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Morning Hatch by Eldridge Hardie

Wading is an Art
By Lee Wulff
This article was published in The Field and Stream Reader in 1946.

If there is a red god who would grant to each angler at the beginning of his career a choice of excellence in any one of the many requirements, I think the stream fishermen who chose to excel at wading would be very wise in their decisions. In order to carry out that grant, it might be necessary to alter the physical make-up of some of these beneficiaries; but when the ability to wade had been achieved, the problem of well-filled creels would become much simpler.

Wading is not an end to all problems of stream fishing, but it goes a long way in that direction. The truly proficient wader can reach certain fish that his less capable companions must pass up, and because those difficult-to-reach fish are less fished-for than the average they usually rise more often. He can reach the right position for properly presenting a fly to a feeding fish in more cases than a less gifted fisherman. On an average, an excellent wader should take at least 20 percent more fish than an equally good fisherman in all other respects who is just an average wader.

The old axiom, “You can’t catch fish unless your line is in the water,” holds good in the case of waders as well as others. The angler who is sure of himself as he moves over a slippery, uneven streambed will be able to cast more steadily and will lose less fishing time than the man who must stop casting to concentrate on not falling and getting wet at every ticklish stretch of water.

The angler who is at home in the deep water or swift flows can, if he wishes to travel slowly and with infinite care, spy at close range on the fish he seeks to take, learning much that will evade the less accomplished wader. By actual wading, more than in any other way, a fisherman can learn to read the surface of a stream and tell by the ripples, swirls and eddies the type of flow and contour of the bottom below it.

No wader is immune from the danger of rolling rocks, smooth-slick surfaces and sudden deep spots, but quick reactions can save a good wader from a fall or a wetting ninety-nine times out of a hundred.

Wading the still waters with the care required to keep down all ripples and make no sudden moves that might alarm the fish demands little physical stamina, but a wealth of poise and restraint. But wading the hard, twisting flows of heavy water over an uneven bed requires not only poise and restraint, but physical strength, coordination and daring as well. Whether or not perfect wading is an art, it is certainly something which few anglers attain, though many attempt it.

From the purely physical viewpoint, it is obvious that a heavy man’s weight will allow him to hold his position more securely than a light one of the same ability. Weight, however, must be governed by the agility and strength necessary to control it best.

The ideal wader is heavy, but not too heavy. He has weight within the limits of great strength. Secondly, the tall, long-legged man can wade deeper than a short one. He finds it easier to step over obstacles, and the tops of his waders are farther above his feet. Thirdly, a man whose weight is high on his body has an advantage over one whose weight is evenly distributed or concentrated below the waist. Weight under water loses its power to hold the angler in a fixed spot, but weight above it maintains that power. The less weight and bulk one has below the water-line, the less resistance it will offer to the water flowing past, and the easier it will be to maintain a position or work upstream against a strong flow. Thus we find that the man best fitted for wading is a tall, narrow-hipped, broad-shouldered athlete of average or more than average weight.

Having established the ideal figure, it remains for those having less-than-perfect wading physiques to allow for any lack in physical advantages and be prepared to do the best they can with what they have. They must realize that, no matter how good they become, if they haven’t a perfect body for wading, someone just as smart who does have is likely to come along and make them look like a barefoot school kid in a park fountain.

Sure-footedness is the first requirement for a good wader. When an angler’s feet go down on the streambed, they should be prepared to hold their position if desirable or to shift the instant a loose rock starts rolling beneath them, ready to give way gracefully when they slip while they seek a solid surface to brace on. No wader is immune from the danger of rolling rocks, smooth-slick surfaces and sudden deep spots, but quick reactions can save a good wader from a fall or a wetting ninety-nine times out of a hundred.

Sure-footedness, balance, strength, daring and knowledge are the keys to becoming a top-notch wader.

Balance is the next requirement. Can you stand on one foot in a tough spot long enough to extricate the other foot and plant it where it will do its share of holding a ticklish position? Balance in wading is not like balance ashore. When a wader starts to fall, he can lean against a strong, steady current, or even against the yielding solidity of a still pool, and it will support him long enough to allow him to regain his footing. A man sinks slowly when he slips, and if his wits stay with him and his reactions are quick enough a good sense of balance will keep his wader tops above the water.

To digress a moment at the mention of waders, it is worthy of mention that waders are no aid to wading, merely to comfort. I had learned most of what I know about wading before I ever saw a pair by wading wet, in sneakers — the hard, cold way. The heavier and stiffer the waders are, the more they deter swift, sure action; but waders keep you dry.

Strength is another factor in wading. Strength is wasted when a man can’t use it with speed, but quick strength is desirable up to the greatest point it can be controlled. If a wader can jump six feet from a one-footed stand in eighteen inches of fast water, he has an advantage over the man who can’t. When it comes to bucking a stiff flow of water, there is no substitute for strength, and the man who lacks it isn’t as good as the man who has it, all other abilities being equal.

Downstream and Across by Eldridge Hardie

Daring is essential in a top-notch wader. The stream fisherman who will only dare what he has seen done before will never be really good. In the back of an expert wader’s mind are a thousand imagined situations, each tentatively answered by his own mental solution. When one of these new situations develops with the speed of a winking eyelash, his subconscious reflex must be relied on to carry him through, and if his thinking has been straight it is almost certain to do just that.

