Fishhook in the Eye


Backcountry Fishing

Thankfully, we only got a few miles up the Wind River Range’s Middle Fork Trail, before we stopped and set up our first night’s camp. As it turned out, the whole treble hook situation would’ve been way more complicated had we gone further into the backcountry on that first day.

On our first trail morning, I climbed out of my tent just as the sun’s first rays began to shine through the tent fly. I was the only awake person in the campsite and carried a stove and my coffee paraphernalia over to a particularly nice-looking rock to sit, soak in the surrounding peaks, and brew my morning coffee. I savored my early morning ritual and realized how important a role it played in the way I dealt with the chaos that typically comes with leading groups of teenagers on adventures into the wilds.

Just as I got the stove cranking and the pot stabilized, two group members walked up from early morning fishing. And I’d thought I was the only person awake. One of the two, who happened to be my nephew, Ryan, had a treble hook dangling from his eyelid. The other, his friend Glenn, was carrying his own rod, which was devoid of any lure because it was the one hanging from his fishing partner’s face.

“Ryan’s got a lure caught in his eye,” Glenn said in something of an understatement.

The “victim” was saying nothing. He appeared calm and collected, which had me more than just a bit concerned, especially considering the circumstance.

“Is it poking your eyeball?” was the first thing out of my mouth.

“No, I don’t feel it in there,” he responded.

“Well, don’t mess with it,” I said.

In an effort to solve the problem, I mentally worked through the various tools I had in my first aid and repair kits and immediately thought of the multi-tool pliers. I figured I could just cut the barb off the hook and then pull it on through. I took them out and got ready to go to work. I looked closely at the hook and eyelid and noted that one of the three barbed fishhooks was indeed stuck into the eyelid and instantly realized the folly of my plan as I thought of all the bad things that might very well happen if it went on through and scratched or otherwise messed with his actual eyeball. He was adamant that the hook had not gone all the way through. And while I did believe him, I had to wonder if the embedded hook was on the verge of actually poking through.  Maybe he shouldn’t blink, walk, or even talk, I reasoned.

I’d been around a fair share of embedded fishhooks in feet, legs, and hands and knew from past experience that field extraction is iffy and that the type of pliers I had access to typically didn’t work. But I had to try something. After studying the situation, I readied my pliers, braced his head, and positioned the cutting part of the tool to theoretically cut the hook in half. But thankfully, I didn’t actually try to do so. I now realize that even had I actually accomplished the task, the barbed part would’ve still been in the eyelid, so I’m not really sure what would’ve been gained. I didn’t want to make a bad situation even worse. So decided that there was no field treatment I could perform to take care of the situation. But I still had to do something. Just as I entered panic mode, the water in the pot saved me as it came to a full boil. I took a moment to pour myself a cup of dark roast. It wasn’t the peaceful ease into the day that I’d been anticipating. But the process allowed me more time to think the situation through.  And as something of a bonus, the resulting caffeine incubated a new idea.

We were only a couple of miles from the trailhead where the van was parked and  I decided to just walk back there with both Ryan and Glenn (who would serve as a sort of assistant), drive to the local hospital, and let the trained people there deal with it- in a proper medical sort of way. Regardless of the cost in terms of time and trouble, I reasoned it was the best thing to do.

Ryan could still see out of his hooked eye, and I’d recently learned to stabilize the impaled object and cover the injured eye in such a situation, to diminish the blinking response of the other. And so, I stabilized and bandaged the hooked eye, walked him back to the van, and then headed to the nearest hospital. As it worked out, he was still able to see after all of the taping and bandaging was done and was thus able to move forward with little assistance.

I had no idea how the hospital would handle the situation. I was prepared to sit there with him for hours, apprise our camp office as to the situation, and call my brother. And then there was the rest of our trail group, still back out on the Middle Fork and expecting to continue their backpacking trip.

To that end, I left the group under the supervision of our other guides and suggested they spend the day fishing near camp (but to wear sunglasses). I was hopeful it wouldn’t take us more than a day to resolve the problem, but two days of fishing around camp would be one day too many, and by the second day they’d undoubtedly be antsy and ready to move on.

And as the situation progressed, the questions mounted. What if the hook came out and messed with his eyeball? What about blindness? What if he tripped while we were walking? What about the 3 guys who just wanted to go to Deep Creek Lake and didn’t even know Ryan?

