Wading rivers and streams

Do I wade rivers and streams?


Do I know the full impact of my steps?


Recently I was watching some footage from the Discover Tenkara guys and noticed that they were more or less treating the stream they were fishing as a cart path…walking the river using the stream as the path. They were sort of endorsing it as a technique, which I was sort of surprised about.

I understand the fishing upstream approach, but i tend to really limit my entry as much as I can. Not just for stealth but for the sake of the stream bed. Its not like I never wade into a stream, I do. Mostly to retrieve a snagged fly, and most often while I am there I will use the opportunity to take a cast or two. There are other occasions I will wade out to reach structure. Overall I use the bank or the woods to go from one section to the next, not the river.

As an angler I know I will never have zero impact on an ecosystem. There will always be a cost and there are several shades to this grey area.

Do we have any biologists in the group who can chime in on the impact of wading anglers?

From what little I know…wading during a spawn is of course bad… the spawning beds etc… In general, the whole stream is an ecosystem and trampling over it can never be a good thing.

The way I see it. It may be one thing to use the stream as a super highway, if the stream gets low pressure and can recover…or if it is a 100% artificial fishery, it could be argued no foul. But for an ecosystem that may have higher pressure and tends to hold wild fish and is a natural ecosystem, it seems like it might be best to limit interaction with the stream itself.

Forgive me if this sort of thing has been hashed out, but a google search found nothing but people sort of endorsing wading with exception for concerns of stealth.

What are your thoughts?


I try to avoid wading anywhere I can’t CLEARLY see the streambed, even if the water is clear but the current makes it difficult to make out. I don’t like going in above my knees, even with waders. Call me a wuss, but I have had some slips and falls as a kid that shook me up when it comes to fast-moving (cold!) water.

In the smokies, it is highly discouraged to disturb streambeds. In the park (GSMNP) it’s illegal to move rocks, due largely to efforts to protect the native hellbenders which like to hide under rocks. The way I see it, if you’re trampling through a stream, stepping on rocks is just as bad as moving them, as our 100+ pounds on top of a rock could easily shift it enough to smush something hiding underneath.

I also just don’t like stirring up silt and sediment in the stream. I’d rather walk along side if at all possible.


I stay out of the streambed also unless there’s no option like very overgrown banks. I generally walk along the bank probably 80% of the time and fish likely looking spots as I approach them.


I fully echo what has been shared here. Personally, I have always been a wet wader and that makes me think twice about where I wade, simply out of the inconvenience of getting wet. Similar to @Chris_Lynch, I too have had a couple of unpleasant experiences in cold water and now will not wade deeper than my knees too. Admittedly, last year I waded to my waist once, the first time in probably 20 years and nearly had a panic attack in the middle of the stream because of past experiences.

I only wade if I cannot reasonably fish from the bank. While I realize that is completely a subjective decision for each of us, I personally think it a good practice. I probably wade 10-15% of the time. If a stream bank seems too delicate, I avoid those areas, if that gives you any clue about my wading practices.

In no way would I consider myself any kind of scientist; that being said, I am a former science teacher and did work on a minor in stream ecology in college (they got rid of the minor before I could complete it). One of my classes was working with a local non-profit and the state on a river restoration project. The main focus of the grant and our project was to keep cows out of a river with native trout populations. While human impacts via wading are considerably less than dairy cattle, it was amazing to see the impacts we had.

Not to make this too long of a post, but here’s one example from that project. One of the things we did for our class portion (not part of the grant project) was to understand our impacts and then translate that into the impact from the cows. We had nets that would stretch the entire width of the stream and covered the entire vertical water column. Several students would wander around the stream bed, upstream of the nets, nothing crazy but just walking around.

We would then do an analysis of the invertebrates and/or other life and debris caught in the nets. Next we moved further upstream to a similar looking area. Several students would wade in as gently as possible and chose a spot to stand still. They would then remain motionless for a while, until the sediment cleared. A couple more students would enter with the net downstream, after things had cleared and settled. The students upstream would then overturn anything within reach without moving their feet. As I’m sure you can guess, the difference was astounding.

Every living organism has an impact on the ecosystem in which it is acting, whether it’s a human, trout, otter, sparrow, mayfly, or anything else. Personally, I do not advocate using a stream as a highway unless absolutely necessary - even if it’s an artificial fishery. Regardless of whether fish are native or stocked, there are many other things that are native to that ecosystem. Even if we take the pollution out of the equation, this disturbance is why mining is so harmful to ecosystems and it takes decades, if not longer to recover. While moving rocks does cause harmful disturbance to the organisms around and under them, it could be argued that walking does equally or more damage.


