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Idyllic day outdoors turns deadly serious

The morning was cold but not quite miserable. You just had to dress for it. It was one of those mornings you find only in the mountains, when the air is so clear you can see for 100 miles and the rising sun makes the snow look like millions of tiny diamonds scattered across the landscape.

Normally I would have been content to stand on the cabin porch and take in the view, but the time had come for serious fishing. At stake was the Holey Ladle, the trophy awarded to the angler who hauls in the largest fish during the Man Camp Ice Fishing Tournament at Utah’s Panguitch Lake. You won’t find this event on any formal calendar, but for the men in my sister-in-law’s extended family, the annual Presidents Day event is serious business.

Two days earlier, nine of us made our way onto Panguitch Lake’s snow-covered ice to begin our search for large rainbow trout and test various baits and rigs. The lake hadn’t been giving up a lot of fish, but anglers were reportedly connecting on rainbows up to 5 pounds. We had to clear as much as 2 feet of snow before we could drill through another 18 to 24 inches of ice.

Not one to mess with something that isn’t broken, I went right to a slip rig with a No. 16 treble tied on the end of a 2-foot leader. About 15 inches above that I tied in a dropper and a No. 12 bait hook. On the treble I placed just enough rainbow-colored PowerBait to cover the hook. I baited the other with a fat mealworm and dropped the rig into the ice hole. Within minutes I pulled a fat 17-inch rainbow trout through the ice, soon followed by a 15-incher.

My brother, Chris, also landed a couple of beautiful fish. One was a 19-inch rainbow.

Because Chris and I were the only members of the group to catch fish that day, we figured one of us stood a good chance to take home the Holey Ladle.

I caught the snowmobile express that carried each of us from our cabin to where our vehicles were parked. The ride was brisk but invigorating, and all seemed fine.

But circumstances suddenly changed. In an instant I went from taking full, deep breaths of cold mountain air to struggling for every ounce of oxygen.

"Six months working out and nearly 40 pounds lost and this is what I get?" I said when Chris asked if I was all right.

My situation quickly deteriorated. There was no chest pain, but the harder I fought to breathe, the harder the fight became. Then everything faded to black. A day that had begun so beautifully and peacefully had taken a drastic turn.

At some point I regained semi-consciousness. Chris and the others loaded me into the pickup and in record time we made the hour’s drive from Panguitch Lake to the hospital in Cedar City. It was there I learned the cause of my problem: a pulmonary embolism. A large blood clot had miraculously passed through my heart and broken into pieces, which lodged in my lungs.

After eight days in the hospital, I am on the road to recovery, but the work has just begun. I suppose this is a reminder that our outdoor adventures don’t always run as smoothly as we hope and that we should never go it alone. My brother saved my life.

Who’s riding shotgun for you?

Freelance writer Doug Nielsen is a conservation educator for the Nevada Department of Wildlife. His "In the Outdoors" column, published Thursday in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, is not affiliated with or endorsed by the NDOW. Any opinions he states in his column are his own. He can be reached at dougnielsen@att.net.

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