There is nothing quite like wade fishing. You’re connected to the water directly, you can feel the current, how warm the water is, how the ground changes underfoot, and lots more. Nothing beats it in my eyes and standing on the bank or on a boat, simply doesn’t compare.
But wade fishing doesn’t come without its challenges. You might be more connected to the water but you’re also going to have to manage it.
You can step on a stingray on the flats if you’re not careful, slip on a rock in a trout river, and be swept downstream in the currents of a big salmon river. Fishing in the water also makes life a little more complex too.
Join me as I run through all the things you’ll need to be successful at wade fishing and stay safe while doing so.
Wade Fishing Environments, Safety, & Tips
Before we get ins and outs of wading, let’s first think about what environment you’re going to do it in.
Once you understand your surroundings, you’re going to be a lot safer while wade fishing and you should start catching more fish because of it too. So where are you going to be wade fishing?
Wade Fishing Tidal Saltwater Flats
Tidal saltwater flats in places like Mexico, Belize, the Bahamas, and especially Seychelles are some of the most sought-after fishing destinations on the planet. While wading these flats you’ll be looking for fish like permit, bonefish, triggerfish, and GTs in knee-deep water.
It sounds idyllic, and it is when you are walking through crystal clear water looking for these amazing saltwater species to catch but there is a lot that can go wrong.
How To Be Safe
In these environments, you can walk past a shark and stingrays, and it can happen very often and they can do a lot of damage to your feet if you’re not careful. The bottom can also be covered with poisonous shells, sea urchins, and coral which will also do some potential harm to you.
Another thing you need to be aware of when wading on saltwater flats is the tide. You can find yourself looking for fish near a reef at low tide, get too focussed, turn around 40 minutes later and there is a mile of water between you and the land or your boat that wasn’t there before.
Walking through water is hard work, I’d say 4 times as hard as walking outside of it or more depending on the current.
Also, when you’re wading in these tropical environments, it’s very hot and there is no shade. You’ll need a hat, buff, a long sleeve PFG shirt, and lots of water to drink in a well-designed water bottle so that you don’t get sunstroke or become overly dehydrated.
No matter what species you’re wade fishing for, make sure you’re walking slowly on the flats as the water might be clear but the fish can appear out of nowhere, especially permit.
You should always be walking while scanning the water from 15 feet in front of you to as far as you can see, and in a fan movement. This will help you spot fish coming from far away, and the earlier you spot them, the more time you’ll have to get ready and put your fly or lure where it needs to be.
Always pay special attention to the tides as these are going to be what causes the fish to be where they are at that specific point in the tide. If you see a permit in a specific spot, write down the tide information, and chances are, it’ll be there again on the next exact same tide!
Managing your line is also important when wading the flats. Since you’re sight fishing, the time between casts can be upwards of 20 minutes which is more than enough time to create a tangle. The last thing anyone needs is a tangled line when you want to cast at the fish you have been waiting for all day long.
Wade Fishing Trout Rivers
Trout rivers are another environment where you will find yourself wade fishing and while they are very different from saltwater flats, they can also be tricky.
Trout rivers can be shallow with gravel bottoms which makes wading them very easy and safe but others can have muddy bottoms, and be wide with potholes that you can fall in or lose your footing if not super careful.
Every step you take in a trout river is different from the next, make sure you have a firm footing on each move and that you’re not going to fall into a deep hole. More than often, you’ll be wearing waders, and waders full of water cause nothing but danger and trouble.
It is highly advisable to take a wading stick or a wading staff. These give a much better way of probing your way forwards as you move and also act as a third leg to create a much better balance.
Keep an eye on the flow of the river too, especially if it’s tailwater as when dams and reservoirs release water into rivers it can cause an intense current to arrive out of nowhere.
Also, let’s say you’re trout fishing in Yellowstone National Park. It’s a magical place to fish and is one of the most beautiful places I have cast a line in my life. But, when you’re wading the rivers in Yellowstone you have to stay alert. Huge creatures like bears, moose, and bison drink from the river, and need to be respected.
Think about the environment the river is in, it might not be in Yellowstone but there is always something to be aware of. I have also been charged by a herd of cows while fishing a river in Dorset chalk streams that ran through farmland. Luckily, I heard them just in time so I could get across to the other side of the river.
Tips For Wading Trout Rivers
Trout are notoriously spooky and they are always on guard from attacks by predators like pikes and large birds. Now add the sound of you noisily wading through the water and all the trout in your vicinity have up and left.
When wading in a river, or anywhere, in fact, walking quietly so the fish don’t hear you is key to your fishing success. Another smart way of wade fishing a trout river, which I’m sure you know, is by only moving upstream.
Trout will face upstream 90% of the time and therefore by walking upstream, you don’t risk them seeing you, or hearing you as easily. Also when you’re walking in a river, you’re moving mud or small stones, and therefore you’ll often create a trail that is not what you want to fish into.
