So I’m pretty embarrassed about this, but I feel like I should share it as a cautionary tale. You can never be too careful, even when the conditions are perfect…
My day started around 6 a.m. when I headed up to Island Ford on the Hooch. I haven’t gotten to get in the water since summer, and I had been looking forward to this excursion for a week. It was “the perfect day.”
I entered the river around 7:30 at the 320 sign and started working a wooly bugger in the runs, and by 9 I had already caught two decent rainbows. I moved downstream to the next set of shoals and really wasn’t watching my footing as carefully as I should have, and I stepped off into a very deep hole. I lost my balance, and my legs came out from under me. The 40-degree water poured into my waders fast.
I was using an older pair of Redhead Bone Dry waders, which are great, but they restrict movement a bit and don’t really secure well at the top to keep water out if you fall. To make matters worse, my shoulder straps broke from dry rot, so water really poured in.
I went under for a couple seconds as the shock from the cold water paralyzed me. I started to panic, and then I told myself to find somewhere to stand up. I was able to stand up near a rock and steady myself. I was cold, very cold. I tried coming out of the waders so that I could get back to the river bank where I had a change of clothes, but the water made it impossible to come out as it created suction in the bottom of the rubber boots. I had to get out of the water and get dry, so I decided I had to keep the waders on and wade back across. Unfortunately, I was all the way across near the island.
I made it across, and by that time I had been in the water and soaked for 10 minutes. I had absolutely no feeling in my limbs from my elbows and knees down. This was not a good feeling.
The bank where I waded across was steep, and I couldn’t raise my legs high enough to get out because of the extra weight from the water, so I grabbed some tree roots and used what little strength I had left to hoist myself onto the bank. I was able to get the waders off when some of the water drained out, and I took off down the trail to my clothes stash back at the 320 sign.
I started stripping off the layers of wet clothes as an older gentleman walked by and asked if I was ok. I told him I took a nasty spill and asked if he would stop anyone on the trail so I could get down to my birthday suit and get dry to change. Once I got my clothes on, I was shaking violently in my hands, and my knees were weak. I was just about to start doing some jumping jacks and push-ups to get the blood flowing, and I remembered something I learned from Bear Grylls. Once you have lost all feeling in your limbs, if you recirculate too quickly, the cold blood can stop your heart, so you must warm up slowly.
I stepped in the sun on a rock and layered up with dry clothes for five minutes until I started getting some feeling back. Then I did the jumping jacks.
I was still very disoriented, but I gathered my rod (which I managed to keep in my hand while under water) and gear and went up the hill to my truck, got in, cranked the heat and rested.
It wasn’t until I got 30 minutes on the road I realized I left my waders on the bank, so if anyone is out there and comes across them, I would really appreciate it if you could either dispose of them or keep them or whatever, just to get them out of the park.
I have never experienced anything quite like that before. I have done some stupid things before, but nothing has affected me this way. I have had a couple mild panic attacks since, but I’m getting past it now. Even with being super embarrassed about it, writing this is helping me out with that. I guess it just hit me that being out there alone, in the wrong gear, almost made my little girl loose her daddy. Those stupid mistakes almost made my wife a widow. You can never take “the perfect day” for granted when you do what we do. There are risks involved with fishing in big rivers, and we accept those risks with the understanding that people get hurt every day doing this.
You may be wondering if I’ll get back on the water any time soon. The answer is not only yes, but heck yes! If I had the money to buy the right kind of waders, I’d be back out there tomorrow. The difference is I will be much more aware of my surroundings and much better prepared. If everyone stopped doing what they love the first time something risky or bad happened, then no one would do anything.
I shared this story and will endure the poking and ribbing that is sure to come from it to say be careful while you are the river. We say it every day, but until something happens, it doesn’t always hit home. All it takes is one little slip to completely change your day or possibly even your life and the lives of your loved ones.
Be safe, tight lines, and I’ll see you out there again soon.