When Elias Ruiz was a kid his grandfather taught him the values of living off the land, setting the foundation of what would be Ruiz’s lifelong love of fishing and hunting.
“I always enjoyed being outside and looking for that next adventure,” said Ruiz.
While his day job is teaching at Dutcher Middle School in Turlock, when he isn’t in the classroom Ruiz is probably at a nearby river or reservoir. Due to its proximity, Ruiz frequents the Tuolumne River year-round on his Feather Raft, a lightweight structure he designed to float steadily on water that won him a $2,500 prize in the Stanislaus County Innovation Challenge in 2014. At that same river Ruiz saved a man’s life when he pulled him from the cold waters of the Tuolumne River in December 2014.
Ruiz was out on the raft around 6:30 a.m. on that Sunday morning in December duck hunting when he first heard a strange noise.
“I could hear a sloshing sound,” Ruiz said. “I thought maybe it was a cow or some wildlife coming to get something to drink, but the more I heard it, the stranger it sounded.”
As the dawn started to break on the river, Ruiz said he could see a shape forming about 15 yards from where he was on his raft.
“I could see something dark in the water, and eventually I could see a jacket and pant line and knew it was a person,” Ruiz said. “I had already been out there for about 45 minutes by this time.”
Ruiz immediately called 911 and then set to work getting the man out of the water. He was able to pull the man ashore.
“About 95 percent of his body was in the water,” Ruiz said. “I think his left shoulder was on a submerged piece of concrete and that had kept him from drowning.”
When emergency crews arrived, the man was conscious but just barely, according to Stanislaus Consolidated Fire Department Battalion Chief Rick Bussell.
Bussell estimated the man was in the water for at least two hours or more. The outside temperature was in the 40s and the water was around 50 degrees. The man was transported by ambulance to a local hospital and was treated for hypothermia.
“Had they (Ruiz and his friend) not seen him out there, he probably would have passed from hypothermia or drowning,” Bussell said.
“It was just amazing that we were out there at the right time,” Ruiz said.
Ruiz said his interest in wilderness survival began growing in high school when he would check out books to learn survival skills before he became a medic in the military to learn emergency medicine. Since then, fishing and hunting have become hobbies he pursues year-round. While hunting is namely a winter activity, during the summer Ruiz is often on one of the many nearby rivers in his free time, such as the Tuolumne River, San Joaquin River, Modesto Reservoir, Turlock Lake, Lake McClure, Lake McSwain and the Don Pedro Reservoir.
“As far as fishing, typically I’ll go anywhere within a one to two hour radius,” said Ruiz. “I try to stay pretty close because I have a wife and two kids.”
While he is well versed in the types of fish at each location, Ruiz is not likely to share his favorite fishing spots.
“Fisherman are real good about sharing their bait, but they won’t tell you where their hotspots are,” laughed Ruiz.
Ruiz can often be found bow fishing from his raft, and fishes from the banks as well. No matter new fishers’ interests, Ruiz said his advice for those breaking into the sport for the first time includes getting informed.
“Make sure they know the regulations to start off with and get your fishing license. The rivers have certain times of year that you can fish, so educate yourself with the local laws,” said Ruiz. “Also, it never hurts to talk with someone who knows how to fish.”