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Posted 12/15/2010

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By John Neville


U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ dams along the 941 miles of the Ohio River provide a navigable pool of water 365 days a year, a function that is critical to the economy and, ultimately, national security.

They also attract swarming fish in search of food— the small minnows or nutrients pulled into the area around the dams. It’s a safe area for fish but a perilous place for fishermen.

Currently, signs above the gates warn fishermen that they must stay back 150 feet from the gates. A red line 150 feet back from the gates painted on the lock wall lets fishermen know if they’re treading into the danger zone.

However, several factors can pull fishermen into the deadly dam-created current. An irresistible temptation to move closer to the fish or bait, wind, current and a dead motor are some of the factors that can get an angler into trouble. Eventually, fishermen are pulled into the gate where it’s nearly impossible to get out without assistance.

"When the gates are open, even just a foot or two, the water moving underneath the gate creates enough current that boats are literally pulled into the open gate, and the boat can’t get out," said Patoka Lake Park Manager Stan Akin who was patrolling Cannelton Locks and Dam in October.

Boaters, according to Akin, mistakenly believe they can motor their way out of the situation. However, the water churning against the gate, "is so aerated, meaning there is so much air in it, that the propeller can’t grab water."

This situation played out a few years ago when two fishermen were sucked into the gate. Another boater spotted the distressed vessel and moved in for a rescue. The rescuing boat also became trapped. One man in the originally trapped boat died along with the person who attempted the rescue.

Even if a park ranger was patrolling near the area at the time of the drowning, there is only so much the ranger could’ve done to prevent the tragedy, according to Akin.

"The only thing we would do would be for a person to get on the front of the boat and throw a buoy as far to them as we could," he said. "We wouldn’t go into the gate itself. I’m not going to jeopardize my life or partner’s life making the situation worse by going into a situation I know I can’t get my boat out of."

Those who work at the locks and dams do try and enforce the rules, but the fishermen don’t respond very well to the warnings, Akin said. Responses range from obeying, ignoring and, at times, verbal and nonverbal expletive-laden rejections.

Akin recently took Wendy Pohl, a ranger from Rough River, on a patrol around the locks at Cannelton. Pohl was so surprised to see the number of boaters treading inside the 150-foot boundary that she contacted Louisville District Commander Col. Keith Landry.

"I talked with Col. Landry about the possibility of having rangers patrol more regularly, maybe even some permanent positions," she said. "The problem is always funding, but Col. Landry is always concerned about safety. He directed that a small team be put together and come up with some different ideas to include different cost options. We’ll compare the plans and look at what we can do."

There is another approach, Akin mentioned, that other districts are currently using to deal with the same problem. Huntington and St. Louis have set up a buoy line that stretches across the river, and this boundary begins further out than 150 feet.

Pohl and Akin plan to contact Huntington and St. Louis to see if the buoy solution is working.

"That could solve our problems," Akin said.