I couldn’t help but snap this photo of my friend Katy Melo after he fell in the river while netting a fish. Of course, this was in the summer, and he quickly had the situation under control, even if he was a bit embarrassed.
But sometimes, losing your footing and falling in the river—especially when you are wearing waders—is no laughing matter.
If you keep these tips in mind as you go wading, you’ll be able to react naturally if and when that situation happens.
First, you want to remain calm. I know that’s sometimes easier said than done, especially after feeling the shock of cold water, but panicked splashing will only tire you out and put you at greater risk.
Always use a wading belt. That keeps some of the water from filling your waders, which adds weight to your body. Even if your waders fill with water you will usually be able to float if you lay back, and get your feet up.
If you’re in moving water (like most rivers) you absolutely do not want to fight against the current. Go with the flow. Keep your head up, and your feet up. Use your feet to bounce off rocks as you float downstream, and look for a spot on the shore where you can paddle and kick your way toward, and eventually climb out.
Don’t grab onto things like logs and tree branches in the river. Those obstacles often create “strainers” below the surface—water, debris, and you go in, but only water comes out the other side.
Wear an inflatable fishing vest. These vests come with a rip cord—when you pull it, your vest inflates, and becomes a personal floatation device.
If you’re fishing with others, yell for help! They’ll obviously want to lend a hand, and it’s important that other people have a bead on your position, and can keep track of you.
Lastly, you want to remember that after you climb out of the water, the real issues—like exposure and hypothermia—can become serious factors, especially when you’re fishing in cooler spring weather in chilly water. It’s always a good idea to carry a change of clothes and a spare jacket in your vehicle. Without those things your fishing day is over.
Falling in the river happens to everyone who wades sooner or later. Remember, just go with the flow, keep your feet up, dry yourself off, absorb the ribbing you’ll get from your friends, and fish on.
Kirk Deeter is the editor of TROUT magazine, and an editor-at-large with Field & Stream.