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I'm a member of the Bitterroot River Swimming & Diving Club.

Or maybe that should be the Diving & Swimming Club, to get the sequence right.

It was a late fall day with early-morning temperatures hovering around 40 degrees. I was fishing with woolly buggers while waiting for the inevitable dreary-day hatch of blue-winged olives to start.

I had caught a couple of nice browns in one of my favorite streamer holes, then decided to take a shortcut to the opposite bank.

I'd probably fished this hole a hundred times over the years and knew it well, or so I thought.

Rather than retreating to where the hole tails out and the water turns shallow, I cut across the middle. I knew the side channel of the Bitterroot would get about hip deep, but that would be only a couple of giant steps from the bank.

I took one of those giant steps, only the streambed wasn't where I thought it would be when my boot came down. It was a good 2 feet deeper. Down I went for a refreshing morning dip.

Luckily, being so close to the bank, I was able to scramble into shallow water and stand up. With only my ego bruised, I emptied my waders, wrung out my clothes and decided the day was going to turn warm enough that I wouldn't be risking hypothermia if I continued.

But it was a good reminder of how quickly a routine day of fishing in familiar water can turn dicey.

With the salmonfly hatch cranking up on Rock Creek while the stream is still running high, it's probably a good time for everyone to remember the respect moving water deserves.

"Everybody's been there," said Jim Cox of the Kingfisher Fly Shop. "It's a different story if you do something like that in July. Right now the water's cold and raging. The consequences of a misstep now are way different than in September. You only have a limited time where your body is going to work for you."

There are a few things that can reduce the danger of wading, starting with the proper equipment.

If you're wearing waders, a belt is a must. Cinch it tightly around the waist so that if you do fall, your waders won't fill up too quickly.

On especially slick streams like Rock Creek, cleats or studs on your wading boots can be a big help. A wading staff - there are folding types that attach easily to a belt - isn't a bad idea, either.

When you're crossing a strong current, take one step, plant your foot, then bring your other foot even with the first. Don't try to wade as you walk, with one foot in front of the other.

"The biggest one for everybody is wading forward until they're right on the brink, then realizing you have to turn around and go back," Cox said. "It's always easier going out than going back. People way underestimate the power of the current.

"The other thing that starts to happen is their body creates a current vacuum. In smaller cobble or a sandier bottom, when get out there your body creates a current under your foot that starts pulling gravel out from under you and makes you suddenly unstable. You have to consider the bottom you're on."

Another thing to be wary of, especially at this time of year, is debris.

"You might look upstream and see a ponderosa pine coming at you," Cox said.

One useful tool to gauge how much water a river is carrying is the U.S. Geological Survey Web site of Montana streamflows (http://waterdata.usgs.gov/mt/nwis/current?type=flow). For example, as of Monday evening, the Bitterroot River at Darby was carrying 3,660 cfs of water. By comparison, its wintertime flow is roughly 300 cfs, less than 10 percent of its current volume.

Like most issues involving safety, common sense needs to come into play. Think about a different approach to a fish, for instance.

"If I'm wading, I try to gauge where the problem is going to be and give myself a bailout option," Cox said. "The other thing to remember is, it's just a damn fish."

Sports editor Bob Meseroll can be reached at 523-5265 or at sportsdesk@missoulian.com. His fishing column appears on Thursdays in the Outdoors section.

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