Just a Cast Away
SGT. MAJ. JASON NUNES
1st Squadron, 221st Cavalry
Nevada Army National Guard
Las Vegas, Nevada
If you’re like me, you cherish every opportunity to take a break from your busy work schedule to toss a line into the water, regardless the time of year. These occasions are especially important to me now as my career is beginning to sunset and fly fishing provides me with quiet, peaceful moments. Though relaxing, fly fishing during the winter months and into early spring can be surprisingly dangerous due to hazards that some novice fishermen are unaware of and their more experienced counterparts sometimes forget. Fortunately, these hazards are easy to mitigate, ensuring every fishing experience is a safe one.
Many anglers overlook the importance of wearing a waist belt over their waders. Every new set of waders comes with one and standalone options are widely available. Waist belts should be used every time you’re out on the water no matter the season. Anyone who has ever slipped or fallen into a river while fly fishing knows how quickly your waders fill with water and how weighted down your legs become as you fight to get yourself out of the river. Your waist belt will provide a small window of time to stand up, if able, before the water that has filled your chest area begins to seep down your legs.
Another tool I almost never see used is a wading staff, which I highly encourage everyone to use while fly fishing on a river. A wading staff will almost always prevent you from taking a step into an unseen deep-water pool, although it won’t prevent you from slipping. To avoid slipping, you just need to be patient and sure of your footing as you trek through the water. Adding metal cleats to your wading boots can help with slipping.
Hypothermia is perhaps the top cause of death in the wilderness. When you become wet, your body temperature can drop nearly 20 times faster, substantially increasing the probability of you succumbing to the effects of hypothermia. Falling into the river, as mentioned previously, is an example of how quickly your normal day of fishing can become a deadly one, even if you manage to stand back up and make your way to the river bank.
If you’re lucky enough to not fall into the river, understanding how your clothing plays a role in keeping you dry is crucial when trying to maintain body warmth. A standard rule of thumb to remember when layering your clothing is the acronym ABC — Anything But Cotton. Cotton-based clothing has a bad habit of quickly become wet and drying slowly; therefore, it shouldn’t be worn as the base layer against your skin. Your best option for layering your clothing is to stick with wool-based or synthetic wool types of clothing that will draw moisture away from your body but also trap as much body heat as possible. Your outer layer or shell should be waterproof and breathable. Also, always have a change of clothes. You never know what the day may bring.
When you’re out on the water, enjoy the scenery and the calmness that nature can bring. Start your day dressed warm to stay comfortable and ensure you have secure footing when wading in the water. Just remember, water depth is shallower during winter months, so deeper water is really just a cast away. Stay safe, my friends.
Trout Unlimited, a national nonprofit organization “dedicated to conserving, protecting and restoring North America’s cold-water fisheries and their watersheds,” offers the following tips to help keep you safe and warm while winter fishing.
- If you want to stay warm, you need to stay dry. Yes, it might seem like a no-brainer, but even the smallest leak in your waders can be a real problem in the winter. Water temperatures aren’t usually much warmer than freezing, and the smallest trickle can soak even the warmest wool sock and end your day sooner than you might like. Before you go fishing, make sure your waders are going to hold up. Consider, too, the need to keep your hands dry, which is no easy task, especially if you’re catching and releasing trout. By keeping a dry hand towel in the pocket of your wading jacket, you can dry your hands after releasing a fish.
- Keep your extremities warm. Your feet and your hands (and your ears and your nose) often bear the brunt of cold weather when you’re fishing. Warm socks are a must and gloves are often necessary. Wool dries quicker than other materials, but the general rule is best described by knowing your ABCs. If you only take one thing away from this tip, here it is: Anything But Cotton (ABC). Cotton soaks quickly, dries slowly and should not be worn next to your body when you’re fishing in the winter.
- During cold weather, we lose most of our body heat through our heads. A wool cap or ski cap is a great idea. A Buff or similar cover or mask can supplement your lid and help you retain heat.
- Hand warmers that can be activated when you open them are a good idea, but don’t put them under your gloves. Rather, put them in the pockets of your coat or jacket. This way, if your gloves or mittens get wet, you have a way to warm up your fingers. On the flip side, it’s never a bad idea to put hand warmers near your feet, perhaps under your wool socks.
- Again, following the simple ABC rule, consider fleece or microfleece upper and lower garments.
- Drink plenty of water, even if the water isn’t warm. Hot tea and coffee can be helpful, but both are diuretics, meaning you may have to get out of the water more often to answer nature’s call. Hot alcoholic beverages? Avoid them or wait until you’re back at the house or lodge. While it may feel warm going down, alcohol can actually lower your body’s core temperature.
- If you can, get out of the water now and then. Even with waterproof waders and wool socks, standing in near-freezing water is going to take a toll on your body heat. Step out of the water frequently.
- Layers matter — and not just because they keep you warmer. Layers make it possible to regulate your body temperature. If you’re too warm, you’ll sweat, and if it gets colder, sweating can actually make you colder. Be able to add or remove layers as the day goes on. You’ll be more comfortable and you’ll be able to fish longer.
- Have some sunshine? Soak it up. Wear darker colors that transfer that solar heat to your body.
- On really cold days, cover as much of your skin as you can. Exposed skin gets cold quickly, and overexposure can lead to hypothermia or even frostbite.
- When you can, always fish with a buddy in the winter. Not only can it be more fun, but if you take a tumble and fall into the ice-cold river, you’ll have somebody there who can drag you out and help you get warm.
- Have what it takes to build a fire on the fly. Even just some fire-starting material and a Bic lighter is worth taking along in your fishing vest. If you or a buddy takes a dunk, and you’re not near your vehicle, a streamside fire could be what saves your life. And, honestly, a fire is always nice to warm up by on a cold day.
Source: Tips provided Trout Unlimited. Visit the website at https://www.tu.org/ for additional information.