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COME HELL OR HIGH WATER
As I write this article many of the rivers in the Rocky Mountain States are at or above flood stage as a result of our generous snow pack from the preceding winter and a generally cool and wet spring. High water is predicted to continue well into the early summer months on many streams and this reality makes it necessary for the angler to approach all water bodies, especially flowing water, with extreme caution. High water is not only a danger to wading anglers but also to anglers in floating watercraft.
For the angler high water possess a series of issues. High water is often dirty and cold making the fish lethargic. This requires a change in angling tactics but the purpose of this article is not to explore angling tactics but angler safety.
Simply put, high water is especially dangerous. The speed of water is often deceptive and anglers often underestimate the power and depth of high water, particularly when it's discolored. Objects on the bottom that could easily be detected when the water is clear are often hidden by the dirty water. Taking a fall in the water is never pleasant but taking a fall in fast moving water that is cold from snow run-off is not just unpleasant it can be life threatening.
When moving water increases in speed and volume the streambed is often radically changed by the speed of the water. Gravel bars disappear; new holes are created in the stream bed so that the place where the angler has waded in previous years may suddenly be too deep. Hidden by dirty water these underwater changes may cause the angler to suddenly find themselves in deep water. Once again, if you cannot see the bottom in high water conditions do not presume that just because you have waded there before that you can still wade there.
High water also moves other inanimate objects such as large branches, logs and other objects that are unfriendly to anglers that are either in or on the water. Getting struck by a piece of floating debris can easily knock a person wading in the water off their feet. Sometimes these objects floating partially submerged and the wading angler, who might be in relatively shallow water, is suddenly struck.
As the water moves these objects around they may collect along the outside bends making a dangerous log jam which can easily catch and swamp a boat. I lost a good friend several years ago to just such a scenario. He had over 50 years of experience floating our local rivers here in Montana but lost his life to a pile of logs during high water. I'm certain that he was confident that he could avoid getting caught in such a situation but it was misplaced confidence. Overconfidence or misjudging one's abilities has taken the life of more than one person.
High water creates several dangerous situations for anyone that might wish to venture forth in search of sport or other types of recreation but anytime you are around, on or in the water it is prudent to take precautions to avoid putting yourself and others in a dangerous situation. If you are wading using waist or chest high waders always wear a wader belt and make certain that it is cinched up tight. This will keep your waders from filling with water in the event you take an accidental bath. If you are a bit unsteady on your feet or wading in places where the bottom may be slippery use a wading staff, this is particularly important as you get a bit long in the tooth. Those of us who have been blessed to still be out there wading and fishing well after our three score and ten need to be mindful that we are not as young or as strong as we were just a few short decades ago; and the water does not care if you are 20 or 80; It will get you wet, bounce you off the rocks or send you to your eternal reward without a second thought.
If you are floating during periods of high water don't be foolish, wear a floatation device, especially if you are floating on a stream with rapids and white-water areas. In the event your craft gets swamped or you accidental get tossed overboard that floatation device can save your life. It will not do you any good if you have it in the boat but you are not wearing it.
Here in the Rocky Mountains the streams and lakes are likely to be high, discolored and cold well into July so act accordingly. However, whenever you take to the water, whether during periods of high water or normal flows, do so with respect of its power. Be cautious and you may live to see another day.