Fishing Safety Tips – Preparing For The Season

Don’t be a Statistic
Fishing and Weather May be Warming Quickly, But Water is Still Cold

When our weather begins warming and having nice days each spring, fishermen are ready to get back on the water.  This is true every year, but especially so when the Carolinas get rocked by cold snaps like they did this January.  I don’t remember this much snow, especially in places like the Outer Banks, or the week long times with temperatures below or barely above freezing.  Like everyone else, I’m ready to get back out fishing, but from a lifetime of experience on the water, including some that weren’t particularly good, I now take and will suggest some extra cautions and preparations before heading out.

The first thing to remember is that the water doesn’t warm as quickly as the air.  A warm front may slide into the area and push mid afternoon temperatures into the upper 70s, but the water only warms maybe a degree.  Peeling off layers down to shirtsleeves for fishing makes it easier and adds to the fun, but getting wet is still a big deal and can quickly take a fun day of fishing to a life threatening experience.

Fishermen, including myself, are ready and waiting to go fishing when the opportunity presents itself.  These bright, warm, sunny days like the past week kick our fishing genes into overdrive and we’re headed out.  This piece will point out a few things to do and consider to make your fishing outing safer, while also allowing it to be fun and productive.  These tips are for everyone, but may be even more crucial for fishermen in kayaks or who wade.

Usually I begin with advocating to wear a PFD, but I’m going to put that off a little bit to talk about filing a float plan.  This may sound a bit technical, but filing a float plan simply means writing down your plans for fishing that day and leaving this information with someone who is responsible and will send help if needed.

The first thing on a float plan is listing where you will be departing, where you are planning to fish and when (and where, if different) you will be returning.  After that, you should list a description (make, model, year and color of your boat (kayak) and vehicle.  Finally, your float plan should include a description of you, your cell phone number and if you are also carrying a VHF radio, plus what channel you will be monitoring.  Channel 16 is the Coast Guard Channel.

Hopefully you never have to rely on someone calling in from your float plan, but it is easy help if you need it.  It is best not to deviate from your float plan, but if you do, consider texting rather than calling your responsible person with your changes.  Much of our fishing is in areas with marginal cell phone service and texts usually go through better than calls, especially if you have to leave a message.  Texts also give a written notice of any changes and that is far superior to a garbled message.

Next is to have a PFD and wear it, especially if you are alone (not a good idea).  Take the time to find a PFD that is comfortable and wear it.  One of the worst things that can happen on a late winter/early spring fishing trip is taking a tumble into the water.  Even if the boat or kayak is anchored, or if you step into a hole or fall while wading, getting wet gets serious really quickly at this time of year.  The air may be warm, but the water is still cool to cold and cold water is debilitating.  I have experienced this and hope you never have to.

My experience with a dunking in ultra cold water was while duck hunting.  I stepped into a hole that was just deep enough to cause me to lose my balance, fall forward and fill my waders with saltwater that was cold enough there was ice around the edges.  I tended to downplay it at the time, but it could have been life threatening.  I was fortunate and got out in just a couple of minutes and could walk several more minutes to a shelter where I shed the wet clothes and warmed up.  However, even after only walking about 5-6 minutes, I had gotten so cold my speech was slurring and my steps had shortened.  If everything hadn’t been planned in advance and in place, it isn’t a dramatization to say you might not be reading this.

I didn’t need a PFD for my experience, but if the water had been a little deeper or I had been leaning over a boat gunwale to pick up a duck, I would have.  If you are in a boat or kayak, having a PFD is required.  Find one that fits well, is comfortable and wear it.  It can’t help you if it’s laying over the console or leaning post and you don’t have it on.  I like inflatable PFDs and State and Coast Guard regulations require them to be worn.  A PFD will buy you a little time when deciding whether to try to get back in the boat or go to shore.  It will also help you conserve some energy as it will float you and not require swimming to stay afloat.

Unfortunately, in cold water, which lingers long after the days have begun warming, your decision making process and ability to swim (or just stay afloat) fade quickly and the beginning of hypothermia starts to set in rather quickly.  The Coast Guard uses a tenet regarding survival in cold water they call the 1 – 10 – 1 Rule.  This is based on water of 50 degrees.  The time may be a little longer when the water is warmer, but gets shorter when the water is cooler.  Most of our coastal water has reached the low 50s by now, but was colder.  Much of the inland lakes and streams are still below this point.

