Fly fishing in wilderness areas can get you to some great wild fishing, but remote areas can also be dangerous. Any time you hike or float in deep with nobody else around, you risk all kinds of new threats. A leisurely fly fishing trip can turn into a survival scenario in literally just a split second. Test your survival knowledge by reading through these scenarios and expert advice.
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By Ryan Dobson
Ryan grew up fishing, camping, and hunting in the Ozarks, achieving Eagle Scout. Ryan not only completes several survival challenges each year, but also shares his in-depth experience through his articles covering fishing, survival, prepping, hunting, camping, and outdoor cooking. More about Ryan on our About Us page.
Ever since I was just a boy, I have loved fly fishing. It was frustrating to learn at first, but after a while it became a relaxing pastime. Every aspect of fly fishing was interesting to me. I loved the hypnotic motion of the line whipping back and forth across the river. I enjoyed watching a family friend show me how to tie flies. While I was learning my craft, I was often forced to walk to the nearest stream or lake to practice. However, as I got older I was able to get out into the wilderness for my fly fishing adventures.
When I was in my early 20’s, I went on a backcountry fly fishing trip with my father and brother-in-law. We were getting little action in the spot where we started, so I decided to wade downstream for a better spot. This river in Northern Arkansas was moving quickly, and the water was higher than normal. As I waded, the water level kept creeping up higher on my chest. When it was just a few inches from the top of my waders, I became concerned and decided to turn back.
As I turned, the current hit my chest and rushed up over my waders. My father had always warned that waders can drown you if they fill up with water. I tried to push against the current to get to shallow water, but the rocks kept slipping under my feet.
Finally, I decided that I would have to swim for the shore if I wanted to make it out of the river alive. I started swimming as hard as I could and eventually made it to the shore. I was completely out of energy and was shaking from the adrenaline. It took me a while before I put on waders again.
This is just one example of how fly fishing can go wrong when nobody else is around. In this article, we will cover the dangers that you face when fly fishing in the wilderness. We will also cover your fly-fishing gear list to pack and training to cover so you can be prepared the next time you go out.
Most wilderness fishing trips start of pleasant enough – will yours end that way? Photo: Montana Angler – Bob Marshall Wilderness
Before we get into too much detail, I want to discuss survival situations you might face while on a wilderness fly fishing trip. You might see fly fishing as a safe and relaxing experience, but everything changes when you head into the wilderness. I should mention that you can eliminate many of these risks by contacting fly fishing guides. Often they have the survival know how to keep everyone safe, plus they supply all of the needed survival gear. If you are on your own, your risk is higher and you may need to hike out injured or stay put and signal for help.
Something as simple as a sprained ankle can alter the course of your wilderness outing from day one. Do you know how to avoid it, and if necessary treat it?
Injury Or Illness
There are dozens of different ways you can get hurt or sick when wilderness fly fishing. If you are backpacking and fishing, twisted ankles and knees are common. As you get more exhausted from hiking, dehydration can become an issue. It is also easy to cut yourself when cleaning fish or to accidentally hook yourself in the hand. If you are floating and the boat flips, head injuries are common. Remember, in many cases you will not be able to call for help. That means you must either hike to safety or signal and wait for rescue.
While boats are great to reach wilderness fishing and also stable, they can capsize when caught in the current the wrong way or mishandled. Know how to avoid this – and be ready for what to do when it happens.
Cruising down the river in a canoe or raft is a great way to soak up more scenery and try out more fishing spots along the river. However, floating can be dangerous if you are not careful. You should try to avoid floating when the water level is too high or too low. Everyone in the boat should have a life vest. If there are any rapids with big rocks, everyone should have a helmet to strap on when needed.
One of the biggest risks with floating and fly fishing is the boat capsizing. I have been in several canoes and rafts that flipped in the rapids. The biggest risk is that your gear will likely be wet and may be lost down the river. I suggest you pack in dry bags and tie them off to the boat to avoid this issue.
