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High-Water Caution

The Durango Herald - News - Durango, CO

March 26, 2004


Fly Fishing Durango - by L. David Grooms

Fly fishers need High-Water Caution

In the spring, fly fishers in particular need to "think safety" - because mountain trout stream environments, as well as warming still waters, often become very hazardous.

Snowmelt run-off has suddenly changed the Animas River from reasonably safe wading water, to one where wading is currently unthinkable. Fortunately, dangerous high and muddy water doesn't attract many fly fishers. Frigid waters of lakes, rivers and even small streams should be respected. Flotation devices may be cumbersome, but they have spared countless people from otherwise disaster. Hypothermia can happen in minutes. San Juan Search and Rescue crews know this only too well.

As spring temperatures rise and fall, the rivers do the same - even on a daily basis. Rivers may rise significantly toward evening after warm days. If you get caught on the wrong side of the stream, plan on having survival gear and spending the night rather than attempting a life-threatening wade. Even though spring days may be warm, nighttime temperatures are often below freezing.

Despite the high water, some fly fishers will still find wading opportunities. If you do go down, swim at a 45-degree angle to the current, doing the backstroke with your head upstream. Keep your feet up so they don't get caught in logs or rocks. This will push your derriere down, which causes the water's force against your back to keep you afloat - and the current will push you toward the shore.

Do not wade in fast or deep water! Use the "buddy wading system" and wading staffs if you must cross in potentially hazardous water. I highly recommend using studded sole wading shoes. Slippery rocks can be impossible to navigate without them. Wading belts can prevent your waders from filling up with water. Wear neoprene waders and life vests in cold and dangerous water. Never wade upstream from hazardous structure or fast, deep rapids.

Snowmelt runoff isn't the only hazard in the springtime. Various wildlife critters like the water and riparian areas. Mama bears will usually have baby bears, and they are to be absolutely avoided. Pepper spray may be good outback insurance. Ticks can transmit Lyme disease or Rocky Mountain spotted fever, and mosquitoes may be carriers of West Nile virus. Always carry appropriate insect repellant. Alpine-bound fly fishers should check with the U.S Forest Service or mountaineering shops for avalanche or slide danger - well into June.

Never fly fish during lightning storms. Your fly rod and wet line act as a "positive strike leader" and can conduct a direct lightning strike. Get out of the water, sit down away from trees and lay your fly rod down.

Keep a very watchful eye on youngsters. Always attempt to fish with others if you can. Be sure to advise someone as to your trip route and expected time of return especially if alone. A fly fishing excursion can be strenuous, particularly at higher elevations, so make sure that your health and fitness are up to the task.

When out in the springtime, always have a complete survival gear pack for medical or inclement weather emergencies. Again, tell someone where you are going. Bring topographic maps, GPS, communication, flashlight, thermal blanket, waterproof matches and candle, or other equipment as appropriate. Always have clear and specific rendezvous arrangements with others.

L. David Grooms is senior partner of He can be reached at 385-9048.


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