I grew up playing in the watery ravine, across the road and over the hill from my childhood home. And though I badly wished for trout in that small valley, there were none. But the small stream did hold everything I’d ever need to know about currents in a river. In a small format that matched my size, I learned about wading through moving water. And because I learned this early, I now wade easily in my middle age, and I’m confident that I’ll be wading a river until my time in these valleys is finished.
There are three main things that hold anglers back: casting skill, physical fitness and wading ability. In some ways, all three of these are intertwined. The best casts are enabled by placing yourself in excellent positions. And confident wading only happens if you’re in good enough shape to stand up to the current.
Wading is a skill. It’s not just brute strength and artful balance. It’s a combination of preparation, reading the water and thoughtful positioning. (All of this is covered in the article below.)
Case in point: One of the best anglers I’ve ever seen is also the oldest gentleman I’ve ever guided. At eighty-seven, Joe glided through the river. He was slower than most, but more stable. He waded what he could handle and left the rest. With excellent discipline, Joe mostly tight lined nymphs at short range, wading and moving through pockets and chutes. He often ended up in water where you’d never expect to see a man of eighty-plus years standing. I’ve guided twenty-something college athletes that couldn’t wade in such places. But because Joe employed all the elements of a good wader, he excelled. I watched him be comfortable and have fun all day long.
Importantly, Joe might have moved slowly, but he also kept moving.
Importantly, Joe might move slowly, but he also keeps moving.
Let’s address that real quick . . .
You Gotta Move
The kind of wading we’re talking about is not just walking from place to place. No. Good fly fishing requires great footwork along the way.
I meet a lot of anglers who approach moving water all wrong. They wade into a spot, set up, and then cast to every piece of water they can reach (at all angles) before picking up and wading again to repeat the process.
This is rarely the best approach.
Consider the variables: There’s a distance at which you are most accurate. There’s a light angle that is most advantageous. There’s a certain water type where trout are feeding more agreeably. So the best river anglers move, almost constantly, setting themselves up to best approach the next great piece of water.
As wading anglers, we must wade efficiently. It’s that simple. Casting over a pod of consistently rising trout is the exception to the rule. And if that’s your game, then ignore my advice. But in most situations, being constantly mobile is the better approach.
And I do mean constantly moving. Remember Joe. If you watch this eighty-seven-year-old man fish, his feet are rarely static. Joe glides, he shuffles, he nudges over twelve inches into the neighboring seam to set up his next cast. And in the course of ten minutes, he might finish an entire run. He’s probably picked up a few fish along the way. He didn’t extend his range beyond the distance necessary. And he didn’t beat up one spot. Instead, Joe’s motion puts him constantly over fresh fish, and he always casts at the best angles. Joe is the man.
Reading the Water
I took my youngest son, Aiden, to our home stream this evening, and I watched him mistakenly pick out the worst place to cross the creek. Before he waded in too deep, I stopped him about half way across. I pointed out the deep end of the gravel bar he was on, and showed him that he could navigate much easier just fifty feet upstream.
Don’t wade straight to your spot. Yes, the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. But while wading, a straight line is not your goal. If you plan to fish all day, then power wading through the heavy stuff for long hours at a time is unwise. At any age, we must know our limits and set our pace.
So look for the breaks, for the edges, for water that’s calf-deep instead of thigh-deep. Find the minor ledges and wade above deep water rather than wading through it. Stay on the bank or the exposed rocks more often.
Try pausing for a moment and observing the river to fish ahead. See where you want to end up. And look for the easiest wading lines that also put you within effective range of your targets. Then follow through with a plan.
If this concept of constant motion is new to you, then it will take sincere effort to break the old habits of locking your feet to the riverbed for great lengths of time. Fishing habits are harder than most to break. So be ready to constantly remind yourself to move. Don’t reach for a better spot — put your feet there.
Along the way through that planned path, the subtle ways you turn your body make a big difference in the energy used or conserved.
The guiding principle is to make yourself skinny. Allow the currents to push against you as little as possible.
I’m an upstream angler. And I constantly recommend facing the currents so we fish upstream and not across. That means my body takes on more currents than if I faced sideways to the seams. But I also shift my stance subtly to cut through the waves. I keep my legs separated for a wider base, so the river slices around two thin legs rather than pushing against one wide pair of legs. Likewise, if the water is up to my waist, and if it’s heavy, a slight turn against the current makes all the difference.
