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Brad Dokken: Accidents shed light on tree stand safety

Tommy Skarlis

September is Tree Stand Safety Awareness Month, and while September days are numbered, the importance of being safe in a tree stand doesn't end Sept. 30.

If anything, tree stand safety becomes even more important as deer gun and muzzleloader seasons approach.

Every fall, it seems, hunters make news for all the wrong reasons after falling out of tree stands in accidents that could have been prevented.

Ten years ago this fall, a Canadian friend suffered the consequences of a momentary lapse in tree stand safety. He was muzzleloader hunting near Carbury, Man., and setting up a portable stand in a spruce tree near the base of a ridge that provided a corridor for big bucks.

As I wrote in a column after the accident, the lay of the land meant he had to set the stand about 30 feet up the tree to get proper sightlines. He fastened his safety harness and installed footpegs as he worked his way up the tree. He then secured the platform and cleared branches to get a better view.

He'd done everything right up to that point, but then he made the mistake of removing his safety harness before climbing down the tree to get his gear.

He slipped on one of the top pegs and plummeted 30 feet to the ground.

The miscue could have cost him his life.

"When I hit, my head bounced off the ground," he recalled at the time. "I thought I was going to pass out."

Somehow, he managed to crawl the half-mile to his truck and drive to a friend's place and eventual medical help.

He shattered his left heel in the tumble and endured multiple surgeries and years of pain. Two years ago, he had the heel fused—a procedure I don't understand beyond knowing it limits the heel's mobility and alleviates much of the pain.

As he has most every year since the accident, he'll be hunting again this fall—but the days of using a tree stand without the proper safety equipment are history.

Skarlis story

More recently, professional walleye angler Tommy Skarlis of Waukon, Iowa, made news in the fishing world after winning the Cabela's Masters Walleye Circuit 2017 World Walleye Championship last weekend on Cass Lake with partner Jeff Lahr of Dubuque, Iowa.

I've had the privilege of fishing with Skarlis a few times over the years, and he's one of the true nice guys in the fishing world.

The road to his most recent walleye victory is as amazing as it is inspirational.

Skarlis, too, is a survivor of a tree stand accident that occurred last fall when he fell 20 feet and landed on his head. By all accounts, he either should have been dead or paralyzed.

Skarlis in July shared his story in a video interview with the online Target Walleye newsletter and social media site while attending the iCast fishing products show in Orlando, Fla.

In the interview, Skarlis said God told him not to climb the stand that day, but he didn't heed the warning because a big buck was chasing a doe nearby.

"The biggest problem was I didn't have the lifeline on," Skarlis says in the Target Walleye interview. "When I went from the stick to the stand, I put my hand in my pocket after removing one from the tree. The straps broke while I was getting ready to attach my safety harness, and I plummeted 20 feet to the ground.

"Got flipped on the way down, landed on my head."

Skarlis, who broke his neck in the fall, was taken by helicopter to LaCrosse, Wis., where he had surgery and was hospitalized for 15 days.

Two months later, he met with the surgeon.

"He sat there like this," Skarlis recalls in the interview, crossing his arms like the surgeon did. "Looked at me and said 'Tom'—they call me Tom outside the walleye world—'we can't figure out why you're not paralyzed from the neck down.'

"I almost feel guilty. There was two other gentlemen in there that had broken their necks, had similar or better X-rays than mine and both of them didn't walk out of there, and one was on a ventilator."

Skarlis, who said he felt "blessed" after the recent Cass Lake tournament win, shared this advice in the Target Walleye video:

Wear a seatbelt. Wear a harness and a lifeline in a tree stand. Wear a lifejacket on the water.

Err on the side of caution and safety.

That's good advice from someone who lived to tell about about a safety slip and continues to travel the road to recovery.

Falls or other mishaps can happen in an instant, but the consequences can be lifelong—or life ending.

On the Web:

For more information about tree stand safety, go to fws.gov/uploadedFiles/TreeStandSafety.pdf.

Brad Dokken

Brad Dokken is a reporter and editor of the Herald's Sunday Northland Outdoors pages. Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and joined the Herald staff in 1989. He worked as a copy editor in the features and news departments before becoming outdoors editor in 1998. He also writes a blog called Compass Points. A Roseau, Minn., native, Dokken is a graduate of Bemidji State University. 

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