Whether you’ve realized it or not, fly fishing is definitely an athletic sport. No, it’s not a bruising contact sport, (unless you’re fighting sharks, tarpon or bill fish) but we all need to accept that it is not necessarily 100% A River Runs Through It or completely safe from injuries. In fact, statistics show that fly fishing is 100 times more dangerous than golf, and equally as dangerous as mountain climbing or hunting. The adventure factor of our sport is one of the tantalizing things that draws the wild at heart to fly angling. We enjoy the thrill of being a successfully deceptive scam artist in order to hook, land and look our prey in the eye; unashamed, with delighted and even a little smug in its capture. What we might tend to forget is that in our quest for this exhilarating moment, we just might come to bodily harm … and in extreme cases, even face death.
Over the past 30 years, I’ve had the privilege of fly fishing around the world and have personally experienced injuries, natural disasters and wild animal attacks. I have survived placing the capture of a fish over my own safety when my angling ego was in the grip of spring fever. Through these experiences I’ve learned some of life’s most valuable lessons in the sport of fly fishing. I’d like to share with you how to avoid some of these unexpected situations and how to prepare for some of the dangers of fly fishing by thinking smarter, not working harder, and getting to fly fish longer in your life by doing so safely.
One of the universal issues with fly anglers who wade is staying too late on the river or on the flats when the water is rising. There are lights and sirens as warning devices that
alert you to evacuate the area near the dam when they are releasing water. The biggest problem with this is the combined sound of the wind and tumbling river water, half a mile downstream. Many anglers cannot hear or see the warning signals. So, as a precaution in this situation, we would anchor a $20 bill on a rock near our fishing area. As the water would rise, we would be encouraged to retrieve our money before it went floating down stream, along with ourselves. (Of course with inflation, now it takes one hundred Ben Franklins to make us move bankwards!). Sometimes even money won’t motive me to get out of the rivers rising water.
Often, when the wave of water starts to push downstream, the fish will start to feed, knowing that it may be their last snack until the water stabilizes hours later. When that happens, it is fly angler happy hooking hour. Our brains go into auto pilot catching mode and the dangers of rising water can be forgotten until it’s too late and we are in deep trouble. For those of you, like me, who don’t swim and are not big in stature; flotation devices such as a CO2 fanny pack or suspenders are worth their weight in gold in this situation. Kicking your feet up and floating downstream also works, but with a greater chance of injury while bumping into rocks trying to hold on to your fly rod, fly boxes and hat.
On the other hand, on the flats staying past the tide with rising water and feeding fish, will most times not put you in danger of drowning, but you can become the prey instead of the predator.
Sharks wait for this moment when once again we fly anglers turn into fish brain and are zoned in on the hunt … Just remember, they too are on the hunt. This has happened to me more times than I would like to admit. When my hunter’s ego emerges, all logic disappears. I have had to use the butt of my rod to divert curious sharks and barracuda that were testing the waters around me … but when you encounter an aggressive bull shark, the playing field changes. The last time this happened to me, by the grace of God, I fortunately lived, enabling me to tell you about this precaution. I promised myself, after that I would never go on the flats again without a knife strapped to my arm or a knife attached to a wading staff strapped to my back. Better yet, if you have access to a bang stick that divers use, this works even better. I’d like to say I’ve learned from this experience and have more control over my angler’s ego … but I never know when it’s going to show up again. We need a way to protect us from ourselves and from lurking predators.
Spring fever is real! It is a feeling of restlessness and excitement felt at the beginning of spring. It comes with a range of physical and psychological symptoms of craziness. We want to take off our shoes, find our shorts and run into the rivers and oceans with giddy abandon. It happens to me in late March or around April Fool’s Day, (which is appropriate). We have a few days of 70 degrees weather: daffodils start emerging and budding green leaves sprout on the trees. The air is so intoxicating it makes you dizzy. Spring fever fly fishing starts throbbing through your veins. Ironically, this is also the time in the mountains of north Georgia and east Tennessee that we get our biggest snows. Sunny warm in the morning and BOOM, snow dump in the afternoon. I don’t care. I’ve got two hours to trout fish so I throw a few things in the Jeep and I’m off.
Telling no one of course where I’m fishing because, (ego) I don’t want them on my fish, right?
I have been so excited on arrival to the river and finding no one on my spot, that I have tied my fly on before stringing up my rod. Okay, say this has never happened to you, right? I thought so. Hiking down the trail on a beautiful 50 degree morning, I have forgotten my thermal underwear, hat and rain jacket. Who cares … it’s a beautiful morning in Spring!!! Finally to my fave fishing stretch, I enter the river feeling its winter chilled waters. The river has no idea that it’s spring yet. Little black caddis hatch heaven begins and I am in trout nirvana with an inward smile. Then, I start to hear my teeth chattering. A light rain begins to fall that turns to sleet and I suddenly I can’t control my hands from shaking. My inner self says, “You need to leave the river now and go warm up.” Confusion sets in and I can’t remember which way to go on the trail to my Jeep, right or is it left?
