David Walker pulled a man from the frigid waters of Lake Hartwell and took him to waiting emergency personnel Sunday during practice for the 2015 GEICO Bassmaster Classic presented by GoPro.
“It was the craziest thing, and I’ve seen a lot of stuff on the water,” said the 10-time Classic qualifier who most likely saved the man’s life. “Maybe I did. I probably did. I can’t imagine him getting as far as he had to go in the conditions.”
After helping pull the struggling man out of the 40-degree water, Walker drove him more than 300 yards to a launch ramp where sheriff deputies and an ambulance were waiting.
Walker said he didn’t get the boater’s name, but he described him as suffering early stages of hypothermia. Walker said he left the man to deputies believing he would fully recover. A sheriff took down Walker’s information and sent him on his way.
Walker was fishing on the final day of the weekend’s three-day practice period when he moved to the lower end of the lake around noon. He was within sight of a launch ramp and noticed several cars in the parking lot and one pointed down the ramp.
“I stopped on this point. I see a few people around that ramp. They’re all standing around that car,” he said. “Something catches my eye, about halfway between getting there. I see something that’s in the water. I couldn’t tell what it was, but it just kind of looked strange.”
Several more sheriff cars pulled into the parking lot on the calm and sunny day when the temperature would climb to a high of 45. The commotion piqued Walker’s curiousity.
“The more I got to looking, I thought, that looks like a person,” he said. “I don’t know what the heck’s going on. I pull my trolling motor up and start going that way.”
As he got closer, Walker said he finally discerned that it was a person trying to swim to the boat ramp. He put his trolling motor back down to get close to the man.
“You picked a heck of a day to go for a swim,” Walker said he told the man. “He said, ‘My boat sunk.’
“This is a big boy, and he is in the lake – 300 to 400 yards off shore and in open water. He’s sort of swimming. He’s making the motions but not really propelling in the water.”
Walker said his was the only boat in sight, and he still had a dilemma – getting him in the boat. He maneuvered his Ranger to get its rear ladder close to the man, who was fully dressed with jacket and boots and was using an orange child’s life preserver to help him stay afloat. Walker asked how long he had been in the water and was told maybe 10 minutes.
“I get the ladder down and he’s trying to get himself up and he just can’t,” said Walker, who tried to pull him in. “I’m afraid he’s going to pull me in, too. He tells me, ‘Just tow me in.’ He was so cold to the touch. I told him, “You’ve got to get in this boat.”
Walker said he sat down on the back deck and dug his heels in the small lip for leverage. The man finally was able to get his foot on the bottom rung of the ladder.
“He’s a big, strong guy,” Walker said. “We got past the tipping point where he was able to get his weight high over the boat and he kind of arm crawled over the back deck.”
Walker estimated him to be between 20 and 30 years old and was a “stout dude, and maybe that’s part of what helped save him.”
Hypothermia causes around 1,500 deaths a year in the United States. Body heat is lost much quicker in water, and death can occur in as few as 15 minutes in water temperatures near freezing. Symptoms of hypothermia include mental confusion and cold incapacitation, the inability to control limbs as the body shuts down the peripheral muscles to protect the core.
“I get him to the dock and there’s four or five sheriff’s cars and an ambulance,” Walker said. “He’s talking and you could tell he was sort of out of it.”
He was coherent enough to say he thought he left the plug out of his boat. Yet Walker left unclear exactly how authorities knew to look for him. He said either a sheriff had seen the man’s boat go under, or one had seen him in the water.
A sheriff also told him authorities have been searching for a lost kayaker since Wednesday. In the past two Classics, on Guntersville and Grand Lake, authorities addressing the anglers asked their help in looking for missing boaters.
“It’s so common to hear things like that, but I’ve never been there to find somebody,” Walker said. “I just sort of happened along at the right time and helped him get in. If it had been the least bit windy or wavy, I don’t think I would have ever seen him.”
Walker went back out fishing and said he saw two sheriff’s boats heading toward the ramp. He added that the water was so cold he left the ladder down the rest of the day.
“I didn’t want to stick my hand back down and lift it,” he said.
Although this is Walker’s favorite time of the year to fish, he reported his practices haven’t been very fruitful.
“I haven’t done much good at all. I think it’s really such a good time of year to catch the biggest fish in the lake,” he said. “Granted, you have to suffer through some cold, which isn’t all that much fun, but it’s always been my favorite time of year to fish. We’ll just have to dress for it and fish the conditions.”
Walker made a post of his unusual day on Facebook, and the likes and comments were abundant and congratulatory. They said he should be rewarded with a great Classic, while others said he will never be forgotten by that man’s family and that God played a part.
He came away with a renewed diligence to safety.
“It just goes to show you how important it is to have a life jacket or go with someone,” he said. “You’ve got to respect that cold water.”