• Equipment
  • Other Tips
  • What To Do If You Fall In

    Wading is a great way to access more fishable water than is possible from the shore, and it’s a great way to get closer to the natural world many anglers desire. But it does have its potential dangers. Drowning is the second leading cause of accidental death in the United States, and every year a portion of those accidental deaths are fishermen who drown during a routine day on the water.

    More than half of all wading fatalities are “flush drownings,” where a person is swept away by the current and cannot keep their head above water. Thirty percent become entrapped and unable to free themselves, while the remaining 10 percent die from head wounds from the resulting fall.

    Below are precautions anglers should take to avoid becoming a drowning victim while wading.


    There are a few inexpensive and easily acquired pieces of equipment that will aid fishermen in safely navigating rivers and streams.

    Footwear—Perhaps the most important piece of safety equipment a wading angler can have is a pair of boots that provide the best footing possible. Whether part of bootfoot waders or wading boots, felt soles are ideal for most bottom conditions, including gravel, slippery rocks (that often accumulate slick moss), and other hard surfaces. Felt soles become even better with tungsten (a specialized metal resembling chromium) spikes no more than one inch apart.

    Felt grips the slippery surfaces at the bottom of rivers better than any other substance, and the spikes allow for even more gripping power. However, if soft, muddy bottoms are encountered, lug soles (“waffle-stompers”) can provide superior traction.

    Life jackets—Few wading anglers consider wearing life jackets, but every angler should. Even strong swimming fishermen can be overwhelmed by powerful currents or impaired by a fall. There are now many life jackets on the market that double as fishing vests. Some of today’s inflatable personal flotation devices (PFDs) will only inflate when needed, leaving the angler with almost no bulk and complete freedom of movement while fishing. Become familiar with how to quickly unfasten the life jacket if swept away by strong current and the jacket becomes snagged on a tree or other object.

    Wading staff—Wading staffs are helpful in navigating the trickier parts of a river or stream, acting as a stabilizing “third leg.” The advantage of a staff at least armpit high is that you can use both hands on the stick, but the main thing is to have one sturdy enough to support your entire body weight. They can be purchased at many tackle shops, and devices such as an old ski pole can easily be converted to a wading staff.

    Wading belt—This is a strap or belt worn around the waist that closes off your waders, preventing most of the water from spilling in after a fall. This also keeps air inside the waders that will help you stay afloat in the water.

    Polarized sunglasses—Polarized sunglasses reduce glare from the surface of the water, allowing the bottom of the steam or river to be seen and analyzed more easily. Even in extremely clear water, a deep hole may not appear as deep to an angler without polarized glasses.

    Whistle—A whistle can serve as a signal to either a fishing partner or others that someone is in trouble.

    Other Tips

  • Perhaps the most obvious thing an angler can do to prepare for this possible emergency is to learn how to swim. Fishermen who cannot swim should definitely wear a life jacket while on the river.
  • It is best not to fish alone while wading. Employ the buddy system, with each angler always aware of where the other is.
  • When wading, do not pick your feet up as you walk, instead slide your feet across the river’s floor. Make sure that your foot is planted firmly before taking the next step.
  • Turn sideways to the current when wading. This gives less body surface area for the current to push against and knock you off of your feet.
  • Do not wade just upstream from any part of the river that you wouldn’t want to float down through, as in a waterfall or rushing white rapids.
  • Avoid areas with very strong currents or near drop-offs.
  • If you have waded into a place where you feel you are in trouble, do not turn around to walk back out. Instead, walk slowly backwards until you are at a depth where you can safely turn around.

    What To Do If You Do Fall In

    Perhaps the hardest thing to do when you unexpectedly plunge into cold water is to not panic, but it’s important to remain calm.

    The first thing to accomplish is positioning your body so your feet are going down the river first. Your feet can absorb collisions much easier than your head.

    Next, keep an eye out both for potentially dangerous objects just ahead of you and for the easiest exit route back to the shore. If you are floating toward an unavoidable logjam or other obstruction, turn onto your stomach and attempt to catch or climb onto it. Not only will you avoid being swept and possibly pinned underneath the logs, but you also might find yourself in a dry area from which you can catch your breath or safely reach shore.

    If a shallow spot is reached, do not attempt to stand, because water inside the waders may make this impossible. Instead, crawl to the bank. If your only option is to swim for shore, swim at a downstream angle.