November 28, 2019
By M.D. Johnson
The text message from Brad Bortner, former chief of the USFWS Migratory Bird Division, now retired, was simple. “I could use a hand on the water today. Looking for a lost hunter.”
For the next several hours, we looked. Hoping we could find something; dreading that we would. We didn’t. No one did.
The Columbia River is an unforgiving beast. And she often reveals little, if anything, of what she’s done.
As seasoned waterfowlers, we’ve all done it. We’ve taken that step too far. Overloaded a boat. Forgotten basic firearm safety. But, for whatever reason, we survived. Some don’t. Accidents happen, but a combination of preparation and common sense can keep us out of the majority of dangerous situations.
Washington’s Fred Slyfield knows these situations all too well. Before retiring in 2013, Slyfield served 30 years with the Kittitas County Sheriff’s Office in a Search and Rescue capacity. He’s seen and done a lot in terms of S&R, particularly when it comes to waterfowl hunters.
Equipment, or lack thereof, and overloading are what Slyfield sees most often.
“Small boats on big water that get into trouble,” he said. “You have four guys, two dogs, 100 decoys, along with guns and ammunition and sundries, and you’re left with 4 inches of freeboard.”
But the biggest issue on the water, Slyfield said, is camouflage.
“The bright orange vest with the reflective tape that’s visible for miles is going to be the first thing that ‘pops’ when someone’s looking for you with a searchlight,” Slyfield said.
Slyfield’s standard on-the-water safety garb consists of a Class 1 PFD in bright orange with the reflective tape, and complete with a whistle, three small pen flares, a space blanket and a battery-powered strobe light.
Land or sea, I carry my cellphone, along with a portable power pack that allows me to fully recharge my phone on the fly. Slyfield, however, takes technology a step further, thanks to his Garmin inReach satellite transceiver.
“Tell people where you’re going and when you plan on being back,” Slyfield said. “If where you’re going is remote, leave a map with some lines on it describing where you’re going and how you plan on getting there.”
First, of course, learn to read a map. A two-dimensional one.
“Basic firearm safety is paramount,” Slyfield said. “I have my hunters stovepipe a round with the bolt closed. That way, at a glance, I can see that the guns are empty.”
It’s easy to, as Slyfield said, grow complacent afield. Shotguns become familiar. Safety becomes secondary. And the truth of the matter is, it should always be the primary concern.
AND FINALLY, SOME COMMON SENSE
Sadly, the most easily attainable element in this safety equation, common sense, is also the most oft-forgotten or neglected.
“Sometimes,” Slyfield said, “we’ll get to the ramp and the waves will be crashing onto the shore. And you know what? We’ll sit and drink coffee until daylight and then reconvene. Too, and I’ll blame the internet for part of this, duck hunting has become a (measure of manliness). It’s not a great day without a limit in 45 minutes and pictures posted immediately.
“It’s this simple,” he concluded. “There’s not a duck in the world worth drowning over.”