Clint, one of the regulars on my annual Canadian fishing trip, is a retired emergency room doctor. Obviously he is a great guy to have along in the backcountry. Clint’s first aid kit is so complete that, when I travel with him, I toss a few bandaids in with my toothpaste and leave my own first aid kit at home. The most serious medical emergency Clint has ever had to deal with on one of our trips has been the extraction of a hook from someone’s thumb. It is a procedure he has had to perform more than once.
I thought of Clint when Buzz, one of my Mississippi River fishing buddies, recently hooked himself. It was in the Reno Bottoms, an unusually quiet backwater about fifteen miles south of La Crosse on the Minnesota side of the river. Buzz and I fish the Bottoms differently, so we usually bring two kayaks and go our separate ways on the water. I anchor myself just below the spillway and fish the fast water there. Buzz doesn’t put an anchor down at all and lets the slower current downstream determine where he fishes.
The fish were biting at the spillway. Part of me wanted to track Buzz down and invite him to join me; another part wanted to stay right where I was because I was having so much fun. The decision got made for me when I hauled in the largest channel catfish I’ve ever caught. It took me over ten minutes to bring the fish alongside my kayak and then awkwardly flip it into the boat. With a good fish story to tell, I went in search of Buzz.
I found him about a half mile away casting for bass and northern. I decided to make a few casts myself, but before I had time to switch from live bait to an artificial lure, I heard Buzz cuss and then call me over. When I paddled alongside his kayak, I saw a lure dangling from the underside of his forearm.
“That’s a weird place to hook yourself,” I said.
“My lure was caught in the weeds,” Buzz said. “When I jerked to pull it free, it flew into the air and hit me in the arm. Do you think you can push the hook the rest of the way through and cut the barb?”
“Let me get a better look,” I said. After looking closely at the wound and gently touching the lure, I replied, “I don’t think so. It’s got another half inch of meat to go through to get out. I think it would hurt a lot. You know, I’ve watched an emergency room doctor on my Canada trips pull out hooks a few times, and he always pulls them out the same way they went in. He’d rather rip the barb back through the original wound than damage healthy tissue.”
“Doesn’t that hurt?” asked Buzz.
“Yeah, the guy with the hook in him always looks pale afterwards, but he comes around. The way it works is that you hold the eye of the hook tight against your skin, while I give the barb end a quick yank. Clint always says, ‘On the count of three,’ then pulls on two. There’s a wince and some blood, and then it’s done.”
“I don’t think so. I don’t trust you,” said Buzz.
“I don’t trust me either,” I replied, “but I’d do it. Your other choice is to go to the emergency room. They’d numb you up before they cut it out.”
Buzz opted for people who knew what they were doing. Because we both had put our kayak atop our own car, we’d come to the Bottoms in separate vehicles. Our plan for getting to the hospital had been for me to follow Buzz in my car, but I lost him as soon as he pulled onto the highway – so he ended up going to urgent care by himself. It was just as well, as both hospitals in town currently practice social distancing and do not allow non-patients in their waiting rooms. I went home and waited for an hour and half before calling his house. Pat, his wife, answered the phone. When I asked to speak to Buzz, she said that she thought he’d gone fishing with me. I told her that he had and then had to explain to her that he must still be in the emergency room. As odd as it might seem, this was not the first time I’ve called a friend to see if he was okay and then had to tell his wife that her clumsy husband must still be at the hospital with a fishhook in him.
An hour after speaking to Pat, Buzz called me to say that it was good he’d gone to the hospital. It turned out he needed a tetanus shot. He also said that the doctor thought the hook was in too deep to be pulled out the way it had gone in. The doctor had pushed the hook the rest of the way through and clipped off the barb.