Fishing Can Be Hazardous to Your Health!
Whities on the Ice!
Fishing is dangerous! This thought came to me sitting in the examination room at Urgent Care in the Sturgeon Bay hospital. I'm not talking about commercial fishing, the dangers of which have been well documented in the long running Discovery Channel show "The Deadliest Catch". Commercial fishermen are right up there with loggers and roofers for being engaged in the most dangerous profession. Fishing families in Door County, the Weborgs, Hickeys and Hendricks among others know only too well the hazards involved in harvesting whitefish from the cold waters of Lake Michigan to keep the fish boil pots full. No, I'm talking about sport fishing. The thing we do for fun and recreation. As I sat there on the paper-covered table waiting for Patti the attending Physicians Assistant to return with the results of my X-ray, I started to run through the litany of various and sundry injuries I have suffered during my life of fishing. Of course, fishhooks pointedly come to mind. I have removed numerous of these mini-meat hooks from fingers, toes, legs, arms, and head. And that's just from my body. I once extracted the hook on a large muskie lure (a sucker colored Suick as I recall) from the ear lobe of my buddy Steve on morning in northern Wisconsin. In fact, having to remove fishhooks from flesh is common enough for me that it has become kind of routine. No biggie. The only time I had to resort to going to an emergency room to have fish hooks removed was when my son Matthew impaled one of his friends in the scalp. I figured I could take liberties with my own body, but not with somebody else’s child. The lure was successfully removed with little loss of blood or hair.
When I sense that a fishhook has penetrated my flesh, the first thing I do is look for the barb. If I can still see it, I breathe a sigh of relief and slowly back the hook out. If however, the barb is buried beneath the skin, I let out an appropriate expletive, immediately grab the hook and push it all the way through until the barb comes out the other side. This is one of the reasons I always make sure my hooks are real sharp. Then I just use my wire cutters to cut off the end of the hook and extract the shaft of the hook. No problem. Of course this requires that I have a wire cutters handy, which I always have when I go fishing. This was not always the case, however. Funny story.
I was fishing for walleyes on a warm June night on Lake Winnebago at the mouth of the Fox River near Menasha. I had put a couple of nice 'eyes in the live well casting a #13 silver Rapala. I tossed another long cast towards some floating weeds. The lure landed with a soft splash and after a couple of turns of the reel handle I felt the solid strike of a nice marble-eye. Following a dogged battle I slipped the net under a 21" walleye. I lifted the fish into the boat and as I reached down with a spasmodic jerk the fish drove one of the hooks into the finger on my right hand. So here was the situation; one hook was in the fish, the other in my hand connected by 13 centimeters of balsa wood and plastic. The fish showed no remorse and continued to flop around wildly. I had put plenty of hooks into fish so I guess this was some sort of revenge. I had to decide which hook to remove first and since I was hooked more deeply than the fish was, I gingerly removed the hook from the walleye's jaw and tossed the fish in the live well. So now I had a Rapala hanging from my hand like a Christmas tree ornament. No problem, I can extract the hook and get back to fishing. The bite was still on. One problem though, after rummaging through every inch of my boat, I could not locate anything close to a wire cutter sufficient to chomp through the metal hook. This was bad. It is tough to fish with a hook sticking out of your casting hand. So, with my hand festooned with a silver Rapala, I steered the boat back to the landing, loaded it on the trailer and drove the ten miles back to my house. Going into the basement I found my wire cutters and cut the hook. I then cleaned the three walleyes. That's why I never forget to bring along a wire cutter whenever I go fishing.
Of course hooks are not the only hazard when fishing. My current predicament did not involve hooks at all. With all of the wet, slippery and unsteady surfaces one has to negotiate when fishing, falls and other mayhem are inevitable. I have fallen on and off docks. Tipped over in rocking boats. Broken through thin early and late season ice. Perhaps the most accident-prone setting when fishing is wading in fast moving water while stepping around slimy rocks. My most harrowing such incident came while fishing Fall run "zombies" in the West Twin River near Shoto. If you have ever worked this stretch of the West Twin, you know the riverbed is littered with numerous rocks, boulders and jagged rip-rap. I have taken numerous slips and spills into the West Twin over the years. One afternoon I was casting my Cleo when a huge Chinook salmon slammed the lure and started on one of those legendary "king" runs. Typically these battles last fifteen minutes or more and involve ambling along the shoreline in an attempt to shorten the distance between you and the fish. While moving along the stream, I stumbled over a huge boulder and started to fall. I stuck out my arm in an attempt to break my fall (bad choice of words) and thrust my hand into the rocky river bottom. Ouch, this wasn’t good! When I extracted my hand from the water I saw my left ring finger had a ninety-degree bend at the middle knuckle. That ain't normal. Have you seen Larry McCarren's pinky? Kind of like that. Oh, by the way, I still had the salmon on. To prevent losing the fish, I had to think fast. Recalling my former football coaching days, I held the rod between my legs, grabbed the bent finger with my other hand, jerked hard and voila' the finger was straight again. I did have the presence of mind to remove my wedding ring before the finger started to swell. Well, I grabbed the rod and landed the salmon. As I recall, I continued to fish that night and caught a few more fish. The next day, that finger was very sore and swollen.
Kind of like my finger is sore and swollen now. Which brings me to the sequence of events that brought me to Urgent Care. Last Wednesday I set out to catch a batch of whitefish near Egg Harbor. It was a bit chilly and windy. In fact it was damn cold with wind chills in the -20°F range. However, I had good reason to brave the bitter conditions. The fish were biting! Two days previously I had hooked into about twenty whities in this same location. Now I lost most of them, but I did manage to get eight nice whitefish on the ice. The reason for the low harvest rate was the ice conditions. The near shore ice was very layered and pancaked. This produced a rough surface as well as making the bottom of the ice uneven with sharp ice protrusions. As I brought the fish up from the depths, the line would catch on the rough ice and either the fish would tear loose or the line would be cut. I lost two Swedish Pimples this way.
Undeterred, I was determined to do better this outing. However, as I dragged my ice shack loaded with the various accouterments required for ice fishing over the 6-foot ice ridge and jagged ice sheet I suddenly lurch forward and fell to the hard, unforgiving white surface. Again, I stuck my arm out with painful and oddly familiar "Shoto-like" results. Removing my glove I again saw an unnaturally distorted finger. This time my right pinky finger was in a kind of S-shape. Now that ain't natural. I did try my macho football coach move, but the finger resisted and returned to the deformed configuration. So, much as that night on Lake Winnebago, I dragged my sorry butt back to my vehicle and after stabilizing the offending digit with duct tape, I loaded up my equipment and headed to Sturgeon Bay.
So, that is how I found myself sitting and sweating in my heavy ice-fishing clothes and footwear waiting for the result of the X-Ray and examination. Eventually Patti reappeared and I was informed of a probable torn tendon and that hand surgery was in my future. Patti then deftly attached a plastic splint to the finger, advised me to apply ice, take some ibuprofen and maybe be more careful next time. I guess that's what they learn in medical school. I trudged out to my truck and drove back to Baileys Harbor.
That evening I sat on the couch in my living room administering some ice and Jack Daniels, a very effective pain reliever by the way. As I looked down on the contorted and now quite painful pinky, I had one troubling thought. This is going to make my next ice fishing trip a little awkward. Well, I guess we will see. I'm heading out today.
Tight Lines, Bruce
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