Winter Fishing Safety Tips

There is no reason to stop fishing during the winter, especially when the fish are biting, but it is a time to exercise due caution and practice extreme safety.  Not that caution and safety aren’t wise things to do all year, but during the cold of winter, mistakes that may only be uncomfortable during the spring, summer and fall, can become life threatening – and quickly too.  It is far better to exercise caution and be prepared, even if not needed, than to find yourself in a situation where you wish you had, but didn’t.

I thought this early blast of cold weather might be a good time to offer some tips on winter fishing.  Winter fishing can be very productive and a lot of fun.  The rewards of bundling into warm clothing for a ride to waiting pups, specks, stripers, bass or whatever can be special.  This is true now when the temperature first drops and becomes even more special at roughly the middle of February when the days start warming.  Unfortunately, it is also one of the most dangerous times of the year to be on the water and being properly prepared could save your life.

Winter Fishing Safety Tips - Jonathan Grady - in cold water gear fishing the tailrace at Cape Fear Lock & Dam Number 1The accompanying pictures are mainly of kayak fishermen and most will realize that safety and preparation are more important for them than boat fishermen.  However, don’t overlook anything while boat fishing.  Being prepared and following safety procedures could be the difference between a successful fishing trip or an unsuccessful search.  It only takes a little time to do things right, so do it.

Here in N.C., we often have breaks in the winter weather that invite us to go fishing, plus winter often breaks early.  We won’t immediately rush into spring, but there will be some extended warm fronts, especially beginning in mid February.  Get out and go fishing, but do it right.  Hopefully your extra preparations are never needed, but…

The water temperature in your favorite lake, creek, river, sound or the ocean, doesn’t warm as quickly as the air.  There may be some spikes of a couple of degrees, but It didn’t cool quickly in the fall and it won’t warm quickly during warm winter weather.  We are so ready to escape our cabin fever we sometimes get excited and forget this.  However, potential problems lurk just below the surface on those bright, sunny, days in the late winter when the air is warm, but the water isn’t.

North Carolina has always had a large number of boat fishermen eagerly waiting for those warm winter days and they have been joined by a rapidly growing number of kayak fishermen.  The shock of getting splashed or lightly wet is bad enough, but the situation quickly escalates to life threatening if someone falls overboard.

Unfortunately we lose fishermen each year because they rushed and weren’t properly prepared.  By being properly prepared, planning ahead, making a plan that is shared with someone not on the trip, and fishing that plan, we can break that chain and this is a great time to start.  We just have to do things right – without any shortcuts – every time.

Don’t get caught thinking  it won’t happen to you.  That’s when it does.  None of us are 10 feet tall and bulletproof.  Slack preparation can allow a situation to go south in the blink of an eye.  It only takes one mistake and few fishermen get a second chance to redeem themselves.

So, what can a fisherman do to make himself safer in cold water?

There are a handful of things that will help and several are imperative when fishing in cold conditions.

The easiest thing a fisherman can do is to pay close attention to the weather and not set forth in marginal conditions or conditions that are expected to deteriorate.  Fishing is fun, but it just isn’t that important.  If the conditions aren’t good, wait and go later.  Once on the water, continue to monitor the weather.  Our weather is known to change quickly and many times it seems a forecast is just a best guess of what might happen.

Staying with weather, it will dictate how you should dress.  There is an abundance of hi-tech fabrics and clothing, so there is no reason to go fishing with the possibility of being either too cold or too warm.  Layering clothing is the key so it can be removed if the day warms.  A base layer that will wick perspiration away from the skin is a must for the first step and base layers come in varying insulation levels from lightweight to Extreme.

Mid layers add to the insulation while affording easy movement.  The outer layer completes the deal and it can vary from basic outdoor wear to raingear, storm gear, paddling jackets or even dry suits.  Take a tip and always carry a change of clothes in a watertight container.  This is extra space and packing until you need it, but then there’s no substitute.  Boaters may choose not to wear their PFD, but wearing it is a good idea.  For kayakers, wearing their PFD at all times is a must – no excuses.

After making a game plan for your fishing, write it down and leave a copy with someone responsible who will send help if you don’t return on time.  This is called a float plan and it should be a synopsis of where and when you plan to launch, where you plan to go, and when you plan to return.  It should also have a description and registration number of your boat, plus your cell phone number and if you are carrying a Personal Locator Beacon, EPERB, VHF radio or other means of tracking or contacting you.  I suggest including a description of your vehicle (and trailer), so it is easy to check and see if it is still at the marina or ramp.

Your float plan should be as precise as possible and followed as closely as possible.  If you deviate from your float plan, notify the person monitoring it.  Texting to their cell phone is more reliable than leaving a voice mail and allows leaving your changes in a readable form.  The N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission has a downloadable float plan form in the “Boating” section of their website at www.ncwildlife.org and more are available by Googling “Float Plan.”

Weather comes into the safety equation again as it may change.  Coastal N.C. weather can quickly go from calm and sunny with clear blue skies, to howling wind, torrential rain and the temperature falling.  Keep an eye on the sky for any signs of changing weather.  Carry a VHF or weather radio, or have a weather app on you cell phone and check it religiously.  You could be playing with your life as weather situations, mistakes and oversights that would only be uncomfortable during warmer months can quickly escalate to life threatening during the winter.

Preventive maintenance should be followed at all times, but it becomes especially important during cold weather.  Little things that were minor annoyances in warm weather may prevent needed equipment from working in extreme cold.  Grease and oil are much thicker and do not flow readily.  Cold grease could prevent shifting, throttle and steering cables from moving.  Batteries are susceptible to cold too.  The battery that started the outboard fine all fall may be weak with the temperature hovering around freezing.

It is especially important to be sure all pumps and thru-hulls are in good working order.  Baitwell, livewell and bilge pumps are plastic and may freeze, crack and leak.  Losing a baitwell or livewell pump is aggravating, but a bilge pump that doesn’t function is dangerous.  A manual bilge pump is an inexpensive investment that quickly pays for itself many times over if needed.

Checking safety equipment is part of preventive maintenance.  Hopefully you never need flares, but they need to work if you do.  An orange distress flag or signal mirror is not required in N.C., but both are wise additions.  Check your first aid kit too – just to be sure.  It isn’t required, but if you’re going to carry the box, have all the parts and pieces.

It is always a good idea to carry a few basic tools, some essential spare parts, jumper cables and a tow rope.  You’ll see far fewer other fishermen on the water during colder weather, so it’s important to have spares and be able to fix as much as you can. and this is especially important during cold weather.  Things happen and with the shorter days it is better to rig a makeshift repair and begin slowly making your way in before dark than to wait for assistance.

During the winter, the number of fishermen on the water and the odds of flagging someone for assistance are greatly diminished.  Fishermen should look out for each other and offer assistance when possible.  The lack of other boaters during winter is an excellent selling point for a Towboat US or Sea Tow membership.  They make great birthday and Christmas gifts.

Take the time to be properly prepared, leave a float plan with someone responsible, take care, pay attention and you can enjoy catching fish all year.  Good fishing!

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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.