The first time I carried a wading staff, I was on a trip to the Youghiogheny River in western PA. With its big gnarly rocks, heavy currents and unpredictable footing, the wading situation on this deep and wide river is never easy and often precarious.
While traveling with some Troutbitten buddies, that trip to the Yough was my first real fishing adventure back from a spinal fusion that corrected two herniated discs in my neck. The surgery, the awful pain that preceded it and the resulting loss of strength in my right arm were enough to signal that my invincibility was a mirage. In my mid-thirties, it was a wake up call that began a series of life decisions leading me to where I am now — a happy father and husband, author, fly fishing guide and Little League coach. It’s a good life.
I always thought wading staffs were for the retired crew, something to lean on as you wait for the spinner fall — a third leg, when the left one has knee issues and the right one has had its hip replaced. However, one of the hardest-fishing guys I knew at the time was a guide on the Yough. Twenty-something, athletic and a strong wader, he carried a ski pole tethered to the bottom of his fishing pack, and he waded whitewater like a Grizzly bear.
So the day before our pre-dawn, westward departure to the Yough, I cut a wooden broom handle down to about four feet, zip tied a long-and-strong shoelace to the top and looped it to a carabiner on my wading belt.
I learned two things on that trip — a third leg makes you a faster wader and a more efficient angler. And a broomstick makes a lousy wading staff.
Speed | Confidence
I’ll make a quick argument here for carrying a wading staff, and you can choose to believe me or not. Honestly, when I was twenty-two years old, I would have skimmed right through this article and thought, “Meh, that’s not for me.”
In truth, after that trip to the Yough, I stashed the broomstick in a dark corner of my garage and fished without a wading staff for many more years. It wasn’t until I started guiding that I realized the deep need for more traction and stability. I began carrying a wading staff to hand to my clients, loaning it to them anytime they struggled in a heavy run, or at the end of long hours on the river. And after hundreds of days holding the staff, it became a welcome companion in my left hand. So even when I fished solo, I kept it attached to my belt, on a retractor and at the ready for any condition.
I thought a wading staff would slow me down. The Troutbitten mantra of Fish Hard permeates my approach to everything on the water, and the wading staff never seemed like a good match. But I was wrong about that. The wading staff allows me to wade faster. I now plow through heavy runs to reach the next prime pocket, holding the staff out of the water ahead of me, poised to plant it on the riverbed at any moment. If I trip on a rock, or a small boulder twists out from under me, the staff stops my fall, and I keep wading forward. Instead of picking and choosing my steps carefully through difficult water, I’m now able to wade quicker, with more confidence, as the tungsten-tipped staff bites into the next rock. Three points of contact is simply better than two.
I also use the staff to free snagged flies — from the bottom of the river to the tops of the trees (short ones). So too, the wading staff is a depth gauge for my next step in muddy water. And it’s a machete through the brush.
Once skeptical of the usability in such a thing, I’m now a believer.
The wading staff is not an old man’s cane, it’s a wise man’s tool.
That all sounds a little too rosy, doesn’t it? (Like I’ve missed the rotten apple at the bottom of a two pound bag.)
So yes, here’s the thing: A wading staff can get in your way. It can tangle at your feet and hang up on fly line in the water. It also adds weight to the already heavy load of crap you take to the water. And at four feet in length, it’s a significant piece of gear to deal with.
All of those difficulties are exactly why I never carried a staff in the first place. And so we’re back to this — I thought a wading staff would slow me down.
Truthfully, the way I see most anglers carry and use a wading staff, it does just that. It hurts them — tangling in lines, and creating more problems, even as it lends stability and permits better wading. Remember, I did it that way with the broomstick and the shoelace.
But there are much better ways to choose and carry a river stick.
The inconvenience of a wading staff tripping your feet or grabbing line in the water is solved by making its position predictable. Use a retractor to keep the staff always in the same spot. For me, that’s on my wading belt. (But not just any wading belt).
I mount the staff with a Gear Keeper retractor (discussed below), off the backside of my left hip. That keeps it up and out of the water, mostly behind me, with the handle always at the ready. The staff is in the same place, easily reached with my line hand (not my rod hand), without looking. And when I’m done using the staff as an assistant, I simply let it go. The staff retracts back to its position. Nice!
Fixed length solutions like ropes and shoelaces are a bad, bad idea — creating tangles, sagging and dragging in the water at unpredictable angles. But the right retractor, matched with the right staff solves that problem.
A good staff not only keeps the transportation weight down, it’s also light enough to pair with a retractor. (That last point is crucially important.)
So let’s do it. Here are my recommendations for a wading staff and retractor, along with key points and some logic behind these decisions.
Me and You
I always feel it’s necessary to make the following point during gear reviews, or even when I recommend tactics and techniques on Troutbitten: What works for me may not work for you.
Of course we all know this by now, but fly fishers are a unique and picky bunch, with a DIY flare and a propensity for bitching about the opinions of others. Oh wait, that’s all people everywhere.
Regardless, your mileage may vary.
** Note ** The links below are affiliate links, meaning, at no additional cost to you, Troutbitten earns a commission if you click through and make a purchase. So, thank you for your support.