Hypothermia had its evil claws in me before I knew what was happening. I took a staggering guess of which way to go, as I stumbled down the trail. I was luckily blessed that it was
the right direction back to my vehicle. After a shivering 30 minute walk, it took me several minutes, (that felt like hours) to get the key into the door due to shaking tremors. I survived that day, but last year, my fly fishing nephew, did not. Hypothermia can kill.
Plan ahead of the fishing season by packing everything you might need for survival in any fishing condition in advance and leave it in your fishing mobile. This should include: hand and toe warmers, wool socks, a hat, a wool beanie, fingerless fishing gloves, rain shell, wicking thermal wear, a small first aid kit, energy bars and bottled water. This simple preparation could save your life and possibly that of another. For us, the only cure for Spring Fever is fishing so it’s best to be prepared!
All top athletes in any sport know the value of being hydrated for peak performance … except maybe fly anglers. I would go so far as to say that 50% of those of you reading this article right now are dehydrated. A quick way to tell is the next time you go to the bathroom, check the color of your urine. If it’s clear, you are hydrated. If it is any color of yellow, you are on your way to being dehydrated. The only exception is if you are taking B vitamins, as these may cause yellow urine.
Woman anglers are the worst at not taking care of our dehydration problem before and during our fishing day. We don’t and won’t drop our waders and find a place of privacy to go, so we won’t drink at all. Dehydration can cause muscle cramps in our arms and legs, joint pain and foggy-headedness, causing delayed hook sets and uncontrolled presentations. To prevent this and keep us in top form, we need to drink roughly half our body weight in ounces a day. Drinking pop, coffee, tea and adult beverages make things worse, as they are diuretics.
We fool ourselves into thinking we are drinking enough liquids but we aren’t. I am guilty of this. I drank very little water for the first 30 years of my life. I didn’t realize the value of water until they started charging for it in stores. Sad but true.
If this is an overlooked issue with you, I have a few suggestions to keep you healthy and hydrated. Start hydrating your body the day before your fishing trip. Try to drink at least 8 glasses or more depending on your body weight. Your muscles, joints, and brain will thank you.
A natural hydrating formula that I like is 8 to 10 ounces of your favorite water, juice of half a lemon or lime and one-half teaspoon of sea salt. I mix this in my water bottle and keep it in my fishing pack. I sip it all day while fishing. It is amazing how quickly you are refreshed and hydrated, keeping you in top athletic form.
If you continue fly fishing long enough in your life, injuries will happen, just from everyday wear and tear of the muscles in your hands and arms, not to mention knees and backs. I have had nine hand surgeries to date, plus ‘casting elbow’, (that took me the longest to recover from). The way I’ve always looked at setbacks in life on the fly, is you can stay home and resolve that it’s inevitable and you are worn out, or you can find a way to continue in the sport safely, and fish on using alternative methods.
There are no rules that say you can’t use other fingers as your line control finger. There are no rules that say you have to use your thumb on top of the grip. You can use two, a thumb and pointer finger for added support in a thumb injury. Some casters are now using their pointer finger only on top for more accuracy and distance. There are no rules about adding support to your wrist with a carpal tunnel issue, like a wrist bracelet under the butt of the rod or your shirt sleeve. More than likely, it will improve your back cast and assist while healing.
Heat packs and ice packs are wonderful to keep injured muscles comfortable during the fishing day. All is fair in the love of fly fishing and the war on injury.
The first fishing related injury I encountered was then called tennis elbow, which is now redefined as casting elbow. In my continuing education of what one can catch on a fly, I tried to do a freshwater trout hook-set on a saltwater redfish and guess who won? Mr. Redfish said “no” to my hook set and my “casting elbow” injury occurred from a sprain, strain or pull as my fishing ego said “yes” and then, “Oh no!” My doctor said I should change professions and I would need six months of rest to my forearm muscle. I laughed out loud and told him that he might want to think about changing professions as well; maybe becoming a monk or a ninja. He laughed and understood that it wasn’t going to happen for either of us.
At that point I had to find a way to continue fly fishing, while healing from this injury. My first method was hypothetically appealing; Jack and Advil … but for the six month long haul, not very beneficial. That’s when I remembered that as a child I did sports left handed and thought maybe I could retrain myself to cast left handed and rest my right tendon. Thus, I had an epiphany: continuing in the sport of fly fishing safely by teaching myself to be a lefty-righty. What an easy transfer of information it can be, from your right hand, to teaching your left hand to mimic the same motion. Your right brain already knows how to do the cast. You just need to transfer the information to the left brain … the one with the cobwebs in it. Scientist have proven that using your non-dominant hand for simple tasks: anything from brushing your teeth to eating, will cause you to be more creative and create new neural pathways in the brain that will develop new brain cells. It will also help you with improved memory function. Therefore, there are multiple benefits to training yourself to become ambidextrous in fly fishing.
The bottom line is, if you can’t run with the big dogs, stay on the porch or find another way to run. You now know some of the decisions I’ve made. I hope this encourages you to give life all you’ve got while you’ve got it. After all, that is what dreams are made of.