Whacked in the Eye

(I wouldn’t stand there if I was you…)

It was a fine mid-July morning, and as usual I found myself down at the river alone at about 3am. Fishing was spotty, but the stillness of the morning air, the solitude of the great river made it worth my while.

Eventually a pulse of fish made their way by my spot and I began to hook up with greater frequency. Standing very shallow, with maybe only my ankles in the water, I hooked and played numerous sockeye as they swam their way up the great river just a few feet out from the riverbank.

About 6am more and more people began to crowd the bank of the river, yet my area was as of yet largely unpopulated. That all changed a few moments later when an older gentleman made his way down the steps and plopped himself into the water a few yards below me. I was a little perturbed at the fellow for choosing to stand so close to my spot when there was still a large open stretch of water below us. But what really got to me was the fact that he just waded out into the water about six feet farther out than where I was standing and basically cut off the end of my drift. I thought it was rude of him to do so since I had been there all morning and was hooking my fish in basically the spot he was now standing in.

I made a few more casts while he readied his rig. As I cast, I took a few moments to size the gentleman up. He was an older gentleman, probably in his sixties, medium build, thin, with a day’s worth of stubble on his face, and he had small round wire-framed glasses. His most telling feature however was his fishing clothing. He had new brown hip waders, a matching green trimmed vest, and a new Alaska ballcap. Somehow, the clothing just didn’t seem to fit the man. It was just too Cabela’s-catalogue-ish. It was as if the guy was trying to deliberately clothe himself in Americana garb in order to disguise himself and fit in. To the discerning eye it was all too obvious. I immediately pegged him as being a German.

I took a few more casts, but the frustration began to mount as the spot in my drift in which I should be hooking fish in, was now resulting in hooked boots and waders instead. So, I politely let him know that the fish were running very shallow this early in the morning and then I asked him to move back a few feet so I could continue to cast and drift as I had been before he stood in my spot. My request was met with a puzzled expression followed by a moment of silence. And then the guy started fishing without moving an inch. Great, another idiot to deal with.

Now, at this point I basically switched over to combat mode. In all fairness, I could have moved upriver a few feet and gotten more room to complete my drift. However, over my years of sockeye fishing I’ve developed a code that I live by on the river. And one of the prime tenets of that code is that a fishing spot belongs to the first guy down to the river. By coming down late and standing out in the middle of my hooking zone, especially since I had visible proof of my hooking prowess with two fish stringered on the bank behind me, this guy had basically committed a ‘personal foul’ against me. And so I ask myself, why should I give up my most favorite spot on the river just because this guy comes down late and cuts off my drift? I don’t think so. Next, as I iterated before, I did the proper thing, and kindly asked him to move back a few feet. But that request went unheeded. So, I buckled down and focused in on showing him the truth of my request.

Over the next few minutes I shortened my line a few inches and began to hook fish basically right of the top of this guy’s boots. Since I was in combat mode, I let each fish run a little bit. As a result, fish after fish headed downstream splashing the guy while running my line across his right knee. I didn’t make much effort at landing any of those fish, most of my effort was exerted at keeping the fish splashing water on the guy. If I couldn’t convince the guy to move out of the middle of the river, maybe some of these fish could. But as with most idiots, this guy never got the message. He just continued to stand there in the middle of the hole, never hooking anything. Folks, I’m going to give you a free bit of advice right here and now: if you find that you have to continually turn your head and look backwards at the guy next to you who is hooking fish after fish there’s a good 99.99% chance that you are standing too deep.

After hooking four or five fish that ran across the guy’s legs and popped off, I attempted to communicate with the gentleman again. I hoped this guy was like most of the other Germans I’ve come across: when it’s convenient they pretend not to understand English, but in reality, they know everything you are saying to them. Once again I asked him to move back a few feet, that the fish were running shallow, and that he’s standing in the middle of the hole. Then I added this prophetic line, “Sir, I’m afraid you’re going to get hurt standing out there.” Once again my request to him was met with stony silence.

About this time, Marvin made his way down to the river. For whatever reason, he was unusually late this morning. Marvin dropped his gear off behind me and then headed downriver to fish below the German gentleman. It was pretty funny, one of the first things Marvin did as he made his way out into the water was to motion at the guy basically asking me why he was standing out there so far. All I could do is shake my head in disgust.

We continued to fish for a few minutes more in our spots until Marvin’s friend Herb came down. About this time I asked Marvin if he wanted to switch places with me. Basically, I had had enough of being crowded by this guy and thought a change of scenery would do me good, even if it meant giving up my favorite spot. And to be honest, my favorite spot is called “Marvin’s rock”, so giving it up to Marvin is not a bad thing to do at all.

