Beating the Boats: Strategies for the Wading Angler

Nothing is more rewarding than packing a lunch and committing yourself to a long day of exploring. The incentive is not only the fish your will find, but the quiet out-of-the-way places you will discover.

Article by Ryan Sparks / Photo by Faceless Fly Fishing


It was high season on Montana’s Madison River and I was running late. I had the day off, and couldn’t think of a better way to spend it than with a solo float. When I called the shuttle company and told them my plans for the day, the woman on the phone mentioned that they were busy, but could have my truck and trailer waiting for me by sundown. As I pulled into the boat-launch parking lot I quickly realized my plan was bunk. The parking lot was so full of truck and boat-trailer rigs there was nowhere to park and any line marking paint was almost invisible. I had never seen it so busy, so I quickly called the shuttle company and canceled. However, that did not mean I wasn’t going fishing.

I left my truck on the shoulder of the road and walked back towards the river. As I sauntered through the parking lot, I noticed it was eerily devoid of people. Every vehicle had an empty trailer attached to it, and I was the only person around. Hiking upstream, I knew I had several hours before any boats from upriver would make it down to where I was. For the rest of the morning and into the afternoon I worked several pods of rising fish and enjoyed some fantastic dry-fly fishing. As the first few boats drifted past I laughed to myself, thinking that on perhaps the busiest day of the year I had fished the river in solitude.

The way we approach the water often dictates our success in fishing. Many wading anglers believe they are limited because they don’t have access to a boat. However, I have known many people who have become so comfortable in drift boats that they rarely if ever step out of their leg locks to wade a promising piece of water. Consequently, they catch a lot fewer fish. While I love to row or fish from a drift boat, wading provides its own unique advantages. Knowing this, there are a number of strategies that wading anglers can use to increase their success and catch just as many if not more fish than their floating counterparts.

Pick Your Battles

There are specific times of the year and situations when wading anglers have a distinct advantage. The first is during runoff and times of high water when the surging current pushes trout away from mid-river holds. Often these fish will be mere inches off the bank. Many people falsely believe that trout stop feeding during such extreme conditions of strong current and muddied waters. However, anytime you can present a fish with an easy meal it is likely to eat. This means making multiple casts until you get the drift that carries your fly directly in front of a fish. Boating anglers only get one chance and are thus not likely to get the correct drift. Furthermore, runoff and high water keeps many boating anglers off the water because it can be dangerous to float in such fast current. By wading, you can slowly work along the bank, methodically covering all likely water, such as inside bends and major current breaks.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking you need to add lots of weight to reach fish in such fast water. The amount of extra weight needed to get down to the few trout holding midstream will totally eliminate any chance of a realistic presentation. Instead, focus on the soft water near the bank with lightly weighted or unweighted nymphs. During runoff, the water rises above vegetation, boulders, and downed trees that are exposed the rest of the year. It can be frustrating when you start getting hung up and losing flies. An advantage of using a light nymphing rig is that it allows your flies to ride high enough off the bottom that they avoid most snags yet still keeps them in the feeding zone. In murky water, many anglers choose larger dark-coloured patterns because fish can see them more easily. Being thorough is the name of the game. You must force yourself to slow down because it may take several casts before the fish sees your fly.

Wading is also the better option during low water. When the water gets skinny, anglers fishing from a boat must float right over the best holding water in order to get downriver. Lower water means there are only so many places for fish to go, but they are generally more skittish than usual. The large shadow of a boat moving through the water, scraping against the bottom and bumping into rocks disturbs trout, making them very difficult if not impossible to catch. Wading anglers who keep a low profile can sneak into position without alarming fish. Just like an angler stalking permit or bonefish on the flats, wading anglers can get closer to fish than those in a boat.

It is also important to remember that the closer you get to a trout, the likelier you are to spook it. Finding the sweet spot between being close enough for a good cast, but not so close that you alert the fish to your presence is a skill learned through experience. Wearing natural colours and staying as low as possible to keep your shadow off the water helps. When you get into position, remember that most strikes occur on the first or second cast. I can’t count the times I’ve been with someone who made a less-than-perfect cast and immediately picked up the fly and recast it three inches away from its original position. I understand the desire to improve a bad cast, but if your first cast misses the target by a small margin, it’s better to let it play out than smack another cast down on the water. This is especially true when trout are easily startled in shallow water.

