Staying safe on the Roanoke River

Published 2:22 pm Monday, April 28, 2014



Fishermen and boaters from all over the United States will be flocking to the Roanoke River in Weldon, N.C. during the next month to fish for fabulous striped bass. Weldon is known as the striped bass capitol of the world for a good reason.

Striped bass – also known as rockfish, stripers, rock – are swarming into this section of the river on their annual spawning run, and the waters of the Roanoke are attracting anglers from across the country. Fly rodders and other anglers using an array of angling equipment wade, kayak, canoe, bank fish and more in an attempt to bring one of our finest sport fish to the boat.

This section of the Roanoke River where the striped bass congregate is just below the class one rapids (or two depending on how high the water levels are).

Anglers and boaters need to use extreme caution when fishing in the area just below the rapids. The Wildlife Resources Commission launching ramp is found there and boats will be closely packed in prime fishing spots. Swift water, underwater rocks and crowded conditions make for some very dangerous fishing and boating conditions. This year’s heavy rains have the water levels high and the conditions there are even more dangerous than usual.

Anglers can slip into the water on muddy banks and, before they can think twice, be swept downstream. Boaters find that launching powerboats in this swift water can be dangerous as well. It is not unusual for a boater who’s launching or taking out to lose control of the boat and fall in.

Kayakers and canoeists are in their element in this unusually swift water and often go to these rapids just to shoot through these swift rapids. They also are known to capsize in these conditions. Luckily, most of these paddlers who wear life jackets survive wet and happy.

Power boaters are not usually inclined to wear their personal flotation devices (life jackets) in these conditions. The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission game wardens, the U.S. Coast Guard and all water safety instructors urge boaters to wear their PFDs, but unfortunately a large number of us do not often comply with this advice. There’s been a lot of talk about requiring boaters to wear PFDs on the water.

A couple of years ago, I was fishing in the crowded waters just below the rapids at Weldon, watching as two anglers in their 14-foot aluminum boat (with a new 25 HP Honda outboard attached) pulled up very close to the mainstream of the rapids and proceeded to throw their anchor into the jumble of underwater rocks. They then proceeded to tie the anchor line off to the stern of their small boat.

Using some very expensive looking fly rod gear, they commenced casting their streamers into the swift current. One angler pulled out an expensive movie camera and was making a film of the trip. They caught a few fish then decided that maybe their position there was a bit hazardous. They went about pulling in their anchor to be able to drift downstream. Of course, the anchor was firmly wedged in the rocks and the boat’s captain gave a mighty pull on the line to try and free it.

I’ve never seen a boat go underwater so fast in my life. In seconds, the boat’s stern went underwater and with the heavy motor on the stern of the light boat, the vessel acted as a diving plane and went completely underwater. Neither angler was wearing a PFD and, consequentially, both were thrown into the swift water. Fishing rods, tackle boxes, cameras, wallets, car keys and all gear were lost. Luckily, the fishermen could swim and nearby boaters pulled them out of the cold water. Other boaters tied a line on the now floating but upside down aluminum boat and tried to pull it to shore.

NCWRC enforcement officers aided in recovering the boat. Then, they had to fill out lengthy boating accident report on the sinking and near loss of life. The boat was salvaged, but thousands of dollars worth of gear was lost. The good news was that two lives were saved.

With the newer inflatable PFDs now legal, many boaters are now ditching the old bulky and hot PFDs. Still, from what I’m seeing, most of the PFD wearers are the small boaters. Boaters and passengers aboard larger boats, such as the offshore big game fishing boats, seldom wear PFDs, unless in the presence of unusually rough or threatening weather.

I was one of those non-PFD wearers aboard a 50-footer fishing 25 miles off the Abacoes (Bahamas) on a relatively calm day several years ago. I was sitting on a large wooden icebox located on the rear deck of the boat, as we trolled lines hoping for a wahoo or marlin when a rouge wave unexpectedly hit us on the port side of the boat.

Ordinarily, this would not have been a problem, but as the boat lurched up on its left side, causing the heavy icebox I was calmly sitting on to also lurch up. I was thrown backward out of the boat as if the icebox was an ejection seat.

There I was floating in the Atlantic Ocean, far offshore, and I watched helplessly as the boat moved a couple of hundred yards ahead before anyone missed me and screamed at the boat’s captain that there was a man overboard. I waved at the boat that I was okay and the frightened boat captain spun the boat around and came back to pick me up. I didn’t really get scared until I was back on the boat. You can bet that I’ll be thinking about wearing a PFD when on deck, even if I am on a large boat now.

In the swift, rock infested waters like the Roanoke River below Weldon, wearing a PFD is a darned good idea. Even for wading or bank anglers, who can easily and quickly step off into really deep water, a PFD can be a lifesaver.