Sports column by Matt Dickerson: Dangers of fishing (in the lower 48)

My good friend Dave was recently hit by a flying boat while walleye fishing in South Dakota.
Getting hit by a flying boat was probably not on Dave’s list of dangers to avoid while fishing. He and I spent the summer teaching and traveling together in Alaska. As the adults responsible for the safety of nine college students, we had a long list of potential dangers associated with fishing and spending time on the waters of Alaska. We worked hard to minimize and mitigate them. But we were aware of them.
At the top of our list were the bears. And we did, in fact, see several of them, though fortunately not when we were with students. At one point an approaching brown bear was close enough that I had my bear spray out, armed and ready to fire. The bear veered away at the last moment.
Getting hypothermia and drowning in glacial water was another potential danger. On a float trip, one of our students fell out of the raft into a fast flowing glacial river. Due to our guide’s great job with safety precautions and preparation, the student was back in the raft in about five seconds, a little wet but no worse for the wear. (Even her cell phone eventually dried out and came back to life.)
My wife was most worried about our bush plane crashing. There is a saying in Alaska: “There are old pilots, and there are bold pilots, but there are no old bold pilots.” We always went with old pilots. Although I never felt unsafe, we did have one eye-opening moment landing in the bush and seeing the abandoned hull of another bush plane lying on the tundra. My wife was also concerned that some mine security guard might shoot us for snooping around while we were doing research on environmental issues related to existing and proposed heavy metal mines. Nobody shot at us.
My own greatest safety concern was that on our wilderness fly-in trip to the Arctic, weather issues would prevent our bush plane from returning and picking us up. Our pilot had been grounded for over a day before we arrived because of fog. And a week after we left, a big blizzard grounded planes again. Then Obama’s visit grounded them another two days. But our pilot showed up at the appointed time and flew us back to civilization.
So after that, what did we have to fear back in our home states of Vermont and South Dakota?
On Saturday I headed out with a friend to one of the larger Vermont rivers for a morning of fishing. When we arrived at the river, I saw another pair of anglers fishing downstream where I had hoped to go, so we turned and went upstream instead. I fished for about two hours before getting back to my starting point. The two other anglers were still in the same spot. I had another hour or so to fish, and didn’t want to return upstream, so I thought I’d fish below them. In order to avoid spooking their water, a hundred yards upstream of their hole I crossed the river to the opposite shore from where they were fishing, and climbed a few yards up onto the bank to the edge of the bushes in order to skirt around them.
To my surprise, one of them started swearing at me and threatened to cross the river and put a part of his fishing rod into a portion of my anatomy if I tried to get past him to fish downriver. He took several steps in my direction. When I didn’t run away, he changed his mind and started threatening to throw rocks at me, while continuing to call me unprintable names. At that point, I wasn’t going to be able to enjoy fishing downriver anyway, so I turned and walked back to my car.
It was the first time I had ever experienced that sort of hostility on a Vermont river. Although I didn’t suffer any bodily harm, it made for an unpleasant end to the morning, and added “angler river rage” to my list of potential dangers to avoid while fishing in Vermont.
I wish Dave’s experience had been no worse than mine. His encounter with a flying boat left him in a hospital with a fractured skull and traumatic brain injury, a compression fracture in a vertebrae, and some other broken bones. Fishing with friends out of multiple boats, the driver of his boat was crossing the lake at high speed and ran suddenly aground on some rocks. The boat behind them was presumably following too close for such a speed and couldn’t stop quickly enough. It rammed into the side of Dave’s boat and went airborne.
The details of Dave’s actual injury are far gorier even than the threats uttered at my person — threats never actually carried out. The first hospital he was brought to couldn’t even care for the injuries and he was airlifted to another hospital where he underwent two surgeries to eliminate pressure in his fractured skull from his swollen brain and to drain the bleeding in his head. The anglers with him didn’t think he was going to live.
Amazingly, thanks to great work by surgeons and other wonders of modern medicine, Dave should eventually recover. It will be a long road back to health, but all the tests show that his brain has full neurological function. He is back home now sleeping in his own bed and looking at several months out of work.
I won’t be able to get into a boat again without thinking of his story, and I know I will be a safer boater from here on. But our experiences also have me thinking that maybe I need to get back to Alaska where fishing isn’t so dangerous.

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