… to Save a Family
with a Fishing Pole.

as told to Christian DeBenedetti

ON MEMORIAL DAY weekend 2009, Portland resident Don Elder reeled in the catch of a lifetime when he saved three people from the roiling Sandy River with his fly-fishing rod. A fundraiser with the Western Rivers Conservancy, Elder explains how his lazy summer outing turned into a desperate rescue.

LISTEN UP I heard a commotion: a man was struggling in the water with a little girl in his arms. A woman had swum after them, and she was in trouble, too. It’s very easy for people who aren’t around moving water to underestimate it: how fast you can get into trouble, and how much colder the water is once you get down a foot or two.

GET INTO POSITION I was wearing waders, but I knew that if I went out too far, I would sink in a second. I also knew that if I took off my lure, my fly line would float—it’s designed to. The river was moving pretty quickly. If they were downstream of me, I knew it would be hard for them to hold onto the line, but if I got below, I might be able to steer them in.

MAKE THE CATCH The man and the girl weighed at least 250 pounds together, but I wasn’t worried about the rod snapping. The reel itself is designed to give. I wanted them to grab the fly line. The woman was about 60 feet out, and I’m normally good up to 70, so I just made a regular overhand cast. I eased her to shore in about 60 seconds, stripping the line in by hand. The man holding the girl had been in the water longer, fighting harder. It took two or three tries—they were farther out—but I got them, too. Then I took off to alert the rangers. I never saw the family again. A woman called me once to thank me for saving her family, but I didn’t push for her identity.