Winter offers wading anglers another moment to shine. As cold temperatures set in, trout retreat to slow deep pools to take refuge for the winter. The colder the water becomes the more a trout’s metabolism slows down, and they become unwilling to expend much energy chasing down their next meal. Because fish are very concentrated this time of year, it’s more productive to meticulously fish the right water than to take a shotgun approach. Look for slow deep pools and approach carefully from downstream. Once you are in position you shouldn’t need to move much. Work the pool from the tail to its head and from the outside in, keeping track of the water you have covered. It’s tempting to work the heart of the pool with your first cast, but taking your time and being careful not to alarm fish is the difference between catching one and catching several. If there’s safe water nearby, I try to release fish away from the run so they won’t frantically dart back in, scaring the other trout. If I’m confident the pool holds more fish, but I’m not catching them, the first thing I do is downsize my fly and tippet. If that fails I add more weight to my setup or lengthen my leader to get the flies deeper. Taking a break and letting the pool rest will also give the fish some time to settle down and start thinking about eating again.

When rivers are running in stable condition, wading anglers can seek out certain river features to ensure they have the water to themselves. Small creeks and tributaries emptying into the main river are an obvious option, but many people overlook canyon sections and braided stretches of the river. Canyon sections, roaring fast and strewn with boulders, mimic high-water conditions in that they concentrate trout in predicable areas and send boating anglers elsewhere. Fishing in a canyon is like fishing small-stream pocket water on a much larger scale. Wading here is treacherous, but is usually not necessary. Most fish are within five feet of the bank or near major current breaks, escaping the heavy flows and waiting for food to drift by. Don’t let the power of the river intimidate you. Use its strength to your advantage by finding the well-defined seams created by the fast water. Just as during runoff, it may take several casts to get the proper natural drift in such powerful water. Nymphing techniques work well here, but dry flies can also be surprisingly effective. Don’t expect to get a long drift; most presentations will be quite short.

Braided stretches of river are some of my favourite to wade because I enjoy fishing the small islands, deep side channels, logjams, and undercut banks that develop there. They also harbour large trout. Sure, boating anglers could float to a promising spot and get out to wade, but the truth is that most don’t. The majority of boats stay in the main channel for fear of coming across an unknown obstruction or disturbing a wading angler. Some side channels simply peter out, leaving no water for boats to pass. Others offer safe passage for boats one day but become dangerous the next. This is especially true after runoff erodes the banks and brings new sweepers into the river. These fears often leave entire parts of the river untouched, while the main channel gets heavily fished.

One evening on Montana’s Yellowstone River, I was wading a side channel affectionately known as Cutthroat Alley for the obvious reason. The sun was sinking behind the mountains as I neared the point where the side channel rejoined the main river. When I reached the small diversion dam that marked the end, I was dumbfounded to see two people trying to lower their boat down the dam with their anchor rope. They were new to the river and thought exploring a side channel would be a fun adventure until they encountered the dam. They didn’t know there was another small channel just upriver where they could have avoided the trouble. Their story shows why many boating anglers are wary about venturing from the main river. It also highlights how wading gains you access to less-fished water and helps you learn the river.

Learning It and Earning It

There is truly no better way to learn a piece of water than by wading. Perhaps the greatest advantage wading provides is that it forces you to analyze a river in smaller increments. While wading, you approach the river at a pace slow enough to learn its intricacies. Many anglers enjoy talking and joking with friends as they drift down the river, and floating is certainly a more social form of fishing. For better or worse, this makes the fishing more casual, and you tend to miss the little clues that inform you where trout are holding or what they are feeding on. A common trait of adept anglers is that they are observant. They keep track of where they catch fish, what fly they catch them on, and they constantly study the water. When you get to know these anglers, you often find that the aspect of fly fishing they enjoy most is learning. They aspire to become better anglers by learning more about the rivers where they fish and the fish they pursue. They study the entire ecosystem where trout live, and most of them wade because it’s the best way to explore this world. Think about it as if studying for a test. Do you learn the material better by quickly skimming through the text or by reading closely? The same applies to learning a river. There are no CliffsNotes for rivers.. You have to put in your time and earn it.

