Surviving Flyfishing

Flyfishing offers much more wellbeing than it threatens to take, but Steve explains that it still comes with avoidable risks. 

By now, many FlyStream readers will have heard the story. In late February 2021, Rod Allen from Cooma, returning from fishing, found an 83 year old gentleman he did not know lying by the side of Lake Eucumbene. It was after dark, Rod had seen a stationary light, and curiosity guided him to the man. The man was unresponsive, had no pulse, and was not breathing. Whilst Rod’s fishing buddy went to find a phone signal and call an ambulance, Rod started CPR. Cutting a very long story short, Rod used techniques he recalled from the TV show Bondi Rescue. It took an hour or so for the ambulance to arrive. In that time, Rod had successfully resuscitated the man who has since made a good recovery. The morning after this happened, I had a long discussion with Rod and told the story on FlyStream.  It also made local news in the Monaro Post, and on the ABC. A local first-aid training provider, Apply First Aid, offered Rod a free training course.

The story drew a lot of feedback from readers and a few days later, editor Weigall had a middle-of-the-night thought that a fishing safety story would be a good thing. “Not too nanny-state,” he said, just some examples to make people think about their trip planning and safety.

The editor conducts a comprehensive pre-fishing risk assessment surrounded by falling trees… well at least that’s what he says now!

Is fishing safe?

For most people, flyfishing is a safe sport. The enjoyment and benefits far outweigh the risk. Minor injuries are not uncommon, anything from a puncture wound from hooks and gaffs, to cuts from knives, to bruises and sprains from slips and trips, sunburn, dehydration, mild hypothermia or hyperthermia, and the odd broken bone. The benefits of sport fishing – fitness, mental health, social engagement, etc. – far outweigh the risks.

However, we should never lose sight of the fact that we are in the outdoors, on lakes, rivers, beaches and rocks; sometimes in boats, and weather and water conditions can change quickly. Witnessing a southerly buster hitting a beach, or a squall line at sea, or a cloudburst on a river, are sights you never forget.

All this means it is a tragic reality that every year, many people setting off for a day’s fishing will either be injured or will die. What makes this even sadder is that many of these incidents could have been avoided with some planning and a bit of attention to safety. These days, we are all encouraged to have a bushfire plan – to plan for something which, for most of us, would be a once in a lifetime event at worst. And yet we often head off fishing into a changeable and potentially hostile environment, with no more thought than Tom Sawyer planting a kiss on Aunt Polly’s cheek and disappearing with his knapsack and fishing pole.

I am mildly obsessed with risk management. A part of my day-job involves preparing risk management frameworks and my roots in this go back a long way. I was brought up on a farm in England, with a father obsessed with avoiding his children being mutilated by farm machinery whilst still putting my brother and I to work. In those days, like most farm kids, we were on motorbikes and tractors by the time we were 11. I had my first formal safety training through a lifesaving Bronze Medallion award and then sea survival training. By the time I came to Australia in 1990, I had worked as an electrician, in light engineering, with heavy machinery, on commercial fishing boats, in sea-cage aquaculture, as a commercial diving instructor, powerboat instructor, and first-aid and oxygen administration instructor. Working in high-risk jobs, and training people to work in high-risk environments, meant safety was always front-of-mind. Eric, an older trawlerman who taught seamanship, used to yell “One hand for you and one for the boat.” He meant always be holding on with one hand for your safety, and do your work with the other hand.

Andy, the man who taught me to dive, once asked me if I was ever apprehensive as I drove down the hill to the Fort Bovisand Dive Centre in Plymouth. I said, “Yes, I always am.” To which he replied, “Good. The day you’re not, don’t go diving.” In England, the diving season started over Easter. Each Easter long weekend was hellish as thousands of divers got their gear out of winter storage for the first dive of the year. Un-serviced gear, ill-prepared and out-of-condition sport divers and poor weather, couple with cold water, were a recipe for disaster. Divers with decompression sickness (or worse) were regularly brought in by Sea King helicopter to the Diving Diseases Research Centre at Fort Bovisand where I volunteered. To build public awareness and make divers think about risk and their own mortality, the British Sub Aqua Club (the regulatory body for sport diving in the UK) produces an annual publication of diving incidents. A summary of deaths and near misses; what, where, and why they happened.

PH 263 after swamping. We can learn a lot from how divers manage risk.

I am labouring this point because one of the key concepts identified in diver training is ‘the incident pit’. This term describes how things can go from bad to a lot worse, and then become serious and irreversible – without any of the components of the incident themselves actually being particularly high risk. For example, running short of air means an immediate return to the surface, but becoming entangled in a marker buoy line or anchor rope, or being in an enclosed space without a clear exit, or experiencing tiredness, mild panic, or the confusion (narcosis) divers experience from high partial pressure of nitrogen, and suddenly, a life is at risk. The concept is that the sides of the pit become steeper and steeper with each aggravating factor until self-help is no longer possible – the sides are just too steep.