With a plan, plenty of questions, and few answers, we ultimately began to walk back. Glenn’s job was to provide moral support and actual physical assistance as needed. Ryan’s job was to simply get to the van without tripping and my task was to help keep Ryan upright and then drive the van. By 9:00 am, we were on our way. It’d taken us about 2 hours to get to the campsite the afternoon before, and I figured it’d take us about 3 to get back. We arrived at the trailhead just before noon. Once there, Glenn helped Ryan into his seat while I got the driving part situated.

The drive back to town took only about 20 minutes, and so by 12:30, we were shuffling into the emergency room. Once inside, I was expecting to witness all kinds of excitement with nurses and doctors seeing our situation and springing into action with lights going off, the PA system blaring, and techs wheeling gurneys in our direction. But none of that happened.

A nurse did immediately engage us, examined Ryan, and heard our details about what happened. She sat my nephew down in a wheelchair and presented us to the admitting person, who took down all sorts of information and then made a copy of his health form. With all of the paperwork details taken care of, the admitting clerk asked us to wait in the waiting area and told us we’d soon be attended to. After only a few minutes, the door opened. A nurse came out and verified Ryan’s name while walking over and pushing him and his wheelchair back through the same door and into a treatment room. I followed, but Glenn stayed out in the waiting room. The nurse helped Ryan up onto the examination table, told me I could have a seat in one of the extra chairs, and left the room while saying the doctor would be “right in.”

A physician soon walked in. After a few lighthearted comments, the young doctor sat down on a rolling stool and wheeled up next to Ryan to take a closer look. He raised the eyelid in question, studied the lure’s stability and position, and used a penlight to look at the innards of the situation. He began his diagnosis and treatment by asking what happened. He looked closely at the spinner and then reached into a drawer, pulled out a syringe, and filled it with a deadener. I realized what was about to happen. And based on the expression in Ryan’s one unhooked eye, I could tell he’d entered into a state of either denial or disbelief. At that point, the doctor somehow injected the eyelid without Ryan going berserk. Once the shot was given,  the physician began nonchalantly talking about a big fish he’d caught the week before up on the Middle Fork, which provided a diversion while the medicine did its thing. A couple of minutes later and after confirming with Ryan that the area around the hook was indeed numb, he made a small incision on the eyelid where the treble hook had entered. And, in one smooth and interconnected motion, he pulled it out.

In another instant, he was holding it in his pliers free and clear and then just threw it into a bin marked “sharps.”

“Looks good. Blink. Do you feel anything strange?” he queried.

He gave various commands and asked questions and there were specific actions and answers he wanted to hear, before declaring success.

Once he was satisfied with his work, he gave us infection instructions. As he walked out, he said, “sunglasses, always wear sunglasses and that won’t happen again. Good luck out there. There’s some good fish on the Upper Middle Fork.” And then, he was gone.

That was easy, but what next, I wondered? After a few minutes, a nurse walked in, handed me a paper of care instructions, and said, “the doctor said to call if there are issues.”

And I said, “So we can just leave?”

“Sure,” she said. “You’re free to go.”

Both Ryan and I had thought the hospital part would be more complicated. I looked at him, and while he had a small bandage on his eyelid, he was moving and acting as “normal” as ever. And so, since it was evident there was nothing more for us to do there, we just got up and walked out. Glenn joined us as we crossed through the waiting room and he was full of questions. He apparently got his answers and finally became content with the outcome, even though it was almost too simple. Enough said. Everything was good. We were done, and it was simply time to go. The three of us walked to the van, got in, and began driving back— each feeling as if we’d forgotten something or weren’t doing what we were supposed to. In many ways, it almost seemed too easy.

Since we’d missed lunch and as a treat of some sort, we decided to stop at a local fast-food establishment to celebrate, and that’s when the chaos started up again. Ice cream, cheeseburgers, three or so miles of trail walking, pop tarts, lost shoes, wet socks, biting flies, tent hackers, stomach aches, and the list expanded.

When we got back to the campsite, the rest of the group was there after having had a good day of fishing and rock climbing but they were all verbally ready to move on down the trail the next day. And I smiled to myself as I pondered the day’s events and was thankful to be back to a thing I came to know as chaos with an answer.

Fly fishing a Wyoming alpine lake
Early morning fishing in the Rockies

Author: David Appleton

I was born and raised in Texas and currently live in the Texas Hill Country, spent some 30 years living in the smack dab middle of Colorado, and have spent a lifetime adventuring and leading others on adventures in many parts of the wild world.

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