Crossing Rivers Safely
Small stream steelheading is rewarding as most of these streams are rarely inhibited by other anglers. They are truly the “last great waters” and the coast fo Washington and Oregon as well as British Columbia’s Vancouver Island and even Southeast Alaska have dozens—if not hundreds—of streams that have steelhead runs. Most are in national forest or parks and have trails that follow their banks on one side or the other. But it seems that the “best” fishing is always across the stream or river from where you are standing.
To cross a stream or river safely you need to be aware of the force of water and how dangerous it can be. This is the most important safety tip you can remember: don’t cross if it can’t be done safely. Though many of the times it can be done and there are a few things that you can do to cross without worry. If you are planning a day of bank fishing a river or stream where you know you will be crossing it then be sure to pack along a life jacket which should be worn each time you are standing in the water, even when not crossing.
Use a wading stick. This can be an actual wading staff that are often collapsible and easily kept on your belt or in your backpack. It can also just be a stick you find along the river bank. By having a third point of contact with the bottom of the river you can balance yourself against the currents force. The wading staff or stick also allows you to feel the bottom of the river before you step. More than once I have stepped into a depression caused by an unseen boulder or root wad and went from a foot or two to four- or five-foot holes. This can be deadly so it is best to test the water before you step.
Cross Sideways. When crossing try and keep sideways to the current. This allows you to step and not have the full force of the water pushing against your legs. Be sure to use the proper footwear as well such as spiked soles or a felt sole, though some states are outlawing felt as they can carry invasive plants to other waterways. Another “trick” if you find yourself having to cross deeper waters with a friend is to walk across together, with the heavier person standing behind and putting their hands on the front person’s shoulders. Push down to keep them firmly on the stream bed. This is a technique used by Search and Rescue crews that have to cross streams and rivers during a swift water rescue. If you are wearing a backpack be sure to loosen the shoulder straps and do not use any belts or clips in case you do fall into the water and need to get the heavy backpack off quickly. If you do get swept away point your feet downstream and float on your back and backstroke to shore. This position allows you to keep your head above water, less likely to hit rocks and see where you are going. Let go of any fishing gear and get the backpack off your back. You should already have a tight wading belt and be wearing your life jacket. A day out fishing needs to be done safely so you can return and fish for another day.