As we crossed paths while switching spots Marvin and I had a brief conversation. Motioning to the German gentleman, he asked me how my new friend was doing. I mentioned what a poor neighbor he had been and how I feared that he might get himself hurt standing out there so far. We shook our heads in disbelief and then headed out to our new spots.

My new spot was downstream of the metal stairs and I was fishing over the top of a submerged boulder. Marvin took up position at Marvin’s rock, while Herb stood back on the bank just basically talking Marv’s ear off.

Fishing was so-so for the next half hour. I hooked a nice fish and ran it into the shallows before losing it right at the bank. I got ‘sleeved’ while trying desperately to grab at it while it regained its composure and swam off. Marvin hooked and lost a couple of fish like he normally does.

And then it happened. I was casting away when out of the corner of my eye I noticed that Marvin hooked into another nice fish. It broke water a couple of times and then shot downstream past the German gentleman and headed right for me. Just like my battles earlier, Marvin’s fishing line bent around and pinned itself across the German gentleman’s right knee. Marvin’s fish kept taking line though and suddenly it was right out in front of my position. I lifted my rig out of the water and began taking a few steps back towards the bank. The fish however moved even faster and just like that it was beyond me and then it was wrapping itself around my left foot. I honestly tried to get out of the way, to avoid the tangle with Marvin’s fish, but all it took was a split second of contact with my left boot and that fish-hook popped free of the sockeye’s mouth. Instantly, Marvin’s line, taut with the battle of a running fighting fish, sprung back upriver at somewhere near the speed of light.  I faintly remember hearing the infamous “whack” sound as Marvin’s split-shot made contact with the German gentleman’s head.

My head turned and I watched as the German gentleman lifted his free hand to his face. Things seemed to go in slow motion for a long second as his knees buckled and wobbled like a defeated boxer. And then he went down hard. Hard and wet that is.

Both Marvin and Herb reacted with good speed given their ages, and they helped to drag the wounded fisherman back to shore. For a long moment the German gentleman held his hand over his face mumbling something about his glasses and his eye. When he finally stood up and revealed his wound he had a blackened right eye with a very nasty bloody gash right underneath it. We all commented that it looked like he was going to need some stitches to close the wound.

Then the German gentleman stood upright and pointing towards Marvin he said, “You must take me to hospital. I have no car. I am just tourist. You must take me to hospital.” He repeated this mantra quite a few times.

Not surprisingly, Marvin was a bit resistant to the idea. Marvin, a bit shaken by the unfortunate events, was extremely sympathetic and even apologetic to the gentleman, even though what had happened wasn’t exactly his fault. But the guy demanding that he take him to the hospital was too much even for Marvin. Marvin was at the river to fish, and having just started his shift, he was in no mood to take a detour to the hospital. Luckily, for all parties involved, Herb had his cell phone with him. Within moments, Herb called 911 and reported the injury. A paramedic was dispatched to the scene. Herb helped the man gather his stuff and walked him up the stairs to the parking lot.

Later, when Herb returned, he reported that the paramedic had already arrived by the time they had got to the parking lot and that the German guy was receiving good treatment.

We all went back to fishing, albeit at a more somber pace. Herb eventually found the guy’s glasses submerged in a few feet of water. He held them up to show us, and the entire right lens was missing.

Folks, I’m not telling this story to gloat over the misfortunes of others. Rather, I think the story can serve as a means of education. There are a couple of things I think we can all take away from this unfortunate event. First, don’t stand out deeper in the water than everyone else around you. If everyone is standing shallow, it’s probably for a good reason. Second, I think this story emphasizes the importance of wearing glasses while on the river. Given the fact that the lens was knocked out of his glasses, I’ve got to believe that the German gentleman would have certainly suffered a more severe eye trauma if he hadn’t been wearing glasses of some sort. Third, I guess having a cell phone tucked away in your backpack can be useful in the case of a fishing accident. It saved Marvin from having to make a hospital trip, and it allowed Herb to get a quick paramedic response in order to treat the gentleman’s injuries. And fourth, don’t pretend you can’t understand English just because you don’t want to move out of somebody else’s spot. This was the ultimate cause of the injury. It wasn’t Marvin’s fault or my fault or even the fish’s fault. The ultimate cause of the injury was the German gentleman’s refusal to act as a good neighbor in the fishing lineup. Clearly, he knew enough English after he was injured for me to make the leap of faith that he knew the English I was using earlier to ask him to move back a little. This little game almost cost him his eye. Whack.