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Climbing Terms for the Fisherman

Trailhead Tales by Jim Broshears

or those of us who prefer to fish the rugged and remote streams and rivers for the elusive wild trout, rock climbing is a skill that is required to reach the special places where catching the big one is a “sure thing.” The skills are not usually acquired through formal training or are they in any way conventional rock climbing. These skills are attained through years of trial and error and of bravery and stupidity in equal measure.

I thought about providing photos or diagrams of the techniques but felt that these methods are best left to the imagination. Let’s start with the most basic techniques and work our way up to the most challenging.

The Side Shimmy
The Situation: The boulder you are facing angles steeply down to the creek at its deepest point. You could go up and around the entire ridge but that will take time and energy and you just need to get a few feet around the corner

The Technique: As with most of our techniques you would be wise to find a way to secure your fishing pole to your back or vest but usually don’t bother because it’s only going to be a few feet and is not worth the effort. So, while holding your pole in one hand you reach your free hand to the nearest semblance of a handhold and shimmy sideways with your feet using non-existent ledges until you are fully committed. This is when you realize that there is not another place to grab with the hand holding the pole. The important thing at this point is not to think about how long you can hold on before falling and or that you have moved to far forward to go back.

Your focus at this point should be on how to coordinate all of your body parts as you shimmy, leap and reach yourself to the ledge that gets you the handhold that allows you to pull yourself over to the other side.

This method works about 80 percent of the time. I recommend starting as low as possible to avoid long falls that will make a loud splash and disturb the fish.

The Near Vertical Rock Wall
The Situation: You must either get wet or climb up. When the current and deep water is on your side of the creek this is often not a viable option. You must now decide between climbing back up the hill above the rocks or climb the 10-20 feet up and over the rock.

The Method: This is pure, untrained rock climbing. As usual, you are climbing with one free hand and one holding the pole. After carefully scouting all possible hand and foot holds you will begin to climb. I usually try to keep the total height of these climbs to less and 20 feet. I figure I will usually end up with no more than a broken ankle and have to drag myself back up to my truck on hands and knees. One note of caution, always make sure your head is higher than your feet, especially when you fall.

This method is used about 6-8 times per full day of fishing with a success rate of about 90 percent. That means that statistically speaking, you probably won’t fall every time you fish.

The Ledge Leap
The Situation: This comes up far too often and is one of my least favorite climbing methods. You come to a crevice of steeply sloped rock or scree. It is less than 6 feet across and it appears that there is a ledge you can land on safely on the other side of the crevice. The crevice itself falls steeply down to a pile of rocks or a rapidly flowing stream.

The Method: The most important thing to do as you balance on one foot and size up the leap is to wait until your leg is trembling and you are griped with fear. This is the best possible motivator to force your hand and generate the greatest distance. You might even think about how proud your high school PE teacher would be as this leap will exceed your best standing long jump.

This can be performed from water level to heights from which falls will reach terminal velocity.

The formula for terminal velocity looks like this:

Calculating it while falling may distract you from thinking about how much pain you will be in if you survive the fall.

I have stood perched on the verge of this leap for what seemed like hours until I had lost all feeling in my feet. I doubt that numbness helps the landing. The success rate is surprisingly high but that be directly linked to the consequences of failure.

The “How did I get myself here, oh poo” (Usually chanted to sound like “Lions and Tigers and Bears, oh my)”
The Situation: Contrary to logic, this is usually not an intentional act. It starts out as an innocent crossing of a steep area of rock or shale when you suddenly find yourself in a place where you can no longer move forward and going back looks worse.

The Technique: In order to calm yourself I suggest that you look for the nearest blade of grass to hang onto. Once your have a firm grip on the grass you will begin to enter a Zen like state where all the troubles of the world melt away. Of course the reason they disappear is that at this point in time, they are really not important. Surviving is the only thing that matters. The Zen thing -- I lied! You will be in a state of severe panic and lucky if you don’t poop your pants. You will at this point discover religion and make promises of the better person you will be if you survive. As you contemplate the potential damages of the fall the plan begins to formulate in your mind. It starts with a slow and methodical assessment of every possible perch and hold and ends with a mad scramble using flailing techniques that Wiley Coyote would be proud of. Once again, survival is surprisingly high considering what a ridiculous situation you had gotten yourself into. Once you are done you will swear to never put yourself in that much peril again having completely forgotten how many times you have already made that promise to yourself.

This situation sometimes requires the “Pole Jettison.” I have used this technique twice in my fishing career. It takes an extreme situation to choose letting go of your pole and reel over survival.

General Climbing Concepts
Contrary to popular belief, alcohol does not make you a better climber.

Exercise Can Help: I suggest 1000 pull-ups a day for two weeks prior to your fishing trip. If you are unable to do that they say that visualization can enhance athletic performance so you should at least visualize yourself doing the pull-ups.

Witnessed Falls: These are extremely embarrassing but could result in rescuers reaching you sooner.

Unwitnessed Falls – As far as the rest of the world knows, these falls never happened and it is best to block them from your mind as soon as you can, if you survive. Failure to block them may result in not reaching the best fishing hole you have ever seen.

Footwear: Proper footwear is very important; unfortunately you will never be wearing the right ones. Here are your choices:

  • Waders – Waders are great because you can avoid some of climbs listed above by wading, hence the term “waders.” They not very good on steeps slopes and rocks and have a tendency to hang up at the worst possible moment. I once watched my fishing buddy Steve catch his waders in a crack and do an inverted face plant that was saved largely by using one leg to push off of the rock and ended in a forward somersault with a 1/2 twist that I rated a 4.5. I would have given him a higher score but I was distracted by my mad scamper to figure out if he was alive.
  • Tennis Shoes/Light Hiking Shoes – These are probably the best choice for climbing on the rocks but in rainy, cold weather require spending the day with wet and cold feet. Early in the season this might result in a minor case of frostbite or least webbed feet. In the summer months you can use sandals or water shoes and avoid rock climbing by never leaving the water.
  • Waterproof Hiking Boots and Gaiters – This is my choice for the early season. If all works as planned and can have warm and dry feet all day. It rarely works as planned. The idea is that the boots and gaiters act like waders for quick entry and exits in the water. Falling down defeats that purpose entirely but is hard avoid on moss covered rocks. While rock climbing, the hard soles with help give you that ice skating effect that speeds you quickly across flat slabs of rock making the fishing even more exciting that it already was.

At the end of the day it is not the moments of terror you will remember. As my fishing buddy Bruce writes, “Once the dream like hole has been reached and your fishing perch attained all is forgotten as your first cast hits the water in that place you aimed for. Nirvana ensues as you feel the tug, and in your mind the fear and pain of getting there are erased from your memory -- replaced by a connection that one equals the other”

In other words, all you will remember will be the fishing, which is exactly why when faced with similar choices the next time out, you’ll do it all again.

Jim Broshears was born and raised in Northern California and has enjoyed the great outdoors in the State of Jefferson for over 50 years. Jim worked as a firefighter for 35 years and currently owns and manages Trailhead Adventures, an outdoor outfitter store in Paradise CA. Helping others enjoy the beauty of our amazing area is his passion. Jim co-manages a blog, hikingcampingstuff.com that is dedicated to providing information about hiking and backpacking gear, local adventures and tips on outdoor safety and survival.


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