Rapids can be filled with huge boulders, so everyone should be trained to float feet first to push off of rocks. Finally, hypothermia is the number one reason people die in survival tests. Once your clothes are wet, hypothermia can set in at temperatures as low as 60F. Unless it is hot out, you should change out of wet clothes and dry off. If it is cold out, you may want to build a fire on the shore to warm up.
Fly fishing in the territory of predators can be done safely, if you arm yourself with knowledge and take appropriate measure to avoid enounters.
Normally predators are not a huge concern in the wild, but fishing in the wilderness changes things. You will likely be fishing in the same water that predators visit daily to hunt and drink. You will likely be handling fish and bait which can draw in predators. You also have food in your pack that could attract attention.
If you are fishing in an area with wolves, bears, or big cats, you should be aware of your surroundings. Watch for tracks, scat, or movement that could indicate predators are in the area. Try to make noise when walking through the woods so you do not startle any animals. If you notice predators in the area, you are best to move to a different location. When you set up camp for the night, hang your food in a bear bag at least 10 feet off of the ground. Bear spray or a high caliber firearm are good ideas too.
Inclement weather often arrives rapidly, which quickly changes the dynamics of your trip. Being organized and ready for it will improve your trip and save the day.
Weather is one of the biggest concerns you face when fly fishing in the wilderness. If a storm rolls in, lightning can be a huge issue. Out on the water, you are the highest point for lightning to strike. You are better off to pull to the shore and hang out under your boat until the storm passes. We already discussed how being wet can cause hypothermia and can ruin your gear. Use dry bags and have some good rain gear handy. High temperatures can cause severe sunburn and dehydration, so drink lots of water and take breaks in the shade.
Finally, flash floods kill anglers every year. Many of the rivers and streams we fish in the wilderness are in flash flood zones. These nasty storms happen when it rains heavily upstream from your location. Despite clear skies above you, the water level rises so fast that often you cannot get to shore. Keep an emergency radio with you and watch for any signs of rain upstream. If the water starts rising, get to the shore quickly and move to high ground.
Getting lost is easier than you think – know how to find your way back, signaling skills, and survival skills just in case.
Whether you are hiking through the woods or floating down the river, getting lost in the wilderness can test your survival skills. With fast moving water, taking a wrong turn at a fork in the river can send you way off course. If you are hiking and decide to leave the trail, it is easy to get turned around. The good news is that there is typically a large body of water nearby.
While your phone or GPS unit might get you where you are going, you should always have a map and compass with you. On fly fishing trips, I like to laminate the map to be sure it is not ruined if it gets wet. These survival tools can get you back on the right path or can get you to safety if needed. Wilderness survival is much easier when you have the right gear.
There are many documented cases of survival mindset making the difference between survival and otherwise – are you ready?
Staying safe when fly fishing in the wilderness requires a completely different mindset than parking by the river. From the moment you start packing, you should think of all the different challenges you might face on your trip. As you start hiking or floating, you should be aware of your surroundings.
Instead of just taking pictures of the scenery, you need to watch where you place your feet to avoid a twisted ankle or snake bite. Instead of ignoring that angry looking cloud in the sky, you need to consider if flash flooding could be an issue. Instead of listening to music, you must be listening for predators in the area. You should carefully ration food, water, and other supplies to be sure you have enough to make it home.
In addition to having a survival mindset from the start, you also must watch your mindset when things go wrong. If you are injured, you end up lost, or your boat flips, you must stay calm. Panicking is the worst things you can do in these scenarios. Stop what you are doing, evaluate the situation, assess your resources, and come up with a plan. The plan may just require bandaging a cut and continuing your trip, but it may mean ending your trip and getting to safety. Just remember that you may not have any help coming to find you.
Carefully selected, packed, and maintained clothing is essential for survival – are you prepared for the worst?
