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Tarheelflyfishing 05-10-2010 03:24 PM

Tragedy on Wilson Creek
Wilson Creek is one of North Carolina's premier fishing destinations. Anglers flock to Wilson during the Delayed Harvest season. Sometimes fun and fishing is broken up with sorrow and a new understanding for the sport we all love.

From News (Lenoir, NC newspaper)

Authorities have identified the man who drowned at Wilson Creek Thursday afternon while on a fishing outing.

Investigators with the Caldwell County Sheriff’s Office said the man who drowned after slipping off a rock was 65-year-old Thomas Wayne Free of Staunton, Va.

Free was fishing with Gary Hammerstone, a friend of his from Morganton, about a mile or so past Brown Mountain Beach store. Hammerstone told rescue officials he was fishing downstream a short distance from his friend when he heard a yell. When he went to check, his buddy had disappeared.

Rescue crews from several county agencies were dispatched at 2:24 p.m. ATV teams, ground search teams and dive teams were requested because officials were not certain at first if they were conducting a water or land search.

A second sweep of the Wilson Creek area between Brown Mountain Beach campground and Lady on the Rock by divers led to the discovery of Free. His body was found at 4:38 p.m. lying flat on the bottom of the river about 15-20 feet below the surface.

Caldwell County EMS Director Tommy Courtner said Free was wearing chest waders, and it appeared that they filled when he fell into the icy water. Free was not able to get the waders off to get out of the river.

Courtner said Hammerstone told him this was the second time he and his friend had fished at Wilson Creek. They also were there last year.

Approximately 30 people from county agencies responded to the incident.

Both daughters of Mr. Free commented on my blog post regarding the incident...

I am his other daughter Rachel, and likewise I've struggling to find some sort of explanation or understanding of why this happened. He was a very intelligent, safe and experienced fisherman...but he was new to the use of waders. A Christmas present he was excited to use for the first time. I hope this can save others lives and make people think a little bit more about their gear and where/how they're fishing. We miss him terribly.

Wading is a dangerous component to fly fishing. One slip into ice cold water, while wearing waders and it's game over. Popular to contrary belief, wading belts are not good. While they do stop water from entering your waders, they have a tendency to fill the lower half with air and you basically flip upside down. I've had my experiences, but I have yet to come close to this. Please keep this family in your prayers.

ChemEAngler 05-10-2010 06:19 PM

Sad story, and I will remember them in my prayers.

Kind of makes one think about buying one of those inflatable PFD's for such situations.

alexys01 05-10-2010 07:37 PM

My prayers to the family.

Jubal 05-10-2010 10:27 PM

Living very close by I can tell you that Wilson is no stream to toy around with, it has claimed many lives over the years. I talked with the local chief of the fire department and a diver found him in an exact spot under water that claimed someone prior to him. Where he fell in has some bad hydro and underwater ledge of sorts.

Very, very sad.

Be safe.

Owl 05-11-2010 12:42 AM

That is very sad. I hope it had nothing to do with his choice of wading boots. Not that it really matters now to his family. :( It just happened to be the second or third thing I thought about. I've never thought about the upside-down wader belt problem...I can see how that could happen if the air traps the fabric tightly against the belt. When fishing around deep water, it would be a good idea to have a self-inflating PFD. I used to use a float tube a bit, but got rid of the thing because I didn't trust it not to kill me, and I always wore a PFD that would inflate with a tug on the cord - of course, if you fall and hit your head and it knocks you silly.....

there is risk in everything from walking to the mail box to fishing to hunting big every day as if it were your last.

RIP to the fisherman, and prayers to his family. :(

PeteCz 05-11-2010 11:03 AM

This is incredibly sad...

This is also one of the reasons I switched to waist high waders (when not wet wading). If for some reason I fall in and my waders start to fill up, I only need to unhook my belt and I "should" be able to slip out (no telling how much of an issue it would be while under water, with some level of panic setting in, and getting out of your boots while underwater would be a tough task as well...)...

I know I could cover more water with Chest waders, but they are hotter and if I'm wading in water that is up near my belt, I'm already in places I probably shouldn't be...

jeffnles1 05-11-2010 11:11 AM

Sounds more like it was hydro pulling him to the bottom. When waders fill up in deep water, don't they become neutrally buoyant meaning they're no worse than wet jeans and shirts?

I can see the bottom filling with air and flipping you upside down could be a serious problem.

I always wear a PFD when on my pontoon boat and really don't like wading in water that is over my head (test the depth with a wading staff if I can't see the bottom or just don't go in when I can't see the bottom).

Really sorry to hear about this and will pray for the family.

It's a good soberin reminder for us all to be careful out there.


Tarheelflyfishing 05-11-2010 02:55 PM

I've gotten into the habit of rolling my chest waders down to waist highs. Like PeteCz said, it's usually much easier to get out of them when you find yourself in trouble. Also, carrying a wading staff isn't a bad idea at all. You can probe the river bottom in front of you before you make your next step.

MadisonBoats 05-11-2010 04:14 PM

Actually, you want to have your waders cinched up well at the top so that you can use them as flotation device by trapping the air in them and not allowing water to get in. There are several good videos online that illustrate this principle. The main issue is not panicking and letting your gear be free and focusing on floating.

PeteCz 05-11-2010 07:00 PM


Originally Posted by jeffnles1
Sounds more like it was hydro pulling him to the bottom. When waders fill up in deep water, don't they become neutrally buoyant meaning they're no worse than wet jeans and shirts?

Jeff you are right about neutrally buoyant, but I think one of the problems lies in the fact that once someone gets into trouble they usually try to fight the current and the effect of water going into the non-porous waders is adding a lot of force with nowhere to go (my college physics classes have escaped I can't give a better explanation). It's kinda like holding on to a garbage bag in the current, once it fills up with water. If you float with it, no problems, but if you fight against the current or try and lift it free of the current, good luck.

I actually had a required class in college called "Drownproofing" (I kid you not, check out the link...). Not panicking is the key to surviving. However, in a life threatening situation its much harder to muster self restraint, and impossible if you've hit your head on a rock, etc...

The net of it is, that you have to be as careful as feasible. Life has inherent risks, know the dangers and protect yourself accordingly. Events like this hammer home how quickly it can all go away...I feel terrible for his family...

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