Drowned fisherman likely lost footing

Ken Copland.
Ken Copland.
Respected Wanaka resident Kenneth George Copland drowned last year while fly-fishing at the Makarora River delta probably after losing his footing and being swept into Lake Wanaka, a coroner has heard.

Designated coroner Richard McElrea, of Christchurch, did not issue any formal findings after the inquest into the 63-year-old's death, but friends and fellow fishers familiar with the area believed that was the most likely scenario.

Mr Copland's wife of 43 years, Frances, told police her husband was involved in many aspects of the community, including the Wanaka Community Board, but his greatest passions were hunting and fishing.

''He was a fly-fisherman and would go out once a week, without fail.''

While her husband couldn't swim, he was comfortable in the water and was not a ''risk taker''.

Mrs Copland said her husband left home, with their dog Bella, between 8.30am and 9.30am on August 4 for a day's fishing at his ''favourite spot'' - the head of Lake Wanaka near the Makarora River mouth.

He had asked friends to go with him, but none were available.

''He left home ... and called out `See you later'.

''He was always home between 5pm and 5.30pm and would call if he was going to be late.''

By 6pm she became worried and after failing to contact her husband on his cellphone and then contacting friends, she called the police.

Senior Constable Mike Johnston, of Wanaka, said the police were notified at 8.30pm and a search and rescue operation was launched.

Mr Copland's car was found on State Highway 6, north of Wharf Creek, but a shoreline and aerial search using night-vision equipment failed to find him.

The search resumed at 8.30am on August 5. Mr Copland's dog and some fishing equipment were found on a river braid near the river mouth at 8.35am and police located footprints leading from his equipment out into the water, but none heading back.

Snr Const Johnston said there was a ''steep drop-off'' from a gravel shelf into the river, which had a ''strong current''.

The search area was extended and Mr Copland's body was found at 5pm, about 4.5km from the river mouth, floating on the eastern shore near Boundary Creek.

While he was not wearing a life jacket, that was not unusual because fly-fishers found them restrictive.

Mr Copland was wearing neoprene waders, fastened below the chest with a belt.

While the waders would have provided buoyancy, if Mr Copland had lost his footing and had not been able to regain it, ''very quickly he would have been taken out into the lake'', Snr Const Johnston said.

He believed it likely Mr Copland had drowned soon after being swept into the lake.

''There is no evidence of him returning to his bag [on the river braid] - once he was in the water, he stayed there.''

Friend and fellow fisherman John Barlow, of Wanaka, said one of the major hazards of fishing at a river delta was ''liquefaction''.

''You get a situation where you have a gravel crust and below it you have sand, which is saturated with water.

''You can easily break through that crust and you'll often plunge up as far as your knees.

''The area where Ken died is pretty bad.''

Gordon Brander, of Wanaka, said the spot where his friend was fishing was about 6m away from ''what is really like being on top of a waterfall''.

He described the area as a ''vortex'' of water where fish sit.

Mrs Copland thanked the police and search and rescue personnel for their efforts and hoped lessons could be learned to prevent similar deaths.