It’s that time of year when we are finally shedding the cloak of winter. Sure there may be a few cold fronts roll through, but we’ve reached the point here in the Carolinas that we shouldn’t have to endure a cold snap longer than a couple of days and it shouldn’t dip below freezing for more than a few hours, if at all. We’ve already seen days that reached the mid 70’s and they’ll get a lot more frequent going forward. That’s great, but we need to understand that going fishing at this time of year requires annual maintenance and good preparation.
I hesitate to say spring fishing requires special preparation, but that may be the way to get more fishermen to pay attention. We should prepare well all year, but when we first break out of winter and start having sunny warm days, we tend to get excited and either rush things or get lackadaisical. That’s not good and combating our tendency to not prepare well when the weather begins warming is the focus of this article.
Lots of fishermen will get excited about the warm weather and drag their boats and kayaks out of the garage for a quick fishing trip. Some won’t check the boats over to be sure everything is working and some will overlook gear on their kayaks as “it will only be a short trip.” Daylight Savings Time began on March 14 and that extra hour of daylight after work is an invitation to go fishing. Accept the invitation, just be prepared and do it safely. The water hasn’t warmed yet and many nights are still cold. Getting wet or stranded can still be life threatening and no one needs that.
Let’s talk about the boat and fishing equipment first. You should check and make sure that everything works – properly. Start with propulsion. This could be motor, paddle, pedal drive or even sails. Be sure gas and electric motors run well and shift in and out of gear. This is the time to change oil, water pump impellers, filters, batteries and whatever else needs it. If there is any question if something needs servicing, do it. Sure, things just simply break occasionally, but many ruined trips have minor issues as the culprit and most of them would have been discovered or replaced during a good spring check and maintenance.
While you’re checking the mechanics, be sure the steering, trim tabs, running lights, horn, bait well, live well, Power-Pole, fish finder, GPS, VHF radio, FM radio and anything else works properly. While you’re at it, check that the anchor and chain are in good condition and attached properly, then check the full length of the anchor rode to be sure there aren’t any nicks or cuts.
Ideally you cleaned and serviced all fishing rods and reels when you stopped fishing in the fall or winter. If you fished all winter, give yourself a loud “Attaboy,” then stop and clean and service your rods and reels before beginning the spring.
Many fishermen clean and service their reels very well, but don’t check much on their rods except to see if the reel seat is tight. One tip for everyone is to rub a cotton ball over every rod guide, the tip and the reel seat. If everything is good, you won’t notice anything, but if there is a chip or crack, it will snag a little piece of the cotton ball and let you know it needs to be repaired or replaced.
This is the time to change the line. If you use braided line, you should be good changing line once a year. Some folks keep spare spools and wind their braid on the spare spool instead of changing it. This allows you to fish the other end of the line, which most likely wasn’t stressed much the previous season. However, this puts the previously used section of the line next to the reel where it will be exposed if a big running fish is hooked.
My personal feeling is that even braided line is inexpensive enough to change annually. However, switching ends does give you a length of line that may have only been tested once or twice. It’s up to each fisherman what he decides to do. It’s rare, but if you don’t change the line, you don’t have the right to complain if a big fish takes you down near the spool and breaks the line where it has already been strained for a season. It makes a good fish tale if you don’t tell why the line was weak and broke.
Those fishermen who fish often and use mono line should change the line a couple of time a year. Those nasty UV rays can prematurely weaken mono line. If you don’t fish often, mono line may be fine for a full season.
Mono and fluoro leaders are another thing entirely. Take the time to change a mono or fluorocarbon leader often. The leader is pulled through all kinds of stuff and may be nicked or frayed or it could happen while on your next fishing trip. It’s not overkill to tie on a new leader every fishing trip.
