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How I Survived Alone, and Won $500K Using a Handcrafted Miniature Boat to Catch Trout – Part 1

By Zachary Fowler

My name is Zachary Fowler, and until last year I lived with my wife and two daughters in an off-the-grid yurt in Appleton, Maine.

On August 16, 2016 I was in the wilds of Patagonia, 87 days into my experience for Season 3 of HISTORY’s reality survival series, Alone. And that was the morning that I heard the boat coming to perform the medical check required for all ten original contestants.

The only protein I’d eaten for nearly three months had been 63 fish and two birds. I was afraid I was going to fail the medical check that morning – as it turned out, I had lost 72 pounds – and that I’d be going home defeated.

At stake was a $500,000 prize for the last man or woman standing, and I intended to survive no matter how long, and win that for my family so we could build a new home.

Out-stubborned Them All

The medical team arrived with sad faces and checked me physically. Then started asking me about my mental state and how much I missed my wife and two girls who were waiting for me at home. In part because I’d eaten little more than three fish and some dandelion roots those last two weeks, it didn’t take much to break down my walls. Through tearful eyes I replied, “As long as I have strength in me, I will never give up.”

And that was the moment my wife Jami came up behind me, hugged me and said “It’s over, you did it. You out-stubborned them all; you won!”

I won so much more than half-million dollars that day. It’s been a year now, and six months since the rest of the world saw that moment on TV.

Ten Tools

We were each allowed to bring ten items of gear for our survival. I knew that fishing and hunting were going to be critical, so among my selections were a small package of fishhooks, some fishing line, and a slingshot with two sets of elastic bands.

However, my dreams of feasting on rabbit or other small animals were quickly dashed, when I learned through observation that there was no game to be had during the winter up high in the Andes Mountains.

Therefore, a nearby lake and the gorgeous trout were to be my sustenance for the duration of my stay. The hooks and line were critical components – now all I needed were fishing poles.

Fortunately, an amazing species of bamboo grew all over the area that was assigned to me, and it made a great fishing pole.

I started out by simply rigging a few 16-foot bamboo poles with short lines and baiting them with worms and grubs I dug from the rich Patagonian soil.

Good Fishing, but Improvements Required

I caught about a fish a day the first month I was there.

I smoked every fish for three to six hours before I finished it on some hot coals. After the flesh was consumed, the head and all the bones went into my pot for soup.

I drank nothing but that fish-head soup three times a day for the entirety of my stay, and it gave me the needed strength to make it through the days I did not have a fresh fish.

It turned out the static poles were not the best option. More often than not, I found my hooks bare, stripped of bait.

Sitting and waiting for a fish to bite so I could set the hook manually was not the best use of my time. I had a lot to do to prepare for winter, and the nights were already below freezing. I needed to come up with a way to set the hook in the fish’s mouth while I was not tending the rig.

Book Learning

Most of my survival skills came from old books I found at garage sales. I had a head full of knowledge, and now was the time to put it into action.

I started out by constructing a few devices that would normally be used as rabbit snares. I had drawn out in my sketch book before leaving for Patagonia. Perhaps they would make good fishing snares?

I set up several of these set-ups along the shoreline, making each one a bit different. All were fabricated from flexible bamboo.

My goal was to set as many as I could. It took about three weeks, but that the end of that time all 24 of the fishing hooks I had with me were in action constantly.

Five of my hooks were set on spring-loaded traps that would go off when a fish bit, and they set the hook more consistently than the static lines.

Then, I had three trout lines, consisting of an 18-foot bamboo pole strung with 50-lb fishing line, each with three to five short lines at the end with hooks on them.

The rest were all static lines on 12 to 18 foot poles that I stuck in the rocks at the bank. They were set to hold baited hooks about six inches under the water’s surface.

Getting Out Into Deeper Water

My challenge now was to get my bait out into deeper water. I tried casting by hand, but the line kept getting tangled. If I could only find a way to get my line out past that 18-foot distance, and then get the hook safely back, since the lake’s bottom was covered with sunken wood and weeds.

I had to get my bait out to that “sweet spot” beyond easy reach. If I could do that, I thought each night before I went to sleep, I could catch more fish, eat more, and survive longer.

Maybe I needed to forget about the fish, and try to catch a duck – or, more accurately, a cormorant.

Goal: Roast Sea Bird

On one of those pre-sleep strategy sessions, the idea of a project I dubbed “Duck Hunter 3000” came to me (every project has to have a fancy name!). I came to refer to this craft as my “overly-elaborate primitive trap.”

Every morning, I saw a cormorant. The bird would swim by about 50 to 60 feet out from the shore every morning. At that distance, it was out of range of my slingshot, and too far out for me to try and swim out and come up from underneath and grab him. A trap was needed to do what I could not.

When I was a child, my father made me a rubber-band powered paddle boat for the bathtub. I then remembered when I was fishing in Maine on the Rockland breakwater using cut bait for stripers, I managed to accidentally catch more seagulls and cormorants than stripers.

So I combined those two ideas, and the Duck Hunter 3000 was born.

I made a three-foot long, self-propelled paddle boat with two hooks with fish heads on them on them attached to a rock, which was then attached to the deck. The plan was that the paddle boat would motor its way out into the lake and sit there, offering up a free meal for any bird that happened by.

Once the bird ate the bait and was hooked (according to my theory), it would struggle and pull the rock off the deck. That would be enough to pull the duck’s head under water, dispatching him.

It all worked perfectly, except for the fact that the birds were rare and the only one that ever came by was so leery of my contraption that it never had the chance to be tested.

A Better Idea

After a few days of abject failure, I quickly saw a better application for my new device. That sweet spot I wanted to fish? Well, now I could reach it, with the help of Duck Hunter 3000.

So I brought her in for a refit.

She was re-launched, her deck now equipped with one of my spring-loaded fishing snares.

On the television show, viewers saw me finding it upside down after her first kill. The leverage of the fishing pole on the deck of the little boat allowed the fish to flip it over.

But upside down or not, she brought home her first kill – a beautiful rainbow trout.

Next month: Fowler’s adventure concludes. High winds bring disaster to the tiny vessel, forcing him to redesign Duck Hunter. Also, an update on his latest project – reenacting his Alone odyssey, but in the Maine wilderness, for his new YouTube series, “Fowler’s Makery and Mischief.”

—————

Fowler drew out his design for “Duck Hunter 3000” before making it in Pategonia out of wood, bamboo and a fish line. Note the fish heads, and the rocks that were intended to hold the snagged ducks underwater. In the end, the tiny vessel proved a better fish-catcher than bird-slayer.

 

 

In the weeks and months before participating in Season 3 of HISTORY’s “Alone,” Fowler read survival books he found at garage sales, and kept careful notes and diagrams of fish-catching devices in his notebook.

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