, and exhale about half of your lung volume to maintain buoyancy.
  7. Avoid Foot Entrapment: Keep your feet away from the riverbed, as foot entrapment is a leading cause of drowning. If trapped, swim aggressively to free yourself.
  8. Dealing with Sweepers: When encountering sweepers, practice walking along a log if possible or swim toward it at the last moment, reaching high and keeping your feet from getting trapped beneath.
  9. Consider a PFD: Assess the wading conditions before deciding whether to wear a personal flotation device (PFD). In hazardous conditions, such as high-volume runoff or night wading, a PFD can provide an extra layer of safety.

By heeding these safety tips and staying informed, you can enjoy fly fishing while minimizing the risks associated with wading in moving water. Always prioritize safety and preparedness to ensure a memorable and safe angling experience.

Image/Source: FlyFisherman

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