Carrying a weapon on the rivers and lakes is a personal decision; here’s why one Northwest angler brings along a handgun when he’s chasing steelhead and salmon.
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the January 2016 issue of Northwest Sportsman, a regional magazine covering Washington, Oregon, Idaho and southern British Columbia. Follow-up thoughts from a local gun writer will appear in the March 2016 issue.
by Terry J Wiest, Steelhead University
I used to never think about packing a gun while fishing. I never had a reason to until several years back while out on the Green River alone. This would change my opinion on carrying a gun, and it still lingers in my mind some 15 years afterwards. I was wandering back to one of my “secret” holes, one I’d discovered as a teenager and had never, ever seen another angler or trace of another human at since the early 1980s. I’d only shown it to two of my fishing partners, both of whom were sworn to secrecy and who knew I’d disown them if word ever got out.
I was 20 minutes into the usual 30-minute hike on animal trails when a person appeared from nowhere. I literally almost jumped out of my waders.
The dude, who looked strung out and definitely not a fellow fisherman, asked, “Hey, you got some smokes?”
“Nope, I don’t smoke,” I said.
“Do you have any money?”
“Nope, I’m fishing.”
“I need some money!”
“Sorry, I can’t help you.”
“Dude, you don’t understand, I need money.”
“Sorry, can’t help you,” I said, and walked by him.
Was I scared? Yes, sh*tless!
I reached my fishing hole but couldn’t get the thought that he was stalking me out of my mind, or that I would meet up with him again on the way back to my vehicle. Neither scenario materialized, but afterwards I drove straight to a gun shop and purchased my first self-defense weapon. Now, if I’d been packing and ran into the guy, would I have drawn my weapon? No – I did not feel my life was threatened.
Would I have felt more comfortable? Hell, yes! Should my life have become threatened, I would have had the tools and knowledge available to use them. From that point on I realized that the outdoors aren’t just filled with friendly fellow anglers and hunters. There are also tweakers and criminals out there.
I PICK WHEN to carry. If I’m alone, you can count on me being armed. If I’m with friends, it all depends. Drift boat or with a guide? Nope, I don’t see a need. Banking it? Yep, usually gonna be packing. And that brings me to another incident.
Once, while on the Calawah River in Forks, I’d been fishing with a buddy and we decided to split up. I fished from the mouth up, while he went from the ponds down. Only about a quarter mile up the river I watched two anglers drift fishing a hole. To me, the hole was meant for a float and jig. I watched and conversed with the pair for about 10 minutes, then decided to ask if I could throw my float out.
First cast and it was “Fish on!” The dude who had been fishing the hardest was pissed off, to say the least.
“WTF … You SOB, come into my hole and steal my fish! I oughta kick your ass!”
Not wanting to cause any problems, I told the guy to take my rod. “Here, you reel it in,” I said. The guy was furious, though his buddy was cracking up, saying, “Dude, you got freaking schooled!”
To me, the fish wasn’t worth it. But instead of accepting my offer, the duo left, leaving me fighting the steelhead, which turned out to be a nice 10-pound native that I let go. Did I feel a need to let them know I was armed? No. Was I glad that I was? Yes.
THERE ARE DANGEROUS people out in the woods, and nobody knows that better than Northwest game wardens. You may recall the July 2010 issue’s Big Pic feature on marijuana growers invading Northwest hunting grounds. And the September 2010 Dishonor Roll, which highlighted felons and others with outstanding warrants that Oregon and Washington fish and wildlife police encounter afield. The latter featured one particular license check that nearly ended up very badly.
WDFW Deputy Chief Mike Cenci described it this way:
“The small cluster of cars near the bridge over lower Crab Creek in Grant County caught Capt. Chris Anderson’s attention. He and Officer Chad McGary had been on their way to focus some attention on illegal nighttime sturgeon fishing in the Columbia. It was about 8:30 p.m. What was a few minutes spent checking this group first? ESA-listed fish use this waterway and a little overt presence never hurt to remind people that any salmonids they might catch should be released. Little did Chad and Chris know that a simple license and bag check would result in nearly getting killed.
“Walking down the rocky bank, Chris found a man and his son doing what most fathers and sons should be doing, spending time together. But this was no ordinary father-son duo. The father, a man without words, silently produced his fishing license as requested. The son, who was still fishing, claimed that his license was at home in his wallet. No problem, Chris told him the officers would be able to check license status with their laptop computers. Chris decided to walk across the road to the other side of the creek and check a few anglers there, while Chad dealt with the kid with the forgotten license.
