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The Mayo Clinic’s web-site lists the following symptoms of hypothermia:
- Clumsiness or lack of coordination
- Slurred speech or mumbling
- Confusion or diff iculty thinking
- Poor decision making, such as trying to remove warm clothes
- Drowsiness or very low energy
- Apathy or lack of concern about one's condition
- Progressive loss of consciousness
- Weak pulse
- Slow, shallow breathing
Even more concerning is the potential for falling overboard into the frigid winter waters. The cold water accelerated the transfer of heat from your body at up to 26 times faster than when exposed to air – thus if you find yourself in the water, getting out and getting dry in rapid fashion is crucial to your survival.
The United States Search & Rescue Task Force lists the expected survival times in cold water as:
The above is intended to help remind us of the risks which do exist, but there are a things you can do to manage these risks. Below are a number of tips that can help make your winter time outing a safer one...
File a “Float Plan” – tell someone when you are going out, the general areas you expect to fish, and when you expect to return. If you forget to do so and are launching from a public ramp, consider leaving a note on the dash of your vehicle with your expected time of return and an emergency contact number.
Fish with a friend – it is always a good idea when on the water, especially in the winter or in other adverse conditions, to have another person with you. Should an unfortunately turn of events unfold, your fishing buddy may just become your life-line.
Wear your life jacket & use your kill switch – It is something that many of us are guilty of not doing, but when fishing in the winter, especially if alone, a life jacket may be the one thing that saves your life. A variety of styles of life jackets exist now which remove all the excuses for not wearing one – WEAR IT! The heavy, bulky clothes that we wear to keep up warm will rapidly absorb water and become an anchor around you if you do not have the flotation provided by your life vest.
- Dress in layers so that you are prepared for whatever Mother Nature may throw at you.
- A significant percentage of the body’s heat is lost through the head and hands, so have a warm stocking cap and dry gloves available.
- Finding gloves that stay dry often seems like “Mission Impossible” - keep multiple sets of inexpensive “jersey gloves” (like the brown light/cheap yard gloves) in a plastic bag and when the pair you are wearing becomes wet, swap it out for a dry set. And a ready supply of hand warmers is not a bad idea either.
- A set of warm, waterproof boots are also a must have for a comfortable outing. However, ensure they provide ample maneuverability and have a sole that maintains a level of “grip” even in freezing temperatures
- For very cold weather, check out Arctic Armor. This is a set of insulated bibs and coat that are targeted to ice-fishermen “up north” and are constructed with a material which will float the wearer. They are not intended, nor should be relied upon, as a replacement for wearing your life jacket, but they can serve as a secondary “safety net” should you find yourself over board.
A few options to assist returning to the boat include:
- A swim platform with a sufficiently long ladder can be a life saver. Many of the ladders on typical swim
- platforms only have a few steps, and they can be difficult to traverse in the most ideal conditions. Consider replacing that short 2-step ladder with a 3, or 4 step ladder which will allow you to more easily climb up and back into the boat.
- Tie a rope to the rear cleat and leave a loop hanging over the transom that would be long enough to reach
- from the water (but not so long as to foul your prop), tying several loops for footholds and hand-holds, so that you could use this to help pull yourself back into the boat. And while a morbid thought, should you be unable to reenter the boat and the worst-case scenario unfold, securing yourself to your boat would at least allow recovery later.
- Climb up onto your outboard, using the cavitation plate as a foothold, and then use the trim switch to raise the motor, and yourself out of the water to where you can reenter the boat.
Once back in the boat, you are not out of the woods. Soaked to the core and now surrounded by air temperatures which may be less than the water from which you just escaped the worst danger may still be ahead. It is critical that you get dry and warm as quickly as possible. Bringing a spare change of clothes on the boat is a good idea. At a minimum, having an emergency blanket – the silvery foil type – on the boat is a good idea – they are very compact thus taking little space, and could help maintain enough body heat to avoid hypothermia until you are able to get back to land.
Minimize the Potential for “Slip-Ups”: The relaxation that we enjoy when on the water can be disrupted in the blink of an eye with a trip or a slip on the deck of the boat.
- Keeping things as organized and in their place can minimize the potential for tripping over a rod bow line lying in the floor of the boat.
- Even with their “non-skid” surfaces, a boat deck can be like an ice skating ring when you combine a bit
- of water or even early morning condensation and the sub-freezing temperatures that accompany winter- time fishing. A set of sure-footed boots is key, as is extremely careful movements. No fish is worth that quick jump to the front deck to grab a rod, or leaning too far over to lip it into the boat.
- Throwing a cast-net brings an added set of dangers. The water (and shad slime) from the net, coupled
- with freezing temperatures will turn a boat deck into a solid sheet of ice in rapid fashion. Perhaps this time of year one should “mix it up” and shift to jigging and casting artificials – your hands will likely thank you. But if you are one of the “hard-core” live bait fishermen, consider dipping a towel in the lake water and placing it on your deck to stand on when casting. When the towel freezes, dip it back in the lake to thaw and then replace it on the deck.