On Wednesday January 10, 2018, the body of 38 year old Nik Kayler was pulled from the waters of Lake Okeechobee. Six days earlier, the co-angler and Army veteran was competing in a Costa FLW Series bass fishing tournament.
Wednesday morning ended in tragedy, after a search from the Florida Fish & Wildlife Commission, U.S. Coast Guard, and three Florida sheriffs offices failed to locate Kayler. That search began at about 11:00 p.m. on January 4, when Kayler’s fishing partner Bill Kisiah drifted ashore near Pahokee Marina in a battered 21-foot bass boat.
Kayler’s body was ultimately spotted by a commercial fishing boat, near the small town of Clewiston on the lake’s southwestern shore—about 15 miles from where Kisiah returned.
And while no foul play is suspected in the incident, the loss of Kayler has made national news, drawing attention from CBS, Fox News, and the Chicago Tribune. Kayler was apparently ejected from Kisiah’s vessel when their boat encountered rough waves, highlighting an often overlooked aspect of fishing: it can be dangerous. Even on Lake Okeechobee, where trees are scarce, water is shallow, and the terrain is almost completely flat, numerous government agencies were unable to locate Kayler. Chance happened upon him in the breaking hours of the day, leading to a candle light vigil at a boat ramp that night.
FLW says Kayler was wearing a life vest when he left the ramp that morning. Government officials have not told them whether or not he was wearing one when his body was recovered.
It’s too soon to say what exactly happened to Nik Kayler once he was ejected from Kisiah’s boat. With that kind of momentum in that kind of environment, possibilities are endless. Kayler had water survival training—a fact that gave loved ones hope throughout the search—however, it is unknown whether he had a chance to put it into practice.
What is known is that despite the best efforts of anglers (FLW cancelled the remainder of the tournament and assisted in the search), law enforcement, and the Coast Guard, it took nearly a week to locate Nik Kayler.
In the wake of tragedy, the question must be asked: what are tournament organizations doing to keep anglers safe?
I asked FLW Director of Public Relations Joe Opager to find out.
“Angler safety has always been our number one priority every time we hold a tournament,” Opager says. “We are constantly evaluating safety procedures, recommended safety equipment and required safety equipment. Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons, Personal Location Beacons and signal flares are part of the discussion. Our operations team is monitoring the latest safety advancements and considering their implementation and effectiveness in FLW tournaments.”
Opager says that until Wednesday, 100-percent of FLW’s efforts were directed towards finding Kayler. Now, he says, the time to consider every possible safety advancement has arrived.
“Emphasis will continue to be placed on boating safety and preparedness in our rules, pretournament meetings, magazine articles, and videos on our website and social media. It will be a point of emphasis by FLW Ambassadors as they host thousands of events nationwide to help prepare families for a fun and safe time on the water during National Fishing and Boating Week (June 2-10, 2018). Boating safety is a prominent topic that will be stressed even more moving forward.”
Opager’s remarks sound self-aware. Safety education is, and has been, paramount. But what would a location beacon look like? FLW and BASS pros I spoke with all supported the hypothetical solution, but weren’t sure what it would look like. And, they said, an angler would almost have to wear a beacon on his body for it to be effective.
“After this week’s tragedy, it’s something I’m definitely going to bring up,” said Garmin Marine Director of Sales & Marketing Dave Dunn. Dunn says the global tracking company does sell a waterproof, wearable device that uses GPS to geolocate. That device, the InReach (formerly made by DeLorme), is a small, phone-sized device that features an SOS button to alert emergency response crews of distress. However, its current weight of 7.5 ounces is a lot to tether to a life vest while fishing. “It’s not ideal, but it’s something,” Dunn adds. “I fully expect the InReach technology to become smaller and more wearable.”
For now, ongoing questions about boater safety abound while an industry mourns the loss of a brother. It’s an all too real reminder that even when we’re fishing, we’re at the will of nature.
Notes: A GoFundMe has been set up for Nik Kayler’s family. He leaves behind a wife and a daughter.