Wading is a Texas tradition practiced by thousands of able-bodied coastal anglers each summer. The one-on-one contact makes each fish seem larger than life, and the jolting strike of a big speck or red at the end of a long cast takes the game to a higher level. No question - wading is special.
But the "Texas Two-Step" does come with various risks. Some are blown out of proportion while others are quietly and seriously dangerous.
Last month, I focused on sharks and stingrays, the two marquee show-stoppers on the tide.
The actual threat of the "Grayfin Express" is hugely over-rated, but a sizeable shark at close range is a guaranteed heart-stopper. The shark is chasing your fish, not you, but during the energized seconds of splash and crash you sincerely wish you were in the nearest boat. If not somewhere in the Rocky Mountains.
The slashing barb from the "male flounder" is a more realistic danger, but the wader who shuffles, shuffles, shuffles to warn bottom-lurking stingrays seldom has a problem. Many soggy old salts have waded for years without being barbed.
Here's a look at some of the more-realistic threats to the coastal wader:
SUN - Over-exposure to intense sun is dangerous, and the wader more so than the boater is apt to be caught unprepared. You've got nowhere to hide and you're low to the blast of reflected glare.
At best, too much exposure can bring a painful case of sunburn; at worst, the nearest dermatologist shakes his head and points to a nasty-looking chart. You've got skin cancer.
Melanomas are the killers, but squamous cell carcinomas are potentially dangerous, and basal cell carcinomas are scary.
Well, where were these learned doctors back in the '60s and '70s, when the idea was to get more rays, not less, to case-harden the beach lifestyle? Remember lathering on Johnson's Baby Oil spiked with iodine?
Sun damage has a cumulative effect. Years of abuse working on that "dyno tan" can come back to get you, and a fresh burn during each wade is not a smart idea.
In addition to applying sun screen prior to each session, it's good insurance to wear long sleeves and one of the lightweight "Buff" type face masks.
Under extreme conditions, lightweight fingerless fishing gloves are a helpful accessory; most old salts sport leathery, blotchy hands from years of sun-blasted baking.
While you're at it, a hat with a wide brim provides more protection than the standard-issue ball cap. The floppy hat might look a little goofy but it prevents the neck and ears from getting fried. A strap keeps the bonnet where it belongs under a gusting wind or in a running boat.
Don't screw around with this; the sun is a real danger to coastal anglers.
DEHYDRATION - A good rule to remember when wading is, you never know how long you might be out there, alone and without support systems. And summer heat can drain your reserves after several hours of pushing water.
Make a point to tank up before slipping over the side of the boat or leaving the beach vehicle. I learned this from jogging/running: Hydrate before you feel thirsty. Once you crave water, you've already taxed your system.
Tote a plastic water bottle on your wading belt. The water-bottle rig is fairly common on tropical flats (bonefish, etc.) but you seldom see it in Texas. Take a drink every so often; a few lusty swigs can be a big help if you get stranded or go into extra innings.
OVEREXERTION - This mainly applies to the considerable ranks of graying, balding boomers. Back when we were "agile, mobile, and hostile," hard-charging across several miles of water was no big deal; now that we're increasingly "fragile, docile, and fee-bile," you don't want to overdo it. You might have a stroke or something.
Seriously, be realistic about you physical capabilities. This especially is true during the heat of the day, and the anchored boat is a tiny white dot way over there, or you're in the back of a goo-pie lake where you "sink to a knee" with each step.
Ironically, shallow water can be more taxing than deeper water; the waist-deep wader moving at a leisurely pace can sort of cheat by "leaning" on the water. But, regardless of depth, a forced march can whip you.
To hell with the redfish tailing along the far shoreline of the back lake. I know this sounds scandalous, but retreat. Know when to say when.
The young buck with a 31-inch waist might scoff but remember this: As the years creep by, those "washboard abs" have a distressing tendency to turn into "washtub abs." And Father Time always has the final cast.
CURRENTS - Each summer swimmers are taken down by currents along the Texas coast. And, if you wade long enough, you might become an unwilling swimmer. The open beachfront and major passes are the most dangerous locations. The currents can be strong and the gouged channels are abrupt.
One step - you're shuffling in chest-deep water; the next step - Oops, you're in a "hat floater" channel!
Blundering over a dropoff is most apt to occur when you can't read the bottom, such as early or late in the day or under heavy cloud cover. Flat surf can be deceptive; with no breaking waves to mark the shallow bars, it's hard to define the "guts."
It's a rookie mistake to be fooled by a passing cloud and bobble out over your head thinking the shadow marks the outside bar. Overshoot and keep paddling for open water, and the next bar you reach most likely will be in the lobby of the Riviera Hotel in Havana.
Sandy water with poor visibility is another risky situation; a misstep is really galling since unless you are targeting hardhead catfish you probably shouldn't even be out there.
Panic is the big killer amid running currents or breaking waves. And, for the wader tangled up in a stringer and rod, it's alarmingly easy to get flustered. Also worth note: When the bottom vanishes, six feet of depth might as well be the Mariana Trench if you freak out and start blindly flailing.
