Is Fly Fishing Dangerous and Some Ways to Stay Safe

Fly fishing looks more like a beautiful dance than fishing at times, but there could be hidden dangers.  Is fly fishing dangerous?

The Quick Answer to Is Fly Fishing Dangerous

Fly fishing can be surprisingly dangerous if you are not careful. The biggest risks are dehydration from the heat, hypothermia from the cold water, and drowning from waders filling up with water.  There are also bug bites, poisonous plants, snakes, and hooks that can impale you.  However, if you take certain steps you can enjoy fly fishing with minimal risks.

Drowning from Filled Waders

Rarely do people think about the dangers of waders filling up, but it can kill you.  Once your waders fill, your legs are weighed down like bricks.  It makes getting to shore very difficult.  My father warned me from an early age about these dangers.

I was fly fishing in Arkansas several years ago and waded into deeper water.  The water line was getting within a few inches of the top of my waders. Then I went to take another step and there was nothing but a big hole in front of me.

I was able to stop myself from falling in, but as I turned to face the strong current the water hit my chest and came up over the waders. They filled instantly, and I knew I needed to get to shore.

I started struggling to swim against the strong current despite being a certified lifeguard.  Eventually I was able to make it to shore, but it took every ounce of my energy to accomplish this.  A weaker swimmer would likely have died.

Hypothermia after getting wet

The number one cause of people dying in the wilderness is hypothermia. This is the medical term for your internal body temperature dropping below 95F.  Your body temperature actually drops 20 times faster when wet versus when dry.

On a recent fall trip my sister, wife and step brother all fell in.  I stayed warm and I packed a “wet bag”.  From experience I know if you play by water – you will get wet.  Luckily my bag had enough clothes to help everyone out.

stay dry fly fishing

Many of us like to fly fish in early spring, late fall, or even winter.  The problem is that air or water temperatures below 60F can lead to hypothermia if you are wet.  You probably already know that it is hard to stay completely dry when wading in a river for several hours. This is a very real threat.

Dehydration and exposure to sun

The number two reason for death in the wilderness is dehydration.  This is the process of your body burning too much moisture.  The three biggest contributing factors when fly fishing are physical excursion, sun exposure, and drinking too little water.

When you are out in the cool river, you often do not notice the hot sun beating down on you as much.  In addition, you rarely realize how much work you are doing walking against the current and consistently casting.

Finally, it is difficult to carry bottles of water with you in the river.  This combination can be deadly.  Dehydration can cause you to become too weak to get to shore, can cause you to pass out, or can cause heart attacks.

There is another threat that can be just as dangerous.  This is known as heat stress or heat stroke.  When your body temperature raises above 103F it can have dire consequences.  As you raise your internal body temperature from physical excursion, you are also dealing with a hot sun and insulating waders.  Over time this can cause fainting, heart palpitations, and even death.

Bug stings and Snakes bites

While bugs rarely pose a threat of death, there are exceptions. In certain areas, mosquitoes can carry Zika virus, Malaria, Dengue fever, Yellow fever, and at least half a dozen other diseases. Some of these can be deadly.  Mosquitoes kill more people worldwide than any other animal on the planet.

When tromping through the brush to get to your fishing spot, ticks can often be an issue.  Ticks carry Rocky Mountain Fever, Lyme Disease, and several other diseases.  In tropical countries there are dozens of other insects that carry life threatening diseases.

In addition to all of this, some people can have an allergic reaction to insect bites or stings.  Bees, wasps, hornets, ants, scorpions, and spiders can all cause an adverse reaction.  This is called anaphylactic shock and can cause your throat to swell shut or your heart to stop.

Snakes are another very common issues.  Snakes are typically considered the second most deadly animal on the planet.  Often you will find snakes hanging out near water or in the water itself.

The most common venomous water snake is the cottonmouth or water moccasin.  In addition, you can find copperheads and rattlesnakes walking to your fishing spot.  All three of these have venom that can kill you.

Moreover, all snakes pose a potential hazard.  Reptiles in general have a huge number of bacteria in their mouths.  This means that a bite from any snake is bound to get infected if not cleaned right away.