The Wading Staff
I use an aluminum, folding “Trekking Pole” for a wading staff. These are widely available from a variety of manufacturers, and I’ve logged hundreds of miles on an inexpensive Trekology staff with no signs of failure.
Here’s the logic behind my choice:
— Weight is a primary consideration. A light staff is not a burden to carry, and it’s easy to store when not in use. The staff must also be light enough to pair with a retractor (more on that below).
— The staff is fold-able. Yes, you will hear this common refrain from skeptics: “A folding wading staff will fold up at the very moment you don’t want it to.” Sure, a folding staff is inherently less sturdy than a solid staff. But I hate dragging a full length staff behind me on long walks to and from the river. And I’ve had zero problems with my folding stick.
For the sake or portability, I use a folding staff. The Keshes trekking pole folds up to about eighteen inches, with just three connected sections. If chosen wisely, a good folding staff is sturdy and will not fail.
— Inexpensive. Here’s the reality: things like this will eventually be lost or accidentally broken. So I’m unwilling to spend a hundred dollars or more on a wading staff. Yes, I’m aware that some mainstream fly fishing companies offer high dollar staffs. Some are sturdy and well built, some are poorly designed and under-built. All of them are too costly. Better options can be had at a third of the price or less.
— A wading staff should be easily tetherable. (Spell check says I made that word up). I need to attach the retractor in a way that keeps the handle of the wading staff in a predictable position.
You will find many good options for trekking poles, in a wide range of prices. I prefer aluminum because it’s more durable than carbon fiber of the same weight, especially in the winter months. I like the poles that fold up smaller than retractable types, which average about six inches longer than a folding staff when broken down. That’s significant to me, but it may not matter to you.
Here are a couple other options:
The High Stream Trekking Poles are nearly identical to the Keshes. I had a guided client, back in March, who used this same staff. Like my Keshes staff, it had seen hundreds of hard river miles and was holding up well.
Another Troutbitten friend uses the retractable type of trekking pole rather than a folding one. I’ve tested it myself, and it is very sturdy, with only slightly more weight and about six inches more on its portable length. He uses these poles from Cascade Mountain.
I’ll mention a couple more things about these trekking poles. They are not a solid shaft but a hollow tube, so they shudder a bit in heavy water, especially when extended to full length. And because they are light, they must be forced through heavy currents and pushed to the bottom. It’s not difficult.
Some popular wading staffs are designed with weighted bottoms to counteract the lifting effect. But that’s not for me — it’s not worth carrying the extra weight or giving up the facility of a retractor.
Gear Keepers, from Hammerhead Industries are hard to beat. I’ve tried. And after experimenting with other brands, I’m back to the Gear Keepers. They are reliable, with a great warranty. And they work well, even in icy conditions.
All retractors are rated in ounces of force. And understanding this is critical.
If your wading staff weighs fifteen ounces, then a retractor rated at twelve ounces cannot do its job. This is why a broomstick doesn’t work — too heavy for any retractor. It’s why a tree limb carved into the cool shape of a wizard’s staff doesn’t work. (Gandalf rules.) And why even some of the wading staffs on the market don’t work with a retractor — they are all too heavy.
I recommend two different Gear Keepers. One is rated at nine ounces and the other is rated at twelve. Anything more than about twelve ounces of force becomes uncomfortable to use when extended, meaning, the retractor pulls back on the staff in your hand, and for extended use, it’s just too much. Also, retractors of more than twelve ounces of force are large and heavy.
I use the nine ounce Gear Keeper with the Keshes staff, which is also listed at nine ounces. So if the staff is folded and hanging from my belt, the retractor may give an inch or so of its line and swing a little. However, when folded, I store the staff behind my net, as pictured above. You could fashion a DIY holster, buy one, or simply tuck the staff into your belt when not in use. Otherwise, use the Gear Keeper rated for twelve ounces. That one also has a locking switch to prevent unwanted extension.
I’ve found an elegant solution for attaching the trekking pole wading staff to the Gear Keeper.
Remove the webbed handle from the staff, with a knife or scissors. Thread a Zip-Tie through the pin on the interior of the handle and also through the loop on the male end of the retractor. This method keeps slack out of the system, so when the staff retracts, the handle comes right back to the same spot on the back of your hip — it’s always there to save your ass when you start falling.
The way I attach the Gear Keeper also limits rotation or slack. I remove the clip and secure the retractor with another Zip-Tie, allowing for the retractor to swing and rotate a bit, but to always stay firmly in place. Here again, the right utility belt makes all the difference. Flimsy belts simply won’t do.
The Bottom Line
Pair a light wading staff with a high quality retractor and wade the toughest rivers like a champion. Keep the staff at the ready but out of the way on a sturdy utility belt, and store it folded up when it’s unwanted.
Nothing is more important than solid traction and confident wading. Look back through the Fifty Tips series and so many of the other articles here on Troutbitten. Take note of how many times the solution to a problem is to get closer, use less line or wade into better position. Fly fishing is not a sport for stationary people. Move more freely with a wading staff.
** NOTE ** Be sure to find the article from a couple weeks ago, Let’s Rethink the Wading Belt. Because without the right belt, this wading staff solution is a bust.
Fish hard, friends.
Enjoy the day.
T R O U T B I T T E N