Lures and hooks should be rinsed with lots of fresh water after every trip, but they may still rust and/or corrode. Switch out hooks when you notice either of these. A quick check on hook sharpness is to see if they will scratch a fingernail. When inshore hooks won’t do this, change them. Offshore hooks are made of thicker metal and should handle being sharpened a few times before they need replacing.
If you catch your own live bait, rinse your cast net well with fresh water after every trip. It does not hurt a cast net to be washed with mild detergents, but don’t use strong ones. For years many fishermen washed boats and gear with dishwashing liquid, because it was always handy. Don’t do that.
Dishwashing liquid has oil and wax strippers to help clean pots and pans. These will also remove wax from the boat and make it more prone to chalking and fading. Those same strippers penetrate mono and fluoro fishing lines and cast net webbing and weaken them. Mono and fluoro lines contain petroleum products and these detergents remove the oil and make the nets and line brittle. Some fishermen have described it as being like the line or net was rotten.
If your cast net gets stiff, soak it for a few days in a bucket of water with 1/4 cup of fabric softener. I use Downy and it works!
OK, now that we have all the boat systems and fishing tackle working right, let’s talk about going fishing. The big thing to remember is the one we most often forget when spring arrives and the days get sunny and warm. Unfortunately, water doesn’t warm as quickly as air.
The air temperature may be shorts and shirtsleeves weather, but the water is still cold. 55 degrees sounds OK and is in the air, but it can incapacitate a fisherman in roughly an hour. Warm air and sunshine tends to give fishermen a false feeling of security and that’s not good. Falling in or somehow getting wet is more than an inconvenience and can be life threatening.
As I was writing this, the thermometer on my back deck was showing 66 degrees. That’s shirtsleeve weather if the fish are biting. Unfortunately, a quick check of the Coastal Ocean Research and Monitoring Program station (www.cormp.org) off Sunset Beach was only showing 55 degrees and several inshore stations were even cooler at 51 and 52 degrees. People don’t function well or for very long in water that cold!
There is an axiom called the 1-10-1 Rule that explains in detail what happens when someone becomes immersed in cold water. It is covered in a sidebar at the end of this article. The over simplified explanation is that bad things can happen quickly in cold water. Be prepared!
There is a piece of advice that recommends dressing for the water temperature, not the air temperature. This isn’t always possible, especially if the fish are biting on a mid 70 degree day in March or April. A fisherman might sweat to extremes. Still, with the miracle fabrics currently available and things like breathable raingear, waders and such, it is possible to get close and stay reasonably comfortable. Always dress in layers so you can quickly add or shed them as necessary.
Always carry a change of clothes in a dry bag. This can be as simple as thermal underwear, warm socks, sweatpants and a sweatshirt or sweater. If you get wet, don’t be a hero and say you can handle it. Dry off and change clothes immediately once out of the water. Hypothermia is sneaky. I can speak to this from two personal experiences. One was me and the other was a hunting buddy. Both times we were shivering uncontrollably and losing muscle control while trying to dry and change clothesafter only a few minutes.
My advice for spring is to emphasize safety as you should all year. I’ll bring a couple of things to the forefront. The most important rule – and the one we all break most often – is to not fish alone. This is true whether in a boat, kayak, wading or whatever. If you have a fishing buddy nearby, help is nearby.
Always wear a PFD when fishing in cold water. Even if help is nearby, sometimes the shock of the sudden cold from getting wet startles and causes folks falling overboard to suck in a mouthful of water. The PFD keeps you afloat to recover from that and then to go about getting back to your boat or land. I use an inflatable PFD and recommend using one of the automaticinflatables. Inflatable PFDs are the most comfortable for most people and the automatic unit will activate the flotation while you are recovering from the shock and a mouth (lung) full of water.
Fishermen and boaters should be aware that effective April 1, 2021 there are new engine cutoff device wear requirements for recreational boat operators of most vessels of 26 feet or less. These boat operators will be required to attach the motor shut-off lanyard at most times they are on plane or at displacement speed. This is part of the January 1, 2021, passage of National Defense Authorization Act that included a U.S. Coast Guard Reauthorization of a 2018 law. These devices, commonly referred to as engine cutoff switches, are designed to shut off the engine to prevent a boat-strike injury if an operator is accidentally ejected overboard while underway.
