Unicoi Outfitters is north Georgia's premier guide service and fly fishing outfitter, located on the Chattahoochee River near alpine Helen. Look for fishing reports, gear and book reviews, and general musings here from our staff and guides.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Wading Safety!

This morning we received a copy of this letter from Henry Cowen. We can't stress strongly enough the importance of wading safety. Please be careful out there!

Date: December 8, 2019 at 8:50:35 PM EST
To: Henry Cowen <henryc@
Subject: Thank you for the life-saving advice
Not sure if you remember me, but I interviewed you about two years ago for an article I was supposed to do an article for American Angler magazine on a first aid kit for gear. The article was supposed to be about a 1/2 dozen things an angler can have on hand to fix an equipment malfunction. A couple months later a new editor killed the story (said he wasn't interested), I got busy and didn't try to pitch it elsewhere. But I would like to share a story with you that came from that phone conversation.

While we were talking about gear repairs, you at one point brought up personal safety, even though it had nothing to do with the article. You rattled off a number of things a guy or gal can do to keep safe on the water. One of those things was to always put your wading belt over your raincoat or wading jacket in cold weather. This way, as you said, if you end up going for a ride in the current, it will take a long time to swamp your waders. Out of all the things we talked about for the hour we were on the phone, that one stuck for some reason. I own a Simms wading jacket, and since that conversation two years ago, I have always made it a point during my fall, winter, and spring steelheading to cinch that belt over the jacket just in case. Another thing you mentioned is that an angler should always have a bag of spare clothes, especially during cold weather. It makes sense, but I never considered it. I live 20 minutes from a really productive steelhead river, so since our conversation, I have always had a spare bag of clothes in the back of my car, where it sat unused for dozens upon dozens of trips. Until today.
This weekend brought a break from the cold winter weather, so I decided to go steelheading for half a day. We had some really nice weather, so when I arrived at the parking lot, there were a fair number of cars there, as everyone had the same idea as I did. After rigging up, I hoofed it downstream a mile, fishing a few spots that are usually productive, before hoofing it a little more to a hole I hadn't been to yet this fall, but usually produces. When I arrived, I found two large trees had fallen right above the tail out. Foolishly, I didn't scout it, but rather started fishing at the head where I normally begin, as I haven't landed a steelhead in a couple weeks and really wanted to make it happen. As I moved to the 7-8 foot gut of the pool, I hooked a really good bright silver chrome hen right where I thought she'd be. She breached the surface before heading fast toward the tail out and the bend in the river. I figured it was safe to follow and started walking when all of sudden the normally thigh-deep river dropped way, way over my head and I found myself afloat in the current with no bottom to stand on heading towards a tangle of tree branches; the tail out I thought was there had been scoured out due to the fallen trees and I had failed to observe the obvious. At that point, I could still feel the fish pulling downstream as my focus shifted towards how to bring myself closer to shallow water near shore. I could feel the 38-degree water slowly seeping into my waders; it would have swamped me at that point had I not had the belt cinched over my jacket. Instead, I was able to kick my feet and paddle my arms towards shore to keep myself afloat until my feet touched the shelf near shore. After getting my bearings, I realized that my fish had broken off somewhere during the ordeal, but I'm not sure where. I was mostly concerned with keeping myself from drowning. Which I did. And I also somehow managed not to lose or break my fly rod.
After the long hike back to the car, followed by a change of clothes, I was back on the river at a good run near the parking area. I hooked another steelhead right before darkness settled in, but it threw the hook. Despite being skunked, I came away from the adventure with an increased awareness of simple preparation. Had I not had my belt cinched over my jacket, based on where I was, I wholeheartedly believed things could have gotten ugly really fast; I could have been soaked to the bone in cold winter weather over a mile from my car over some rough terrain. Or I might have drowned.
Thanks for the advice. Despite not landing anything tonight, I think I'm going to resurrect and retool my idea about a first aid kit, but maybe try and do something regarding safety. If I hadn't had the conversation two years ago with you, I might not have cinched my belt over my jacket as you suggested. And as a result, I might not be writing this right now. So thanks again. I ran into another angler in the parking lot when I was changing my clothes. I'd never met him before, but he said, "S---...I've always thought about buying a wading belt. I just might have to now after hearing your tale." Hopefully, he does.
Thanks again. And thanks too for talking to me a couple years ago. We all make a difference in the subtlest of ways, and I just wanted to reach out and let you know you did that today.
Robert J. Pales

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