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Wading Strategies

by Landon Mayer   |  May 19th, 2014 0

The key to success for any fish hunter is a stealthy approach. Too many people wade recklessly into a river or stillwater environment without first considering how the movement—and the vibrations from their movement—might be affecting the gamefish they are after, whether it is trout, carp, or bonefish.

Most fish detect external movement and noise from the lateral line that runs down the sides of their bodies.

This sensitive nervous system may help some fish hunt for food, but more importantly, it allows them to feel vibrations from underwater predators.

Wading is a skill (yes, I said it) that is underappreciated by many fly fishers. Wading with greater stealth can make you more successful on every fly-fishing adventure in fresh and saltwater environments. The following are three techniques I frequently use.

The Slide
The most challenging wading situation is in calm knee-deep water. It’s very tempting to wade quickly through this depth of water to get to your target, but your vibrations travel long distances. To avoid spooking fish, slowly slide your foot forward instead of taking regular steps.

Saltwater-Flats-Wading-Fly-Fisherman

When stalking saltwater flats, cautiously slide your foot forward and move slowly to avoid sending out ripples that may alarm sensitive fish like bonefish and permit. This technique is equally important when wading calm stillwaters for trout and carp. Photo: Ross Purnell

I learned this technique while bonefishing the saltwater flats in Mexico. While walking in knee-deep water with a normal walking form I noticed I was sending ripples on the surface of the water that were extending out 50 feet from where I was wading.

Every time a school of bonefish approached, I moved to get into a correct casting position, but the disturbance and vibrations I was sending off—below the water and on the water’s surface—would alert the bonefish school and push them out of optimal casting range.

My guide showed me how to slide my feet along the sand bottom with long slow strides that, in return, caused fewer vibrations in the flats that I was walking. [Sliding your feet on saltwater flats is an important safety concern as well. Stepping on a stingray is a constant threat on sand and mud flats, and the sting is incredibly painful and debilitating. Sliding your feet is the best way to avoid an encounter with a stingray. The Editor.]

After I began sliding my feet and moving slowly, I was able to get into better casting range and position every time I saw a school of bonefish. This allowed me to have better delivery setups, making my imitation appear more natural. The fish were also far more willing to eat my fly because they weren’t spooked or alerted to my presence in any way.

Since then I have used the slide technique not only in other saltwater adventures, but also in many other freshwater situations when I am wading in calm water, searching for cruising trout, carp, or pike.

To perform the slide you want to sneak forward using the front and thinnest part of your leg to mimic a knife slicing through the water every time you make a step. With each step, you want to move your foot just over the bottom, and slowly slide it forward until it is fully extended in front of you. Then you can plant that foot, and begin sliding the rear foot forward.

While it is a slow process when moving in this manner, you can still cover a good deal of water.

Try not to stir up the bottom and create more vibrations, noise, and sediment than necessary.

The Dive

Wading is an important skill that allows you to get close enough to the fish to catch them. Too many people wade carelessly without considering how their movements—and the vibrations from their movements—may travel to the fish. Photo: Landon Mayer

Wading is an important skill that allows you to get close enough to the fish to catch them. Too many people wade carelessly without considering how their movements—and the vibrations from their movements—may travel to the fish. Photo: Landon Mayer

Sliding your feet can be extremely stealthy on a flat bottom, but if the terrain is rocky and uneven this can be extremely difficult. Yet regular steps cause a splash, vibrations, and noise that can be felt or seen by fish that are 60 or more feet away from you in calm, still water. (In rapid, rushing water of course you can get much closer to fish, particularly if you approach from behind. The current in a swift-moving river pushes the sound vibrations away from an upstream fish, and more importantly, in turbulent water there is a lot of ambient underwater noise to mask your presence.)

To step quietly on an uneven bottom, try to dive your feet into the water to reduce the impact of your boots hitting the water.

I learned this stealth technique by watching and mimicking the movements made by great blue herons when they hunt fish in my home waters of Colorado. These master hunters walk along the river edge, and gracefully step in and out of the water without creating any disturbances. Even on glassy stillwaters they creep into position by dipping or diving their feet vertically into the water.

While it helps to have skinny chicken legs, mimicking these movements by diving your foot toe-first allows you to get into position without creating disturbance.

To begin the dive, make sure you are moving forward. It’s pretty hard to dive with your toes if you are moving sideways or if your feet are crossing over with each step.

With each step, you want to lift your boot completely out of the water, and then extend your leg, and reenter the water with your toes pointing straight down. Try to imagine your foot as an Olympic diver just completing a perfect somersault, and attempting to enter the water with as little splash as possible.

The Drift

When wading deep or fast water, let your feet drift downstream in the direction of the current. It’s less fatiguing, and you create less turbulence than when you try to battle the current. Photo: Ross Purnell

When wading deep or fast water, let your feet drift downstream in the direction of the current. It’s less fatiguing, and you create less turbulence than when you try to battle the current. Photo: Ross Purnell

For deep or fast water, or when you are wading waist-deep or deeper water, a good rule of thumb is to “go with the flow.”

When you fight the current you always create more turbulence, and your feet have to work harder to push and to balance. You tend to kick more rocks and debris, and not only is it less elegant, it spooks more fish, and can be dangerously unstable.

There are many situations where drift-stepping down with the current has been the most logical and stealthy approach for me on many of my local trout streams.

Also with some techniques like the traditional wet-fly swing, or “walking the dog,” it makes perfect sense to use the current to your tactical advantage as you move downstream. It’s less work, and you’ll disturb fewer fish if your feet move downstream with the current like a tumbling tumbleweed.

Whether they know it or not, “the drift” is a technique used by most steelheaders on large West Coast rivers, and to a lesser degree Great Lakes steelheaders who prefer to swing flies.

They start at the head of a pool, cast across-stream, and swing the fly across the river in an arc. At the end of the swing they step downstream and cast again, fanning the river with the fly in an effort to locate unseen and sometimes widely distributed gamefish like steelhead and salmon.

You can use a derivative technique to fish for smallmouth bass in big rivers like the Potomac or Susquehanna; to swing streamers for trout on the Missouri, Delaware, or the Colorado; or you can swing small soft-hackle wet flies to imitate rising and emerging caddis on the Provo River or Hat Creek. You get my “drift”—it works everywhere.

You can cover large swaths of river casting and wading this way, and by drifting your foot downstream at the speed of the current, you’ll make a lot less commotion and have more energy left at the end of the day.

Remember to firmly plant your upstream leg, and drift your downstream leg with the current. Securely plant the downstream leg, and then allow the upstream foot to drift down into a matching position. Don’t try to drift both legs at the same time—that’s often called swimming!

This brings to mind the importance of safety while wading. “Drifting” isn’t just a good way to catch fish, it’s often the safest method to cross a river without falling. Don’t try to cross a large river by battling straight forward. Plan your path across the river so you travel at a 45-degree angle downstream. This is not only less strenuous, you’ll find you have more solid footing this way. Of course, if you use this method you cannot come back across the river exactly the same way because then you’d be moving upriver at a 45-degree angle. When you are wading a big river make sure you have several options—all of them safe ones.

In the end, wading is a skill that needs to be developed and practiced—just like casting, tying knots, or identifying aquatic insects. Wading strategies will not only help you catch more fish, it will help you enjoy every minute you have on the water, whether you are on a sunny, white-sand flat in the Bahamas, a glacier-fed steelhead river in BC, or your favorite trout stream at home.

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