These are things we can feel as much as plan for. Simply take notice of how the currents push against your body, and try to work with them rather than fight against them.
Wading not Walking
I wrote a full article on this topic, and I’ll only summarize it here. Walking is putting one foot in front of the other. Wading is planting your feet solid. Pick up one foot and find the next place for it on the riverbed. Shuffle it into place. Make sure it’s solid. Then, and only then, pick up the other foot and repeat the process.
Good wading can look like walking, if the footing is fairly predictable, but wading is always a different thing. Stay solid.
Preparation and Gear
I see a lot of gear mistakes that cause low confidence while wading. And all of them are easily solved with a little forethought and a few dollars spent. I’ll argue, over and over, that good traction and the ability to wade efficiently is far more important than the rod you carry.
This one is often overlooked.
It doesn’t matter if you spend two-hundred dollars or twenty dollars (but yes, the expensive ones are a little better). Just wear polarized sunglasses for fishing — always.
It’s not about whether the sun is out or not. It’s about cutting the glare on the water from even a cloudy sky. This allows us to see into the river and read the bottom structure so we can — ding, ding, ding — wade better.
I wrote an article a while back, titled, Fly fishing Gear: What to Spend on and What to Skimp on. Wading boots are at the top of my list.
Flimsy boots are for the casual angler. And if you’re reading Troutbitten, you’re probably not all that casual about your fishing. Many riverbeds are made of rougher stuff than your most challenging hiking trails. So we need boots that are up to the task. Good wading boots, made to last, have a stiff midsole and excellent foot support. In short, the sole doesn’t roll or give when walking over the rocky stuff. And that’s a good thing.
The perfect partner for your boots is a set of studs. Good traction is the most important thing out there, and it’s the cornerstone of efficient wading. So take the time to learn which studs work in your waters and which ones don’t.
Tungsten carbide tips, like Grip Studs, are great in many rivers. But they are not good on granite, where aluminum is a better choice. What is the substrate for the rivers you fish?
My favorite traction options are Grip Studs, Rock Treads, and Orvis PosiGrip studs. Take the time to install these. The right studs can make you feel like Spiderman. And I bet he’s a damn good river angler.
This last one might be the most important. I once thought that a wading staff would slow me down. I thought it was for old guys. But I was wrong about that. The right wading staff, carried and used well, makes all the difference. You’ll wade faster and better than ever before.
I see so many anglers out there with a staff that drags behind them. They keep it on a leash tethered to their belt. When they are done with the staff, they drop it, and the staff lays . . . somewhere in the water. When it’s needed again, they fumble for the staff, looking back, pulling it in by the tether and generally looking like they haven’t spent much time thinking all this through.
I have no use for a staff unless it’s always in the same place — at my left hip, with no slack, ready for use. I rig my staff on a retractor, so I know exactly where it is. Without looking, I can have it in my non-rod hand (that’s important) in an instant. It doesn’t drag. It’s light enough that it feels like nothing is there, and it’s collapsible for a long walk on the road out. As open-minded as I am about fishing gear and tactics, I can’t understand doing this any other way.
A good wading staff completes the simple gear necessary for anyone to wade with confidence.
Anyone | Anywhere
If the following description sounds like you, then this might sting a bit, but I’m writing it anyway. Consider it tough love.
I guide a hundred days a year, and I’ve heard many reasons for poor wading skills: old age, loss of balance, bad knees, back trouble, etc. All of these are absolutely legitimate difficulties to overcome. But they should not be used as an excuse. If you’ve been attentive to everything on the list above, only then can you fairly blame poor wading skills on your health issues.
More often, inexperience is the primary culprit. Second is a simple lack of preparation. The only way to solve the first trouble is to fish more and make a plan to wade the river with some bravery. Solving the second trouble is much easier. Prepare yourself with the right gear for effective wading. Don’t accept poor traction any longer. Rig your staff so it’s at the ready immediately. Choose solid boots, new studs and a pair of polarized lenses.
When I hear the laments of old age or health problems, I always, without fail, think of Joe. On the day I met him, he told me he’d had both knees replaced about a decade earlier. He said that’s when he’d learned to better read the water and wade with a strategy.
Bottom line: your wading will improve drastically if you do the things to make it happen. And more fish will follow. That’s a guarantee.
Fish hard, friends.
Enjoy the day.
T R O U T B I T T E N