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Don't get caught by a Fishing Injury

Portland, Oregon is known for a multitude of outdoor activities that can be done year-round. Fishing is one of the many wonderful outdoor recreations in our area. From salmon to sturgeon to offshore fishing there are many ways to enjoy the rivers, lakes and oceans of the Pacific Northwest. Recently, I had the opportunity to go sturgeon fishing on the Willamette River near Portland. It was a wonderful experience to be on the river fishing with my son. We had a great time as it was sunny, and the fish were biting.  We caught (and released) 16 sturgeons over the course of 4 1/2 hours.  Sturgeon can get quite big. The biggest sturgeon I caught was 7 feet long, and it weighed approximately 185 pounds.  Shortly after hooking the fish, it surfaced with a huge jump and splash, and we knew this was going to be quite the adventure, trying to reel this fish in. That sturgeon took approximately 35 minutes for me to reel in.   

The fish was so big that it proved too much to reel the fish in while working against the current, so we had to unhook from our anchor, and drift with the fish. After a few minutes of fighting this fish, I was getting very tired. I still had a way to go as the fish was, of course, taking out line and fighting hard to get free. I wasn’t sure who was going to win this because I was aching from head to toe. My back was hurting. My forearms were burning from holding the pole for dear life and reeling in the fish, I could feel muscles in my back and legs that I’ve never felt before, I could feel my body shaking from fatigue, as I continued fighting this fish. 

At one point, I was about to give up as I was growing more and more exhausted and no one else on the boat wanted to take over the task of reeling in this fish. Ultimately, we were able to bring this fish alongside, the boat and were amazed at the size of it.  It ultimately measured 84 inches as we measured it alongside the boat--it was a beautiful, amazing sturgeon. 

After this battle, I was exhausted. I consider myself to be in pretty good physical shape as I exercise regularly, however, this fish proved to be a worthy adversary. I told our fishing guide that I needed a few minutes to recover when I was really thinking, do I even want to throw out another line again at risk of catching something like this ever again? I knew there was going to be a physical price to pay over the next several days from this level of physical effort. I could feel my back spasming, my forearms burning, and my shoulders heavy and weak. Over the next several days, my body slowly recovered from this amazing experience, but it got me thinking more and more about the musculoskeletal injuries fishing can result in.

Fishermen commonly experience, elbow strains, shoulder injuries, and back strains from fishing related activities as I described above with reeling in heavy fish, repetitive casting, and other physical related activities associated with being on the water catching fish.

Shoulder and elbow muscle strains are very common and result in soreness in the affected muscles for several days to weeks. The pain is due to overloading micro tearing of the muscles from the effort of reeling in fish, and the constant force on the part of the fish as they are fighting the hook and trying to avoid being caught. While muscle strains such as these are usually self-limited and improve over a short period of time, they can be quite painful, limiting, and make other daily tasks more difficult. 

Back and neck muscle strains are also quite common due to the irregular posture, and difficulty with reeling in a fish and using our backs to help with maneuvering the rod around the boat. I can speak from first-hand experience--it is hard to hold good spinal posture when you’ve got a big fish that is fighting you.

Some tips for saving your back include:

  1. Standing upright and avoiding leaning too far forward at the waist. This puts a lot of stress on the lumbar spine. By standing upright and flexing your knees, you can then engage your quadriceps and gluteal muscles which are the largest muscles. These can help reduce stress on your spine and allow you to stay in the fight with the fish for longer periods. 
  2. Flexing your knees allows you to get lower and using this lower center of gravity helps improve balance, stability, and activating the core muscles like the abdominal musculature.
  3. Use a belt pole holder for saving your back. 

The muscles of our shoulder like the rotator cuff and elbows are smaller and vulnerable to strain type injuries which are muscle tears. To prevent this type of injury, it is important to stay well hydrated, dress appropriately for the fishing conditions, and try to keep your elbows close to your body. This reduces stress on the smaller muscles of the shoulder. If you can, try to switch hands for support intermittently. Also, if someone can take the rod and reel for even just a moment to allow you to gently stretch and rest the tired muscles, this can help with reducing the constant overloading. Remembering to breathe and stay relaxed as much as possible can also help with muscle fatigue. 

Ultimately, remember that the pain is temporary, and the fishing memories last forever. 

At Sports Health Northwest, we want to help you enjoy fishing and the outdoors as much as possible. If you have sustained a fishing related injury, we are here to help you recover from that injury and help you get back on the water.

Dr Westerdahl David Westerdahl MD FAAFP RMSK Sports Medicine Physician and owner Sports Health Northwest, Inc.

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