An idyllic day on a Montana River sours when an errant cast in an electric storm results in a trip to the ER

At about two in the afternoon, reality struck on the Upper Blackfoot, as did the lightning. What had been an idyllic day for my clients, from back East, turned ominous. The billowing clouds took the color of a deep thigh contusion and the skies flashed like a 90’s evening in Baghdad. I concluded that we were still safe for the time being, and the weather only further kindled the trout’s interest in our bugs, so we kept fishing. I leaned to the back of the boat to release another fish for the husband, and turned around just in time to watch the wife throw another high-risk roll cast that whipped the fly right back in towards the boat. She immediately lowered her rod and sat down, cradling her face. “My god, I hooked myself in the eye.”

I always insist that clients wear glasses in my boat. The darkening skies had caused her to take hers off for that one fateful cast. I took a quick look and verified the #6 stimulator stuck cleanly through the sclera and possibly coming back out her iris. I thought quickly about how best to address this dreadful situation and lied. “It’s just hooked through your eyelid, I’ll wrap it lightly with some gauze and get you down to St. Pat’s. You’re going to be just fine.”

Fly Rods from New Zealand
Leaving good water to head to the hospital

 Her husband seemed comforted by this news and we made a hard push for the boat ramp-which was directly in the path of what had now developed into a pretty significant show of natural force. The winds started to howl and my shoulders worked hard against the growing gales. Then the rains came, in blankets.

The question “how much further” was reiterated continuously and I kept pointing to the rock escarpment opposite the take-out. The wife remained remarkably calm throughout and I did my best to emulate her demeanor by steering the conversation to their children and the adventurous week they’d had at the dude ranch. I mentioned the adage “You never remember the trips where everything goes as planned,” which garnered a smile and laugh from the wife. The husband seemed to feed off of the relaxed banter and the mood in the boat lightened as I rowed as hard as I could. Roughly a mile above the boat ramp, we reached the only spot with cell service and the husband made a call to the manager of the dude ranch. He agreed to meet us on the highway.

At the boat ramp, with the couple en route to town, I finally called my outfitter. “Don’t touch it! Don’t attempt to remove it! Make sure she keeps that @#$%&*@ eye closed!” she offered. I fibbed, and assured her that life was groovy and I was headed for the hospital.

Rods from New Zealand
Several rapids had to be navigated to get to the ER post haste

 The doc at the emergency room took a look at her eye and for the first time, broke the actual news to her. “Okay, Ma’am, the hook is in your eyeball, so we are going to have to take you in to see the ophthalmologist and he is going to have to perform surgery.”

She took a couple of deep breaths as this sunk in, and tried to choke back tears. Though she didn’t say anything about it to me, I suspect that she was grateful that this news was delivered by an eye surgeon in a hospital, rather than on a boat in the middle of a lightning storm under the care of a thirty-something derelict.

 Her husband arrived an hour later, with their daughter, who was wearing a fresh cast on her arm. Unbeknownst to her parents, she had her own adventure that day when her steed went berserk in the electric storm and bucked her off, snapping the radia and the ulna. At the sight of her daughter and news of her fractured limb, the woman, for the first time, broke down into tears and hugged her daughter and husband. That was my cue to bug out, and I left the hospital to go clean my boat, truck, and cooler, and prepare to take some other folks way out of their comfort zone the following day.

Six months later, I received a tip folded in a hand-written letter. Her vision had recovered completely, and the doctor related that she would have lost her eye had that been a barbed hook.  She thanked me for keeping my head and made me out to be some sort of mountain-man hero, though I see it the other way around. “Attitude is the difference between ordeal and adventure”, and she was the glue that bound us together through a dicey situation.