Skip to main content
andré picard

"Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after," Henry David Thoreau said philosophically.

On a more practical note, it is worth observing that at the start of a new fishing season, many men also go fishing and never come home.

Fishing may be relaxing, it may be fun, or it may be work for some. But fishing is also the activity most frequently associated with drowning and other water-related fatalities.

In the decade from 1991-2000, there were 5,900 water-related deaths in Canada; of that total, 889 died fishing.

More fishers drown than swimmers. And more fishers die than power boaters, canoeists, scuba divers, sailors and kayakers combined.

These grim yet fascinating statistics can be found in the just-published fifth volume of "Drowning and other water-related injuries in Canada." While it will never hit the bestseller list, the statistical and analytical work done by Peter Barss, Cait Beattie and Sophie Lapointe (with the backing of the Canadian Red Cross Society) is a monumental contribution to public-health literature.

Canada is a country surrounded on three sides by oceans, and dotted by lakes, rivers and streams. There are few Canadians who do not live within a short driving or walking distance from a large body of water.

Water is where we head frequently for recreation - in all four seasons - be it swimming, boating, skating or fishing - transportation, work and subsistence.

Yet, while we revel in water's delights, we too rarely consider its dangers. Nor do we invest in prevention programs to ensure the safety of the millions of Canadians who spend significant time near water.

The earlier parts of the Red Cross drowning report focused on swimming, boating (motorized and non-motorized) and ice-related activities. But the latest chapter looks at fishing.

The reasons men (and fishing is almost exclusively a male pursuit) drown while fishing are numerous. But regardless of where incidents occur - fishing from a motor boat, a canoe, in a stream, in an ocean, from shore, or on ice - there are a couple of constants - alcohol and carelessness (or, put another way, loss of judgment and lack of respect for the power of water).

"Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach him how to fish and he will sit in a boat and drink beer all day," goes the humorous twist on the old aphorism.

But the fact that at least half of the drownings in this country are linked to excessive consumption of alcohol is not funny - it's tragic.

Fishing and drinking becomes a deadly combo because it leads to reckless behaviours such as speeding in a motorboat, heading out on rough waters and capsizing, wading into fast currents, driving your vehicle on thin ice, and falling from a boat while standing to urinate.

But one of the most striking statistical findings in the new report is that only a tiny fraction of fishers wear flotation devices (or life jackets, if you prefer).

Of the hundreds of fishing-related drowning deaths studied, only 10 per cent of victims wore a flotation device. In more than one-quarter of the incidents, there was not even a life jacket on-board, and in most of the rest of cases, there was safety equipment available but it was not used.

Nearly half of all fishing-related drownings involved small, open powerboats. This type of boat is favoured for fishing because it is generally comfortable, easy to use, and it has plenty of room for a beer cooler and bait.

But these boats are often overloaded and taken out in poor conditions like choppy waves and high winds.

Fishing is highly seasonal - best in the spring and fall (and ice-fishing in the winter, obviously). Canadian lakes, rivers and oceans tend to be icy cold a goodly part of the time; the Red Cross report found that cold or extremely cold weather water was present in 98 per cent of fatal cases.

The reality is when you fall into cold water, you can't survive very long - especially if you have no flotation device to assist you.

Another sad statistic is that many, many people in this land of water are poor swimmers. Almost two-thirds of fishers who drowned were poor or non-swimmers. The report also shows that many, many drownings occur within 50 metres from shore - about two lengths of an Olympic pool.

The statistical report is not merely an exercise in gruesome cataloguing, it is designed to inform public policy: If we know how, when and why people drown, we can prevent these tragedies.

What the Red Cross drowning reports tell us is that we need to do much better health-education campaigns about the dangers of water. We also need to legislate and enforce the wearing of flotation devices (which are the equivalent of seat belts in cars); we need to enforce impaired-driving rules on the water as strictly as on roadways; and we need to make water-safety programs an integral part of the school curriculum so that, in our water-blessed nation, everyone learns how to swim, knows how to use safety equipment like life jackets, understands currents and ice safety, and knows how to perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

Water sports like fishing should be fun, relaxing, maybe even mind-expanding, but they should not be mindless and fatal.