The fly-fishing apparel you select for your wilderness trip should be more strategic than a normal fishing trip. You should be prepared for any scenario and any weather conditions. At least one change of clothes should be packed in a dry bag in case your gear gets wet. For cold weather, you should be packing loose fitting layers. This will allow you to layer up when you are cold and strip layers when you are warm.
The key to a good wilderness fishing trip is staying dry. This can be easier said than done. Be sure you have a good rain suit in case the weather changes quickly. Waterproof gloves are a good idea for fly fishing as you will be handling a cold, wet line most of the time. Be sure you have a good set of waders and a patch kit in case you get a hole.
You should also be realistic about the damage the sun and wind can do. Sunburns and dehydration are serious concerns even in the winter. Try to wear clothing that covers your skin or pack some high SPF sunblock. Bring sunblock for your lips and a hat to protect your head and face. I like to bring quick dry clothing that I can dry out in the evening and wear again the next day.
Know what to take – and take what you know will make the difference in a survival situation. Be the support pillar for your group, not the weak link.
Gear & Packing
Packing backcountry fly fishing gear presents a unique dilemma. You want to be prepared and have the gear needed to be safe, but you also want to keep your pack light. Fly fisherman already have lots of gear to carry on a normal fishing trip. When you factor in survival gear, you must be careful that you have a good balance.
Especially when you are planning and fishing the trip of a lifetime – don’t let poor gear or lack of a backup prevent you from fishing the entire trip.
The backcountry fishing gear you bring will largely be based on your personal preferences. However, it is suggested that you bring a backup for everything. That means a backup rod, a backup reel, plenty of line, lots of flies, and a backup net. You will likely be fishing several miles from your vehicle, so you need to have your backups with you. There are few things more frustrating than ending your fishing trip because you broke your rod and have no backup.
Be sure that you pack your delicate gear in a way that it is less likely to break. For example, if you have a long hike to the river you will not want your rod and reel to be fully assembled on the hike. It should be broken down, so it is less likely to snag on tree branches. An even better option is to put it in a fly rod case. If you plan to set up a base camp and then branch out from there on day trips, you have more options. You can load up a large pack with gear to take to your base camp. Then you can load up a small day pack to take with you each day while you fish.
Choosing your survival gear comes down to value versus weight and space.
Any time you are heading into the wilderness, there are certain resources that need to be covered. The four pillars of survival are food, water, fire, and shelter. When you set out on your backpacking fly fishing trip, you will likely pack enough food to get your through the planned length of the trip. However, a bad storm or an injury could turn a three-day trip into a ten-day trip.
I suggest packing dry, preserved foods like jerky, oatmeal, and protein bars so your food is lighter and will last longer. In addition, you should have other ways to find food in the wild. You already have fishing gear, but copper wire for trapping small game or a breakdown survival .22 rifle can also be helpful.
On a fly-fishing trip, you should have a water source nearby at all times. I suggest you pack a straw style filter or filter bottle to purify water. You can also bring iodine tablets in case your filter is broken or clogged. You can only survive three days without water, so take it seriously.
You should have several waterproof tools to build a fire on your trip. Fire will help you purify water, cook food, keep warm, dry out clothing, and fend off predators and biting insects. I like to pack a little pocket propane stove for rainy days, but rarely use it. My ferro rod is the most reliable fire starter I have in that it is waterproof, windproof, and requires no fuel. I also like Zippo style lighters as they are windproof and can be refilled with any flammable liquid.
In addition to good fire starters, I like to have waterproof tinder. Fire cubes are waxy, waterproof cubes that will light with a spark and stay lit for several minutes. Firestix require a flame, but they are also waterproof and will stay lit for about 20 minutes. You can also use cotton balls dipped in petroleum jelly or birch bark for waterproof tinder.
Shelter options vary for wilderness fly fishing trips depending on how comfortable you want to be. For example, many people are fine sleeping under the stars with an emergency blanket in case it rains. With just a good knife and some 550 paracord, you can build a killer shelter by lashing natural materials together.
