Free Waders - first come, first served
By Jim Sweeny
I never imagined I could die while fly fishing – until now. Here I am, all alone, 15 feet from land, up to my waist in water, slowly but steadily sinking, and I can’t free myself. My hip waders are full of cold water. The harder I struggle, the worse it gets. Powerless against the suction I feel on my legs and feet, I look toward the sunny skies and imagine my own eulogy: “There's comfort in knowing he died doing the thing he loved most in this world”, my pastor would proclaim. Holy carp! But I’m jumping ahead. Allow me to tell you how I got here in the first place.
The warm cloudless July morning was begging me to grab my rod, waders and vest, and head to the water. Alas, Saturdays were for getting things done around the house, but on this day my wife had generously allowed me time off for good behavior. I hurriedly threw my gear in the Jeep and headed out, not knowing exactly where I was going. It was then I remembered hearing about a small municipal pond 20 minutes away. Anglers I had bumped into had bragged about the big bass there, and I decided to give it a try.
It’s a bit of a walk from the parking lot to the pond at Alverthorpe Park. I pass by tennis courts, a basketball court, a par-three golf course and a baseball field on the way. Surprisingly, there are very few people out. Once at the pond’s edge, I take advantage of a wooden bench to stage my gear, then start taking in my surroundings. The pond is only a couple acres in size, with a fountain near its center. It’s mostly tree-lined, and I’m standing in one of the larger clearings on its edge. It soon becomes obvious that there’s a hatch on. Dragonflies are performing aerial maneuvers everywhere I look, circling and zigzagging as if engaged in some enormous dogfight.I spot rapid-fire rises all over the water’s surface, with bass shooting out of their wet world to swallow a snack. Sparrows are dive-bombing the water continuously, like tiny fighter pilots strafing the enemy, scooping up a late breakfast in their beaks. I can’t remember ever seeing this much action during a hatch before, and I’m dying to get a fly on the water.
The main challenge I face is distance. I need to get past shallow water and algae, large green masses of it, stretching about 20 feet out from the bank. I decide to wade out past the algae and start casting. As I edge out, the bottom feels a bit squishy, but firm enough to hold me. I get about 15 feet out, with a pretty good dragonfly imitation tied on and start to cast. Unfortunately, I’m casting into a steady breeze, and in my eagerness to get some distance, I am starting my forward cast too soon. I soon realize I’ve got a wind knot in my tippet. It’s just as I tuck my rod under my left arm and start untangling my line that I feel it - cold water - slowly spilling in over the top of my left hip wader. I try to adjust my footing and pull up on my wader, not yet realizing what’s happening. As I try to lift one foot, then the other, it gets worse.I’m reminded of being stuck in the mud as a boy, where, if I was lucky, I could eventually get my foot out but the shoe or boot remained, visible for a split second before being enveloped in brown goo. The suction is getting worse now. And I continue to sink. Water is now freely spilling into both waders and they are nearly full. I start to get a little panicked. Before long, especially with my struggling, I’m up to my waist in the water. I must have sunk a bit more than a foot in all, very slowly, but unmistakably. Now what?
“Ugh”, I say to myself. “Don’t panic”. I need to figure out how to get out of this ridiculous mess. I can’t stand the thought of my life potentially ending this way. I can just imagine the snide remarks. “I guess he sleeps with the fishes now, huh Barb?” or “He really was an old stick-in-the-mud, wasn’t he Eric?” Unbelievable. Just then, finally, a passerby. A man in his 30’s notices my predicament. I am grateful to see him. He yells out “Need help?” in a heavy accent. I swallow what’s left of my pride, and respond “Yes – I’m stuck.” He disappears. Now what?
Ten minutes go by. A golf cart appears, speeding over the horizon, two rotund retirees aboard, eager to rescue the stupid stranded fisherman. My ‘Good Samaritan’ follows on foot. With my back to the bank, I twist around as far as I can and throw my fly rod to the stranger, only to watch the tip snap as it hits the bank. Nice. Better toss my cell phone too, as I pull it from my chest pocket.I twist and toss, watch it arc in the air, and then plop in the mud on the bank. Awesome.One of the retirees hobbles to the water’s edge holding what looks like a 40-foot orange extension cord and yells, “You stuck?” Now, what would you say at this point? I opt for “Yes”, and he says, “Catch this and tie it around yourself”. Then comes the toss, and another, and another. I grab the cord and confirm to myself, “Yep – it really is a 40-foot orange extension cord”, and tie it around myself. Mistake number one. The other end gets tied to a hitch on the rear of the golf cart. What comes next still amazes me. The other retiree, seeing his chance, guns the golf cart. The cord stretches and pulls at my torso, but my legs remain planted, and I get yanked backward into the water. “Stop!”, I yell, which gets repeated a time or two until the driver hears it and the extension cord relaxes. “My God. These guys are going to rip me in half”.
At this point I decide to right myself and rethink my situation. Once I confirm with my new friends that I won't be cut in two, I start working to free one leg from my waders. It takes about five long minutes, but I eventually manage to free my left leg, along with my wader sock. Then I start working on the other leg. A few minutes later, both legs are free and I find myself sitting up to my shoulders in the water, above my waders on that squishy shelf of muck I originally walked out on. I reach down in the water and pull as hard as I can on each boot.No luck. They're not budging. I grab what's left of my gear and my pride and slowly walk out of the pond, the orange extension cord now slung around my waist. As I reach land, one of my rescuers, climbing back into the golf cart, asks if I'd like a ride back to the parking lot. I politely decline.
I must look like quite a sight as I arrive back at my Jeep, soaked up to my neck, sporting soggy wader socks, with a broken fly rod in my hand. As I reach for my keys in my vest, a second golf cart pulls up, with a different retiree aboard.He asks, "Hey – are you the guy who got stuck while wading in the pond?" "Nope", I say. "Must have been somebody else." I don’t think he believed me.
I haven't been back to the park since that fateful day, but I'm certain the waders are still there. They're nice hip waders, actually. They were only used about a dozen times. There’s plenty of tread left on the boots, and the belt straps are intact. If you're interested, don't mind getting wet, have a friend, a rope and a shovel, they can be all yours. No charge..