You can get into serious trouble within seconds by losing your cool. It's scary business. Try to stay focused and stroke across the flow, angling with it to the nearest shallow water. It won't be far.
If you are wading in rough surf, the whitewater is your ally. It marks the bars and will help push you to the beach.
If things really get sketchy, ditch the rod. What's several hundred dollars worth of tackle when you need the free movement of both arms to save your bloody, freaking life? There is, admittedly, something unacceptable about tossing a perfectly good Shimano Chronarch and a Titanium Green Rod but at least think about it.
Respect tidal flow, especially when it's really pumping about midway through the stanza and you are waist- to chest-deep in a constricted area that accelerates the power. San Luis Pass is an excellent example of a danger zone. Rare is the summer when the gaping maw of the pass doesn't put at least one unwary wader in serious trouble.
Sustained wind, alone, can generate strong currents and powerful waves along open beaches. Side-shore winds are most dangerous because they rake up (south/southwest) or down (east) the coast, creating river-like currents running parallel to the beach. A wind-generated rip can set up with alarming force even when not much surf is showing.
Currents are generated by winds, waves, and tides. Regardless of source, they demand caution. They are silent and patient and they can take you down. My strong advice is to don a proper flotation vest whenever you wade near a big pass or major channel, or on the outside surf bar. They don't call it a "life jacket" for nothing.
CUTS - The coastal wader leaving a blood trail on a green tide typically catches a hook or stumbles over a bottom obstruction (I am omitting getting stabbed by a stingray barb, discussed last month).
Of course, hooks are not unique to wading; in fact, the boater amid tight quarters runs the terrible risk of getting smacked by a side-arm swing from a careless companion. But the wader is most likely to get slashed or barbed when trying to land or unhook a fish. This is because everything is slippery and you have no sure-fire way of subduing the fish.
Hand-grabbing is most dangerous with plugs trailing two or three sets of trebles. And small fish can be more risky than large ones. This is because a brag-class speck or red usually is "played out" by the time it is within reach. It also offers a firm grip across the shoulder.
Conversely, the school speck comes in quickly, full of pep, squirting here, slipping there, hard to clamp between thumb and fingers.
The surf wader amid breaking waves really is at risk. Just as make your stab, a sneaker wave unloads on the bar, knocking you sideways and driving the trailing treble from a 52M MirrOlure into the ball of your prune-wrinkled thumb.
I'm not saying don't use plugs (they are great for big trout), but if conditions are rough or you're into rapid-fire "jug" trout action, life is much safer with a single-hook lure such as a jig or spoon.
The more I think about it, a small landing net is good insurance for small fish bouncing around in the surf. If nothing else, it keeps your hand several feet from the impact zone if a jacked-up shark shoots in to grab the fish. You can tuck the net under your wading belt, along the small of your back, ready for a quick draw when needed.
Bottom clutter is another hazard. Man-made junk from broken-down beach houses is an on-going issue in the surf near subsiding beach developments, and the bay wader must be on the alert for old pilings, abandoned crab traps, things like that. The wrong step can result in a bad cut on the foot or lower leg.
Oyster beds are another threat in many bays and back lakes. The shells cling together, forming irregular clumps that are easy to bumble over. Of course, redfish are uncommonly fond of oyster reefs, so you often find yourself staggering and lurching among the bladed and barnacled shells.
Ankle-high neoprene booties with hard soles will turn most shells but a hurried step or, worse, an awkward stumble can result in a major cut - especially if you throw your hands and arms out to cushion the fall. There are no cushions amid oyster reefs, only more cuts.
And the oyster cuts can be dirty, easily infected. Perhaps more important than a backup 1/2-ounce copper Sprite spoon is a first-aid kit in the boat or vehicle. Not to mention an updated tetanus shot.
VIBRIO WHATEVER - I'm not sure what this stuff is, but don't want any part of it. I suppose it's been around for years but, until the past decade or so, most soggy two-steppers were blissfully unaware of the virulent danger.
It's officially named Vibrio vulnificus (vibrio for short), a nasty bacteria carried in saltwater. My impression is that vibrio infection occurs most often in the hot weather months. And it seems most fertile in the bays, opposed to the open Gulf.
Statistics seem to support the fact that the vibrio bacteria enters through a fresh cut or abrasion - all the more reason not to fall over the aforementioned oyster reef. It's also surmised that individuals with weakened immune systems (whatever that means) are most likely to be infected.
But, regardless of circumstances, if it gets you the effects are prompt and appalling. Apparently, there's no doubt a serious problem is erupting. If a cut blows up after a wade, waste no time in reaching qualified medical help.
This stuff can kill you. Something like half-a-dozen fatalities occur from vibrio in Texas each year (and several times that number are infected). Of course, to put things in perspective, hundreds of thousands of people get wet each summer along the Texas coast.
I wish I knew more about it, but I just don't.But I do know this: Add up all the risks, over-rated and otherwise, and I'm still not going to stop wade fishing. And I'll bet you don't either.