BY ED KILLER [email protected]
Tuesday, August 12, 2008

— This small lakeside community and its even tighter-knit fishing community was shaken Sunday by news that one of its well-known anglers and business owners was suddenly gone.

Paul “Bubba” Helton, 57, of Okeechobee fell from his bass boat Saturday afternoon while returning to Okeechobee from across the lake. Helton’s boat was one of six that had spent the morning fishing and having lunch in Clewiston.

At about 3:30 p.m., Helton reportedly slipped from the deck of his 21-foot bass boat about 10 miles south of Indian Prairie Canal after stopping for a short break from the 30-mile boat ride.

“There was a little bit of a swell on the lake, and he stood up and slipped overboard,” reported Capt. Larry Wright who spoke to the three passengers on Helton’s boat. “They said he popped right back up, but showed no signs of struggling or distress.”

Helton was not wearing a life jacket. The depth of the water was about seven feet.

Wright said that he appeared to dive back beneath the waves, perhaps to retrieve his glasses from the lake bottom, thought the other boaters. But after a few minutes, Helton failed to return to the surface and the passengers took action.

One called authorities while the other two threw out anchors to stop the boat’s drift and then jumped into the water to physically try to help Helton. After hours of searching, they were unable to find him.

Law enforcement officials arrived about an hour later. Officials searched for Helton until darkness Saturday. His body was found Sunday afternoon at about 5 p.m. by an aerial search by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. He was found about a half mile from where the incident occurred.

The cause of death is unknown. An autopsy will be performed in Fort Myers.

Helton will be missed.

“He was like a brother to me,” said Red Altman of Okeechobee, a former fishing guide and bass tournament angler who worked on the lake for years along with Helton. Altman was best man at Helton’s wedding to Margaret over 15 years ago. “He moved to Florida from Tennessee 22 years ago and was a big Volunteers fan. I’m a Gator fan. It was about the only thing we didn’t see eye to eye on.”

Wright will miss Helton’s straightforward approach.

“We had our moments where we would bump heads, but it was over as soon as it began,” said Wright who guided out of and often helped man Garrard’s Bait and Tackle owned by the Heltons. “He was the kind of friend that if you called him at 3 a.m., he wouldn’t ask questions, he would just be there.”

Helton was often an outspoken critic of water management policies when it came to Lake Okeechobee’s water level and quality. He told Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers in June 2007 that in his opinion, the mismanagement of Lake Okeechobee that spring sent small businesses into an economic tailspin.

Altman said there will be a remembrance for Helton from 5-7 p.m. Thursday at Buxton Funeral Home, 110 Northeast 5th Street, Okeechobee. For directions visit www.buxtonfuneralhome.com or call (863) 763-1994.

From Staff and Wire Reports
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