What about the wading staff? Thoughts on choosing and carrying a wading stick

by | May 14, 2019 | 46 comments

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.

READ: Troutbitten | Let’s Rethink the 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.

READ: Troutbitten | Gear Review: Grip Studs are the Real Deal

I’d like to meet Mike someday . . .

The Problems

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.

Photo by Bill Dell

The Solutions

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).

READ: Troutbitten | Let’s Rethink the 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.

Buy Trekology Trek-Z Collapsible Tri-fold Trekking Pole Here
or
Buy Trekology Collapsible Nordic Tri-fold Trekking Pole Here

 

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.

This is how I carry my wading staff when not in use, which amounts to about half my time on the water. It’s attached to the Gear Keeper and laying behind my net, against the small of my back.

— 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.Troutbitten Wading Staff High Streams Trekking Pole

Buy High Stream Gear Trekking Poles Here

 

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.

Troutbitten Cascade Trekking Pole wading staff

Buy Cascade Mountain Trekking Poles Here

 

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.

 

The 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.

Troutbitten Gear Keeper 9 oz

Buy Nine Ounce Gear Keeper Retractor Here

 

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.

Troutbitten Gear Keeper 12 oz

Buy Twelve Ounce Gear Keeper Retractor Here

Rig It

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.

 

** Subscribe to Troutbitten and follow along **

 

Enjoy the day.
Domenick Swentosky
T R O U T B I T T E N
domenick@troutbitten.com

 

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Domenick Swentosky

Central Pennsylvania

Hi. I’m a father of two young boys, a husband, author, fly fishing guide and a musician. I fish for wild brown trout in the cool limestone waters of Central Pennsylvania year round. This is my home, and I love it. Friends. Family. And the river.

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46 Comments

  1. For those who wade high flow steelhead rivers in the winter, a wading staff can literally be a life saver.

    Reply
    • Right on.

      Reply
  2. You sold me. I just bought the Keshes Trekking Pole; which tip do you recommend?

    Reply
    • Hi Rick.

      Just use the standard tungsten tip that comes installed. All the other tips are useless for a wading staff. Let yer dog chew on ’em.

      Cheers.

      Dom

      Reply
  3. Some of the problems I’ve had over the years. The telescoping poles… ive had tip sections pull completely out and be lost, also bending out in heavy flows- never to telescope again.

    Reply
    • I can understand that. I haven’t had that trouble. I do think there’s a difference in quality of these poles too. So it’s important to go with the good stuff. That said, again, it’s not a perfect solution, but it works really well for me. Heavier staffs cannot be retracted, and they are more cumbersome.

      Reply
  4. Great article that gives me some pointers to resolve my wading staff issues. I’ve carried one (in the car) for years, but very rarely took it on the stream. I just hadn’t sorted out how to stash it out of my way. Your article gave me some good ideas on what I was doing wrong.

    Thanks for tho pointers.

    Reply
    • Cheers.

      Reply
  5. At my favorite fishing hole in northern Cal, if you do not have a stick you will be assured of becoming a member of the Pit River swim club.

    Reply
    • Lol. Nice.

      Reply
  6. Your timing is great! Just lost my staff. I have a wooden one but really need a collapsible one. I’m likely going to go with High Stream as the KESHES is not currently available. Given I already lost a more expensive collapsible staff I appreciate your advice for a good but not so expensive a staff.

    Reply
    • Right on.

      Reply
  7. As one of the old guys that need a staff for stability in Rocky Colorado rivers, I never fish without one. However, after having a Cascade Mountain treking pole shatter while wading the Cache La Poudre, I went to the broomstick. While it has it’s drawbacks it works well for me, I have adapted to its shortcomings, and it has become part of the process.

    I will order one of your gear keepers as the one I have been using is lite duty and I have broken several, this seems to be the weak link in my system.

    Thanks for the article.

    Reply
    • I’ve been using wading staff regularly for about 10 yr, retired. The telescoping type pole did not hold up long, started slipping, and I weigh less than 200#. Have been using Simms or Orvis locking staffs since, they are expensive but I like the locking button feature, not very durable but I like the feature. Hard to believe that staffs without locking feature are holding up that well.
      My home water is the Smokie Mountains, slick rocks, and water can get pushy.
      Don’t forget to LOC TITE those tips in, they will work loose.

      Wading staffs are an important tool for me, wish that I would have started using it earlier in my career.

      Reply
    • Cheers. If the Cascade Mountain staff shattered, it must have been carbon fiber.

      Dom

      Reply
      • Right you are. I was able to replace the broken section for $8, but I will no longer use Trekkers for fishing.

        Reply
        • That’s why I like the aluminum poles, as mentioned in the article above. They are tougher, and they cost less. I beat mine up pretty good, swatting at tree limbs and getting out snags in rocks.

          Cheers.

