I recently had a very close call while fishing on the Kenai/Middle. I'm writing this so others can learn from my mistakes as well as the things I did right.
I was in the Dunes early on a submerged gravel bar which runs perpendicular to the main current; it had about a foot of water going over the top. There was one boat in the area fishing a due a couple hundred yards above. I was fishing off the end of the dune targeting fast deep water. Where I started fishing had a blue water bucket (deep) immediately below me, and the area immediately below the dune was blue water. I was focused on fishing and didn't appreciate that I had waded out 15 - 20 feet, and waded downstream. To get out I should have waded directly back up stream, and then gone backwards 15-20 to where I started. Instead, I wasn't thinking and turned around to walk out. That first step was into blue water and I was airborne.
The enormity of the situation was immediately apparent: cold water, Kenai currents, no gravel bars, by myself, wearing waders and heavy clothes. I was pretty quickly taken downstream. While swimming furiously I was able to get myself downstream of the dune. There is current there but not nearly as much as in the main channel. I was able to backstroke and get myself back to the dune and my boat. Total time in water probably 2 minutes. But who knows - it felt like 2 hours. I probably went close to 150 feet (feet down, feet over to get behind the dune, and 50 feet upstream against the current).
Key observations and take-aways.
1. I didn't yell or make any noise until the final seconds. I don't know why, frankly. I consider myself a very good wader - 35 years of aggressive wading, and this was not the first time I had been in a pickle. I did yell in the final seconds before safety. I was probably 15 feet from the dune, but it was unclear whether I would make it. It was an emotional reaction more than anything - realizing after all the progress I had made I might still drown ... within feet of the dune and where my boat was parked (on the upstream side). I yelled and what was probably just a few seconds later my feet were on the ground below the dune. I looked upstream and that party was scrambling to get their boat in the water and come down.
2. I had on a wading belt and it was cinched tight. After all of that time in the water I only had about an inch of water in the feet of my waders.
3. You can't count on clear thinking under these circumstances. Unbelievably, I held onto my rod. It was obviously a really stupid decision that I can hardly fathom now. Key point is that in moments of high stress, you can't always count on rational thought.
4. I did modified backstroke, which was more effective than breastroke, dog paddle, etc. You can get your legs going pretty good and use your arms. I had a raincoat on and it was cinched tight at the wrists and zipped up. That certainly mitigated water coming in the top of the waders.
5. Even though I was making some bad decisions in the water, I didn't panic. I've been in high stress situations before and kept my wits as a general matter. I'm also in shape, and thank the lucky stars I had the physical capability to fight through the cold and current.
5. For the future, I will wear my life vest while wading if I have a situation where the risk of a very bad outcome is high, such as blue water and no clear way out of the river if you go airborne.
6. I will also do a quick analysis of the situation where I'm wading to determine what the strategy should be if I go airborne. I realize your mind doesn't work in the water and you should know ahead of time what to do if you are airborn. It could be that the best strategy is to go with the current rather than fighting against it. It would depend on the location.
7. Be cognizant of your fishing style. I'm a shuffler. I move even without thinking, always looking to better my position for the sweet spot in the drift. If you're a shuffler you need to be extra careful that you don't shuffle your way into a dangerous situation.
I hope others read this and reflect on their own practices. Stuff can happen instantly, and I'm lucky to be here to tell the story.
Safe wading this fall!