Five Ways to Fall in a River

While I’m not nearly the fisherman that the other BlogFlyFish writers are, I consider myself to be somewhat of an expert on the subject of falling in a river, having done extensive personal research.

My fly fishing buddy, Doover1, has been an eye witness to much of my research.  Invariably, I always fall when he happens to be watching.  We’ve known each other a long time and D1 is a little on the melancholy side.  Were it not for my little unscheduled swims, I don’t think I would ever have heard him laugh out loud.

A fall soaked his shirt and doused his stogie, but this fly fisherman netted this East Branch brookie.

I need to say, for the record, that I didn’t fall a single time during 2020.  OK, I had my little stumbles and close calls.

Once I stayed upright after doing a Camel Spin followed by a Triple Axel that would have won a medal in the Olympics.  But this past year, I didn’t have a single one of those falls where, after taking the plunge and regaining my footing, I just had to stand there in my waders and wait while the cold water seeped down my back, past my wading belt, into my swing easies, and down to my socks.  You know the feeling.

Of course, by bragging about my sure-footedness in 2020, I transgressed the only verse in the Bible that was specifically written for fly fishermen, “Pride goeth before the fall.” (Proverbs 16:18). Now that we know what’s about to befall me the next time I go fishing, if anyone wants to come and watch, tickets are available.

I suppose there are more than five ways to fall while you are wade fishing in a river.  But there seem to be five recurring patterns for me when I get doused.  Here they are:


The Titanic 

The Titanic could have used a wading stick

The Titanic is the most frustrating of all the falls.  There’s really no cause for it.  It usually happens to me (and maybe I’m the only one it happens to) when I’m standing in water that’s mid-thigh deep.

I’ll be casting or looking around, compensating for the river’s current by leaning my body slightly into it. Inexplicably, it’s like the river current hesitates for an instant, and I begin to list.  One second I’m standing upright and the next second all the trout in the vicinity are yelling “Timber!”

As verticality begins to become a lost hope, my legs try to come to the rescue and they start moving frantically to try to get back underneath me, but all they do is slip on the bottom.  When they do gain traction, they just push me forward into the water, as if the captain of the Titanic gunned her engines just before she capsized.

The insidious thing about the Titanic fall is once you start listing, it all happens in slow motion.  You realize you are falling, you realize there is nothing on which to grab, you realize that you can’t stop yourself, and you realize that once you fall in that it’s too deep to push yourself off the bottom with your arms to enable you to regain your footing.

You just have to body surf downstream until you can get your feet under you. Copious amounts of river water come to reside in your waders. The Titanic may be the worst of all the falls.


The Benedict Arnold 

Benedict Arnold: the traitor

This fall happens when your wading stick, which is supposed to help keep you upright, turns into a traitor and causes you to fall.

Usually for me, the Benedict Arnold doesn’t happen in the river, but beside the river as I am walking to the next pool. My wading stick, attached to my wading belt, drags along beside me because I am too lazy to fold it up while I am out of the water.  As I pick my leg up to step over a log, the wading stick gets caught on the log which then catches my foot.  And there you have the perfect Benedict Arnold fall.

Once I was walking alongside the Chattooga River in Georgia when I suddenly came upon a snake on the path.  I impulsively tried to jump over it when my wading stick got caught in between my legs.  Before I knew it, I was eye level with the snake.  Strangely, I heard the voice of a young girl screaming.  Then I realized it was me.  It probably gave the snake a heart attack, and it didn’t do a whole lot for my heart either.

Doover1 has seen me trip over my wading stick so many times that he’s started calling it my “tripping stick.”  It kinda fits.


The Gibraltar 

Gibraltar: the slope of all slopes

The Gibraltar fall is one that usually occurs when you can’t see the river bottom.  You step on a rock and your foot starts slipping down the slope of the rock.  You say to yourself, “No big deal.  This rock isn’t that big.  My foot will come to rest on another rock soon.”

Soon is not soon enough.  As your legs begin to spread wider and wider, you begin to say to yourself, “This is not good.  If this goes much further, something has got to give.”  Usually, it is your balance that gives and soon you give yourself a walk to the car for some dry clothes.


The Whiskey

Whiskey has sunk many a man

I believe it is Dominick Swentosky, author of the Troutbitten blog, who calls a trout over 20 inches a Whiskey.  The Whiskey fall is when you have hooked a large trout and it requires extraordinary measures to be caught.

When a large trout runs down river, a fishermen usually runs after it.  Let’s just say that the Whiskey fall occurs because trout are better at running down river than fishermen.