When wade fishing a trout river you should also be conscious of the foliage behind you, your casting angles, and all the spots you want to fish.
As you wade up a river, plan a route to all the spots you want to cast to that creates the minimal amount of disturbance possible, while letting you have the right casting angles so as not to get caught in a tree. This isn’t easy but even just trying to do it will make a difference.
Wade Fishing Salmon & Steelhead Rivers
The reason I have separated out salmon and steelhead rivers from trout rivers is that they tend to be a lot larger with stronger currents and when fishing for these species, you’re walking downstream not upstream, and swinging flies across the current.
Staying safe on a large river has a lot to do with respecting your environment. Large rivers can have incredibly strong currents and unless you want to be Brad Pitt being swept down rapids in “A River Runs Through It”, take every step with respect.
Don’t try to cross the river in a place where you have any doubt if you can get through the current, the same goes in regards to depth. If you walk too deep into the river, fall in a hole and your waders fill with water, that’s your fishing day done and you’re risking your life too.
Some big rivers also have notoriously slippery rocks and if you have ever waded in some of the Scottish salmon rivers such as the River Dee, you’ll know it’s like dancing on ice. Be prepared with the right footwear and go slow.
Tips For Wade Fishing Salmon & Steelhead Rivers
When wading Salmon & Steelhead rivers you’ll be working your way down a pool and then onto the next one. Now, you don’t want to work the pool too quickly as you want your lure or fly to get in front of fish as much as possible but you don’t want to walk too slowly either.
Salmon and steelhead are notoriously annoying to catch and they require a lot of patience and quite often, the right fish. You’re not going to find the fish that is willing to eat by staying in the same pool, so you’ll want to keep moving.
I tend to move down a pool by three steps with every cast so I can fish it properly and get onto the next one.
Wade Fishing In Lakes
Wade fishing in lakes is far easier than moving waters such as rivers. However, safety still is important when dealing with the depth of the water. Move slowly and where possible use a wading stick to feel the depth but also the bottom of the lake for soft or rocks that may trip you up.
One additional item is to try to keep as still as possible in the water. Fast or sudden movements will disturb the water around you and the fish will surely hear or feel the water’s motion. This will result in spooking the fish away from you.
I recommend using chest waders in lakes and ponds. Chest waders will enable you to fish with more tackle due to having more pockets and storage, this makes them far more versatile than hip waders. Chest waders also give the confidence to allow you to fish deeper than hip waders.
The Gear You’ll Need For Wade Fishing
When wade fishing, you are far from anything that might have supplies such as a car or a boat, and this means carrying everything you need with you.
You’ll also need to wear the right equipment for the right environment to keep you warm, dry, protected from the sun, and to keep your feet protected from anything you might step on.
Here is a list of everything you’ll need for wading fishing across all the aforementioned environments.
Large water bottle
Any other layers for the predicted weather
Wading boots (for salt or freshwater)
Waders (for cold water)
A communication device for emergencies
Bear spray (areas like Yellowstone)
Do I Need A Wading Belt?
Wading belts play two important roles, primarily safety but also comfort while your wader fishing. These belts will help prevent the water current from pulling you from your stationary position.
In the event your waders do get filled with water, the belt gives some buoyancy, and the water will not pull you over.
Wearing loose-fitting waders can be dangerous, a wading belt simply fits around the waist to prevent water from filling your waders. This is particularly an issue with rubber waders, wherever possible always choose a Neoprene pair of waders that fit tightly and prevent these opportunities for water to fill your waders.
If there is one thing you should always do before you go fishing it’s to check the weather and this is even more important when you are wade fishing.
When you’re wade fishing you might be 10 miles from your car or a few km from the shore or your boat and if the weather turns bad, getting back to safety can be a challenge.
If the weather is set to be off, it doesn’t mean you can’t go fishing, just don’t make big dramatic moves that put you out of reach of safety if bad weather was to arrive.
You should always tell someonewhere you’re going and what time to expect you to be back too so that if you don’t show up, they know to come looking for you.
Thanks very much for reading my article about wade fishing. I hope it has given you some insights into how to wade safely across all the environments you might find yourself in and some tips on how to be successful at catching fish while doing so.
It truly is the best way to fish any kind of river or the flats in my eyes, so don’t be put off by it, just tread carefully. Experienced fishing guides, such as myself, have often had to kick sharks in the face and chase them off with poles, and we’re still out there every day!
Growing up fly fishing on trout streams in Kenya and the UK, Jamie has traveled the world in search of fly fishing nirvana. From his time managing bonefish lodges in the Bahamas and running fishing safaris in East Africa, all the way to guiding on the flats of Seychelles, there aren't many species or environments he hasn't experienced firsthand.