An infected bite can cause Sepsis or blood poisoning if not treated, which can absolutely be fatal. I had sepsis as a child from a wound on my hand.  It caused a red streak up my arm.  Doctors said if the streak had gotten to my shoulder I would have likely died.

Poison Ivy and other plants

There are plenty of poisonous plants near the bodies of water you will fish.  The big three are poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac. Some people have no reaction to the oils on these plants.  Some people have a mild reaction that consists of an itchy rash.  However, some people are highly allergic.

I myself am allergic to these plants.  On a road trip/camping trip in California I went into the woods looking for firewood.  My legs were exposed to poison oak.  They instantly started itching and swelled up. This was followed with a fever and pain from head to toe.

Quickly they became infected, and I was forced to see a doctor.  I had to get a shot and use topical medication.  Some people react so severely that they can have their throat swell up causing asphyxiation.

Impaled with Hook

Everybody knows that getting snagged by a fishing hook is no fun. Many hooks have barbs that make them very difficult to remove from flesh or skin.  However, this scenario could be deadly.  Often these fishing hooks are rusty or carry bacteria from previous use.

The bacteria can cause an infection that again could lead to Sepsis and death if not treated.  In addition, there is the risk of Tetanus.  You would not think it, but that little hook can be deadly to anglers as well as fish.

Ways to Stay Safe Fly Fishing

  • Use a wading staff

Typically, rivers and streams can be filled with loose rocks that make walking difficult and potentially dangerous.  A wading stick gives you another point of contact to help you keep your balance.  This helps prevent waders from filling up.  Read all about wading staffs in this article -> How to Use a Wading Staff.  (links to article)  In that aritcle, I also recommend a wading staff.  I carry extra staffs, one of the rivers I fish has bowling ball size rocks that make it easy to fall.

  • Bring a headlamp

If you are going to be fishing early in the morning or late in the evening, a headlamp can save your life.  It will allow you to see more clearly as you start to wade.  Better vision means better footing.

I also have an article with all the Fly Fishing Accessories (link to article) I recommend.  These are the tools in my sling pack that go with me to the river.

  • Bring a water filter

Sawyer Water Filter

Sawyer Water Filter

If you have a water filter with you, there is no need to bring bottled water or take breaks on the shore.   Sawyer Products MINI Water Filtration System (Link to Amazon – A best seller with incredible reviews!) filters are small enough to keep in a pocket and allow you to safely drink straight from the river or stream. They filter out 99.999% of harmful pathogens.

  • Know the river

You are always safer to wade a river you know versus a river you don’t.  Knowing the river means you will be aware of big holes, underwater logs, and slippery areas.  You know none of this in an unfamiliar body of water.

  • Have a fire starter and blanket

The fastest way to warm up when hypothermic is with a fire and a wool blanket.  If you get wet in cool weather, you must get to shore and warm up immediately.  Ferro rods are waterproof and windproof.  As long as you can find dry materials to burn you can get a fire started quickly.

  • Bring wire cutters

If you get snagged by a barbed hook, it is important to remove the hook quickly and disinfect the wound.  The only way to do this with a barb is to push the hook out of the skin, cut the barb, and then pull the hook back through.

  • Mark you waders

It is a good idea to put a bright mark on your waders with permanent marker several inches down from the top.  This marks the danger zone.  Any water level higher than that mark could cause your waders to fill if you turn into the current.  If you decide to wade deep, keep an eye on that mark.

  • Protection against the sun

In addition to staying hydrated, you should also protect your skin and stay cool.  Always wear a hat to protect your head, face, and neck.  Wear a long sleeve shirt if possible.  Use sunscreen.  Finally, wear thin loose-fitting clothing that will keep you cool.

Read about  check list I use with what I pack to go fly fishing HERE, this article includes a great download fly fishing checklist.

As you can see there are plenty of dangerous aspects to fly fishing.  However, there are also plenty of steps you can take to stay safe.  If you take the proper precautions and know the hazards, fly fishing can be enjoyable and the risk can be minimal.