Can your Waders Kill You?

Can your Waders Kill You?

And, are nail knots good for saltwater?

  • By: Paul Guernsey
  • and Buzz Bryson
This past June a tragedy occurred on New York's Beaverkill River when a fly fisherman drowned in the famous--and very deep--Junction Pool. News reports said the fact that the man was wearing unbelted chest waders played a large role in his death. In fact, one of them quoted a local official as saying that when waders fill with water, "it's like wearing an anchor."

However, I clearly remember reading that the late Lee Wulff once jumped off a bridge wearing waders in order to disprove the "anchor" theory. And I've also heard that wearing a wading belt can be dangerous because it can trap air in your waders, and if you fall in, those air-filled waders will act like a balloon to float your legs and submerge your head. What's the truth? Will water-filled waders drag me under, or not? And is a wading belt more likely to save my life, or kill me?

Good questions, since the misperceptions behind them have had an astonishing longevity. First, water-filled waders won't drag you to the bottom, much less "like an anchor." The water inside your waders has the same density as the water outside; it doesn't magically get heavier and pull you under. From the standpoint of buoyancy, it's neutral, not negative.

But, as I can attest from personal experience, there is certainly an "anchor sensation," a feeling of sinking in swamped waders. The combined weight, bulk and water resistance of filled waders, boots, vest and clothing drastically decreases your mobility. The simple arm and leg movements that would normally help you keep your head above the surface (treading water, for instance) become less effective and more tiring. Throw in some water turbulence, waves washing over your head, exhaustion and a little panic, and you can feel as though you're going down, especially if you're of a body type that doesn't float very well to begin with. But your waders aren't dragging you under.

A river with severe hydraulics--i.e. whitewater, is a different story, however. Water plunging over boulders or ledges actually has a downward component to its velocity. Were you to fall in and be drawn over, say, even a low dam or weir, the current at the bottom of the drop could easily force you under water and hold you there long enough to drown. And if the water is highly aerated with bubbles, it's less dense than ordinary water, less "solid" to push against with your arms and legs. Swimming motions are less effective in helping you escape. But this, of course, is being pushed under, not pulled by the weight of your waders.

Second, under any conceivably realistic wading circumstances, air doesn't get trapped in your waders if you fall in. As you step into a river, water pressure collapses the waders against your legs, squeezing out the air. The deeper you wade, the less air is contained inside. I suppose if you inflated your waders, cinched a belt tightly around your waist, and deliberately took a header off a bridge, you might trap some air inside. But even then, I strongly doubt it would be enough to actually invert you. And if it did, most people would probably think you got what you deserved.

There's no question in my mind that a wading belt increases safety. If you fall in, a belt slows water entry into your waders, which can give you time to regain your footing before your waders fill up, turning a potentially dangerous situation into a merely uncomfortable one. A belt also helps corral excess wader fabric, which reduces the amount of water that can enter your waders and streamlines your profile--both of which aid mobility if you find yourself in the drink. --Ted Leeson

Is the nail knot strong enough for saltwater rigging, or should I use something else? If so, what?

Yes, a nail knot is fine for saltwater line-to-leader connections--but with two caveats. If you're going to use a heavy leader (say 15-pound test or more), I'd tie the nail knot with seven turns, and make sure they're snugged down uniformly and tightly. Second, if you're using a monofilament-core line ("monocore" or "slime line"), the nail knot, however well-tied, can slip off that slick core, peeling the coating with it. For those lines, I'd go with something else, such as the Albright knot. --B.B.

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