a solo angler getting swept downstream

For most of us, time spent outdoors is therapy. Communing with nature while angling, hunting, or camping reconnects us to wild places. Bad things don’t usually happen and if they do, they are generally not life-threatening.

There are also times, however, when worst-case scenarios do happen. That’s exactly what happened to an experienced angler from Thunder Bay in the spring of 2020. His compelling story is a reminder of how quickly things can go wrong.

Solo day planned

It was a May morning unlike many others Fritz Fischer had experienced. He was planning a solo day of fly fishing for steelhead on a river about an hour and a half east of Thunder Bay.

“I got to the river early in the morning and I was the only one there,” Fischer recalls. “It was absolutely prime conditions. The water was not too high — but high enough — and there were fish moving around.”

Fischer noted that there were even bugs on the surface with fish rising, so he decided to skate dry flies. He did just that for four hours but didn’t raise a fish. So, it was time to make move.

“I wanted to check out a spot that I’d seen on satellite imagery,” Fischer said. “But I’d never been to it and you gotta fish it from the far bank.” River flow made crossing tricky at best, dangerous at worst.

He worked his way about a kilometre downriver, trying to find a spot to cross. After a couple of failed attempts, he made a wading staff and gingerly crossed. From there he walked the bank down to the piece of water he wanted to fish.

“I swung a dry down the whole length of that water and nothing happened,” Fischer said. “So, I switched over to this sweet little wet fly I tied the day before. Then I switched my floating line to a Skagit line.”

Fishing a wet fly, Fischer began working the water again. On his fifth cast, he hooked a steelhead on his special fly and landed it. He took a couple cellphone pics of the steelhead with the fly in its mouth and then turned it loose. A couple of casts later, that lucky fly caught a branch overhanging the river on the far side. Normally, he would have just broken it off. At this spot, though, the river was tight to the far bank.

“My rod’s 13 and-a-half feet long, so I thought I might be able to reach out and poke it off the branch. I didn’t want to lose the fly, so I waded out to the edge of the cobble bar with the black ripping flow of all the river in front of me.”

Into the river

Fischer reached as far as he could to try to poke the fly. At the same time, the cobble bank he was standing on gave way. He went from being knee deep to neck deep. The now floating angler had his rod held high in his left hand.

“I’m up to my neck, and my waders are filling with water,” he said. “I had my belt on, luckily. When I was out in the middle of the river, I thought to myself, ‘Man, you do not want to go down in here’ because there were sweepers all down both banks.”

At some point, Fischer’s right arm pivoted at a bad angle in the current — his hand might have been stuck on rocks. He kicked his way out of the current but “knew something really bad had happened.” He realized he had a dislocated shoulder because the arm was completely limp. Fischer got out of the water and walked back to where he had put his backpack.

“It was still early in the day, which was a godsend,” he said. “I had lots of daylight left.”

Fischer, an experienced angler and hunter, knew he was in a serious situation. One arm was useless, he had no cell reception, and he was beginning to go into shock.

“I sat on a log there by my stuff and forced myself to sit for 20 minutes just to see if I was gonna pass out,” he said. He didn’t.

Fischer then methodically packed his rod, slipped on his pack and began the long trek back to the truck. Every twig that touched his right arm was agony. He found himself screaming in pain. At some point early in the trip, he started to worry about surprising — or even attracting — a bear.

“I was fighting panic. That was one of the worst things about that walk. I was sounding like a wounded animal because I was a wounded animal.”

Agonizing trek home

Fischer couldn’t cross the river where he had on the way in. Not with one arm. He also slipped on a slope and fell on his arm, causing more anguish. He eventually found a spot to cross and finally made it back to his truck — a stick shift. With one arm, Fischer put it into first gear and drove a bush road in excruciating pain.

As soon as he got cell reception, he called his partner Dana. She didn’t answer. “And then she texted and asked if everything is good. And I texted back. No.”

Fischer drove all the way back to Thunder Bay, still wearing his water-filled waders. With the help of his partner, he quickly got medical attention. He now realizes no one knew where he was that day, including his partner.

“Now, I make sure someone knows where I’m going to be,” he said. “Because living up here, you can very easily end up like I did in a place that nobody else would have gone to for days.”

He has also taken to using a Garmin InReach. Fischer said he was terrified he wasn’t going to be able to fly cast again but can “throw a loop as good as ever.” However, the experience has left him much more deliberate in the water.

“I’m way more cautious when I’m wading now…That’s not an intentional thing. That’s just raw terror.”

Originally published in the April 2023 edition of Ontario OUT of DOORS magazine.

Senior Editor Gord Ellis is a journalist, radio broadcaster, photographer, and professional angler based in Thunder Bay. Reach Gord at: mail@oodmag.com, Twitter: @GordEllis

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