Lose the Ego. Grab a Staff

Lose the Ego. Grab a Staff

  • By: Jim Bean
Wading Staff

There are plenty of fly fishers who plunge boldly into swift and treacherous rivers without the aid of a wading staff. Indeed, there is a widespread sentiment that only a weenie or an overly cautious old fart uses one. I may fit both categories. It’s true that I have less to lose at this age, but I am also more loath than ever to lose it.

When I was in my 20s and 30s, I disdained the use of any staff, but I eventually realized that this macho attitude was working against me. Getting wet wasn’t a big deal (even when I had to dry out half a dozen fly boxes), but a dislocated kneecap, a broken fly rod and two dunked cameras influenced my thinking. I wasn’t inordinately clumsy, I just fished a lot and I was bold. You may be a youthful and nimble-footed wader who strikes out across the Madison River without giving it a second thought, but sooner or later you’re going to wish you had that third leg.

I can still wade all day, but I have noticed that my balance is not always perfecto. Furthermore, those new environmentally sensitive rubber soles, even with cleats, are more slippery than felt. That means I now carry at least a jointed staff, and you should, too.

One of my younger fishing buddies came, albeit belatedly, to the same conclusion. He fashioned a homemade staff out of a telescoping automobile radio aerial (who knows why he thought that was a good idea), and nearly drowned in Tennessee’s South Holston River when the contraption collapsed in rapidly rising water. He washed a mile downstream and had a body temperature of 91 when the emergency team arrived.

Having some sort of wading staff handy is not simply a matter of avoiding an embarrassing fall (or, worse, an untimely demise), it also helps me wade more confidently and cast to fish I couldn’t otherwise reach. Regardless of our age or physical condition, there will always be spots we can’t get to on foot, but a staff extends our range.

The type of wading staff you choose depends upon where you plan to use it. A stout one-piece staff is a superior tool for wading deep or in swift currents. On occasion I have cut a limb to help me across some torrent, but there are better commercial choices, including one-piece wood, graphite, fiberglass and aluminum staffs. You can also easily convert an aluminum ski pole into a sturdy, lightweight staff. Thirty years ago, I paid $20 for a stout pair of split Calcutta cane ski poles made by the Montague Rod Company for the Tenth Mountain Division’s alpine ski units during World War II. I stripped off the white paint, then wrapped and varnished each one like an old fly rod. They’ve served me well, and get a lot of compliments.

One-piece staffs, however, are cumbersome to transport, and I also think they are unnecessary for less demanding wading conditions. There are perhaps two dozen jointed staffs available from various manufacturers at prices ranging from about $40 to $150, and they come with convenient belt pouches. The popular jointed Folstaff is a sturdy example, and the only drawback is that the sections can be difficult to separate. You can usually solve this problem by letting the staff warm in the sun, then stick the male end below the stuck joint into the cold water to let the differing temperatures work their magic.

Some jointed staffs employ threaded rings or levers to secure the telescoping sections while others have male/female ferrules connected by a cord with the sections secured by a pop-out pin or similar feature. Reviews of many of these are available online and are worth checking. You don’t want a staff that might separate or collapse suddenly. Also, some staffs fill with so much water they’re a chore to use. Belt-pouch staffs should have a cord that can be tied in an easily loosened slipknot, or a quick release so that you can ditch the staff in an emergency.

My biggest complaint about jointed staffs is that many quiver disconcertingly in heavy current. Still, I believe most jointed staffs are reliable and safe, but I prefer to use them in shallower and less swift rivers where they improve balance and provide some insurance in an emergency. For more extreme conditions, I put my faith in rugged one-piece staffs.

A common mistake is to choose a staff that’s too short. A staff that reaches your armpit, or even shoulder, will let you reach out and brace yourself more firmly when you’re in a tough spot. Finally, if your staff has a tungsten carbide or aluminum tip, don’t let that metal tip drag or rattle on the bottom; that frightens fish. You can retrofit a rubber tip, although aluminum “sticks” best on rocks.

There’s no doubt that this weenie will go tail-over-teacup again some day, but that ever-ready staff trims the odds.

Jim Dean is the former editor of North Carolina Wildlife Magazine, and writes often about fly-fishing.