Close Call: Stranded, Fisherman Battled Hypothermia, Ate Raw Fish

Craig Horlacher was flyfishing in Colorado when he broke his leg. Facing hypothermia, he ate raw fish to survive.

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I had always wanted to check out some of the remaining streams in northern Colorado that still have native cutthroats. So I drove up on a Friday, about 50 miles north of Steamboat, and camped for the night.

The next morning I fished in a remote side canyon of the middle fork of the Little Snake River. As I waded, I noticed that a lot of the rocks had recently fallen off the walls and the footing was unstable in places. Around 1 p.m., I was fishing a pool that was about 3 or 4 feet deep when—just as I was going to unhook a rainbow—I slipped. I just flat out took a dive, slamming my knee on one of the submerged rocks. Right away, I knew that my leg was broken.

My car was less than a half mile away, but it was on top of the canyon, and I couldn’t bear any weight on my leg.

So there I sat…in the middle of the stream, on these medium-size rocks. I considered making it over to the bank, about 20 feet away, but it was really nothing more than a muddy shelf, a kind of false refuge. I didn’t want to risk falling and getting soaked and maybe not getting up. My strategy was to stay put, where I was visible. I always leave my itinerary with my neighbor. Someone will come looking for me, I thought. A couple of times an hour I would bellow without effect.

The days were warm. But this was August in Colorado; when the wind blows down that canyon at night, you’re shivering the whole time. Each night I would just hunker down. I was wearing hip boots and a windbreaker, and I had two emergency blankets. The rocks kept most of my body out of the water.

I was able to catch fish, which I filleted. Colorado sushi.

The sound of the water helped me meditate. I let myself go into a state of contemplating and not worrying. I prayed.

By the end of the fifth night I was delirious. I was facedown when the search-and-rescue team found me. My body temperature was 86.

I was in the hospital for 33 days, 15 of those in the ICU. The early part was very much in the realm of dream. I was treated for hypothermia and pneumonia. My tibia was broken in three places, and they placed five screws and a titanium rod in my leg.

I’m grateful for a second chance. The key if you get in trouble is to assess your situation as unemotionally as you can, and once you’ve made a decision, stick with it. —AS TOLD TO TOM TIBERIO

From the February 2010 issue of Field & Stream.