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Catching the Big One

Jim Gates

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Chris on the hook
(Jim Gates)
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More than 30 million people in the United States fish each year. What a nice relaxing way to spend the weekend. Kicking back, waiting for a nibble. But sometimes fishing can go wrong. Very wrong.

How to remove a hook

"We've seen fish hooks stuck in the hand and the leg at the same time," says Dr. Tom Edwards of the Douglas County emergency room in Alexandria, Minn. "So they come walking in with their hand on their thigh wondering how to get rid of their fish hook that has somehow managed to get them in two locations."

Some 247 lakes surround Alexandria. Thousands of anglers come up each week in the summer, and without fail, each week one or two will impale themselves with a fish hook. If you find yourself on the wrong end of a hook, don't panic. Just go see Dr. Edwards or one of his associates.

The Douglas County emergency room isn't like one of those chaotic, noisy ERs you might see in a big city. At least not on this Friday afternoon. Dr. Edwards and the nurses are sitting around just waiting for something to happen. Then Chris Smith walks in. He's got a yellow fishing lure dangling from his right index finger.

"I'm gonna have you lie down, hand flat on the bed, so that you won't move when I remove the hook," explains Dr. Thomas. Chris is a big, stoic guy. He calmly lies back as Dr. Thomas examines his finger. Chris is an accountant from Minneapolis. This morning he was fishing on Lake Miltona when he got a bite on his line. He reeled in a rock bass. Then it happened.

"Just a freakļæ½I was in the process of taking the hook out and the fish flopped and kind of fell out of my hand," Chris says. "The hook the fish wasn't on, that's the one that's in my hand now."

The hook stuck in Chris's finger is called a rapala. It's the most common lure that Dr. Edwards removes. They are usually small, brightly colored fake fish with bunches of treble hooks up and down their bodies. Rapalas are excellent at catching bass and walleye and the occasional angler.

Chris lays his hand on the side of the gurney and Dr. Edwards pulls out his fish hook removal box. Inside are bandages, string, pliers, syringes. The doctor injects Chris's finger with a local anesthetic as he calmly talks to him. "Now, what I'd like you to do is hold your hand real steady and we're going to flip it out."

Dr. Edwards wraps a string around the curved part of the hook and then pulls the string taught. Next, he presses down on the eye of the hook and with a quick upward flip of the wrist, he pops the hook right out. Chris doesn't even flinch.

"There's a little bit of bleeding but nothing too bad," remarks Edwards. "That was pretty embedded. I'm glad we used some local anesthetic."

There are four ways to remove a fish hook: The back-out method, the push- through method, the needle technique and the string technique. Dr. Edwards prefers the string technique. But sometimes it's not just the hook that he has to deal with.

"The first thing you have to is remove the fish from the hook that's stuck in the person's arm," says Edwards. "Someone came in here with a bass that was very much dead, and the fish hook in the hand and the other still in the bass."

They have seen fish hooks in hands, shoulders, necks, eyelids, ears.

Don-he didn't want to give his last name--works as a nurse for Dr. Edwards. He once had somebody walk into the ER with a fish hook embedded up the nostril. "It was hooked into both sides," Don explains. "We pushed the one end through the outside and clipped it. Then we backed it back through and lifted it out of the septum."

The fishing season runs from Memorial Day to Labor Day. During those three months, Douglas County ER doctors and nurses will remove anywhere from 50 to a hundred hooks. So far this summer they have removed 26. Dr. Edwards recommends getting a tetanus shot if you haven't had one in the last five years. After a hook is removed, the victim is introduced to a special friend.

"This is Mr. Freshwater Ferdie," says Edwards, pointing to a life-sized, crude drawing of a smiling fisherman hanging on the bathroom door. "Freshwater Ferdie has a unique standing in the community because he knows a lot of people who have had the unfortunate occasion of meeting him."

Ferdie has a blue hat, red vest and pinstripe pants. Every season the nurses retrace the drawing, color it in and give it a new name. Wally Walleye, Patty Pike, Trapper Don. The doctors mark on him where they removed each fish hook. Sort of like a cartoon stat sheet.

Dr. Edwards takes a pen and marks an X on Ferdie's right index finger to show where Chris Smith was injured. Fish hook victim number 27.

Dr. Edwards says that Freshwater Ferdie brings a much needed dose of humor to what can be an embarrassing situation. "I think it makes people realize it's a little funnier than they think. Most walk out with big smile on their face because now they've been recorded in history on Freshwater Ferdie."

  • Music Bridge:
    Slips pt 3
    Artist: Ribbon Effect
    CD: Slip (Room Tone)


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  • By Jody Sanchez

    From Alta Loma, CA, 07/29/2008

    My experience with a fish hook wasn't as fun as with Mr. Freshwater Ferdie, but I'll bet it was cheaper. It took place on my first day of a 2 week sailboat vacation with friends in the Windward Islands. My forearm got hooked before I even made it into the water at beautiful Tabago Cay. After trying for 30 minutes to get the hook out, one of the local "boat boys" kindly used his cell phone to make sure the doctor was in, then took me and my husband in his motorboat to Union Island, about 20 minutes away. After a short wait I was called into the office of Dr. Goodluck (his real name), where he spent about 45 minutes with me. Dr. Goodluck tried to get the hook out but had no luck so he made a small incision in my arm, removed the hook, sewed me up, gave me an injection and a prescription for antibiotics. The total cost of the emergency room doctor visit and minor surgery.....$35.

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