Sunday, December 16, 2007

Kayak Fishing Tragedy

I read an article today about a fellow who died last month on Lake Ontario while fishing in his kayak. The story is attached. As a fellow kayak fisherman, my sympathies go out to his family and, as always, I wonder what could have been done differently to prevent the accident.

Adam Bolonsky had a post on his superb blog on the difference mentally between kayak fishermen and kayak touring paddlers. When touring, the focus typically is on the paddling, the scenery, the destination, and other things on top of the water. When you’re fishing you have a single minded focus on what it takes to catch fish. The structure of the bottom, the temperature of the water, what lure you have on, how deep its running, fish marked on your fish locator, and the reefs and structure on your chart. Most of my paddling partners other than the FrugalFisherman and the VOR at times, want no part of fishing. They are however, happy to eat the fish. I must confess and set the record straight however, that on our Slate Islands trip the FrugalFisherman, an active member of Trout Unlimited and a guy who’s goal is 200 fishing days in a calendar year, was out fished (as was I) by the Voice of Reason and TheCommish. This time we were the ones that were happy to eat the Lake Trout, Steelhead, and Chinook salmon that they had hauled out of Lake Superior.

This single minded fishing focus can cause you to lose concentration on essential aspects of kayaking….like staying in an upright position. I like to troll and meander as I paddle when touring. My companions know that I’ll likely be bringing up the rear or maybe wandering off course toward an attractive looking reef and not to be too concerned. You do however, kind of lose track of the changing conditions in your single minded pursuit of fish. RonO, TheCommish, and I had our first extended Lake Superior day trip in early May this spring. We paddled from Bayfield to Madeline Island, crossed from the south tip of Madeline to Long Island, and then landed at the town of Washburn. As we crossed the shallow point between Madeline and Long Island, my buddies told me later that they became a bit concerned with the following seas that were building to 3-4’. On Lake Superior every so often you get a 3 wave set, the Three Sisters, that can take you from steady 3’ swells up to 6 ‘or 7’. Not a problem in open water but not good if it breaks over and around you from behind in the shallows. This is what RonO and TheCommish were thinking as they slowly put some distance between themselves and me. At the same time I was thinking that the rapid transition from deep to shallow water was the perfect place for Coho and Chinook salmon to be lurking, probably in the company of large, voracious Steelhead and Brown Trout. Eventually, as my buddies got further and further ahead and I had to pop a couple of low braces, I noticed that the waves had gotten much steeper and closer together. Suddenly I had an epiphany: the WORST thing that could happen at this point would be to hook a fish. This would mean setting my paddle down, leaning forward to grab the rod out of the rod holder, and likely going for a ride in a direction I didn’t want to go. This would not be a very stable scenario in these conditions. I immediately reeled in and increased my speed to catch the boys, who by now were approaching the Long Island light and looking for a place to land. RonO made the comment, “You must be a lot more confident of your brace than I am to fish in those conditions”. I replied, “No, just a lot dumber than you are”.

From all reports the victim in this tragedy, TitoWoody (aka Serge LaPointe) was a good paddler, safety conscious, excellent fisherman, and all round good guy. The posts on the various kayak fishing sites all attest to that. He was found near his boat with his dry suit intact on Lake Ontario in conditions of 65-84 km/hr winds, snow squalls, and 3-5 meter seas. I didn’t know the man or what he was thinking when he launched. I suspect he could have been in that ‘competent/unconscious’ mode that the risk management people talk about; skilled and trained but not really focusing on the situation at hand. We’ve all been there many times. Fortunately for most of us, we walked away with a story instead of an ending like this one. I just want to make the point that when you’re fishing from your kayak you need to focus on the kayak part of it and not be obsessed with the fishing part. I am as guilty as or guiltier of this than the next guy. In the spring of 2006 I was rolled by a wave while fishing the mouth of the Brule River on western Lake Superior. The lesson I learned at the time (April) was that dry suits are much, much better than wetsuits when the water is 35F. What I should have learned, and hope I’ve learned from this tragedy, is to stay on the shore, have a beer, and wait for another day. No fish is worth risking your life. In other words, as our buddy Silbs says, paddle safe!


Adam Bolonsky Dot Com said...

Hi DaveO;
thanks for the link to the story. Sad. The circumstances were confusing, to say the least.


ps: By the way, did you notice the comment I made several posts back where I challenged you to a beer sausage/smoked bluefish exchange?

DaveO said...

I think we should arrange that! Shoot me an email on and we can work it out. I love smoked fish; I'd like to tie into one of those bluefish some day also.

Eric J. said...

We have a member of our local kayaking group who insist on fishing while on group paddles that are not intended to be fishing trips. His behavior on trips reflects what you describe. His generally not paying attention to the conditions or the group.
Personally, I find it obnoxious of people who show up for a kayak trip and use it as a fishing trip. The two types of trips are very different.
Fishing on a fishing trip is cool. Fishing on a trip where the other members of the group expect that fishing is happening is cool.
Fishing on a trip planned for people who want to kayak is not so cool. The fisherman detracts from the overall safety of the group and makes the trip coordinator's job much more difficult.

DaveO said...

Good point Eric. Although I'm not quite as clueless as I've indicated, I do usually get consensus from the group as to the 'rules of fishing' and then most of the time am accompanied by another member of the group. Since this is mostly on island camping trips, the other members have a vested interest in eating fresh fish vs freeze dried crap so I'm tolerated fairly well. That being said, we hybrid fisher/tourers need to keep much more of a weather eye in my opinion

Adam Bolonsky Dot Com said...

Bluefish vs. Beer sausages.

Which causes the most consternation in the household?

1. A guy cleaning fish in the kitchen sink, then smoking out the joint with wet hardwood burning.

2. A guy loading in yet another half ton of beer sausages, and the guys who tramp into the house to eat them?

Inquiring spousal minds want like to know.