Safety must be your highest priorty when you go fishing. Unless you take a few basic precautions, fishing is potentially a very dangerous pursuit, and each years several anglers are injured or die in tragic accidents most of which could have been avoided. These basic guidelines will help you to minimise the risks to yourself, to others and to the wildlife of rivers and lakes. Please note that there may be other hazards not listed here, and so always check with the fishery owner or manager and observe the fishery rules.
Every year many strong swimmers lose their lives in rivers. The force and the turbulent nature of the current make it difficult to scramble out, especially where the banks are high. Areas where the river flows over bedrock or through narrow gorges should be approached with great caution and wearing a buoyancy aid and suitable (felted or studded) footwear.
If you should fall in, use your arms to protect your head. Roll onto your back and kick with your legs towards quiet water. Chest or thigh waders will not pull you under (as is often suggested); indeed, they tend to trap air and add to your natural buoyancy. However, they can increase the weight you have to drag up the bank.
Beware of undercut banks. Especially after rain they can fall in on you as you wade beneath them. More often a collapse occurs as you approach the edge of a high bank, when both you and the bank could fall in, perhaps onto another angler. Deep undercuts are especially likely on the outside of bends in the watercourse. Keep well back from the edge when passing these hazards.
If you can't swim then don't wade - even in the shallower stretches of the river. If you must wade then a wading stick can improve your stability. Look out for submerged tree roots or boulders which produce depressions upstream and alongside. (Lamprey redds cut in spring can be hard to spot once the gravel is coated in algae.)
Beware of rapid rises in water level. It may be fine where you are fishing, but raining heavily in the hills. Your path to safety may quickly be cut off.
Never wade in coloured water where you cannot see the bottom. A spate can cause gravel to shift so that what was once a safe area becomes a death trap.
Wade a pool at night only if you have surveyed it by day.
Never assume that last year's 'recce' is still valid: rivers change!
Above: success at night. Sea Trout fishing
has its own special safety considerations.
Sea Trout fishing (in the UK, at least) takes place at night, and the best nights are ususally the pitch dark ones with no moonlight. Moving about at night on the river bank or in the water exposes you to an entirely different set of hazards and so while you would not want to shine a torch on the river where you are fishing, make sure you have a good one with you to enable you to get back to your car safely after you have finished fishing.
Temperatures can drop dramatically once the sun sets so always make sure you have additional layers of warm clothing with you or you may find yourself driven off the river much earlier than you intended.
If you are going fishing alone at night make sure you tell somebody when and where you are going and what time you plan to get back.
Should you discover another angler in difficulty out of his or her depth, first look for something to bridge the gap between you - a piece of driftwood, a landing net handle, even your fishing rod - rather than jump in and risk a double tragedy. (Of course, courageous acts may be justified when there is no alternative, provided you are a strong swimmer and, ideally, have had life-saving training.)
Many natural upland lochs, loughs and lakes have areas where the bank is steep and rocky. When bank fishing, choose footwear that offers a secure grip on rocks. Leather soled shoes are particularly dangerous, as are rubber-soled waders.
When fishing from a boat, wear a buoyancy aid, and cast, retrieve line and net your fish without standing up. The reduction in noise and your reduced visibility will improve your chances of success. (You rarely need to cast far if you keep low!) Wear goggles, spectacles or sunglasses for eye protection, and cast so that your line is well away from your boat partner or boatman, and encourage them to wear head and eye protection too.
On large waters, don't take risks. Take suitable clothing. Make sure if the boat has an engine that there is sufficient fuel onboard and that there are oars and a baler in case of emergency. If the weather threatens to turn squally, return to shore without delay.
Above: a well-dressed angler. How you dress is important
- a hat and glasses are essential for safe fishing.
Carbon fishing rods conduct electricity, so do not cast near overhead power lines. It is also wise to put away your fishing rod whenever there is lightning about. Keep a safe distance from other river users when casting, especially with flyfishing tackle. Let other anglers know if you intend passing behind them. Some anglers are hard of hearing, so having called out make sure you get a reply. Use scissors, not your hands, to cut nylon. If your fly gets snagged and you cannot work it free, break away safely. One way is to wrap the line around a sleeve of your coat to obtain a safe grip.
Protect your eyes with goggles, spectacles or sunglasses. Take extra care in windy conditions. If your fly gets caught up in a tree, turn your back when pulling free: a breaking line can spring back with great force.
Do not discard nylon by the waterside: it can injure and kill birds and other small creatures. Roll up used nylon and cut it into short lengths before taking it home to burn it. In this way, should you accidentally drop it, there is no risk to wildlife. Never leave flies hanging from trees, because birds or bats could seize them with disastrous consequences. Use a pole, rather than climbing the tree, to recover tackle caught in branches overhanging the water.
Don't use lead shot, because swans and other birds can die if they eat it. There are approved substitutes. Even then, never discard used shot by the riverside; always take it home.
Avoid damaging the riverbank, its trees, bushes and marginal weed beds; they are home to numerous small creatures. Aquatic weed harbours insect life essential to the health of the river. These insects in turn form a vital part of the food supply for trout as well as juvenile migratory fish. So if wading among weed beds try to avoid breaking the stems.