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I like to wade fish but whether I’m prowling a headwater rivulet or a brawling tailwater my gear now always includes a CO2 powered PFD belt and a wading staff. Yours should, too. Here’s why:

I used to think I was indestructible and fished like it. Depending on one’s theological standing the fact that I survived years of on-the-water carelessness can only be attributed to God’s protection of fools and foolish behavior . . . or stunningly good luck.

Then one afternoon while trout fishing alone on an East Tennessee tailwater my divine safety net and/or luck nearly ran out. I was fighting a rainbow on a 5-weight and a light tippet when the water began to rise, which I chose to ignore. By the time I’d brought the fish to hand, the river had jumped from mid calf to mid thigh. The dry shoal I’d crossed to reach the strip of seam water that had surrendered the trout was now foaming with whitewater.

I started toward the south bank, beyond which my truck was the only vehicle in the parking lot. Working one’s way downstream and across a strong and rising river is akin to a siren song. The current lulls you into thinking it’s your friend.

The moment you realize you have lost your footing is surprisingly serene. There’s simply a tipping point when you’re no longer connected to the river. This serenity quickly vanishes as one is tumbling downstream, scrambling for a toehold and desperate for a breath. Beneath the surface the world becomes a muffled, echoed distant roar; soothing in a disquieting sort of way. There’s nothing else quite like it that I’ve experienced. The river has you and you know it.

This particular stretch of water forms a dogleg right hemmed by a long, narrow island that’s visible only at low flow. Debris being washed down river, including tumbling fishermen, is pushed toward the south bank. It’s a spot that can easily upend inattentive canoeists.

When tumbling downstream everything happens in slow motion. Even panic slows down. Then you’re suddenly swallowed by shadow. The water becomes dark. The panic spikes as your leg touches a rock. A hand shoots free from the water and hits a root that provides a handhold. Then, somehow you’re on the bank, a 5-weight Orvis still clutched in your right hand, the river flowing by passive and dark in the bright afternoon sun.

Divine protection—or luck—has again extended a hand. A lesson has been learned. Buy a life belt. Carry a staff. Use them. Fish safe.

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