When you think of dangerous sports, you might think of mountain climbing or skydiving, maybe even hunting, but fishing is not likely to come to mind. In reality, all the above activities are very safe, statistically and practically, when properly practiced. Each sport has its own protocols, customs, precautions, established rules and guidelines; ignore any of them at your peril. You can get in trouble fishing just as easily as in any other outdoor activity.
I don’t fish more carelessly than others, but I do fish more than most and likely harder. I’ve trekked long distances in the dark, walked slippery cobbles, fished cold-water conditions and made my share of boneheaded moves. So I’ve been hooked, submerged and taken hard falls more times than I want to admit. When you get your fishing outfit, it’s not likely to have a safely manual with it. Allow me to make a few suggestions. When it comes to bad things, you don’t want to learn by experience. Alas, “experience keeps a dear school, but a fool will learn in no other.”
The excitement of rising fish or ideal conditions can cloud one’s judgment. Sometimes we are so focused on fishing that we forget to think about safety. For example, you hear thunder rumbling in from the west, fish are rising in a pre-storm frenzy… do you leave the stream and seek safe shelter?... or consider just one more cast, one more fish? The fact that I am writing this only means that I have been lucky, not necessarily smart. But the largest trout ever bred, isn’t worth one fisher dead. Avoid lightening. Get out of the water earlier, not later, and seek shelter.
Gene Raponi of Forestburgh was an enthusiastic and successful fly fisher until a serious accident deprived him of that joy. Years later, Gene shared his favorite streamside honey-hole with me. I couldn’t wait ‘til the season opened. I parked a distance away and walked though an overgrown field, then followed a brook. I came to the most beautiful spot on the river you could ever find, just as Gene had described it to me. But the water was both high and cold (not even 40°). Yet with only a moment or two to “read” the water and the situation, I entered the rushing river. The river tumbled over a shallow and formed a deep channel along the side I entered. I fished downstream. Every pocket, run and braid looked promising. The further downstream I went, the narrower the river and the swifter the water. I thought, “A wise man would fish this on a more temperate day.” But did I stop? No, of course not. Eventually I came to a pinch point. I had all I could do just to keep my footing, but when I decided to retreat, I could not even make a single step upstream. Then it dawned on me that “they” (the power company) were releasing water [to generate hydropower]. I was unable to go either upstream or downstream; the water was rapidly rising, and I was in major trouble; also, my legs were getting pretty tired and rubbery from trying to hold my footing in the cold water. I had no life vest, no wading staff and no safety belt. This means I was about done. Darkness was fast approaching. Eventually my brain kicked in with a plan. I reached down inside my waders and removed the belt from my pants. I cinched it as tightly as I could around the top of my waders, took a breath of air—which I then believed might be my last—and stepped toward the bank and into the swift, dark current where I was swept away. Up to my neck, I went bobbing and tip-toeing along with the current downstream until I reached a small back-eddy, where I was able to clamber up to dry ground. It was a long time before I could pick myself up and slowly work my way back to my truck, my tail between my legs.
Luckily, and by the grace of God, I somehow survived to share this with you: wear a safety belt, use a wading staff, know the waters you’re fishing, anticipate rising water or sudden releases, fish with a buddy, let people know where you are fishing, don’t ask Gene Raponi the location of his favorite, secret fishing spot.
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