Anyone who has wade-fished for awhile knows the horrible feeling when one more step suddenly has you balancing on toe tips, gravel washing away beneath your feet, current thudding into your ribcage, and knowing that in a moment it could go either way—a quick stumble-thrust backwards to safety or an out-of-control ride down the river with potential for disaster.
Years back it was assumed, and widely written, that given the type of waders we had, that once you were in over the top and lacking a tightly cinched belt, your waders would fill with water—either that or trap air and invert you. Either way, the pundits said, you were a candidate for crayfish feed somewhere downstream.
Of course that’s not the case as Lee Wulff proved long ago by jumping from a bridge into a river with old-time waders, letting them fill, and handling self-recovery quite nicely. And over the years I’ve described in Outdoor Life my own experiments using both neoprene and more modern breathable waders. The neoprenes, of course, act like a life jacket which is why, aside from insulation, they make retrieving dog jackets from the stuff, and why divers need lead weight belts. And no, you don’t turn upside down in the things.
Breathable waders don’t give you the built-in pfd effect of neoprene. A tightly cinched belt that can’t be ripped off (forget Velcro-closing belts and drawstrings) will help keep out some water. But even with water in your waders you’re not going to sink. What you’re not going to be able to do very well is swim with great authority. You will be able to re-orient yourself feet-first down current, and once in manageable flow, kind of wallow-stroke your way to safety. Unless of course you get into serious water and can’t keep your head above the surface, and in the worst-case scenario, become pinned beneath some sweeper or swept over a falls.
Wading staffs are wonderful tools to keep you in good order, but even with one, if you’re going to wade deep, the best insurance against bad stuff happening is to wear a streamlined Class III inflatable personal flotation device. These things are now so compact and inconspicuous you’ll not be bothered wearing them. There are even some fishing vests that incorporate an inflatable stowed inside. One tug at the drawstring and poof, a CO2 cartridge blows the things up. Along with the suspender type there are also little pouch-contained inflatables that you clip to your waist. Inflate one of them and there instantly appears a life vest you then pop over your head. Do not get one of these pfd’s that auto inflates. Deep wading will activate them.
Some time back I tested all these inflatables in swift-river current. Just as a precaution, I had a long safety line tied to my midsection. My dear wife acted as anchorman, running along the riverbank as I zipped downcurrent. You can bet my “honeydo” list grew exponentially after that.
Now that you may be convinced to forget the macho business and wear one of these inflatables, let me drop the seriousness for a moment and insert a little levity around a heavy subject. The following story came from fellow Mainer, Nick Mills, who posted the tale on his own blog, asserting he knew at least somebody who knew one of the protagonists in the apocryphal story:
An English lord, a lifelong angler and shooter, was salmon fishing in a Scottish river. The lord was then in his 80s but still a keen fisherman. He was accompanied on the expedition by his ghillie—a Scottish fishing guide—a laconic fellow who was not too many years junior to the lord. The lord had waded into the river to cast for salmon, and so intent was he in his pursuit of the fish that he didn't notice how far out he had gone into the river's strong current until he suddenly realized he was in danger of being swept off his feet. His grip on the river bottom was tenuous. The current was relentless. The lord thought he was going to drown. He yelled to the gillie, who was nowhere to be seen, for help. The gillie did not appear. The lord continued to yell for help as he fought for purchase on the river bottom and began inching his way toward shore. Bit by bit, minute after minute, the lord fought his way across the current. The journey of a few yards took most of a half-hour. The lord finally reached the shallows, staggered to the bank and sat to catch his breath and gather his strength before going in search of the absent gillie, who was found standing a short distance up the river.
"Didn't you hear me calling for help?" the lord thundered.
"Aye," said the Scot.
"Well why didn't you come to my aid?" the lord demanded.
The Scot replied, "I can nae swim. I did nae wish to watch you drown. So I turned me back and lit me pipe."