Do you know what steps to take to prevent hypothermia during winter fishing?
Fishing during the wintertime can be highly rewarding. With a lot less pressure from other anglers and bigger fish biting, you still have great odds of getting your PB. But, with less activity and freezing cold waters, this can also be an extremely dangerous time to be out on the water if you are not prepared.
God forbid this ever happens to anyone fishing on a boat during the wintertime, but let's run through a hypothetical situation to help set the scene.
You are on a boat surrounded by frigid water. You're focused on fishing and your motor skills aren't working as well due to the colder weather. This is where accidents can happen- and quick. According to US Coast Guard, 46% of all on the water deaths were on open motorboat’s 26 ft. and under- which is what a lot of fisherman are using to chase that wintertime PB. Being that I have been an extremely avid Waterfowl Hunter and Bass Fisherman for the past 15 years, I tend to spend a lot of time on boats under 26ft during fall and winter. So this is an issue that is near and dear to my heart.
The U.S. Coast Guard also states that boating accidents that happen during fall and winter time are far more likely to be fatal then ones that occur in the warmer months. People fall out of boats all the time! Especially in the dark or low light conditions that most sportsman encounter. As you know, we are typically out early and coming in late. If you add cold water to the mix, your trip can take a turn for the worst pretty quickly.
The most common reason anglers fall out of their boats are:
- Losing balance
- Lunging for something going over the rail
- Running into objects like trees, rock piles, or sandbars in the dark
- Or even just plain slipping
The real killer here is not the accident itself, but none other than Mother Nature’s cold water giving you symptoms hypothermia in what could be less than 3-30 minutes in water 40 degrees or less. Since time is so limited and valuable when accidents like these occur, we have put together a list of steps to help you both prepare and get to safety, so you can live to fish another day.
Preparation is Crucial
Step 1 - Dry Bag
Rule number one starts before you hit the water. Put together a dry bag of extra jackets, pants, gloves, socks, towels, blankets, fire starting material and lighters just to store in your boat before the trip. You may think of it as a hassle, but these simple items could save your life.
Step 2 - Good PFD's Should be a No-Brainer
Have a life vest for everyone on board and make sure they are wearing it. I can be just as guilty as the next guy for not wanting to wear these all of the time, but they are commonly referred to as "life jackets" for a reason. If you think you will be able to put it on when the shock of that cold-water hits you, you might be making a deadly mistake. According to the Minnesota Sea Grant Article, body heat can be lost 25 times faster in cold water than in cold air. Meaning you could lose motor function in a matter of few minutes, making that life vest a real-life saver. Your focus in the water should be on assessing your situation as quickly and calmly as possible, not messing around with your life vest when you have numb hands.
Plus, nowadays these PFDs are a lot less cumbersome, like the Onyx M-24 or Mustang M.I.T. 100, so you can fish with them on and feel unhindered. During tournaments, I forget that I have my Onyx A/M-24 on most of the time. We've heard great reports about the Mustang M.I.T. 100 as well!
Step 3 - The Buddy System
Bring a buddy when fishing during cold water situations. During this time of year only the most dedicated of anglers are out there getting after it. While this is great to have more water to yourself, it also means that help is very limited if something goes wrong. Having someone with you may be the only immediate help you are going to get in case you fall in. If you have trouble finding folks to go with you, join a bass club or fishing club and start connecting with other anglers to find some die hard fishing buddies.
Step 4 - A Good Habit To Get Into
When boating in cold water, always wear your kill switch. In the event you get ejected out of your boat, you don’t want the boat to take off without you. That boat may be your only life line to safety -besides your PFD- and you need to be able to get to it as quickly as possible.
Oh no! You Fell In! Now What?
Step 5 - Keep Your Head Up.
The first thing you are going to need to do after falling into cold water is try your best to keep your head above water. The less of your body that gets wet, the better off you are. When you first hit the water, your body will have a cold shock response and you have the increased chance of accidentally ingesting water. Keeping your head above water will help mitigate the shock and you will lose less heat.
Step 6 - Remain Calm
Try your best to stay calm after the initial shock. If you get fully submerged, work on getting your head up (step 5) and take a deep breath once you come to the surface. It is going to be crucial that you keep your breathing under control so you can start focussing on getting to safety.
Staying calm under any life threatening situation is key to keeping you alive, because you need to be able to think clearly and positively in these situations, so you can assert your energy where it is most important (rather than out of panic).
Step 7 - Assess Your Distance To Safety (excerpts from Boaters Ed Pennsylvania included)
This is why the kill switch practice in step 4 is so important. If your boat, other boats or the shore is nearby, then do your best to get to them and get out of the water as fast as possible. During shock, safety can typically look closer than it actually is, so we recommend swimming to your boat rather than the shore.
Too much shock? Is safety too far away?
Well, if you're alone and can’t swim for it or get back aboard your vessel, you need to get in a position to reduce heat loss. Boaters Ed Pennsylvania has a great article with diagrams of what to do if you cannot get back to your boat. If you are wearing a PFD, you are going to pull your knees to your chest resting your arms at your around side. This position is meant to protect your body’s main areas of heat (groin, head/neck, and rib cage/armpits). If you didn’t listen to step 2 and are forced to swim, conserve energy and minimize movement. The same article suggests “Swim on your back with your upper arms against the sides of your chest, your thighs together, and your knees bent. Flutter-kick with your lower legs.” Swim to the first floating object you can find then resume a protective position.
Step 8 - You Made It Out! But You're Not Done Yet.
Now you’re out of the water but you’re not out of the woods yet. If you get to your boat and your mobile phone is not destroyed- call 911. Keep your clothes on unless you have extra clothes stored in your boat than change as quickly as possible (step 1). If help is not near, get to shore and start a fire if possible so you can get motor function back in your hands and start to warm your core body temperature. Once you are warm and back in dry clothes then you can proceed back to your vehicle or hopefully someone comes to your rescue you by that time.
Step 9 - Don't Be A Hero.
Seek Medical Attention as soon as possible!
If symptoms are very mild like cold hands and feet, shivering, loss of dexterity then drink warm liquids or soups. No alcohol, because it can actually make hypothermia symptoms worst. Apply a heat source like an electric blanket or heat pad to core areas. It is recommended that the affected person do limited exercise to begin to heat up, as well as keeping warm for several hours with the head and neck covered. If the condition of the affected person begins to worsen, seek medical attention immediately.
If you spend a lot of time on the water chasing winter giants, make sure to think about and mentally/physically prepare for these steps, so you can stay after them all winter long. If you would like for us to talk about this topic more in-depth or if you have any questions/comments, please leave a comment below!
Thanks for reading. Stay safe and catch more fish!
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