Thinking about safety risks from the perspective of the incident pit is as relevant to fishing as it is to diving. Recalling the gentleman saved by Rod Allen, whilst fishing as such had not caused the heart attack, he was elderly, fishing alone, fishing after dark, and there was no mobile phone reception. Together, these moderate and manageable risks had conspired to become an incident pit. In the absence of Rod’s timely intervention, there would have been no happy ending.

Hypothermia is a real risk without proper clothing in extreme conditions.

For a few years, I was involved in regular training for major maritime disasters. We trained for given scenarios, like a cruise ship with 200 passengers (remember them?), with loss of power, drifting onto rocks, and with the nearest tug 12 hours steaming away. One of the disaster trainers used to talk about a ‘disaster in progress’. He would say that after a major road or train collision, in a very short space of time everything stops. The injury and fatality counts are known almost straight away and the emergency services can quickly get to the scene and do their fantastic work locking down the site, preserving life, and working out what happened.

However in a boating incident, the collision, capsize or grounding is just the beginning. Hardly anything stops. Boats are drifting and sinking, people are in the water, and every hour that passes without effective rescue support means more risk of fatalities. “Think Titanic,” he would say. “Actually hitting the iceberg didn’t kill anyone.” He also talked about ‘old style’ training where crew were taught to deal with specific types of incident, like an engine room fire. This, he explained had been replaced with skills-training that enabled crew to adapt to whatever incident actually occurred, because if you train for specific incidents and that isn’t what actually happens, people respond by freezing. As humans, we look for familiarity, something we can relate to. The new goal was to teach people skills, and to teach them to assess incidents, and to plan an appropriate response.

What could possibly go wrong?

It is difficult to imagine that in a lifetime of fishing in Australia, that every one of us won’t either be involved in, or witness, an incident that has the potential to quickly go bad. Or having seen something not quite right, will have the opportunity to intervene before something bad happens.  Transport Safety Victoria has Max’s story on their website where he recalls a true account from his childhood.

Where are we in Australia?

In Australia, the National Coronial Information System (NCIS) provides data on fishing deaths. The current NCIS report from 2001 to 2017, shows that over that 17 year period, there were 548 fatalities involving fishing, one third of these from rock fishing. Surf Life Saving Australia also publishes statistics on rock fishing fatalities, reporting that on average at least 13 people die each year; the average age of those who die is 45; and 95 percent are men. They report rock fishing is ranked third for number of deaths in Australia for an individual activity.

Flinders University reports that each year, there are around 70 boating fatalities in Australia, with 93 percent of these fatalities involving men. Around 1,000 people are hospitalised each year as a result of boating incidents. Half of all boating fatalities involve small power boats (such as those used by fishers).

The  renowned Angel Ring project is run by the Australian National Sportfishing Association (NSW Branch). Angel rings (life buoys) are installed at known rock fishing black spots. Meanwhile, a relatively new initiative in NSW requires anyone rock fishing in a ‘declared location’ to wear a lifejacket. It’s down to each Shire/Council to ‘declare’ their potentially dangerous rock fishing area. Oddly, so far, only eight have done so.

All Australian States and Territories have rules about carrying and wearing life jackets, but they are not consistent. In 2009, NSW Maritime, where I was CEO, proposed changes to lifejacket regulations. It’s always difficult to introduce rules controlling people’s recreation, and this was a difficult debate. We were accused of nanny-state regulation. A tragic boating fatality in the Georges River close to the Minister’s home helped secure approval for these important regulations. The boy hadn’t been wearing a  lifejacket. The Minister said the sound of the missing boy’s mother calling out for her missing son as she walked the riverbank will never leave him. He didn’t talk publicly about this but told me privately this was what had swayed him towards signing the new regulations. NSW did something unique by introducing the concept of heightened risk, and skipper direction. This places the onus on the skipper to identify heightened risk and worsening conditions, and to direct passengers to wear a lifejacket. The year after the changes were introduced, NSW had its safest boating season on record – and we set a world record for lifejacket inflation.

Learning from experience.

We learn from our own experiences, and the stories of others, and I’ve had my fair share of near misses.  My first fishing injury was a hook in my eyebrow with a trip to casualty, a local anaesthetic, and a few stitches. Three ten year old boys were on the way home from a successful day’s trouting. Simon had wound in his line so the hook was in the top eyelet. Rod tips usually break with seemingly minimal contact with anything more resistant than say, an eye.

I once slid backwards 300 metres down a steep hill in my four wheel drive – we hadn’t quite made it to the top when we lost traction; and on another day I found myself sliding sideways down a gravel bank. I’ve fallen off a rock ledge when wading up to my chest. I’ve become hopelessly lost, I’ve slipped and fallen hard when boulder-hopping, I’ve been stuck in mud over my thigh waders, and I’ve been stranded on rocks by a rising tide more than once. I’ve been completely swamped in a boat by a massive wave (and very thankful for level floatation). And I’ve suffered both hyperthermia and hypothermia; neither was severe thankfully.