SIDEBAR:  The 1 – 10 – 1 Rule
The 1 – 1- 1 Rule states what happens if you become immersed in cold water of approximately 50 degrees.  The first 1 is that you have approximately 1 minute to decide what is best for you to do.  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 the 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.  Reconsidering the PFD – it will keep a person afloat, which increases the time a person may recover after being rescued, even though they lose the ability to swim.  A person needs to quickly decide what is best in their particular situation and use this 10 minutes to get back in their boat or get to shore.  In approximately 10 minutes in 50 degree water, Cold Incapacitation will increase until it blocks motor and muscle functions and a person loses the ability to swim or help lift themselves back into the boat.  Unfortunately, when a person’s motor functions shut down to the point of not being able to swim or tread water, they are also restricted enough to also impair their ability to 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.  Motor functions are difficult, speech begins to slur and the core body temperature drops enough to bring unconsciousness, which allows life to slip away.  These aren’t concrete number 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.

NOTE:  There was a situation that is a near perfect example of this in Lockwood Folly Inlet at the end of December 2017.  A kayaker was fishing in the inlet when a wave struck him at an odd angle and flipped his kayak.  Fishermen in several boats were nearby and responded immediately.  In the few minutes it took to maneuver into a position to help the kayak fisherman, he was already losing motor function and could barely speak and could not help lift himself into the rescue boat.  Thankfully he was wearing his PFD and it kept him afloat for them to find him and lift him in.  The rescuers warmed him as they got him to the nearest landing, called EMS for a transport and in three days this lucky fisherman was telling his story.  Unfortunately, not all of these stories have happy endings.

Even as the days warm, the water temperature lags behind and can be life threatening.  Be sure to leave a float plan with a responsible person and let that person know when you return.  When the air and water are both warm, spending a night on the river or in a marsh may just be worrisome and inconvenient, with extra sunburn and bug bites, but during the cold months it could be life-threatening.

Whenever fishing in cold water, one should pay special attention to safety and have a backup plan for if something goes wrong.  There is no substitute for using the buddy system, but sometimes we all go it alone and all precautions are doubly important then.  Even after leaving a float plan, pay special attention to balance in the boat and be cautious.  A momentary lack of attention or a slight slip can quickly dump you in the water and you may also hit you head going over.

Other safety equipment to consider includes a waterproof VHF radio, especially one of the ones with DSC Emergency Calling and a built-in GPS, a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB), a sound producing device (horn or whistle) and some flares.  A waterproof cell phone or one carried in a waterproof and floating bag can be a lifesaver too.  Several companies are now making waterproof, floating VHF radios that include Bluetooth so they can operate a cell phone that is in a waterproof bag.  If you take a dunking and get wet, don’t hesitate to make that call as soon as you are back in your boat or ashore and secured.  When Physical Incapacitation sets in you may not be able to and this only takes a short time. This is also the time to use those flares in your boating safety pack.

To learn more about cold water safety, the 1 – 10 – 1 Rule and more, visit the Cold Water Boot Camp website atwww.coldwaterbootcamp.com.  There is an abundance of valuable information and something there may prove the be a lifesaver.  Let’s hope not, but it’s better to be prepared when it’s not needed than to need it and not be prepared.

NOTE:  Those who prefer using a Float Plan in a preset form will find several options at: http://floatplancentral.cgaux.org/download/USCGFloatPlan.pdfhttp://www.ncwildlife.org/Portals/0/Boating/documents/floatplan.pdf;
http://www.boatsafe.com/nauticalknowhow/boating/float1.htm;
http://www.coastalboating.net/Resources/Tools/FloatPlan.html.

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Capt. Jerry Dilsaver has been fishing since he was a child and writing about fishing, hunting and the outdoors since 1986. He is from Southport-Oak Island, N.C. and continues to live there in semi-retirement. His writing features this area prominently, but he has fished and written about the East Coast from Virginia to Florida, the Gulf Coast, California, Alaska and several of the Great Lakes in the U.S., plus several countries in Central America and several Caribbean Islands. He has been on staff at Carolina Adventure, North Carolina Sportsman and South Carolina Sportsman Magazines and his byline has appeared in several other magazines and newspapers.