In my Western fly fishing days I was always in the river, although I never used chest waders only thigh waders,. Partly because I liked to get off the skyline and stand in the edge of the river/stream. In those days apart from fishing upstream nymph I really enjoyed fishing upstream wet with a 10’ 6" rod and a couple of spider flies ( soft hackles) it was the practice to fish a short line and roll cast. A very productive method. I also used to walk for miles in a days fishing, another reason not to have chest waders, which were not as breathable as they are today.
However now I am Tenkara only, I have no need to wade. I just choose a suitable length rod. Very occasionally I may ‘slip’ into the river but it is rare these days

May I suggest that you contact Paul Gaskell of Discover Tenkara and make your point. He is very approachable and is very conservation orientated. Try - http://www.discovertenkara.co.uk/contact.html
I know he and John Pearson visit the USA and give talks at some of the Tenkara shows you have. If you get the chance they are very interesting.


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I suppose I could contact Paul Gaskell and I will act on your suggestion, which is valid. I really dig their material, it may be an angle they did not consider when making the footage.

In posting this thread, I am attempting to be as neutral as I can about the topic. Frankly, I am pretty new to fly fishing and trout fishing in general. Previously I had not fished streams on a consistent basis since I was 16…so I really am not super versed on a lot of things. I wanted to post the thread to see how other guys approached the topic of wading.

The areas I fish are mostly fished by western flyfisherman. It is not uncommon to see guys march right into a pool. For them, its often a matter of being able to cast. There is a ton of footage online of all kinds of fly fisherman fishing from a wading position. So, its sort of hard to determine whether my concerns are founded or if I am just gonna get labeled as a stream hugger…hahahahha.

Thanks for all replies.

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I think in western FF culture, it is 100% acceptable to wade anywhere you want to fish. Often, it’s viewed as being lazy, missing out on the best fishing, not giving it your all, etc- if you aren’t wading through the stream.

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You wrote “However now I am Tenkara only, I have no need to wade. I just choose a suitable length rod.” I’m curious about this, because there are many, many times when I’m fishing that I need to take a few steps forward or to the side in order to reach a particular piece of water where I want to cast (since I can’t really change the length of my cast like you could in Western). Often times these steps take me into the stream. I fish mainly small streams, and there are still plenty of pools that I can’t cast all the way across even with my longest rod…those instances require me to wade if I want to fish an entire stretch of water (and I’m not even considering the spots where the trees/brush are so tight that I can’t cast from the bank at all).

I certainly prefer to fish from the bank where possible, but I definitely wade when I need to. I do make every effort to leave the stream when moving from pool to pool though.

David will certainly have a more accurate reply for his statement, but if I would guess tenkara reduces the need to wade into a lot of water because the clearance to perform a cast is just different. A longer rod paired with the ability to perform a bow and arrow cast sort of give the angler more options from the bank.

Stealth is a huge component of tenkara…right down to how much line lands on the water. There seems to just be more stress on how a tenkara angler interacts with the target’s environment. Staying on the bank is part of it.

I have more or less the same approach that you do. I have a minimal interaction with the water. I will say that the more prestine the water, the more careful I am. I guess this points out some hypocrisy in my selective wading.

As for reaching the other bank…Lately I will often skip wading to water I cannot reach. Not always, but mostly. I feel like its part of the challenge to identify water to target that I can reach without disturbing the stream.

I will admit…if I should see a fish rising or a fish holding in water that I cannot reach…I sure as hell will take a step or two into a river to get closer.

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Haha! So true. It’s very hard not to do that.

I am the godzilla of a pupa city.


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On a personal level I do find that i don’t have the same requirement to wade. That doesn’t mean to say I don’t but I prefer not too as I can often catch quite close in, especially with the delicacy that Tenkara allows. I learned a long time ago it is not necessary to walk into a river or lake as fish will be ''under your feet’It is amazing how close fish can be. I will often cast over the bank to be able to drop my fly in the edge of the stream or lake. Tenkara is ideal for this.

However there will be many situations, where it is necessary to wade to position yourself to make a cast with your Tenkara rod. I doubt if anyone will dispute that. I would imagine too that you, along with the majority of anglers will wade quietly and carefully, otherwise you will be wasting your time as any fish will have long gone.

I quite understand peoples concerns over damage caused by excessive wading and until @Gressak posted earlier I had never really given it much thought. To me the stealth approach whilst wading is the natural thing to do.

I do think that damage to the stream/river bed should be put into perspective. Here in the UK over the years our rivers get ‘hammered’ by natural causes, namely flooding. A river in spate can cause untold damage to the general infrastructure of a river. Yet Nature seems to have a way of putting the river right again.

I have never been to the USA but I am sure that many of the rivers are equally affected if not more so, by regular flooding and snow melt. In my view careful wading in such situations is going to make no difference to the structure of the streambed, especially after hours previously a powerful flood pushing rocks, trees,etc before it, has gone through.