Remote, beautiful… and wade or rock-hop with caution and good quality wading boots: complete with a decent sole and solid ankle support.

I was told a story of a man cruising slowly and casting Woolly Buggers using his bow-mounted electric motor, whilst standing on the casting platform at the front of his boat. The motor touched a submerged object, temporarily halting the boat. Consistent with Newton’s first law that ‘every object will remain at rest or in uniform motion in a straight line, unless compelled to change its state by the action of an external force’ our fisher continued his journey in a straight line and into the water, as the boat continued on its way. A good ending followed as he used the electric motor remote to guide the boat back, stop it, and climb on board using the ladder on the stern. A climb-aboard ladder on a tinny should be mandatory – without a ladder it is almost impossible to self-rescue by climbing into a boat wearing a lifejacket and wet clothes.

My favourite truism, Murphy’s Law, states: ‘Anything that can go wrong will go wrong’; or in other words if you can imagine it, sooner or later it will happen to someone somewhere.

Tips for staying safe

  • Have a plan and let someone know what you are doing and what to do if you don’t get back on time. Think about risks, how you will manage them, and what you will do if something goes wrong. I tell everyone in my risk workshops, the best thing you can do is to think about and talk about risk. If you’re doing that, you’re thinking about managing the risks.
  • Check the weather and water conditions before and during your trip. If you see a storm coming, seek shelter. If it’s a thunderstorm don’t shelter under trees. Never shelter under gum trees – they don’t call them ‘widowmakers’ without good reason.
  • Check the weather (e.g. rock fishing safety alert)
  • Subscribe to weather alerts, like the safe fishing alerts in NSW.

Check the weather and watch what’s going on around you.

  • Always wear and carry sunscreen and a hat.
  • Wear and carry clothes which allow you to cope with changes in weather: layers you can easily put on and take off and that will keep you dry. Strong winds can turn a warm day into a cold day; getting wet leads to evaporative cooling in even a light breeze; and a cold winter’s day can get really hot with sun and no wind.
  • On a small boat, always wear a lifejacket when underway, at night, and in rough weather whether it is the law or not.
  • Carry a compass when hiking off known tracks.
  • Carry a personal locator beacon at all times when on a boat, and when fishing alone in remote locations.
  • If you’re planning a boat trip, look up a boating safety check list.
  • Rock fishing safety is a whole topic on its own.
  • Water levels in lakes and rivers can change quickly due to the weather but also due to hydro and irrigation releases, and can occur with no warning at all.
  • If you’ve been fishing in the cold and go into a warm place like a heated car, the rush of blood from your warm core back to your extremities, can temporarily cause extreme drowsiness. It’s a syndrome that’s not hypothermia, but related. It’s not controllable through willpower, so if you’re planning to drive, plan time for a coffee break first. Yes, I know it’s Sunday night and you need to be at work the next day, but trust me: take that time to let your body and brain restore equilibrium.
  • If you have a choice, level floatation is much better than basic floatation when you are buying a boat – it is a requirement that the Builders Plate states what kind of floatation the boat has. Basic floatation is the common standard but does not guarantee your boat will float. In fact your boat may well sink if there is significant extra weight onboard, or at best float with the bow in the air. The Australian Maritime Safety Authority provides more information on this.
  • If you are river wading, make sure it’s safe. In strong currents, use a wading stick and use extra caution in dirty water. Avoid putting your upstream foot ahead of your downstream foot when crossing fast moving water.
  • If you are wading in the surf, wear a lifejacket and watch out for rips and gutters.
  • Carry food and water. No matter how clean a mountain stream looks, you never know what died upstream in the storm three months ago.
  • Four wheel drives are for getting out of trouble, not getting into it. Be cautious and conservative, don’t take risks, and do a training course if you’re planning a serious 4WD trip. Do more research than just Google maps when looking for remote access tracks.
  • Know how to deal with snake bites, and what to do if someone is unconscious.

    Something to watch out for… and to walk away from.

  • Think about doing a first-aid course, especially if you’re doing remote area fishing, or rock fishing.
  • Above all, think of the risks of your next trip, how those risks might compound into an incident pit, how you are going to manage those risks, and how you are going to get help if you need it.
  • A friend talks a lot about situational awareness – a perfectly self-evident term meaning always know what is going on around you. “It’s unfair”, he moans that no one with situational awareness ever wins a Darwin Award.

Disclaimer: The advice provided in this article is general in nature. We all have a personal responsibility to take reasonable precautions against specific risks, and to seek advice or assistance on the risks and dangers potentially faced when planning a fishing trip.