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News / Life / Clark County Life

Everybody Has a Story: Day of fishing turns into a disaster

By Judy DesRochers, Mill Plain
Published: August 28, 2022, 6:02am

Aug. 25, 2014, started out a very pleasant day. My brother and I headed out early in the morning for a day of salmon fishing on the Columbia River. I have fished for years in the river and ocean. Even though I have always been a non-swimmer and have a lifelong fear of water, I rarely pass up the chance to go fishing.

It was foggy when we got to the boat launch in Chinook, so we enjoyed a nice breakfast. The fog lifted and we were able to put the boat in the water. It turned out to be a beautiful day on the river.

After catching a couple of nice salmon between Ilwaco and Buoy 10, we decided to head upriver to the Astoria-Megler Bridge. We fished “the line” just west of the bridge for a while, then went under the bridge to the east side. It was such a warm, beautiful summer day, with little wind. The water on the east side was like a flat lake.

It was late afternoon by this time and after catching another fish, we decided to make one more pass before heading back.

That was our first mistake. The wind started coming up and my brother immediately said, “Reel in, now!” We headed back to Chinook but now the water was a completely different story. Waves broke over our bow.

We always thought my brother’s boat was a great fishing boat — a 20-footer with an open bow. We were soon to find out that was not the case in our current situation. The first wave filled the bow with water. With the swells coming two to four seconds apart, we couldn’t get the bow up enough to recover.

We knew we were in trouble, so I called 911 and was put through to the Coast Guard. At this point we were off “the church” (St. Mary’s Catholic Church in McGowan), a landmark on the Washington side of the Columbia River near the Port of Chinook.

My brother started shouting, “Bail! Bail!” I hung up and bailed for all I was worth. It got us nowhere, as the water continued to flow in, and we were sitting very low in the river. Then the engine quit.

Over the few minutes that this drama was unfolding I figured that we would be rescued. Now I wasn’t so sure. We had life jackets on, but with my fear of water, I wasn’t really eager to go swimming. I have to say that a calmness and conviction came over me that this was not the day for us to die.

The boat continued to fill with water. I knew we were not going to be rescued in time.

My brother said, “We need to jump — now!” I grabbed a flotation cushion, and my brother grabbed a boat bumper. I jumped first with my brother right behind me. He pushed us as far from the boat as he could.

The boat flipped over in a matter of seconds. My brother, who was 71 at the time, never once let go of me. We floated for what seemed like a long time but was probably not more than 10 minutes. We were rescued by two good Samaritans, with the Coast Guard not far behind them.

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My brother and I would like to thank the two men who rescued us. We never got their names to send them a proper thank you, but we know that they were taking a risk getting us in their boat, which was a foot smaller than ours.

Even though I really dreaded telling my husband, who was in Switzerland on business, our story had a happy ending. My purpose in writing this is to educate fellow fishermen (and women!) so they avoid what happened to us. Our perfect day ended in a perfect storm.

We stayed out too long. We underestimated the wind. We should have gone farther south before heading west, as the river usually is not as rough in that area. The tide can be surprisingly strong in its third hour of going out. Even with small drain holes, our boat could not recover from filling with water after taking a wave over the bow.

My brother has been fishing for five decades at the mouth of the Columbia, but never encountered the conditions we endured that fateful day. If reading this helps even one fisherman make better choices, then it was worth the racing pulse and pounding heart I experienced writing this.

Everybody Has a Story welcomes nonfiction contributions, 1,000 words maximum, and relevant photographs. Send to: neighbors@columbian.com or P.O. Box 180, Vancouver WA, 98666. Call “Everybody Has an Editor” Scott Hewitt, 360-735-4525, with questions.