PORTLAND – Don Elder of Gresham didn’t expect to catch anything on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend when he waded through the crowd at Oxbow Regional Park and into Oregon’s Sandy River to practice his fly-casting technique.
But three people he pulled to the shoreline with a bright chartreuse and orange, salmon-strength class flyline can thank their lucky stars he’s getting better with his two-handed Spey rod.
Elder, 52, saved a man, his small sister and his fiancee who’d been swept off their feet by the Sandy’s deep and numbing snow-melt-cold water about 2 p.m. May 24 as the swimmers were heading toward rapids.
“I was fishing when I heard screaming in the middle of the river,” he said. “It took five or 10 seconds before I realized someone was in pretty desperate trouble. But what do you do first?” Elder said. “Out in the middle of the river was a man clutching a very small girl. Between us in the water was a young woman.
“I was wearing waders and boots, so it wasn’t very practical to try to get to them. If I became part of the problem, it wouldn’t help anyone. The only safe way was to bite off the fly, so I (bit off the leader) and before I realized what I was doing, I started casting to them.”
Elder’s first cast was to the woman between him and the man with the little girl.
She grabbed the line and he lowered his rod, stripping (short tugs on the line) her in a bit as she held on and the current drew her toward the shoreline. By now others had gathered and waded out to help her from the shallows.
After she released the line, Elder said he ran downriver to get within range of the man and little girl. They were approaching the upper end of the rapids near the boat ramp, but were farther away and the first two casts either missed their mark or the man didn’t see the line.
On his third cast, though, Elder said “the man seemed to realize what to do and grabbed it with his free hand.” The pair was brought to shore, the man still gripping the brightly colored flyline. Elder estimates it to be at least 100-pound test strength.
Another bystander waded out and grabbed the girl and Elder wrapped his arms around the man to help him ashore.
“He kept saying ‘thank you, thank you,’ then he passed out,” Elder said.
Largely ignoring a bystander who mistakenly chided him for continuing to fish through the emergency (“Everyone else knew what I was trying to do; we laughed about it later,” Elder said), and still in his waders and boots, Elder ran up the riverbank a couple hundred yards, jumped in his car and raced through the holiday crowd to park headquarters for help.
Meanwhile, rafters had floated the man downriver to the boat ramp. Still unconscious, he was taken to a hospital.
All three were recovered and safely at home by evening.
None of the three in the water was wearing a lifejacket, Elder said.
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