On the other end of the spectrum, you could bring a hiking tent, a hiking mat, a blow up pillow, and a thin sleeping bag. If you brought all of these items, you would be comfortable in just about any conditions. These are items that you may want to leave at base camp and just bring your emergency blanket in your day pack.
Other pieces of gear you should consider are a good knife, a folding saw, a multitool, a flashlight or headlamp, a first aid kit, 550 paracord, a firearm, bear spray, a map and compass, a signal mirror, and an emergency whistle.
Packing for survival is both art and science – be sure to practice before you get out there, which will pay off in spades.
How To Pack
When putting your pack together, there are two priorities. One is balancing the weight, and the other is packing your gear for easy access. For balancing the weight, you want the heaviest items close to the center of your back. Then surround those heavy items with lighter gear and adjust your straps until the pack is comfortable.
As you load up your gear, you should think about how often you will need to use each item. For example, I use my water filter several times a day to stay hydrated. This item would be in an outside pocket or strapped to the outside for easy access. Typically, I only build one or two fires a day. All of my fire starting gear would be in its own bag and would be at the top of the interior chamber. Finally, there are items only used in an emergency like a signal mirror or first aid kit. These items end up at the bottom of the interior chamber.
In addition to considering how often you will use an item you should think about how quickly you might need it. For example, the odds of using bear spray are small. However, if you see a bear you may need to reach the spray in a matter of seconds. These types of items should be easy to access as well.
Finally, break up your smaller items into groups and bag them together. For example, I will typically have a separate bag inside my pack for food, one for fire starting gear, one for signaling for help, etc.
Many organizations offer quality wilderness first aid courses – if your training isn’t recent, sign up for a refresher today!
Wilderness First Aid
First aid is a topic that could easily be covered by several articles. However, we can focus in on just the issues most likely to be faced on a wilderness fly fishing trip.
Leg/Ankle Injuries – Any injuries to the leg or ankle should be immobilized with a splint. Use two or three straight sticks as supports around the injured spot on the leg. Then use cloth strips or cordage to wrap around the splinted limb and tie the supports down tightly.
Dehydration/Heat Stress – These ailments come from ongoing exposure to sun and heat without sufficient water intake. A person can get light-headed, pale, weak, and have heart palpitations. They should sit in the shade sipping lukewarm water. A cold, wet cloth wrapped around the neck will cool down the blood faster.
Hypothermia – Signs are uncontrollable shivering, confusion, lack of coordination, and numbness or severe pain in extremities. Strip any wet clothing and dry off. Get a fire going and drink some warm water or wrap up in a sleeping bag to get warm.
Cuts – If an open wound is bleeding badly, apply pressure with a clean cloth to stop the bleeding. Clean the wound with water and use butterfly bandages or stiches to keep it shut. Disinfect with alcohol and cover with a clean bandage. If there is a risk of bleeding out from an arm or leg wound, you can consider a tourniquet. Wrap cloth or cordage around the limb just a few inches up from the wound. Tie it tight, and then put a stick under the wrap. Twist the stick to tighten the tourniquet until the bleeding stops. Be aware, this could cause the person to lose the limb. Only apply this technique if it is required to save a life.
As you can see, fly fishing is not just fly fishing when you leave the world behind. As soon as you start hiking through the woods or put your boat in the water, you are opening yourself up to all kinds of new risks you had not considered. You should take any trip into the wilderness seriously. Take your time to get the right gear together and get to know that gear well. It will do you no good if you don’t know how to use it. If needed, take it out in the back yard or on a hike and try it out. You never know when it might save your life.
Hopefully the above list has served as an introductory roadmap to the beautiful, fish-rich locations to go fly-fishing in Canada. As you can see, there are many incredible places to choose from, so it is now up to you to choose where you want to go for your next (or first) fly-fishing adventure!