          Dom

          Reply
  8. Nice article. I have found a wading staff improves my fishing. I began using one as a gage to prevent stepping into deep holes while wading the dark waters of CA’s lower Burney Creek. Now, as I age with a bad leg in tow, I find myself using it as a hiking aid as well. A wading staff ensures I step confidently through the water. It allows me to move faster, and makes crossing a river much easier. My preferred setup is to attach it to my waders with a retractor and for safety a quick release. I fish hard and have owned several telescopic and foldable model staffs. Eventually, they’ve all bent, collapsed, and were rendered useless. For this reason I prefer a wading staff constructed of a strong solid metal material. I also spend much of my time fly fishing the fast water of CA’s Pit River which has many underwater traps. There, the swift flows can create treacherous currents and drowning risks for anglers. A solid staff better serves “the law of the lever” which I’ve applied several times to lift the weight of a rock and free a wedged and stuck foot.

    Reply
    • Cheers.

      Reply
  9. I don’t even walk through the puddles in my yard these days without a wading staff. Pricey collapsible ones do that, they fold up like lawn chairs. I tried one once, never again. These days I have several nicely sculpted and far stronger wooden ones. They have the requisite lanyards, comfortable grips, and the end is a rubber bottom off a crutch; it doesn’t slip on the rocks and I think it makes less noise than my old pointed metal tips. If I lose a staff it costs me nothing and I have never had one snap or fold up on me.

    Reply
    • I’m with Mike. My buddies and I all use a nice straight piece of dogwood or ironwood. Once dried and skinned we attach some non-lead weight to the bottom and fit the rubber crutch piece. I also poked a piece of heavy wire thru the crutch rubber which works for saving out of reach flies on the bottom or in trees when I’m fishing for… squirrels! Brass eyelet attached to some shock cord and a clip attached to the vest. You can just let it go once you get a good foothold and into position. I Have one my grandboys and I made for when I’m in Colo fishing the Poude and Big Tom too.. Used it once on Pine Creek to poke a rattler to get him off the trail.

      Reply
      • Nice. It’s all about finding a system that works for you.

        There are significant drawback for me when it comes to a solid wooden staff, and they are deal breakers:

        — Too heavy for a retractor.

        — Because it can’t be on a retractor, the leash allows it to lay in the water and be anywhere, really. It’s position is unpredictable, and I don’t like that.

        — Not collapsible.

        — Because it’s not collapsible, I’m not able to stow it away when I don’t want it.

        Reply
  10. Dom, you make a lot of good points. My wife had me get a wading staff because I don’t swim and she worries about me, fish a lot by myself. I don’t use it as much as I should, but I agree with your reasons for using one. I bought a Simms, only because it was one of the first I found when I googled them. It has it’s own holster and retractor. After reading your article I going to use mine more than I have. Thanks, Jim

    Reply
    • Right on.

      Reply
  11. Well written! Some (probably) dumb questions:
    1) I realize it has a retractor, but how does it just go back to the same place in the small of your back? It seems like a retractor would just make it dangle, police baton style, from your belt. Or do you have the little sack it comes in also back there?
    2) you mentioned it is at the ready in case you’re about to fall. Does that velcro strip stay on the pole? So if you’re about to fall, you whip it out from its spot, then I guess rip that velcro off with your teeth? Because your rod is in your rod hand. Then when you’re done, you fold it, velcro it, then put it back in the holster or spot (see #1).

    Thanks again for a very well thought out, well tested, and well written review.

    John

    Reply
    • Good questions.

      1. Yes, there’s a little slack in both the zip tie, and in the connection from connector to wire itself.

      2. Oh my, no. I’m not that quick. There are many time, or streams or areas, where I don’t feel like the staff is a benefit, so I have it folded up and stored behind my net, as in the pic above. But for much of the day, I have the staff extended and hanging from the retractor. I use it when I need it. Then I fold it back up on walk back to the car. Regarding the sentence you mentioned, though, where I have it ready in case I stumble forward, I’m talking about walking with the extended staff pointed out ahead of me, not really using it step by step, but just setting it down if I stumble. Just making the point that it doesn’t have to be used with every step. You can wade as normal, and only use it to catch yourself.

      Hope that helps.

      Dom

      Reply
  12. I’ve been using the Simms wading staff for about 10 years and prior to that the Folstaff. This is certainly a more economical solution and was wondering if the Simms wading staff holder would accommodate the recommended trekking poles?

    Reply
    • I’m sorry, but I don’t know. I suspect it would be too thin, though.

      Dom

      Reply
  13. I use a metal wading staff from time to time a have wondered if the metallic tip crunching underwater in the stream gravel or rocks would be a deterrent for catching fish.
    What are your thoughts?

