LUCAS -- Fred Sowders’ wife told him to wear a coat when he went out fishing the day after Christmas.

Hours later, the neon green jacket helped save his life.

The Mansfield resident and lifelong angler nearly drowned during a solo trip at Pleasant Hill Lake on Dec. 26.

It was midmorning when Sowders was on the water and decided to move to a different part of the lake. He attempted to pull start his motor, placing his left hand on top of the motor and pulling the cord with his right.

According to Sowders, the motor started and the boat went forward, then began whirling in circles. The boat took on more water with each turn. His vessel was sinking, so Sowders let go and began to swim.

“I've been in all kinds of boats, all kinds of weather. But I never realized that I could be so stupid and leave it in forward," Sowders said. "But it was just an accident ... just could happen to anybody.”

Plunged into the frigid waters, he managed to dog paddle to a fallen tree and take hold.

“The Lord was on my side too, because I never seen above the water," he recalled. "All I did was paddle underneath and then I hit a branch and I pulled myself up and I got myself in the fork of the tree.”

He called out for help at least three times before losing consciousness.

“I froze up. I couldn't move my muscles. I couldn't move my mouth," he said.

Meanwhile, Joe McKenna and Dave Wittmer were also out fishing. They didn't know Sowders, but they recognized him. They knew the older man with the bright green coat who liked to blare 1960s rock-n-roll was out on the lake that day.

The first time they heard Sowders scream, they shrugged it off. Then came a second and third cry for help.

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"We knew Fred was the only other guy out there, so we flew down the lake to look for him and we saw him laying on a tree out in the water," McKenna said.

All they could see was his shoulder poking out of the water, but the neon yellowy hue of his winter coat caught their eye.

“His stuff from his boat was laying all over the top of the water and then his green jacket was really easy to see," McKenna said.

After pulling Sowders into the boat, the pair called 911 and headed for shore. First responders from Monroe Township Fire & Rescue and Madison Township arrived in minutes.

Chief John Grimes, who was one of the four volunteers present that day, said the real heroes were McKenna and Wittmer.

“They did most of the work, We just took him to the hospital," he said.

Sowders doesn't see it that way. He's equally grateful to all involved in his rescue.

"Where can you get a finer set of men?" he said, referring to the region's first responders. "They're lovely. They should get more recognition, but they don't."

Grimes presented McKenna and Wittmer with glass plaques in honor of their efforts during a brief ceremony Tuesday night.

McKenna and Wittmer were reluctant to attend -- they don't consider themselves heroes. But Sowders was eager to be there. He had to meet the two men that saved his life.

"I love 'em," he declared. He threw one arm over each man's shoulder as the trio posed for a photo.

Despite his brush with death, the 70-year-old man says he will continue fishing in the future.

“I'm not there to fish. I'm there for serenity," he said. "The fish are extra. When I catch them, I don't keep them. I give them all away.”

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Staff reporter focused on education and features. Clear Fork alumna. Always looking for a chance to practice my Spanish. You can reach me at