There are a few moments in fly fishing that exist crystallized in your mind. A first fish, a large trout sipping a dry fly, a trophy tarpon. These events stick with us as anglers for a lifetime. They find their way into our subconscious, rising up from the depths as we warmly regard times on the water. Haunting yet reassuring, these memories tether our present to our past. They make you feel life, and make you feel alive.
You know, like falling in and filling up your waders for the first time.
Because cold water hitting your “underwaders” reminds you that you are alive and able to feel the river in nooks and crannies much more real than flowery prose can describe.
Haunted by waters? You bet I was. I was haunted until I pulled my frigid, soaked wool socks from my blue and raisiny feet. Can you appreciate the weight of a thick, top of the line wading sock that is completely saturated with water? Of course, you must factor in the number microorganisms (both flora and fauna) that somehow immediately made the incredible journey past my chest, down my legs, and into the wool/poly fibers of my socks.
Perhaps setting the scene will help make this a bit more visceral:
Arkansas in the middle of the summer is a warm place. Too warm, some might say. Unless you are standing in the middle of a TVA tailwater, that is. In that case, neoprene waders are still “in.” The frigid temperatures released from the bottom of the immense impoundments upstream allow for booming trout populations and a rich macroinvertebrate diversity. Although probably unnoticeable in stream survey data, the latter was reduced slightly upon a large number of these critters finding their way into the booties of my waders.
It was the White River, and I was hot on the trail of trout. I’d been throwing an olive wooly bugger and just catching fish after fish. But all good things must come to an end, so I headed upstream to hop into the car and go eat/sleep.
I don’t know if I was distracted by a fish, another angler, or the swelling pride from an unusually productive day of angling. What I can recall was the speed with which I was underwater. Walking upstream, into a good current, you can imagine the hydrodynamics. A cup will fill with water if you put it in a pond, but it will fill up a little more violently if you put it in a class-5 rapid.
Instantaneously my feet registered “wet” and “cold.” Thankfully I had on my wading belt. But the tightened strap created an interesting sensation within my waders, where I visualize water forcing its way through the small fissures between neoprene and t-shirt like a crack in a dam.
In all seriousness, I’m very thankful for that wading belt. People die while fishing because they sink and drown in waders. How awful is that? Wading belts, PFDs, and any other preventative measure aren’t foolproof life savers, but they sure help. Mine helped by slowing the flow down at my waist, while allowing everything above it to fill so quickly that the force put me back on my feet. I was down and up very quickly; a matter of a few seconds.
Once I came to and began to process the whole scenario, I felt stupid, lucky, and then cold. Not in that order: all at once. Then I resumed my walk back to the car. Squelch! Squerch! Gush! are the best attempts at onomatopoeia that I can muster from those few minutes. It was like walking in a wave pool while wearing a small, personal wave pool. Those poor scuds.
Once I reached dry land I proceeded to make it un-dry. Gallons of water were released. Taking off neoprene waders isn’t ever easy, but fighting with my water-balloon jumper was a whole new challenge. I contemplated turning myself upside-down, allowing it all to drain out. That wouldn’t have worked on any level, and I’m glad a younger me had a modicum of wisdom to realize that. So I basically did a dance that resembled a boa constrictor eating a goat, only in reverse.
Wet, cold, and defeated, all I wanted to do was take off the drenched wool socks. That wasn’t going to happen without a fight. Some miracle of absorption transpired in those waders, because the flow from the socks was continual. Like one of those fancy electric “paintings” with the effect of rippling waters, it just kept on coming. At one point, I wondered if my feet had frozen and fused to the socks. This was my new normal. Destined to wear thick, grey wading socks for all time.
Cooler heads prevailed, and I began to roll the socks down my calf. Now sweating from exertion, and cramping from bending over, getting my giant sock-donut to actually make the turn over my heel was a chore. If they didn’t cost twenty bucks a pair from a fine flye-fyshing shoppe I might have thrown them in the port-a-john and been done with them.
I was free. Clammy, but free.
You’ll never forget that first dip in the drink. For a brief moment you think you’re in mortal peril, then you begin to concentrate on more important things: Did anyone see me? Did my fly boxes get wet? Where is my hat?!?
It is kind of a rite of passage, and one that carries a good life lesson along with a potentially entertaining anecdote. People get hurt and worse in wading accidents every year, so there is a very solemn angle to all of this. At the same time, watching a buddy fall in the creek just to pop up spouting river water and expletives can be hilarious. Wear a wading belt, watch where you’re going, and you’ll hopefully only get to experience the lighter side of this inevitability.