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On fishing, fate and the instinct to quickly do the right thing | COMMENTARY

Tim Wolf left his fishing gear behind to help keep a man from drowning in the Jones Falls near the Eastern Avenue bridge in Baltimore Sunday morning.
Tim Wolf left his fishing gear behind to help keep a man from drowning in the Jones Falls near the Eastern Avenue bridge in Baltimore Sunday morning. (Tim Wolf)

Rockfish were feeding on the surface early Sunday morning, splashing and gorging themselves on smaller fish in the Jones Falls between Pratt Street and the Inner Harbor. Casting lures at them, Tim Wolf caught and released several, each about 2 feet long.

I first met Wolf a few years ago, and he keeps me posted on urban fishing, particularly when the rockfish appear along the Baltimore waterfront. He regularly fishes the waters between the stone walls of the long canal that runs from Pratt to the Eastern Avenue Bridge, past the old pumping station and the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront to the harbor.

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Wolf did this frequently before sunrise on his way to work at Chiapparelli’s restaurant in Little Italy, three blocks away. He was executive chef at Chip’s until the pandemic, but has not returned to that job. While he looks for a new position, Wolf still takes time to fish. Sunday morning, he got lucky.

So did a guy in a black T-shirt.

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With the rockfish feeding on top, Wolf stayed at his usual post longer than usual. It was close to 8 a.m. when he heard an unusually loud splash.

“Boy, that was a big one,” he said to himself and turned to where he thought he had heard a large rockfish break the surface. “Then I saw a head.”

It was a human head. The head of a guy in a black T-shirt. The same guy Wolf had seen earlier sleeping on the stones along the canal. He had fallen into the Jones Falls.

Immediately, Wolf dropped his fishing rod and ran to get a life ring from a yellow box near the Eastern Avenue bridge.

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“There was a guy in a tent right there,” Wolf says. “I guess he was homeless. He was sitting up, in a little bit of a daze. I said, ‘Hey, buddy, I need your help,’ and he came with me. … Then there were these two women who stopped. One of them had a purse and undid the strap from her purse and dangled it down to the guy in the water, and he grabbed it.

“The guy’s panicking and saying, ‘I’m cold. I’m cold.’ Now I have the life ring and throw it and I yell down to him, ‘Stick your arms through the ring,’ and I tell him, ‘Don’t swim, I’m gonna drag you to the ladder.’”

There’s a ladder between the water and the street on the south side of the bridge. Wolf dragged the man toward it. One of the women called 911. Wolf says the police got to the scene in minutes. So did firefighters. They managed to get a line with a soft loop around the fellow and pulled him out of the water. He survived.

Wolf told me the story almost matter of factly, in a text message, as a by-the-way postscript to one of his fishing reports.

But it made me think, and not for the first time, about the luck of circumstance and the serendipitous nature of things. Not in all things, but in some things. Not all the time, but some of the time.

Think about it.

Had the rockfish not been feeding on the surface and enticing Tim Wolf to hang around longer than usual — or if he had still been employed at Chiapparelli’s and left earlier for work — the outcome could have been tragic.

We’ve all heard stories like this, stories that turn on timing, luck, fate and the instinct in most humans to quickly do the right thing.

A lot of water rescue stories occur in summer. But I can think of one from a winter day on Deep Creek Lake in Western Maryland.

This goes back to 1975. Two state fisheries specialists, Ken Pavol and Jim Van Tassel, were conducting a survey of walleye. They were in a 16-foot jon boat and had eight gill nets to check for the fish. The lake was in a chop, with a strong wind and the air laced with snow. After checking seven of the nets, Pavol wanted to break for lunch. He was cold and hungry. He had hot pizza on his mind, from a restaurant on the lake.

But Van Tassel convinced him to stay out and finish the job.

It was on the 5-mile run to the last net that Van Tassel spotted a man in the water. This was a weekday, with no one around — just Van Tassel and Pavol out there in the Deep Creek chop. “Imagine the incongruity of that scene,” Pavol told me many years later. “A man in the lake with no boat in sight.”

When they got to the man, who appeared to be in his early 20s, he was unconscious and about to go under. He was probably in the final minutes of his life when Pavol and Van Tassel grabbed him by his belt and pulled him into the jon boat. They then spotted a capsized boat with two other young men clinging to it. They got them into the boat and back to a cottage where they had been partying. An ambulance took their buddy to the hospital in Oakland. No one died.

Think about that. Had Van Tassel not insisted on finishing the job before taking lunch, had Pavol succeeded in getting his break for pizza …. Think about that. I often do.

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