Water Safety- by Denny Lewis

August 9, 2011

I have been a fisherman for 40 plus years and until recently had never experienced a near
tragic event while participating in the sport.

As a police officer you are trained and deal daily with specific emergencies and they
become second nature. You see on the news and in the newspapers frequently of a water
related fatality. Now retired and as skilled as I think I am in dealing with emergency
situations I was not prepared for what occurred a very short time ago.

I have fished many western rivers and have fished the Yakima River many times without
incident. I fish while wading and fish from a pontoon boat and sometimes use the
services of a guide when water levels are high and my wife chooses to join me.

My fishing partner and brother-in-law, also retired law enforcement and I, planned to
float a short distance one afternoon earlier this October. Nothing unusual about the day or
the weather in fact it was a very pleasant sunny day of about 60 and no wind to speak of.
(Unusual for the Ellensburg area)
This day we had decided to fish a section of the Yakima River that neither of us had
fished before. This is called the Farm Lands and is accessed from a public park in
Ellensburg. This area of the river is known for some of the larger trout in the river and
was one of the reasons we chose to float this section.
We arrived at our launch point and began assembling our boats and organizing gear and
I observed a very large sign warning of the hazardous conditions on this section of the
river. While reading this I watched a drift boat with a single occupant float by. I decided
to call one of the local fly shops to inquire about the sign and what to expect on the water.
I was informed that this sign had been there for years but there were hazards down stream
and generally what to look out for and where. Using caution we shouldn’t have any
problem with the float.

The float started out routinely enough, I even landed a couple of nice fish shortly after
launching. Within minutes I encountered the first obstacle that had been described to
me. I stowed my rod took a good look at the water ahead and maneuvered around this
sweeper without incident.

The water ahead of me looked fishable and I went back to fishing. I looked behind me
to locate my brother in law Don. He typically fishes slower than me and sometimes I
find myself a considerable distance downstream from him. I spotted him several hundred
yards back rigging his gear.

The river took a slow turn to the right and then left where I spotted another obstruction
and could hear the water rushing thru and around. I quickly stowed my gear and
prepared my setup to maneuver around the obstruction. Fortunately I was on the far right
when I entered the swifter water. What I wasn’t prepared for was the sudden merging of
the current seam from the sharp turn off the left bank and the one I was in on the right.
This sudden convergence spun me around backwards forcing me to pull on the oars for
all I was worth. Luckily I avoided the sweeper and the attached large root ball on the
right side of the downed tree.

It took me a couple of minutes to regain my composure and beach my boat where I
thought I better go back up stream to warn Don of the hazard. Too late, as I made my
way back up the rocky shore I saw Don moving rapidly in what looked to me like the
center of the river in the strongest current. He didn’t have a chance to avoid what was
coming, He got caught dead center in the converging currents and spun sideways directly
into the log jam. Don was thrown out of the boat on the up stream side. You can imagine
what I felt at that instant. I know my heart stopped for an instant until I saw him pop up
on the opposite side of the sweeper. WOW! He is alive, now what do I do to help him
out? I’m on the wrong side of the river and no way to get to him quickly.

When I was sure he was ok I yelled to him to let him know I was there and would get
to him to help, he assured me that he was ok and not injured. That made me feel a little
better. I ran back to my boat looked for a way to get across and back to him safely.

I rowed back up stream for maybe 100 yards then across to the east bank all the while
hoping he could hang on until I could get to him. I made it to shore and then bush-
wacked my way thru 75 yards of brush and heavy undergrowth. When I got back to his
location I’m on top of 8 foot bank that is sloughing off under my weight and straight
down. I backed off a ways and located a long sturdy tree branch that I could reach out to
him if necessary.

I didn’t know it at the time but Don’s left foot was hung up under the log or on a part of
his boat. He was struggling to get free and lost his grip on the log and went under again
but came right back up free from his trap. He was able to get on top of the log but was
unable to move toward shore as the log was to slippery and he fell in again. This time I
slid down over the bank and reached out to him with the branch that I had found earlier.
He was able to get a grip on this and pulled himself in closer to shore where he found
solid footing and was then able to work his way around another brushy obstruction and to
the bank.

The day ended on a up note thanks to whomever was smiling on the two of us. So many
things went wrong yet so many thing s went right for us and our families.

There is nothing like a real life experience to get you thinking how this day could have
played out. What would I do to change my way of floating rivers to insure my safety and
those fishing with me. I sat down and made a list of all the items I carry on the boat and
on my person. I will make major changes in my gear and my approach to fishing prior to
my next journey to one of my favorite rivers.

Points to Ponder

Wade and float fishing safety?

What do you carry on your person?

What do you carry on your pontoon boat?

Do you wear a life jacket ( one that maintains head in upright position—self inflating etc?

Do you even carry a life jacket?

Do you have a lunch bag or equipment bag on board?

Do you carry a net?

Do you carry an anchor–mooring (line)?

Do you carry a knife (serrated-standard)?

Do you carry ID?

Do you carry an extra rod?

Do you carry a cell phone?

Do you carry a camera (lanyard)?

Do you use a wading staff?

You wear waders and boots ( lace ups or wired ) wader belt, sun glasses (croakees)?

What type of hat do you wear (ball cap or one with chin strap)?

What about your gear vest and jacket ( what do you carry in and on them)?

Does your pet come along on your boat?

Are you prepared for any emergency – do you have the stamina and the will to survive in
cold water or severe conditions?

What do you do if you witness an accident?

There is nothing like a real life experience to make you think, what would I do in a