We had anticipated this trip for weeks. Three days with my buddy Brad on the South Holston River, camping and fishing. It was late summer and the reports had told us that the large browns were feeding actively on surface patterns. The thought of hooking into a 20+ inch brown on a dry fly is something that any red blooded fly angler lives for. This was going to be our weekend for greatness.
We arrived at the camp and set up our site which was right on the bank of the river. Drift boats came by one after another and with just about every one that passed, a fish was caught. It was late in the afternoon and the generation schedule was going to make the river unwadable till morning so we loaded up our pontoons and headed upstream with the thought of floating back down to the camp site.
We went to a put in that was about two miles from the camp and our one man toons into the flow. The water was pushing pretty hard and I remember thinking to myself that it would be a quick float back to the camp. I had cast my line out as I rounded a bend in the river and saw a huge elm tree that had fallen into the water directly in front of me.
I tried desperately to row away from it but the current was swift and I hit it head on.
What happened next seemed like an eternity, though it was mere seconds. When the pontoon hit the tree, I was thrown deep into its branches, being plunged down into the water. I remember opening my eyes and seeing the bubbles rolling round my head and hearing that awful submerged roar of the water. To make matters worse, my legs were bent at the knees and wrapped under the trunk of the tree.
People talk about their lives flashing before their eyes; this was one of those times. I knew that panic was not the thing to do so I first oriented myself by letting my arms go limp so that I could detect the surface. My arms floated upward so I knew that I was upright, but still completely submerged. I thrust my hands out of the water and felt the sweet warmth of the surface touch my hands. It was then that I felt a branch of the tree and in what could only be attributed to the assistance of the divine; I pulled my 250 pound body up enough to free my legs and get my head above the water.
When I finally oriented myself, I saw that I was sixty feet or so from the bank, and several drift boats were trying to rescue me. The problem they were having was the water trying to pull them into the same predicament in which I found myself. I white knuckled the tree and watched boat after boat float helplessly past.
For over an hour I clung to the branch as icy cold water filled my waders and tried to pull me under. To make the problem more severe, the front of my pontoons had lodged under a branch about six feet in front of me and was loosening. It was obvious that they were going to break free, and when they did, the metal frame of the craft would hit me square in the face.
On the shore, Brad stood watching. He had brought his craft to ground and was trying to figure out how to get me to the bank. I tried talking to him but the sound of the water was so loud that verbal communication was pointless.
Finally, a father and son, riding in a home made drift boat, had the wherewithal to come up behind the tree. They laid their oars across the branches and I slid over them into the boat. The legs of my waders were bloated with river water, and I couldn’t stop my arms from shaking. I had clung to the tree for so long that I could hardly open my hands. Much the worse for wear, but I was safe. They dropped my off on shore and stayed with Brad and I till they were sure I was okay.
Not ten minutes after I was saved, the pontoon broke free and totally ripped the limb I was clinging to to shreds. My one of a kind Heddon Bamboo which was reportedly made for R.J. Reynolds of tobacco fame was splintered. I was able to save the butt section with his name on it…but that is all.
Just like falling from a horse, I knew I had to get back in the water, which I did later that evening and thankfully my return to the river was met with much success.
The story of my plight spread round the local fly fishing community. Evidently, I was not the only one who encountered the deadly sweeper, but I was the one who got the worst. Almost a year after the event, I received an email from a guy who owns a fly shop near the river. He asked a few questions about my perdicament and then told me that he had the frame to my pontoon in his store room. I have yet to go pick it up…just not ready to deal with that. I still will stir with panic when I allow myself to relive that afternoon…but who wouldn’t.
I have been to the South Holston many times since that day, and plan on an extended trip there in the fall…but I won’t do it in a boat. I don’t think I will be ready to jump that hurdle for a long, long time.