HOUSTON COUNTY, TX (KTRE) - Houston County native Zak Benge is one of the best people to talk to if someone is wanting information on the Neches River. The game warden has launched his flat-bottom boat into the waters of the river too many times to keep count, which makes his story more of a warning than most.
Benge is the son of a retired Houston County game warden Larry Benge. He first spent time in Orange before returning to the Pineywoods.
"I've been a game warden here in Houston County for a little over 10 years," Benge said. "To me, there is no better place to work because of the range of activities we have over here. Hunting fishing, water safety, commercial, and industry. There are also the good people here that you get to meet and become friends with."
Benge has been getting used to the surrounding of his state police truck over the past few months. It is a welcome site for the man that just months ago thought he might not make it back on the job. On April 2, 2016, Benge went onto private property, like he has many times before to launch onto the Neches River, between Anderson Crossing and State Highway 7.
"I have done this hundreds of times," Benge said. "During hunting season and peak fishing times, I launch about two or three times a month."
That day was no different.
"I launched about 1 in the afternoon," Benge said. "I told my wife I was launching, and she knew to expect me back before dark. I went down and looked at a few guys fishing and then came back around 4:15."
Benge was almost back to the secluded spot where he launched when everything changed. The veteran warden hit something in the water, causing his flat-bottom boat to lose control.
"By the time I reached and got a hold of the tiller and pulled it back around and got it under control, the four-foot river bank was just right in front of me," Benge said.
Benge was thrown forward in the boat and injured his knee before he was thrown into the water.
"When I pulled up with my left leg, there was nothing to pull up with, but my knee cap and it pulled it up in my thigh three inches, and my leg was useless," Benge said. "I sat there and started looking around. I saw there was no bone coming out of my leg so that was a check on the good things. I first thought I was going to have to get across the river to the other bank and crawl a mile to the nearest home and hope someone was there. The furthest thing from my mind was what was going to get me. What was main on my mind was I am going to get out of this river, and I'm going to go home."
Game warden phones have a protective case that claims to be waterproof and are almost indestructible. Benge said after that day, he does not doubt it.
"I pulled out my phone from my uniform and cleaned it off real quick," Benge said. "I looked at it, and had one bar, so I made a call to Houston County Dispatch and asked for help. On my calls that day, about one out of every three would go through. The case is worth every penny they spent on it. If my phone hadn't of worked. The only option I would have had was crawling a mile across a field and hoping I found a house."
After two hours, Angelina County Game Warden Phillip Wood was able to locate Benge and pull him in his boat and get him to land. Benge was dried off and tended to. Due to a wash out on one of the roads, an ambulance was unable to reach him. A helicopter was called in from Crockett, and the veteran game warden was flown to ETMC in Tyler. Benge spent three days in the hospital and then went through months of therapy in Lufkin.
"It was a mental issue. I had to get in my mind that I could do or that I wanted to do right now," Benge said.
A year and six days after leaving the river, Benge was cleared to go back to work. He is also back and offering words of warning to those that are hitting the states waterways this summer. He said it is important to have a float plan and to let someone know the route you plan on taking.
"It will eventually go wrong," Benge said. "I have been here 18 years and never had any issues in a boat or the water. For this to happen to me, I grew up on this river running flat-bottom boats all my life. So if it can happen to me, it can happen to anybody else. Make sure you have your life jacket, a kill switch, a floating plan. Make sure you tell someone where you are dropping in and where you plan to go."