Two mean fly fish in Grand Lake Stream
In this September 2021 file photo, Russ Smith (left) of Londonderry, New Hampshire, casts alongside fishing buddy Mike Pratico during the Reel Recovery fly fishing retreat at Grand Lake Stream. Credit: Pete Warner / BDN

Several years ago, I was fishing with a husband and wife for landlocked salmon at Grand Lake Stream in late May. We spent the morning trying to get away from the crowds, and it was time to head back to the lodge and have lunch and a cold beverage.

As we made our way back to my truck, my client asked if that man was OK. When I looked in the direction he was pointing, I saw a man who had fallen in the stream and was trying to stand up just to the side of the faster moving water.

I was walking toward him, in case he needed help, when he suddenly moved in the direction of the fast moving water. I dropped the rods and backpack and took off running.

I could see him quickly change directions once again, and I had it in my head he would make it to shore before I got there and I would help him to his feet.  

Unfortunately, that isn’t what happened.

I was halfway to him when he turned and started swimming toward the middle of the stream. I started yelling, “Feet first, feet first,” as he did the overhand stroke down over the rapids.

I ran through the woods to get to “Bathtub Pool” at the bottom of the rapids. I could see two men, one on each side of the river, at the tail end of the pool.

I was yelling to them, “man coming through rapids” as I saw a hat and wading stick pop up and then saw the man, floating face down, with his hands straight out in front of him.

One of the men grabbed the fisherman, and I waded out to get him. I flipped him over as I pulled him to shore, out of the water. Two men approached as I started CPR.

One knew CPR, but neither had a phone. I told them to continue with CPR as I ran to get my phone from my truck. Running as quickly as I could with waders on, I breathlessly reached my phone and dialed 911 with little expectation of the call going through.

The cell service in the area is very poor, and I wasn’t sure it would work. Much to my surprise, the call went through.

I could barely speak to the operator when she asked how she could help.  Once I settled my breathing and explained what had happened, she instructed me to go back to the man.

I made my way back to the shoreline to find the two men standing next to the unconscious fisherman. They said they had gotten a pulse, so they stopped. I checked, and found nothing.

She instructed us to each do 50 chest compressions and rotate until paramedics got there. I had the operator on speaker phone while she coached everyone through the process. Despite all our efforts, the fisherman never regained a pulse.  

After my clients and I gave our statements, I asked them if they wanted to stop fishing and head home.

“We all die. We are still alive, so let’s live,” the man said.

So we kept fishing.

My clients were in their 70s, and the husband’s response made me stop and think. This was a sad day on the river. We all know the risks of wading the rivers, but most of us think something like this will never actually happen.

I was told the 80-year-old fisherman had been fighting cancer and was recently released from the hospital. He was there with a group of friends on their annual fishing trip. The man had caught a really nice salmon just before he fell into the stream.

His illness didn’t stop him from doing what he loved to do. It was his therapy.

The most important takeaway from this tragic accident is this: we never know when our time is up, so push through the tough times and never give up on the things you love to do.

We should all live this way. The fisherman died doing what he loved.

Kevin McKay, Outdoors contributor

Maine native Kevin McKay, a lifelong fisherman, lives on the banks of the Penobscot River north of Bangor. He is a Master Maine Guide who since 2002 has operated Maine Fishing Adventures, where he strives...