There is little we won’t do to land a large trout.  Deep pools, treacherous pocket water, ice shelves, domestic terrorists – it doesn’t matter.  We are going to do whatever it takes to land that fish.  That usually involves a Whiskey fall.

If we do land the fish, we don’t care about the water in the waders. If we don’t land it, two things magically happen.  Our wader-wetting effort becomes a Homeric saga, and the trout becomes twice as big as it really was.


The 36th Street Subway Station Stairs

36th Street Subway Station

Brooklyn’s 36th Street Subway Station is like most of the others in metro NYC except one of the stairs is a fraction of an inch higher than all the other stairs. See the 2 minute video here.

That slightly raised stair step causes hundreds of people to trip each day.  I think you know where I am going with this.  The 36th Street Subway Station Stair fall happens when the river bottom is fairly uniform but one rock is just a little higher than it should be.

As you are making your way up or down the river, you think you have picked your foot up high enough, but lo, it wasn’t quite high enough for that one rock.  That’s all it takes.  You can’t stay upright when one foot is pushing your body forward and the other foot is stuck on a rock.  This fall works just as well, or maybe even better, if you are walking backwards in the river.

Well, there you have my five favorite falls.  Which fall has led to your Water, Lou? Maybe you have a favorite fall that you could share in the comment section below.


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20 thoughts on “Five Ways to Fall in a River

  1. Bill, it amazes me to hear your stories as it seems to play into my day before fishing trips. Yesterday up at the Farmington I to landed backwards on my arss looking down stemream after trying to make one small step to shore to retie a fly. I did manage to keep it out of my waders but both arms to my elbows we soaked. Lucky it was our last spot at about 4 pm. The ride home was mushy to say the least. Best is we both got skunked!! It was however a nice day with some gusts the made our euro quite interesting. Still enjoyed the day on the river with a friend fish or no fish. Falling in the river just adds to your depth to the stories we tell our kids when we get home. Keep up the great work and fall in like the nestie plunge!!

    Stev k

    1. Steve, Sorry to hear that you got skunked yesterday. I feel your pain. Winter fishing n New England is for those with pioneer blood in their veins. You don’t know if you’ll catch anything, but you’ve got to give it a try. Sorry about your spill too, though if it didn’t get in your waders, I’d say you came out in great shape. I’d almost forgot about the Nestea Plunge. What a great name for a river fall!

  2. Awesome description and characterization of your many falls. I’ve experienced a couple of those and many others. Being relatively new to fly fishing and wade fishing, most of mine have occurred with a backpack electroshocker strapped to my back with a wand in one hand and a dip net in the other. The “hole in the salt marsh fall” is one which although warned about needed to try for myself last year.

    In all seriousness, let’s all remember, all rivers are beautiful but dangerous (large ones especially so) and so is the surf. Keep those wading belts tight and it’s nice to have a friend nearby. I almost lost a friend on the Russian River in Healdsburg California one year while steelhead fishing. He feel off the bank in hip boots and was sucked into a “strainer” I think they’re called. Fortunately he was able to scramble up onto it and not get pulled under. And let’s not forget Jerry Garcia’s dad who was taken by the Eel River in northern California when Jerry was just a boy.

    Here’s to a year of less falls and more fishing.

    1. I need to learn that electroshocking method. There’s got to be a better name for it – electro-nymphing, fly-fission, surge-indicator?

    2. It’s not a good feeling when you have weight on your back and your hands full and you start to go over! I recall you being pretty good on your feet Bob. Everyone should have a day electroshocking with leaky waders- that’ll give ’em something they will remember 😉

  3. I’ve only been fly fishing for 3.7 years and have successfully executed all of these, save running downstream to land a 20+ inch trout; I look forward to being able to use that excuse for filling my waders with ice water!!?

  4. PSA: wear a wading jacket as an outer layer in winter. If you go down, it might mean the difference between the ability to keep fishing and having to end your trip to get out of wet clothes. I recently executed a “whiskey” as described here but the wading jacket kept water out of my waders and kept me dry. Getting soaked this time of year is no joke….

  5. I have enough tenuous body parts that a fall could spell disaster. So I have to be real careful how I wade so I don’t have to contribute to an orthopedic surgeons next payment on his yacht. It’s easy to fall even in very shallow water or even on the bank tripping over dry rocks. The last time I almost fell was in the river with some rocks right behind me, lost my balance and was able to just slowly sit down on a rock.
    I would call this The Slow Motion Fall.