The lower section of the Madison River is a popular place to fish. It receives a heavy amount of pressure but is difficult to learn. People who first encounter this section are often puzzled because it seems featureless. It gives the impression of one continuous flat riffle, and is a place that highlights the importance of wading to learn the bottom contour of a river. The good pockets are seldom more than a foot deeper than the surrounding water. Because the river here appears to have very little structure or cover to hold trout, the few obvious places are heavily fished. This makes knowing the hidden buckets even more valuable. Fish are quickly spooked out of the obvious holds and retreat to marginal places that most people overlook. Wading allows you to locate these places and succeed when most anglers struggle. The most successful fly fishers are those who have spent a lot of time looking for hidden spots where fish can hide when the pressure gets turned up. There are secret places like this on every river, and the best way to find them is on foot.

Wading In

Most anglers practice their casting or fuss over fly patterns, but don’t think twice about the way they move in the water. In that sense, wading is the most neglected skill in fly fishing. The difference between stealthily moving upstream and bumbling your way upriver is the difference between catching fish and spooking them. Anglers who think about the way they move in the water have adopted the correct mindset; they’re considering every aspect of their fishing. When you begin to look at wading as a skill, you start to see the whole process rather than just a few small parts. Skilled waders are not only better at sneaking up on trout, they can catch fish where unsure anglers won’t venture. I once watched a friend carefully make her way across a treacherous piece of whitewater to a mid-channel bar that no one else could reach. She caught several fish even though we had been struggling all morning. She later confessed she had been fishing that bar almost her entire life, and had found a way across during a period of low water. Her surefootedness gave me a new appreciation for wading.

Reading the water is important both for catching fish and for wading safely. The best waders are safe waders. They know their abilities, and recognize when something is too risky. A good rule to follow is, if you have to think about it, don’t try it. One component of safe wading is having the proper equipment. On slippery freestone rivers, I prefer to use studded wading boots because of the extra grip they give. There is a variety of stud styles and materials to choose from, and I’ve found that combining different types of studs gives me the most stability. Wader fit is an often-neglected safety consideration. If waders are too tight they restrict movement, which is the last thing you want if you suddenly slip or have to make an unplanned swim. Conversely, waders that are loose and baggy can cause you to fumble over excess material. That surplus material also creates additional drag in the water making wading more difficult. A wading belt is an indispensable piece of safety equipment that keeps your waders from filling with water and ballooning out into a drift sock if you fall into the water. Two belts are better than one because you can raise one belt up around your chest when wading deep for extra protection. Some anglers like to use a wading staff for added stability. In unfamiliar water, they also make a great probe for finding obstacles in your path. As you develop your wading skills, you’ll begin to feel more comfortable in the water, allowing you to focus on fishing.

Hoofing It

Had I decided to float that busy day on the Madison, my fishing would have undoubtedly been disappointing. Nevertheless, someone had to be the last one to launch his boat, and his fishing was likely disappointing. Old habits die hard, but if that person had taken the time to rethink what he was doing, he might not have followed the herd down river. Walking upstream of boat launches in the morning, as I did that day, is an excellent strategy for escaping traffic, and the same goes for walking downstream of boat launches in the evening. Getting on the water very early is another method. It is an unwritten rule that wading anglers have the right of way. Take advantage of this. If you beat the boats to a good spot, by all rights you earned it.

Most of these approaches have a common theme-the willingness to put some miles on your wading boots. Truth be told, if you want better fishing you should try to avoid all anglers, not just boating ones. That involves being creative and putting in extra effort. Satellite imagery and aerial maps give a head start in identifying potential water, but you never really know until you are there. While drift boats are awesome tools for covering water, they can also be an impediment to learning the finer details of a river because they limit your ability to explore it. Furthermore, wade fishing is more focused, simply because there are fewer distractions, and slowing down makes your fishing more deliberate. It also allows you to enjoy the extra time wading affords. Nothing is more rewarding than packing a lunch and committing yourself to a long day of exploring. The incentive is not only the fish you will find, but the quiet out-of-the way places you will discover.