He fished alone, a lot, on his 18-foot Ranger bass boat. And he never wore a life vest because of the bulkiness.
That habit, however, is going to change immediately for Sam Sano, 32, of Jackson Township.
Sano’s rescue attempt Wednesday night on Nimisila Reservoir, where a Barberton man perished in the murky water minutes after falling from his fishing boat, was “a life-changing event,” he said Friday.
The victim, Michael R. Schake, 53, was not wearing a life jacket, even though there were three vests in his boat, authorities said.
On Friday, the Summit County Medical Examiner’s Office issued its findings on the death, ruling it an accidental drowning.
Sano, 32, who works as a railroad locomotive technician and served eight years in the Ohio Army National Guard in a battle tank unit, said he heard Schake’s shouts for help from about 400 to 500 yards away.
Even though reservoir rules prohibit use of gas-powered engines, Sano said he sped there as fast as he could.
“It was the only chance the man had,” he said.
Sano, who called himself a good swimmer, said he first tried reaching out from his boat to grab Schake as he struggled in the water. When that attempt failed, Sano said he jumped in — without a life vest or any other flotation device — and tried to grab onto him again.
Authorities said a woman paddling in a kayak nearby also tried to save Schake by throwing her life vest into the water, but Sano said the wind conditions quickly took it out of Schake’s reach.
Both lost sight of Schake just moments later as the visibility in the water was no more than 3 to 3½ feet, Sano said.
It wasn’t the only problem on the reservoir that night.
Wind conditions were gusting to 23 mph, according to another fisherman who witnessed the drowning, PGA golf pro and former Summit sheriff’s deputy Doug Lemons of Canton.
In a telephone interview from his grandparents’ home Friday morning, Sano said the painful, “horrible” experience has left him praying for the man’s family and vowing never again to go fishing without a life vest.
“It just shows you how life jackets are so very important,” Sano said. “It was really a life-changing event for me, because I’ve fished a lot by myself.”
Sano had not worn one before, he said, because the standard, orange life jackets “are too big and bulky.”
“The ones that you can actually fish with, they don’t make them affordable,” he said.
An avid outdoorsman, Sano said he is familiar with lightweight, inflatable jackets, such as the “Onyx A/M 24,” that inflate automatically upon immersion in the water or when the wearer pulls a rip cord.
With finances tight, Sano said it has been difficult to afford the $200-plus price of a high-tech jacket.
He said he already has begun shopping for such a vest at the Gander Mountain camping and outdoors store in Jackson Township and has found some on sale for well under $100.
The next fishing trip he takes, Sano said, he will be wearing a life vest. “Most definitely I’m going to buy one of those,” he said.
Dave Ford, an investigator in the Akron office of Ohio’s Division of Watercraft, said the incident on the reservoir was “an accident that could have been avoided by paying closer attention” to the hazards of the water.
Two decisions — wearing a life jacket or taking a partner — might have made a difference, Ford said.
Ed Meyer can be reached at 330-996-3784 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.