Story last updated at 11/19/2008 - 4:23 pm
It was the second week of November and blankets of freshly fallen snow lined the stream bank as this year's winter came early in Southeast Alaska.
I had just made my third pass through the run without a take, so I decided to explore the next pool downstream, a pool where I had enjoyed great fishing last week for late-season cohos and a few winter chums.
The swift glacial water pushed firmly against my legs wrapping my waders tightly against my knees. Before crossing, I thought to myself, any fall, spill or dip in these conditions would be a recipe for disaster. Cautiously I deliberately waded diagonally through the slower flows of the broad tail out before reaching the gravel bar of the next pool. Pausing, I exhaled a deep comforting sigh of relief, and then hastily began peeling fly line from my growling Hardy as I anchored my next cast.
Knowledge of cold water wading is critical to ensuring safe fresh water recreational sport fishing in Southeast Alaska. Crossing rivers and creeks in cold conditions is not only challenging, but also very dangerous even for skilled anglers with significant river crossing and wading experience.
As fly fishers, we willfully choose to wade rivers and waterways in order to passionately pursue fish. Eventually, every one of us will end up in the water. Most often it's a stumble in the shallows where it's a simple matter to stand up. Or it's a little water over the top of the waders - wet feet and legs, but no problem if we can get into dry clothing and stay warm.
However, one day you might find yourself floating downstream without the chance for a quick recovery. When this happens, don't panic. Settle into the water horizontally, take a deep breath, close your mouth, and think "drift boat." Quick implementation of these steps could save your life.
The drift boat position
If you have ever been in a drift boat with a competent rower at the oars, you might have observed that whenever the boat approaches an obstacle the rower wants to avoid (rapids, rocks or narrow chutes), the rower always points the bow at the obstacle and rows away from it, typically with the stern at a 45-degree angle upstream, into the current.
The same is true if you find yourself floating in fast-moving water, and that is to quickly adopt the "drift boat" position. Get onto your back with your entire body - even your arms - in the water. If you are in a horizontal position, you will float much easier. Holding any part of your body vertically above the surface reduces your buoyancy, causing you to sink. This is a critical point. You must be horizontal to float effectively and to keep your body as high in the water as possible. In this position, your feet become the bow, your head the stern, and your arms the oars.
The 45-degree position is ideal because it moves you away from any potential hazards and towards the bank. In contrast, swimming directly across the current often results in being swept farther downstream, and trying to swim upstream will quickly exhaust you.
The 45-degree position also allows you to see approaching obstacles and to use your feet and legs to push away from them. This technique will allow you to get into slower water more quickly.
When drifting, it's important to resist the temptation to keep feeling for the bottom with your feet as you float. This temptation of feeling for the bottom will cause you to sink and extend your time in the water. Also, don't try to stand in fast water even if you think it is shallow - you may get pushed over again, tiring yourself and once again extending your time in the water. It's important to wait until you are out of the current, then turn over on your stomach and crawl on hands and knees into the shallows.
The coastal rivers and streams in Southeast Alaska flow cold and untamed. Any unexpected fall or slip into the water can quickly drain your strength, slow your reactions and potentially place you in a life-threatening situation.
It's imperative to get out of the water as fast as possible, and one way to do this is to mimic a drift boat. It could save your life.