Having just given a CPPD presentation to the Game Angling Instructors Association (GAIA) on nymph fishing, with particular regard to wading technique, I thought it appropriate to pass on some of this to Fish & Fly members. Wading is, after all, very much a part of fly fishing on the frontier, and, let’s face it, successful river fishing per se. The point is that while as ‘instructors’ we are taught in our qualification process to teach fly casting to quite a high level, there is currently very little attention paid to wading. This is remiss in several ways. Firstly, there is the very big issue of safety. Secondly, to have proper control over ones fly or flies in the river environment, it is always best to shorten the range between angler and fish, ideally down to about six metres. Let me explain.
I have often said that fly fishing of all types is primarily concerned with line control (and ultimately control over one’s flies). In rivers, particularly characterful, upland freestone streams with their mish-mash of variety and complex currents, line control rapidly drops off beyond six metres, and is virtually zero beyond 10 metres. To illustrate this try casting at 10 metres on a fast flowing river (of even uniform flow) with a dry fly and see how long you can maintain a drag free drift, even with multiple line mends. Shorten the range down to six metres, however, and control (and that vital drag-free period) drastically increases. The same can be said for nymph presentation, though it is less obvious and considerably more subtle, and demanding.
On most rivers (assuming wading is allowed, which is 99 per cent of rivers in the world – my estimate; and yes, I am fully aware of sections of the Derbyshire and southern chalk streams…) in order to be able to cast at six metres to most target fish or target areas, this will require wading. On a fast flowing river, this can be unsafe unless good wading technique is learnt. This is not easy and requires a lot of practise, but it can be taught and demonstrated, which can shorten the learning process. It is, also, very ,very important in attaining the best out of the river sport. It is essential that you will fall in a few times as you learn, so be warned. You will make mistakes, you will push it too far, and you will slip or trip and probably suffer a few total immersions; so I think it useful, actually, in the learning process to fall in now and then, simply to appreciate what happens following the shock of immersion into cold and fast water. It is hugely disorientating. For this reason, I will always strongly recommend that anyone wears a buoyancy jacket, preferably a self-inflating one which will not hinder casting and general function. Whenever I am guiding, although I do not wear a buoyancy aid, I always keep my guests in shallow water and only push out to deeper water – to close the range to a target – if they are wearing a jacket or I am there at their shoulder.
People new to fast water wading tend to be very tentative in their approach, with feet close together as they peer into the water to try to watch the river bed before each small step is taken. As a result they are not concentrating on the target(s) and so miss a great deal of what is going on. One of the great tricks of successful, tactical fly fishing is a focus on one’s target. Take your eyes off that target and it is probably lost, or at the very least your chances of a successful presentation, and a successful hook-up, are severely reduced. In all cases, before entering the water, and to an extent as you enter it, it is better to scan where you are likely to be wading (with a knowledge of your actual or intended targets) and to map this in your mind’s eye. This improves a lot with practise and experience. Then, with good wading technique you have only to glance now and then at the river bed (when this is visible). Almost all the time you can focus your attention on your target, using peripheral vision and stimuli to further map the water and the river bed. One should ‘feel’ one’s way through the river, feeling with the lead foot, planting it securely before lifting the trailing foot and securing that. Always remember that it is far better to have one leg upstream of the other, rather than having both legs facing the current (i.e. have both legs in line with the river’s flow). You are also hugely more stable by having your feet well spread – by up to three feet. You will then also be much lower in the water (by at least a foot), and thus can more closely approach fish.
In this way, one leg always ‘protected’ by the one upstream, to differing extents, you can feel your way across the river, until you reach the required angle to the target, and its range. The danger always lies in turning away, putting both legs into the current. It is very easy to be twisted by the flow at this stage, because you suddenly have only the one foot purchase on the river bed, which acts as a pivot point. The river can spin you and you will have lost control. The secret is always to be in control of your motion through the river, and not allow the river to be in control. Go out backwards, if needs be, though this feels rather uncomfortable and unnatural. Also, a cardinal rule is that you a cognisant of the need to have at least one means of escape from the river, and this might not necessarily be the same route as you used when acquiring your current position.