File a float plan! This doesn’t have to be formal, but let someone know where you are going and when you plan to return. Other good information is where you plan to launch or depart, your cell phone number, a description of your boat (including hull color and registration) and what you are driving to the ramp or marina, including the license plate number. Hopefully there is never a need for a search, but having someone get it started in a timely manner and knowing where to direct the effort, can be crucial in cold water and cool nights.
Carry a fully charged cell phone and marine VHF radio whenever fishing, even in my kayak. If they need to be dry to work, keep them in a dry bag. Some are available that are waterproof, some float and some handheld marine VHF radios have a GPS built in and can automatically broadcast emergency messages that include GPS coordinates.
Whether they are required or not, carry a few flares. They can get attention quickly, especially after dark. A personal locator beacon is wise also – pinned to your PDF.
Small failures from not checking things out to make a rushed fishing trip when the winter weather suddenly turns nice are problematic and may ruin a fishing trip, but anything that puts a fisherman in the water or having to spend a cold night in the marsh or on a open boat is serious. Most of them can be prevented with a little good preparation. Hopefully no one ever gets wet or has a mechanical failure that leaves you stranded in the marsh or on the water.
SIDEBAR: The 1 – 10 – 1 Rule
The 1-10-1 Rule states what happens to people who become immersed in cold water. It is based on 50 degree water with the caveat that times are less in colder water and a little greater as the water warms. The first 1 is what happens in the first minute after falling into the water. This initial immersion is called “Cold Shock” and is the most critical time of falling into cold water. Cold water immersion victims may suffer a heart attack from the shock of suddenly being covered in cold water or gasp and suck in enough water they can’t expel it and drown. Those who survive this first minute and the cold shock must quickly regain their composure and analyze their situation.
The 10 in the 1 – 10 – 1 Rule refers to the next 10 minutes, which is when a person gradually loses muscle function in cold water. This is called “Cold Incapacitation.” Depending on a person’s physical condition and the actual temperature of the water, there are approximately 10 minutes after immersion in cold water before a person will lose motor functions, including the ability to speak, swim or tread water. This time decreases in colder water and for persons not in good physical condition. Conversely, this time can increase a little when the water is warmer and with persons in top physical condition.
One thing all experts agree on is that a person needs to get out of the water during these 10 minutes or they may not be able to under their own power. A PFD will keep a person afloat without expending energy. This increases the time a person may have to recover after being rescued, even though they lose the ability to swim. A person must decide what is best in their particular situation during the first minute and use this 10 minutes to get back in their boat or get to shore.
Cold Incapacitation will increase until it blocks motor and muscle functions and a person loses the ability to swim or lift themselves back into the boat. The Coast Guard training for this shows this to be approximately 10 minutes in 50 degree water. This is serious – deadly serious. When a person’s motor functions shut down to the point of not being able to swim or tread water, they are also impaired to the point they may not be able to speak or operate a boat.
The final 1 in the 1 – 10 – 1 Rule represents the approximate one hour before irreversible effects of hypothermia begin to set in. Again, this is based on 50 degree water and getting out of it within 10 minutes. During this hour as hypothermia sets in, motor functions become increasingly more difficult, speech begins to slur and the core body temperature drops enough to cause unconsciousness. When the body cools too much, life canslip away.
These aren’t concrete numbers as the time may be less when the water and air temperatures are lower and/or the person isn’t in good health and may increase slightly when conditions are warmer and the person is in excellent health. Remember the 1-10-1 Rule when planning a winter or spring fishing trip as the water remains much colder than the air. Hopefully you never need to work through it, but knowing it may help you survive a life-threatening situation.