    Reply
    • I feel like it matters what kind of water you are fishing. I almost never fish slow pools, the kind of stuff where you have to wade super slow as to not push waves and spook trout. I like moving water, stuff with some wave and riffle to it. And I think if I stuck my head under the water, things would be so loud under there that crunching studs or the tip of a staff wouldn’t make a bit of difference. I also believe the ability to move into good wading position far outweighs the possibility of spooking trout. To me, solid footing is the FIRST requirement for good fishing.

      Cheers.

      Dom

      Reply
  14. Koolbak makes a wading stick holster that is inexpensive and will work with about any stick and belt arrangement. I bought two on the theory that when someone makes something I like it will be discontinued.

    Reply
  15. Dom,
    The utility of your articles is truly amazing; I’ve been reading them for a year now but just figured out to scroll down and leave a comment. Can’t imagine how I would’ve started this flyfishing journey in my retirement without your guidance.
    Kind regards and keep up the great writing.

    Reply
  16. At 73, I never wade without my wading staff and wading belt. Since I do a lot of solo wading in backcountry tributaries, besides two canisters of bear spray (one to use if necessary and one to get back to my car), I’m thinking about a water proof SPOT beacon. An ounce of prevention……
    Dom- Is a group from the South African competitive Euro-nymphing team coming to Bellefonte? Saw a fly flying facebook post from a Gary Glen-Young on the SA team coming to Bellefonte next weekend. Directed him to your blog and mentioned your name.

    Reply
    • Hi Jim. I’ve no idea about a competitive team coming.

      Cheers.

      Dom

      Reply
  17. they are on sale for $25, I just ordered them

    Reply
  18. Hi Domenick,
    I also agree 100% on all your points regarding wading staffs and a good wading belt.
    I have a self extending / locking foldable staff, and its the best piece of gear you can have. I fashioned my own (larger volume, for easier storage) holster on the sewing machine from neoprene, with belt loop, for $5, teamed with you guessed it, a 12oz gear keeper.

    For my belt, I ran a Fishpond San Juan belt. Sturdy, wide, well padded, with plenty of D rings off which to hang items off.

    I have just switched to a Simms neoprene belt, which seems to move around less, and doesn’t require micro readjustments during the day. It doesn’t have hanging loops, but I’m hanging everything off my chest /tech pack for now. So far so good, but the San Juan may well be brought back into action soon enough!

    For many people though, I think they don’t know any different from what they have, so don’t realise what a difference these seemingly mundane items make to the overall fishing experience.

    Same could be said for my invaluable Orvis net retractor, but I’m sure you’ll cover that topic at some point too.

    Keep up the good work,

    Pat

    Reply
    • Good thoughts. Cheers.

      Dom

      Reply
  19. One item not discussed is how to deploy the multi-piece wading staff. If I’m not mistaken, most of the models mentioned, including the new Simms and Fishpond models, take two hands to deploy and lock. The 3/4″ FolStaf model I’ve been using for over 15 years can deploy and lock with just one hand! You can be fighting a fish with your rod hand and deploy this staff with your left hand only. While it weighs a few ounces more than the others mentioned, I think the ability to deploy and lock with one hand is worth it.

    I’m new to Troutbitten and have enjoyed it immensely, Great job Dom!

    Reply
    • Good stuff, Eddie.

      I’m glad you’ve found what works for you. For me, the Folstaff is a little too tall, a little too heavy and a little too expensive. But I know they are really well built. Cheers.

      Dom

      Reply
  20. This is a super article, well written and very practical, clearly by an angler who walks the talk. I am 66 and got into river fishing late in life and find slick rocks a real hindrance when fishing alone. I have tried the Sierra type and find them awkward and tough to collapse at the end of the session. I am going to go for the kit you suggest and I am sure it will extend my fishing activity! Thanks from UK.

    Reply
    • Cheers

      Reply
  21. Thanks for your great article on rigging a wading staff. Easy to understand and works like a charm. I actually rigged it up to a waist pack that has water bottle holders and also works as a wading belt. I had to reinforce the “flimsy” 1- 1/2″ strap on the pack so the retractor would work properly. The Keshes pole does the trick and is very light and easy to assemble. Felt sole wading boots with Streamtrekkers and a wading staff…priceless!! Thanks again…

    Reply
    • Excellent. Nothing beats feeling confident in your traction. Then you can focus on actually fishing instead of not falling down.

      Nice.

      Dom

      Reply
  22. Hello Domenick,
    I just spotted this great article.
    Reference the use of a good quality ‘Trecking Pole’ as a wading staff, can weight be easily added to the bottom of a trecking pole in order to keep the pole on the river bed?

    Thanks in advance.
    Paul

    Reply
    • Hi Albert.

      I assume you could drill a hole and fill it with lead BBs. That should work. But personally, I don’t want to make a heavy staff. I like it very light. And I have no trouble pushing the tip to the bottom in deep and fast water. That’s me.

      Dom

      Reply

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