I’m a wader. With my streams I have no choice.


I sometimes / often fish lakes or ponds because I find having to put on waders a big pitn. And where I live if I want to fish rivers, my preference, I mostly have to wade. I would guess 70% ~ 80% of local streams the trees and brush grow right to the water’s edge. There is just no room to cast if I not standing in the middle of the river. And of the 20% ~ 30% of the areas where the river bank is open, much of it is along areas that are a fish desert, not many fish there because there is little or no stream bed rock structure.

However, this thread appears to be asking more about a concern of ecological damage caused by wading than whether people wade or not. But why should stream bed damage be a bigger concern than other damage caused by fishing, C & R or otherwise?

A few years ago a guy I rarely see post anywhere anymore was concerned about the ethics of C & R. Apparently he interacts a lot with people on one of the western reservations. Where inflicting pain and stress on fish, from fighting for their life, from C & R is considered immoral or unethical. Apparently it is thought to be more ethical to fish less often, and only catch fish once and then eat them, that to repeatedly C & R the same fish. Which is considered torturing the fish. [ that also seemed to be part of the reason Mr. Betts developed the TAG (touch and go) hook) Experience the taking of the fly, but never actually hook and fight the fish.]

Actually I was expecting to see some discussion of this topic in the Mystery of the Labyrinth Hook thread I started from the information in the " Catch and Deny" article I linked to in that thread.

Maybe no one actually read it. It starts out describing a change of attitude after hearing a recording of a fish being caught and trying to escape. The recording had been made by the Royal Academy. (British I assume). That the author later compares to catching birds on a long line, then releasing them after they are reeled in. Which he thought would not be tolerated. And it’s only tolerated with fish because they are unseen and unheard in the water.

The article goes on to discuss how the idea of C & R was considered radical when it was introduced in the 1960s, catching Blue Gill off their nest, the ecological justification for C & R, and other topics.

However, there is no easy answer. Many people oppose hunting, yet often hunting, culls the herd, and the remaining animals are healthier than an over populated herd. And the fees charged for hunting or fishing licenses go toward improving the environment. And more importantly, as long as people have an interest in fishing, they will also have an interest in healthy streams. ( this is a good thing imo, today to many people who don’t actually spend any time in the outdoors push environmental laws to preserve something they have no first hand knowledge of)

The article recounts an interesting story about the Green Back Cutthroat being placed on the endangered species list in RMNP. The fish did not thrive while on the protected list. But after it was moved to only “threated” status and C & R was permitted. The fish recovered much more rapidly, not only were more fishermen on the stream catching them, more bears were seen on the same streams catching them too.

As you could imagine some people support the view to do absolutely no harm, and others were, “oh, please, they’re just fish, and if it hurts them that much, they wouldn’t come back and take the fly again.” I think all that is needed is a proper balance. Stop people from fishing and the interest in protecting the stream drops, permit people to fish, and interest in a healthy stream and fish population increases. The true sportsman will have an interest in finding the correct balance.

I must admit that I find it disgusting when I go to the coast and see people fishing off the shore or off a fishing pier, when they’ve caught a fish they don’t want to eat, and they cut fillets off their sides to use as bait and the poor fish is still alive. Or at least appears to be, still gasping for air. And I sometimes feel bad for a fish that I’m almost certain I have caught the same fish at the same spot on the river, numerous times when periodically fishing the same stretch of river over the summer.

Anyway, if it interest you - here are links to the Catch and Deny document, and another one I found searching for the same topic. One view is - Game fish are to valuable to be caught only once. The other view is - some fish are to valuable to be caught 30 times each month.



Getting back to the original concern about stream bed ecology. I would second the advice to contact Paul Gaskell. Very approachable bloke. He and I exchanged a couple of emails over this past weekend.


ah, here’s an article about this topic uploaded a couple of months ago. The only significant concern mentioned is on trout from wading during the spawning season. There was a question in another thread on this forum wondering why fishing seasons, that presumably exist to protect fish during that time, in states that have them, don’t actually match the spawning season.


After thinking about it, another person who might be able to answer questions about stream bed damage from wading is Underwater Oz, aka Wendell Ozefovich.


Or perhaps Ralph & Lisa Cutter, Whose DVD, Bugs of the Underworld , I purchased a few years ago.



Even if they are more film maker than ecology researchers, my bet is they know someone who does know about the topic.


Tom and David…thanks for responding. Can you elaborate more about your streams? Are they high pressure streams or are you the only anglers who frequent them? What sort of interval do you hit any particular stream.

My area here in ct…is high volume. Rivers get hammered. The banks get worn down to dirt on some of them from over use. Some days I have counted 30 anglers on a half mile stretch.

