WEST YELLOWSTONE – By the time Mark Bromley came to a stop, his strength had been almost entirely absorbed by the cold current pulling him downstream.
His waders were full of water. Fly fishing line was twisted and tangled around his body, and breathing was painful. All he could do was hold on to the root of an overhanging shrub while keeping his eyes, nose and mouth out of the water.
“I was just beat. Totally, totally beat,” Bromley recalled. “I couldn’t move.”
Such an outcome was not in the forecast for the day, which started out as an enjoyable fishing experience on the Madison River in July. Bromley, his nephew and his nephew’s wife were fishing at Raynold’s Pass Fishing Access Site, about 30 miles northwest of West Yellowstone. This was a favorite spot for Bromley’s family that they visited regularly.
Also at the site that day were two fisheries staff from Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks. Dan Cook and Colin Dougherty were spraying weeds at Raynold’s Pass and had seen Bromley and his companions walk down to the river.
The three anglers decided to wade across a narrow channel to an island in the river. It was the kind of maneuver Bromley had done many times. With years of experience wade angling, kayaking, canoeing and working on the Columbia River, he was always cautious on the water, especially in rivers. So the group held hands and used wading staffs as they worked their way across.
Then in sequence, they each lost their footing and were overtaken by the swift-moving water. The group became spread out, and Bromley’s companions eventually recovered themselves along the bank. By then, however, Bromley was out of sight.
Cook and Dougherty were working close to the riverbank when they heard shouting. From a distance, they could see Bromley’s nephew getting out of the water and gesturing downstream. Cook and Dougherty dropped their equipment and ran to look for whoever else was still in trouble.
The farther the current carried Bromley, the more his situation worsened. He tried to hold on to two fly rods as he drifted, but that quickly became unmanageable as he got tied up in fly line, a hook got lodged in his finger and the tether of his fishing net wrapped around his neck, choking him as his head bobbed in and out of the water.
“I didn’t have control of anything, frankly,” Bromley said. “Because I was wearing a wading belt, my waders were initially full of air. So my feet were up, and my head was down. I was trying to keep my head above water and get a breath here and there, but mostly I was underwater.”
Bromley exhausted himself trying to regain control and get to shore. Eventually he floated into a shallow area of the river near the bank and grabbed hold of an overhanging shrub, almost 500 yards from where he fell in.
Cook and Dougherty found him there, and together, they dragged him out of the water. They helped remove Bromley’s waders, which, by then, were full of water. They removed the fly line tangled with pieces of broken fly rod. Bromley was conscious, but in pain.
Dougherty had previous medical training from military service, and after an initial assessment, he and Cook decided to call an ambulance. Cook walked up the hill to make the call and bring medical responders in to where Bromley was waiting with Dougherty. Cook and Dougherty also cared for Bromley’s two family members, who were shaken by the ordeal.
“Dan and Colin saved all three of us. They saved me directly. Clearly, I could have drowned,” Bromley said. “They went above and beyond. I can’t thank them enough.”
After spending the night in Madison Valley Medical Center in Ennis, Bromley was released and able to continue fishing on the Madison River with his family before traveling home.
Reflecting on the experience, Cook and Dougherty said they feel fortunate to have been in the right place at the right time, and that other factors contributed to the successful rescue.
“We were lucky that our equipment was shut off and we were able to hear them,” Cook said. “We were right on the bank, we knew they were there, and we were able to get cell service.”
“You wonder, ‘What could I have done differently?’” Dougherty said. “I can think of 100 things. But Dan and I work well together. We both had some experience that helped, and it worked out.”
‘A real wake-up call’
The Madison River sees hundreds of thousands of visitors each year, many of whom are experienced anglers and boaters. What this incident illustrates, however, is that any waterbody can be dangerous, and recreationists of all experience levels should take extra precautions to increase their chances of survival in the event of an accident.
Bromley hopes his encounter will help people recognize the inherent dangers that come with recreating on lakes and rivers.
“It makes you realize how quickly things could change from a relatively innocent mistake, how powerful the river is and how quickly it can get that bad,” Bromley said. “To find myself in that situation was a real wake-up call.”
However you spend time on Montana’s waters, here are some steps to help you be safe and prepared:
- Familiarize yourself with the area you plan to visit.
- Tell someone where you’re going and when you expect to return.
- Go with a group of people, whenever possible.
- Wear a life jacket. Some life jackets are inflatable, making them more compact and convenient for some recreationists.
- When wading, use a staff and wear spiked shoes.
- Watch for signs of hypothermia, which can occur in any month of the year. Pack extra clothes, food and water.
- Remember that phone signal is often unreliable in Montana’s wild places, and it may take a long time before emergency responders are able to reach you.
- River conditions change rapidly. Be aware that new hazards often appear suddenly.
For more information about being safe on the water, please visit fwp.mt.gov/recreation/safety/boating.