7 Tips for Safe Cold-Weather Fishing

National Safe Boating Council advice for winter warriors

Winter weather fishing
Take proper safety precautions when fishing winter's cold water.Scott Salyers

Many anglers enjoy spending a bright, sunny day on the water in the winter and early spring. It’s peaceful and quiet, and you may just get your best catch of the year. What looks like a perfect day can quickly become hazardous if you end up in frigid waters, so it’s important to understand the extra precautions to take during the off-season.

When a fisherman from Sharon, Massachusetts headed out to go fishing on an early morning in November on Mattapoisett Harbor, he never thought he’d find himself fighting for his life in frigid water. He fell out of his kayak while fishing, and thankfully was wearing a life jacket that kept him afloat until a passing fisherman pulled him from the water. Once on shore, his body temperature was about 95 degrees and he was mildly hypothermic. EMS workers treated him at the wharf before he was released. “A sudden immersion in cold water is a life-threatening event. Cold water drains heat away from the body 25 times faster than air,” said Mattapoisett Harbormaster Jill Simmons.

This is just one of the many types of incidences the National Safe Boating Council hears about during the winter or early spring involving an angler, hunter or paddler. Often the individual involved in the accident sets out on their trip alone, and neglects to wear a life jacket or file a float plan with the details of their trip.

A person who falls into the water experiences increased danger with water temperature that is below normal body temperature (98.6 degrees F). As mentioned in the Cold Water Boot Camp USA series, you have one minute to adjust to the cold shock of being in the water, 10 minutes of meaningful movement to get help and get out of the water, and one hour before he/she becomes unconscious from hypothermia. As a Cold Water Boot Camp USA camper, I understand firsthand the effects of cold-water immersion, hypothermia, and the critical importance of life jacket wear.

The North American Safe Boating Campaign, known as Wear It!, believes wearing a life jacket is the simplest life-saving strategy for safe boating. Whether you’re boating, hunting, paddling or angling, taking a few extra minutes to make sure everyone on board is wearing a life jacket can make a difference in keeping you and your loved ones safe in the event of an emergency. Accidents are unexpected and you can quickly end up in frigid water.

Here are some tips to keep in mind before you head out on the cold water.

• Do make sure everyone is wearing a life jacket. Even experienced swimmers can experience shock within one minute in the frigid water and may lose muscle control within 10 minutes.

• Do file a float plan with someone you trust that includes details about the trip, boat, passengers, towing or trailer vehicle, communication equipment, and emergency contacts. Download a free float plan template at FloatPlanCentral.org.

• Do dress properly for the weather, always wearing layers, and bring an extra set of clothes in case you get wet. Remember, dress for the water temperature, not the air temperature.

• Do catch your breath. A sudden unexpected fall into cold water causes an involuntary gasp (or torso) reflex. It takes less than ½ cup of water in your lungs to drown. If you remain calm, you have a greater chance of self-rescue.

• Do look for ways to increase your buoyancy. If you’re alone, utilize the H.E.L.P. (Heat Escape Lessening Position) and if you’re in the water with others, huddle together with everyone facing inwards to help everyone stay afloat and keep warm.

• Don’t panic if you fall into the water. Stay afloat with the help of your life jacket, regain control of your breathing, and keep your head above water in vision of rescuers. Stay with the boat if possible.

• Don’t apply heat to extremities like arms and legs of a rescued victim. This sudden change in temperature may cause cardiac arrest.

Recreational water activities during the winter and early spring are a lot of fun, but always remember safety first. And, like the fisherman on Mattapoisett Harbor, you never know when wearing your life jacket will save your life.

Rachel Johnson is executive director of the National Safe Boating Council, the lead organization for the Wear It! campaign, produced under a grant from the Sports Fish Restoration and Boating Trust Fund, administered by the U.S. Coast Guard. For more information about boating safety and life jacket wear, follow on Twitter at twitter.com/boatingcampaign and Like at facebook.com/SafeBoatCampaign, or visit safeboatingcampaign.com.