  6. You had me laughing Bill. A lot of falls on the river come after a hairy and difficult crossing done successfully- but then you fall within arm’s reach of the bank on the penultimate step! I am usually pretty surefooted but I had an embarrassing one on the Westfield when my wife had a nice trout on the line that bolted between my legs. I was loathe to foul that one up and bailed so the line wouldn’t get tangled on my legs- or something like that…

    1. Jamie, I totally forgot about that one, where you have crossed the gnarliest part of the river and are very close to the opposite bank and you figure, “I can make it the rest of the way with no problem.” That one has gotten me wet several times. There’s got to be a good name for it. Unless you suggest something better, how about “The Jamie?”

  7. Oh that stings! However, it may be appropriate. I know one year I pulled that move twice, the thing about being that close is you can try to sell out and launch for dry ground. No tens on those landings by any means but it kept me a lot drier! Maybe the “bank tank” or “Leon Lett” will stick?

    1. Oops, didn’t mean for it to sting. Just wanting to give credit where credit was due. I love both “Bank Tank” and “Leon Lett”. I’d vote Leon Lett – very appropriate, thought he was there and started celebrating too early.

      I was fishing on the Poudre River in Colorado a few years ago when I tried to cross a section of the river that I realized too late was too deep and too fast. But I was already more than half way across when I realized it was not going to end well so I thought I had a better chance of making it to the opposite side than going back from where I started. Downstream looked like a stage five whitewater kayak course and my feet were starting to slip from the force of the current. I managed to stay on my feet until I was about 8 feet from the opposite bank when my feet gave way. I dug my wading stick into the river bottom and leaned forward as far as I could. Fortunately the wading stick held and both of my feet found something that they could get traction from . Somehow, crazily, in the midst of this, my fly rod got hung in my fishing net, but it was everything I could do to just stay on my feet and I just had to let the fly rod and the net be tangled until I could get to safety. I managed a step or two more towards the bank and then lunged for it, getting a little water in my waders, but also a firm grip on a dry rock. I was never so glad to have made it across a river. Of course, I worried the rest of the day about how I was going to get back across it to where my car was parked. And that’s a story for another day. Time for bed.

  8. As always, another fantastic article, Bill. As for me, I think you were there for my favorite fall that happened last summer.

    It was most aptly a mixture of the Titanic and Gibraltar. Making my way towards shore my right foot came to rest on a rock that should have been easily managed. However, my foot began slowly sliding down the surface of the rock causing me to pivot until I slowly sat sat down on the high point of the rock itself. Sitting on the rock only a few inches below the surface I figured I was fine. But then Titanic took over as my butt began to slide down the rock as well, dipping my head backwards just enough for the river to crest the waterline of my waders. And down I slid until my feet finally found a footing as the cool water eased its way down my back and below my belt.

    The slow-motion fall at its best.

    Of course there was also the time my dad, on my his first river outing, slid into the river as well and was sure to wash away downstream if you hadn’t been there to grab him! It wasn’t my fall, but that one (and your subsequent rescue) make the top of my list as well!

    1. And, Chris, I apologize again for getting a good laugh out of your slow motion fall. I shouldn’t have done it, but a hearty laugh like that was so good for my soul.

      Your dad probably wouldn’t have fallen in if he hadn’t been following my instructions about where to fish from. I failed to mention that little deep spot along the way.

  9. Awesome as always. I once had the pleasure of watching a buddy fall into the water for approximately 22 seconds as he kept himself from falling by catching himself over and over again with his arm, then his rod, then a knee, next his net, then a low hanging branch, and then one last ditch effort on his elbow only to finally succumb to gravity and go all in. He ended up covering about 30 feet of water in the process and it is still one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen. I’m literally chuckling about it right now as I write this.
    My favorite fall is what I call the blind broom stick. Usually happens when I’m moving down stream and try and walk between some rocks. It’s at this point I realize that the river has swept a long, broom handle size stick up against the rocks perpendicular to the two rocks I’m walking through. The stick is usually suspended about shin height so your feet go under it, but it is just long enough that it cant be dislodged from the rocks holding it on both ends. This causes you to rack your shin on the stick, pitch over the stick and aided by the current at your back, go head first into the abyss. Fun stuff for your fishing partners, Don’t ask me how I know.

  10. You hate to laugh at other people’s expense, but as long as people don’t hurt themselves or endanger themselves when they fall in, it really is funny to watch a friend take a spill. And laughter is good medicine. As often as I fall, I’m like a pharmacist for my friends. Thanks for sharing the two stories, Mark. I laughed at both of them.

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