- By Eliot Kleinberg Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Nik Kayler, the fishing tournament competitor tossed into Lake Okeechobee in January, died by drowning, a medical examiner’s report says.
While the report doesn’t elaborate, Kayler’s half-brother said Tuesday that other details the family has learned would back the idea of drowning, as opposed to hypothermia, which had been a consideration because of the frigid waters into which Kayler was thrown.
Evidence suggests “he was unconscious when he went into the water,” Anthony Llanos said Tuesday.
At the time of the tournament, a cold snap had brought low temperatures around the lake into the upper 30s to low 40s, and the water was believed to have been in the low-to-mid 50s.
Llanos said Kayler still had all the cold-weather clothing he’d layered on, even his gloves, when his body was found near Clewiston during an extensive search.
“It was as if he never tried to get anything off,” Llanos said. The former U.S. Marines water survival instructor said Tuesday a person likely would shed as much clothing as possible when hitting the water “so you can swim.”
On Jan. 10, a commercial boat found the remains of Kayler, a 38-year-old military veteran, husband and father, in the lake near a water tower in Clewiston.
Kayler, of Apopka, and tournament fishing partner Bill Kisiah, 51, from Slidell, La., had left Okeechobee on the morning of Jan. 4, the first day of the Fishing League Worldwide’s three-day Costa Series tournament. A search began when the two failed to check in around suppertime. At about 11 p.m., an exhausted Kisiah and his 21-foot Ranger Z521 came ashore near the Pahokee Marina. Kisiah briefly was hospitalized. He could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
During the search, Llanos said authorities told him Kayler was in the back of the boat when “it kind of speared the wave. It killed the motor.” That’s when Kayler went overboard. Llanos said he was told Kisiah then tried and failed to restart the engine, even as a strong wind pushed the boat farther from Kayler.
Llanos said he also was told subsequent waves eventually swamped the boat, and that Kisiah ended up in the lake and eventually crawled back in, got to its bow and used the trolling motor to try to get to shore.
A spokesman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, which is conducting the investigation into Kayler’s death, said this week that the investigation is not complete and so nothing will be released at this time.
Because Kayler’s body was recovered on the Hendry County side of the lake, the autopsy was done by the Lee County Medical Examiner in Fort Myers, which covers Lee, Hendry and Glades counties in southwest Florida.
The autopsy report obtained Tuesday by The Palm Beach Post, through a public records inquiry, said Kayler was “ejected from boat into water and submerged,” but it lists “environmental exposure” as a contributing condition.
The report did say Kayler had on a life vest, a fishing jacket, a hat, a thermal face mask and neck guard, a thermal shirt and thermal pants, along with jeans, a long-sleeve shirt, a hooded sweater and gloves.
It said the body showed “no evidence of acute blunt or penetrating trauma,” which would suggest Kayler did not hit his head on the boat on his way into the lake.
The report said Kayler had no appreciable blood-alcohol content and was free of any drugs.
A spokesman for the FLW tour said Tuesday he hadn’t yet seen the medical examiner’s report and couldn’t comment.
A money-raising webpage for Kayler’s family, set up with a goal of $15,000, collected more than $20,000 in it first day, and it stood Tuesday at about $87,000.