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A fishing rod cost 69-year-old angler Robert Gardella his life on May 24, according to this story from the Sacramento Bee. Gardella was fishing from his anchored boat on the Colorado River near Lake Havasu by himself when one of his rods ended up going overboard. It’s not known how or why the rod took a swim. 

Witnesses say Gardella jumped in after the rod but quickly came back to the surface where he struggled for a few moments before disappearing underwater. 

The local sheriff’s department searched the area by boat and helicopter until sunset. Early the next morning, Gardella’s body was recovered by divers and pronounced dead. 

Gear Goes Overboard, You Don’t Have to

The Sacramento Bee story is a sad one, but hopefully sharing it does some good. Gear goes overboard all the time. I have lost dozens of rods overboard in my lifetime, including brand new ones that had never hit the water until the day they wound up in the drink. I’ve watched expensive sunglasses, cameras, and pocketknives sink to the murky depths of lakes, rivers, and ocean. There are two of my cell phones at the bottom of the Delaware River and one 100-plus-miles offshore in Hudson Canyon. Every time something of value goes overboard you wince, smack yourself for being so careless, and possibly have stomach pains for a while. Your day might be ruined, but losing things overboard comes with the territory when fishing, especially now that we’re all carrying minicomputers in our pockets and extra gear like GoPro cameras. 

As much as the loss stings, nothing you could drop overboard is worth dying for. Mistakes happen, and no one is infallible, but don’t make a bad deal worse. When you decide to dive in, anything could happen. 

Prevent Valuable Gear from Going In the Drink 

dry box
Every angler needs a dry box. Joe Cermele

The best thing you can do is prevent your gear from going overboard in the first place. I’ve gotten more conscious about keeping valuables safe on the water and minimizing loss overboard as I’ve aged. 

But then there’s the kid factor, and I know I’m not the only dad that feels like he’s herding cats while confined on a boat with his kids. Here are a few things I do and rules I follow to reduce the odds of having to replace lost gear or worse, dealing with the crowds and painfully slow service at my local Verizon store. 

Dry Box

Every angler needs to invest in a quality dry box whether he or she is fishing from a boat or the bank. I’ve had a Pelican R60 Ruck case for years, and it’s become an essential piece of kit every time I hit the water. Granted, there are less expensive cases on the market, but I’ve come to really trust Pelican cases for their ruggedness and watertightness. 

Regardless of the brand you choose, a small waterproof box that fits your keys, wallet, phone, and anything else you deem critical for headache-free living once you get off the water is indispensable. The trick, of course, is not opening that box 4 million times a day or at risky times. When I go kayak fishing, my dry box gets tethered to the seat. If I need to use my phone, I take it out, close and latch the case, and the second I get my photo or answer that text, back in it goes. The box is tucked away before I make another cast. That way I know that if my kayak rolls, I might lose fishing gear but I’m still getting home and can call for help if I need it. 

On big boats, I still use the case and store it in the cabin or console until I absolutely need something inside.

Rod Tethers

The idea of tethering rods to the boat often seems lame to anglers—until your cousin’s best friend who doesn’t fish tags along and sends a $500 combo to Davy Jones’ locker. Tethers are very common on offshore charter boats where inexperienced clients are handed heavy trolling outfits that can cost thousands of dollars apiece. Though it would be difficult to use one when casting and reeling lures, I like tethers when rods are static during trolling sessions or when soaking baits. 

The most common time a rod ends up overboard is when a fish is putting pressure on it while it’s still in the rod holder. Someone with less experience goes to grab it and isn’t ready for the transfer of energy from the holder to their hand and arm, or they fumble getting the butt out of the holder under the strain of a bucking fish. Any time I’m fishing with kids or rookies in a scenario that requires me to use my high-end gear, I’ll use tethers. They’re nothing fancy. All you need is a spool of cheap paracord and a couple carabiners or bolt snaps. Based on the layout of your boat, tethers should be long enough to provide plenty of room to move and maneuver the rod, but not so much that there’s excess loose cord laying around. With spinning outfits I’ll attach the tether around the reel stem, and with baitcasting reels, I’ll loop the tether around the entire base of the reel. The other end of the tether can be looped around a rail or tied off to the nearest cleat. Keep in mind, a tether isn’t necessarily meant to stay on during the entire fight, but it can save your gear in those first few chaotic moments when a big fish hits. 

Use Cheap Outfits

I’m lucky. Because of my career choice I happen to have piles of rods and reels in my garage, many of which are off-brand or inexpensive, accumulated over years of doing gear tests for various magazines. Do all these rods and reels perform up to my standards? Not really, but my 5-year-old son doesn’t know the difference between a silky-smooth high-end reel and a clunky junker worthy of the Wal-Mart discount bin. 

He loves to go catfishing and striper fishing on the river, and it’s not uncommon to catch channel cats and bass up to 15 pounds all summer long. Those are big fish for a little fella, and given that he wants to fight them all by himself, I anticipate the rod slipping from his hands often. It’s only happened once so far, but because I set him up with the cheaper stuff I don’t normally use, I didn’t cry about the loss. He did, of course, but a budding angler must learn the sting of losing your trophy. 

When I do buy him a rod and reel, it’s from a local big-box wholesale club where I can grab three combos for less than $50. The reality is that fishing gear that’s going to be used by little kids must be viewed as disposable. As they advance and get more adept at fighting fish and handling gear responsibly, you can always trade up. But I’ve seen too many buddies hand off an expensive rod with a fish on the end of the line to a tyke and regret the decision very quickly.