Fishing: A river bed is no place to let your brain go to sleep

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The Independent Online
AS A little fisherman in Italy, I would watch my grandmother light a candle when a bad storm hit, and pray. Nature, she used to say, is the only thing to be afraid of. This instilled in me an early and healthy respect of being outdoors and an obsession with the power of water.

You may remember some months ago that I confessed to being perhaps the only hydrophobic fishing correspondent in the land, but this is handy. It stops me from doing some of the foolish things I witness on the river bank, by the sea, and on boats in reservoirs. Fishing is a dangerous sport. Not only do you have overhead cables to contend with and the prospect of being hit by lightning (carbon fibre, which most rods are now made of, is a great conductor) but there is also the native danger of being in or near water.

When wading, some people treat the river bed as if it were made by man - neat and level underfoot. But, like the land out of water, a river bed can dip and rise dramatically. I know I'm a wuss but I never wade past my knees. Maybe I'll be able to do a pair of chest waders justice in 10 years or so but at the moment if I go even an inch past that I feel out of control.

Wading should be done slowly, shuffling along as you feel your way with a wading staff (an essential piece of kit). Even Ally's Shrimp inventor, Ally Gowans, has been caught out: "I stepped over a gas pipe in Loch Ness," he says, "and straight into deep water."

On the bends of some salmon rivers there is gravel which is in a state of suspension. It has been deposited there during the winter floods and, if you walk on it, it will give way leaving you well out of your depth. Then the natural reaction is to turn and try to get back. But do so and you find yourself out of your depth and facing the current. Even in water up to your knees, the current, when faced, can be unbelievably powerful and walking against it is difficult. But if you're up to your thighs or waist, walking against the current is nigh on impossible. In these situations you keep your back to the current and shuffle back slowly without lifting your feet (which could throw you off balance). The golden rule, but easier said than done, is not to panic, even if you fall in.

When you fish a new bit of water, always listen to your ghillie's advice. "Most ghillies live to a ripe old age," says Scottish ghillie Allan Donaldson, "because they know the water and respect it. Too many people don't listen to local advice thinking they'll be all right."

On the Carron with Allan recently he showed me a spot that was two feet deep one minute and plunged to 20 the next. "It's also a good idea to find out if there's a dam further up a river you're not familiar with," says Darmoor ghillie Brian Easterbrook. "On the Dee some time ago they let the water out while I was wading and it rose nine inches in just minutes."

But you don't need to be even in the water for trouble to happen. One night, Brian and his friend were fishing for sea trout from a gravel beach on the very fast flowing Tavy when he heard what he thought was a train. "I kept saying `listen to that train' and my friend said `no trains pass round here' so I shone my torch up river to see a six-foot wall of water roaring towards us." There had been a cloudburst further up the hill. And Ally once slipped off wet grass on a high bank and "fell head first towards the river. I came to sometime later lying on my back with my head in the water. A near miss!"

So what do you do if you fall in? Well there are two great urban myths about waders: that if you fall in wearing them they will fill with water and drag you down. "As if the water in your waders is somehow heavier than the water around it," says David Pilkington, a baliff of the Arundell Arms. And that they will fill with air and drag you down river with your legs sticking up and your head pushed under water. As you wade, the air gets pushed out of your waders. If you fall into deep water you must not panic and you must try not to swim. Instead you flip over on to your back and try to turn yourself round so that your feet are facing downstream - that way if there's a rock your feet hit it and not your head - and float. Forget about your rod and your fly (one man died recently by crossing the river to get his 45p fly that had caught on a tree on the other side) and your lunch, and float. Sooner or later, so they tell me, you will reach a low bank that you can paddle sideways to and beach yourself on.

But most of these dangers - and certainly the panic - can be avoided if you wear a flotation device. Either a flotation collar that sits like a giant flat sausage around your neck or one of those special fishing vests that are also life-jackets. Both these automatically inflate when you fall in (or they can be manually inflated by pulling a cord) by virtue of a carbon dioxide canister that can be replaced. All the major fishing shops sell them (prices start at around pounds 100), and it should be every fisherman's first purchase. There is little use for a sage rod in heaven.