“Chad followed the 18-year-old up the bank to check on a license that probably did not exist, an act that he had done a hundred times before. As they walked, a metal-on-metal clinking sound put Chad’s radar up. ‘What’s in your pocket?’ he asked. The son turned around quickly and began reaching for his back pocket with his right hand. Trained in officer safety to control a suspect’s hands, Chad moved to stop him. The reaction from the kid came as a surprise, shoving Chad
“Chad regained his footing, just in time to find himself staring into the muzzle of a .45-caliber handgun. The familiar but sickening sound of the slide being racked back to chamber a bullet, followed by the kid spitting out the words ‘Motherf%%$,’ cemented the seriousness of the situation.”
As it turned out, the father and son were both illegal aliens, according to Cenci, and the father was wanted on an unrelated felony warrant. They had several reasons not to want to be detained – including a Class C felony for being an alien in possession of a firearm, according to Cenci.
But what about those of us who are legally packing – how should we deal with a license check?
“Given the inspection-oriented nature of much of our work, we really never know whether a person is harboring a problem that may turn into an officer-safety issue,” Cenci says. “While our officers are great with people, there is always that element of the unknown that can make us uneasy, especially if we don’t understand someone’s behavior, which there may be a reasonable explanation for. So, letting the officer know right away (you’re carrying) is great. We appreciate and support personal defense and are fairly comfortable around firearms, provided we know where they are. Someone who lets an officer know he/she is packing is not likely to do that if they intend harm.”
HUMANS ARE ONE thing. Animals are another, and wildlife encounters may warrant packing for personal protection.
When I first started carrying, it was suggested I go with a .45 for stopping power, as a 9mm would pass through a hyped-up two- or four-legged predator without stopping them. With today’s enhancements to ammunition, this no longer seems the case. I’ve traded my .45 for a Walther PPS 9mm and feel more confident with this gun than ever before. Ballistics prove the new 9mm loads will stop an intruder with a well-placed round just as effectively as a .45. The key to me is getting off the second and third round faster and more accurately than I could with the .45 because of the added recoil.
Now, while most 9mms and .45s might thwart a cougar or small bear, don’t think they are the answer while in big-bruin country – especially grizzly. While fishing Southeast Alaska’s Situk River for steelhead in April with a couple of great friends, Mike Zavadlov and Steve Turner, we happened to see a huge sow downriver. We settled back in the drift boat while looking for cubs.
Sure enough, cub No. 1 and cub No. 2 scooted across the river and the sow soon followed. Having thought we’d given them enough time to move off we proceeded cautiously downriver. But suddenly the woods came alive – there was a third cub that had not yet crossed all the way! The mama bear smashed through small trees and raced towards the river, snot and spit billowing from her jowls. Thankfully for us it was a fake charge – just enough to get No. 3 safely up on shore.
Although we had a shotgun and bear spray, we all knew nothing would have stopped her. If she had wanted us, we were gone.
Do I wish I’d been packing that time? No, as I don’t believe it would have made a difference. Even a .45 would have bounced right off her big old head, pissing her off even more. Indeed, packing does not rectify every situation.
THE MOST TROUBLE I’ve had while packing has always been the how. I packed my .45 with a shoulder holster. While I knew it was there, it was incredible bulky and not the easiest to draw under heated conditions. As I exclusively wear Simms Fishing Products while fishing, I asked the company’s Northwest representative, Erick Neufield, what he suggested. He recommended I contact the guys at gunfightersinc.com, as they have the perfect solution while wearing waders.
I spoke with Woody Dixon, their sales and marketing manager who is also an avid high-lakes fisherman. Together, he and company owner and combat veteran Adam Harris developed the Kenai Chest Holster. The name alone lets you know it’s for us anglers. The holster itself is made from Kydex, with each holster molded specifically for each pistol it’s designed for. The company chose waterproof materials for those situations where you’re out in weather all day (say, like winter steelheading).
It’s also made in the Northwest. I ordered one for my Walther PPS 9mm and couldn’t be happier. The fit is exact and it’s extremely comfortable, almost as if it was molded to my body. A pouch is also available for a spare magazine close at hand. I’ve never been more confident and comfortable while packing. Should the situation ever occur, I can draw my weapon and know that it’s all lined up. I also ordered a Ronin holster for those times when I pack while not fishing.
I’ve never seen such quality and craftsmanship in a holster that is designed with sportsmen in mind.
IS PACKING FOR everyone? Probably not. You must make that choice. Given the circumstances of your life being threatened, are you willing to take the life of another? Only you can make that choice, and you will have to live with the consequences. Every time I pack, I make a conscious decision about whether or not I’m capable of taking a life to save my own.
This is not about machismo, threats or tactics to ward others away from a fishing hole. This is about life and death – yours. NS