The final essential quality and the hardest to obtain is wading knowledge. Can you read the contours of the riverbeds by the surface water? Can you utilize the lower currents and eddies when you toil upstream against a difficult flow? Can you wade confidently in dark brown or muddy water through which you can’t see bottom? Can you move quietly in difficult water without raising a ripple, traveling slowly but surely, with no quick movements to frighten nearby fish? If you can’t, there’s much for you to learn that nothing but experience can teach you.

The angler who wades to get the most out of his fishing days will know his favorite streambed like a book.

The angler who wades to get the most out of his fishing days will know his favorite streambed like a book. By wading the deep pools under low-water conditions he will discover the bars and ledges that carry him through many of the same pools in normal flow and allow him to reach fish beyond the range of other equally able anglers who haven’t had a chance to learn the stream’s best wading paths.

In a settled stream such knowledge is good for a lifetime, but in many rivers the freshets that arrive with every spring will change some of the pools and runs. There may be a wetting in store now and then in the early season, when the gravel bar that used to carry a man along with his wader tops two inches above the water has been scoured down by four inches and the current is too strong to go back after that realization comes. But such wettings are rare and a small price to pay for the advantages of knowing a streambed well and using that knowledge to the fullest extent.

When a river is high and strong, the pools that could normally be waded upstream must often be fished downstream with a wet fly. It takes confidence in your own judgment to start in at the top of a pool, knowing that there is no turning back once you start and that the bar you intend to follow may have been washed downstream since you last waded through. Without that confidence and the willingness to take the risk, you will never learn how seldom the bottom really changes enough to give you a wetting without giving away the secret by some change in surface flow.

In the matter of wading equipment, boots and rubber-soled shoes are poor grippers, and anglers using them are limited to those spots where the contours of the bottom will give them a good resisting surface. Hobnails and felt are the two best gripping soles. They are about equally good.

On soft, slippery, mossy rocks, hobnails will dig in and hold, where felt soles would slide; but on granite or any other hard, smooth rocks hobnails will slide like an otter and felt soles cling like glue. Take your choice. Mine is felt, because if my foot comes down on a loose coil of line with felt soles nothing happens; but if the foot is hobnailed, I may need a new line.

Wading techniques vary with each river. Sometimes the best course is to slide along the bottom carefully, digging your feet into the jagged creases of an all-rock bottom where too much speed may project you out on a sheet of rock that offers no hold whatsoever. With a gravel bottom of many loose stones the wader may work best by traveling lightly over the rocks, settling his weight on them by degrees to determine whether they will roll. Sand and mud present another problem.

The most spectacular of all is the leaping technique, which carries an angler by a series of standing broad jumps from one submerged rock to another, across the channels that are over his depth. To leap from a submerged rock and land on another without slipping into the deeper water all around it cannot be learned in a day. Nothing but the sight of such a performance can bring the true realization of the possibilities of this type of wading. It requires eyes like a hawk, sure-footedness and daring.

Once the wader forgets the fear of slipping, he can do anything in midstream that he can do in two inches of water at the shoreline and with the same degree of safety.

The danger of falling is always with the wader; but, like an ironworker who walks nonchalantly along a narrow girder hundreds of feet in the air, the wader can learn that, once he forgets the fear of slipping, he can do anything in midstream that he can do in two inches of water at the shoreline and with the same degree of safety. When the fear of losing his balance beyond recovery leaves an angler, he enters the stage where his real wading talents are free to develop.

The ability to recover balance, like all the other wading capabilities, is made up of more tricks than can be covered in any one article on the subject. One of the simplest stunts when losing balance in water over your knees is to jump as high as your less-than-normal footing will allow, draw your feet in under you, and come down as nearly upright as possible. The water will buoy you up momentarily and allow your feet to feel for footing that will hold you upright or give you forward motion and a chance to get your feet beneath your weight.

Jumping downstream permits the current to add to the ground you cover if the bottom is slick and increases the chance of striking a projecting ledge. Falling upstream will give you greater buoyancy when you first strike the water — if that is your greatest need. With one foot anchored solidly, the force of a good current on that broad beam of yours will almost lift you to your feet again.

One thing to quit worrying about is that oft-repeated bugaboo: “If you fall in with waders on, the air in them will be unable to get out and will hold your feet up while your head stays under water, and you’ll drown.” If you stand in water up to your knees, much of the air is driven out of your waders by the force of the water. As you fall more will be pushed out, until practically none remains. If you are wading at hip-depth when you fall, it is impossible to get any air into your waders as you go down, no matter how hard you try.

To prove the danger of the wader-balloon theory, the angler must do a swan dive from a cliff, and that, I maintain, is not wading. The chief danger to a wader in bad water lies in being swept from his feet and injured by striking a rock or similar obstruction, thus losing control of his body.

I haven’t mentioned wading staffs because I’ve never used one. Maybe they are worth the nuisance of carrying them around. They will hold you in spots where nothing else will; but they detract from the free use of hands and arms, and that is a hindrance to wading. Perhaps, when age begins to tell on me, I’ll try one. Meanwhile I go blithely on and wish you “Happy landings!” If wading isn’t an art, at least it’s mighty close to it.
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