I have been to some rhododendron lined rivers that are impossible to fish without wading into them…these rivers are often wild brook trout management areas. I have no idea on how fragile these areas are so I do not wade up them.

I did send a note to the discover tenkara folk and included a link to this thread.

Regarding torturing fish. I know I do. My wife is always reminding me of this…hahaha. I know my c and r also has a mortality ratio. Most say it may be 10-20%. I am not quite ready for hook less fishing…yet I find the topic intriguing.

As for wading…I see it to be the same as catch and release. It’s a personal choice and also dependent on circumstance. No clear right or wrong …but In my area…if everyone waded and walked the length of the stream bed, i suspect the rivers would quickly be ruined. For us to be better stewards of the resource it’s good to at least consider the impact we have. As I mentioned in my initial post… I know I have an impact…I just dont know how much.

David I will check these out tomorrow…looks like great material. You are the master at finding this stuff.

Probably the rivers I fish most often are high pressure. Seldom is anyone near enough to talk to me, but about one third of the time, I can see someone on the river, perhaps a few hundred yards away. Or at least that is the case Monday - Friday mornings. When it’s mostly only people like myself, retired, or vacationers. Weekends are much to busy. If I fish I seek out places that are more difficult to get to. Or I skip fishing and just go hiking when the weekend warriors and family have the time to go fishing.

Fishing near home is not that great. Most of my fishing is done within 20 minutes of the family vacation house. About 4 hours from where I live, and about 2,500 feet higher in altitude. It’s usually winterized in late Nov, and no one goes there until late March or April, after it’s unlikely to be more subfreezing temperatures and snow.

From there I’m just as happy to catch a few fish that only cost me a 20 minute drive and $2 in fuel cost, as a fish that cost me two hours of driving and $25 or more in fuel cost. I sometime fish a couple of different nearby lakes. Sometimes just because they are convenient or all that is available after two days of hard rain and the rivers are not possible to fish. From that location usually I fish the same streams, every day I fish. Though I try to not fish the same section of the stream more than twice each week. There are many good streams to be found not to much farther north in the Potomac Highlands. But I’ve lost my enthusiasm for spending the time and money to seek them out.

Curiosity got the better of me. I have already emailed Ozzie, asking him if he has any information about the effects on the stream bed due to wading or if he knows anyone who does. Hopefully he replies.

A few years ago I recall seeing some websites where in Paul Gaskell documented work to restore river habitat. it involved chaining downed trees so they wouldn’t be washed away by flooding and would remain in place, so that the stream bed would be scoured of silt buildup, making the stream bed gravel clean and available for fish spawning. I can’t recall where I found it. It may have been a link on his Facebook page, which has a lot of links to his work. Or maybe on the Eat-Sleep-Fish blog or somewhere else.

I haven’t yet found it again. But I did find an E-S-F article written by Paul, that while off topic here. Is interesting. It was posted last May.


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Hi, nice topic and one I’ve got some hopefully interesting info on (from both ecological and tenkara standpoints).

First of all, in ecological terms (I am a freshwater ecologist with a career in post doctoral research), there are some fascinating things happening…

Don’t forget that the river is a whole corridor not just the ‘wet bit’ The studies that specifically measure impact of footfall on biodiversity around rivers seem (the last time I looked) to concentrate on riverbank footpaths. These find a slight decrease in plant and invertebrate diversity where anglers wear down or otherwise maintain footpaths. It is a localised effect, but shows that just ‘not wading in the river’ isn’t a magic bullet that prevents any impacts (especially when most aquatic insects rely on bankside plants to complete their lifecycles).

It seems that habitually using exactly the same route when walking is responsible for the (admittedly fairly minor) impact.

Contrast that with the more random paths taken when wading… I would expect that disturbance (still minor compared to a 3 minute kick - sample), would be much more likely to fall into the ‘intermediate’ disturbance range. In ecology, a system that is never disturbed (by things like fire or typhoons or grazing or whatever) tends towards a less diverse (climax) community dominated by fewer species.

By the same token, systems that are frequently or continually disturbed to a severe intensity (e.g overgrazing by over stocking with livestock) also suffer reduced species diversity.

The systems with some disturbance in some places, some of the time are most diverse. I think wading is closer to this than to overgrazing.

Finally, with tenkara, there is a different focus (particularly when wet wading) which tends to look (wherever possible) for rock-hopping opportunities and also taking positions that allow you to cover multiple trout lies before moving.

When we talk about 'rate of coverage ’ in Tenkara in Focus, we mean the overall rate at which you progress in, over and around streams to present flies - not hammering one section of a stream like a robot shuffling along mowing a lawn :slight_smile:

Great topic and interesting stuff for sure,

Paul (Tenkara in Focus/Discover Tenkara)