Cold Water Fishing Safety Tips

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From the Editor:

By nature, we tournament anglers tend to be well prepared and safety-conscious on the water, maybe a little more so than others. But after the tragic loss of one of our own several weeks ago on Lake Okeechobee, we thought revisiting some water-safety tips would encourage us all to be even more vigilant out on the water.

Below is a piece we published back in 2014, written by Ken Smith after a similar loss on Toledo Bend.

In the spring of 2003 we lost two young men that were prefishing for a tournament on Toledo Bend. It was a foggy morning and one of the young men called his father late that morning to say that their fiberglass bass boat had begun taking on water. They weren’t sure where they were because of the fog and the boat apparently sank out from under them. Both could swim, but tragically neither of them survived, both succumbing to hypothermia in the 55° water.

I was there prefishing that weekend, and my partner and I skipped pre-fishing the next day to assist in the search for the two anglers. Unfortunately it was days before the two were found. They were doing the same thing that day that I was, in a similar boat, and likely with similar equipment. Their tragedy prompted me to do some research and moving forward I’m taking steps to help avoid getting into a similar situation, and to increase my chances of survival should an accident occur.

The Boat

This may sound obvious, but check your boat -- specifically your hoses and their connectors. The boat I was fishing in last year was four years old and I took great care of it. However, early this spring I started getting small amounts of water in the hull when I ran the port livewell. Thinking that a hose was loose I put a screw driver to the hose clamp and the little arm that came off the bilge pump that the hose goes over literally crumbled in my hands.

Upon checking the two livewells and the two bilge pumps, three of the four pump arms had degraded to the point that they came apart when taking the hoses off. Had this not occurred in my driveway, BAD things could have happened on the water, and trust me; there are only a couple of manufacturers of these little pumps. We are all using the same kind no matter who makes your boat. Due to the extreme temperature changes in our hulls, and the icing that occurs in the winter inside these areas can cause the plastic arms to degrade. If they break, water is going to come into your hull, and if it’s the one to your bilge pump you will have no way to get it out. Don’t find out if your boat will really float like the manufacturer claims; check these connections and the shape of those plastic arms before you launch.

The Water

It’s so important to fully appreciate how dangerous cold water is, and to have some idea of steps to take if an accident should occur. If you happen to be ejected or fall into the water, the first step to take is to get as much of your body out of the water as possible. The body loses heat 30 times faster in water than in the air. So if the boat is overturned, get on top of it. If a tree is available to climb into, climb into or onto it. If there is anything floating that will help you get part or all of your body out of the water, get on it.

If nothing is available to get onto, survival experts recommend one of two positions. The first is to huddle with another person or persons. Get in a circle and get as much of your bodies against one another as is possible, thus sharing heat, and slowing the loss of the same. If you are by yourself assume the Heat Escape Lessening Position (HELP). This position is like the fetal position, with your legs crossed and held up against the groin, and the arms up and folded closely across your chest. This reduces the amount of body surface exposure to the water.  

Leave clothing and shoes on as they act as insulation, and get something around your head and neck if possible as you lose heat there rapidly. If at all possible do not assume the Drown Proofing position we all learned in water safety class. This is the face down position with your lungs full of air, raising your head every 10-15 seconds for breathing. This position does conserve energy, but it results in rapid heat loss through the head and neck and reduces survival time by nearly one-half in cold water.

PDFs

This points out the obvious need for a personal flotation device. As a matter of practice I now wear one of the inflatable PFDs while I fish anytime the water is 65 degrees or cooler, and that is in addition to a full high impact PFD vest I wear while the big motor is running. As a further argument for always wearing a PFD lets look at a table of survival time for an average person in 50-degree water:

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You will notice that swimming or treading water will greatly reduce your survival time. Swimming increases the rate the body loses heat by 35-50%. Experiments have shown that expert swimmers have been able to swim as far as 0.8 miles in 50 degree water before succumbing to hypothermia. However, others have been able to swim less than 100 yards. Unless shore or other safety is very nearby you will generally increase your chances of survival by staying still and huddling or assuming the HELP position. Also it is important to realize that although you may survive an hour or more in 50° water, you will likely become exhausted, disoriented, or lose consciousness in a much shorter time. The following is a guideline for how long before you may lose consciousness or become exhausted, and also the expected time of survival at different water temperatures.

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Additional Measures

In very cold water your ability to think clearly or help yourself can leave you in a very short period of time. Therefore there are steps we need to take with regard to our gear to increase our chances of survival in case of open water exposure. The first is to always know your position. Had we known where the guys were at Toledo last year it’s likely we could have found them alive. You can buy a GPS unit that is WAAS capable for a couple of hundred dollars these days. They are invaluable fishing aids and they could save your life.

Second, have a phone and/or two way radio aboard. A whistle connected directly to your PFD is an excellent idea as sound carries extremely well over water, and if I were to ever hear a whistle on the water it would get my attention. Having it attached to the PFD as opposed to in a box somewhere also means it will always be handy.

The newest addition to my gear always in the boat is my survival Tupperware container just in case I have to go in the water or get stranded overnight. It contains a flashlight, signal mirror, signal flare, waterproof matches, hand warmers, a towel, extra cold weather clothes, and one of those foil emergency blankets that comes in a package the size of a deck of cards. The whole package costs less than $40.

One last note, if you ever wind up in the water while fishing by yourself. Winter clothes, boots, and cold water can make it extremely difficult to get back in the boat. If this happens work your way to the rear of the boat and get your arms and legs around the motor. Then simply trim yourself out of the water, you should be able to splay yourself onto your back deck easily from a trimmed up position. Remember to always let somebody know where you’re going and what time you will be back. Be cautious in cold weather, and be prepared.