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Duck hunters are a breed apart. On a raw fall morning when the temperature is dropping, the wind is picking up, and the warm weather has given way to cold waves of pelting rain, waterfowl hunters see nothing but opportunity. While the rest of the world pulls winter coats out of storage and throws a few logs in the fireplace, waterfowlers take vacation and head outdoors. A good cold snap with a stiff breeze and low clouds increases the chance of an encounter between the hunter and rafts of low-flying ducks pushed by nature to leave breeding grounds and staging areas on southern migrations.
The waterfowlers take to the marshlands to test their luck. Some are content to build shoreland blinds that border the rivers and potholes where the ducks feed, loaf and rest up en route to wintering grounds. Others immerse themselves in the experience. Duck hunters can don waders and take cover in emergent cattails and reeds. They can jump shoot on streams or set up floating blinds on the Mississippi River and Great Lakes. And of course they want to set out an impressive array of loafing, happy-looking decoys to entice some live company. All these ducky activities can involve getting into a jon boat or skiff when the weather is raw and the waters are cold and rough.
"All too often, waterfowl hunters just view their jon boat or skiff as a means of getting to a blind, setting out dekes or retrieving a downed duck," said Roy Zellmer, DNR boating safety administrator. "They forget that they are also boating, and they don't tend to think about factors that can make fall boating a riskier activity. The same winds, cold water and foul weather that would make them think twice about boating in the summer just don't dissuade them in fall. And in autumn the clothing is heavier, the boat is usually shallow, it's loaded with decoys, firearms and maybe a dog. You have to be thinking about safety first."
Have a checklist and a plan
Planning for cold weather boating is essential. You need to wear clothes that will protect you from the air and the water. Conventional wisdom on land is to don several layers of warm clothes. On the water, this weighs you down. Shoreside clothes are less effective in retaining body heat. You want to wear a few light layers under or inside a waterproof shell. Many outdoor clothing manufacturers now offer lightweight togs that have already sandwiched together a camo-print waterproof, windproof outer shell over thin insulating materials and warm fleeces. Light polypropylene undergarments and a light wool layer can provide both warmth and flexibility. You can also find lightweight suits made for windsurfers and river paddlers that will protect you in cold, wet conditions.
It also makes sense to take your hunting clothes with you when you go to purchase a life jacket for cold-weather boating. You want to get one that is comfortable and the right size when you are dressed in field attire.
"You are more likely to wear a life jacket if it is really comfortable and it will serve you well for both the fall waterfowl season and the early spring fishing season when the water is still cold," Zellmer said. "The best life jacket in the world is worthless if it isn't being worn."
Zellmer cited a sad example from last fall when two young hunters on the south shore of Lake Winnebago lost their lives while waterfowl hunting.
"We may never know exactly what happened," he said, "but when the boys were found, neither was wearing a life jacket, but both boat oars and life jackets were found in their car that was parked near the boat landing."
Adults need to think twice before taking children along on a waterfowl hunt if rough weather is forecast. Children are especially vulnerable as their smaller body mass means even shorter survival times in cold waters. According to the Health Resources and Services Administration's Maternal and Child Health Bureau, drowning is second only to car accidents as the leading cause of accidental death among children age 1-14.
"Don't buy oversized jackets with the idea that your children will grow into them," Zellmer said. Properly fit children with life jackets that are sized both for their weight range (under 30 pounds, 30-50 pounds, 50-90 pounds and over 90 pounds) as well as their chest size measured under the armpits.
"If life jackets are too big or too small, they can slip off when your children need them most. Test the life jacket, fasten all the chest straps and the crotch strap and lift the jacket up at the shoulders. If it gives more than three inches, it is too big."
As you plan your trip, watch the weather forecast, prepare a float plan and leave a copy with someone, or at least notify someone where you are going and when you expect to be back. When you return, let them know you're back. don't hunt or boat alone when the water is cold and the weather fickle. Using the buddy system is a proven lifesaver. While you are out, observe the boats around you, their location and proximity to your boat. You'll have to depend on each other for quick rescue in case of an accident in cold water.
Pack extra dry clothing in a waterproof bag. Make sure that your boat has adequate bailing equipment and lash it to the boat so it will stay with the skiff if it goes over. You may want some simple provisions to make it easier to get back into a boat when wearing hunting clothing. Consider having a short boarding ladder or a rope. Your life jacket should have reflective material attached to it and a whistle or small horn to call for help.
Cold water temperatures, sudden weather changes, an energetic retriever and the added gear that waterfowl hunters carry in their small boats or skiffs can all increase the chances that they'll end up in the water and in trouble, Zellmer said. To avoid capsizing or going overboard, he advises waterfowl hunters to make sure they do not overload their boats, to respect changing weather, to watch out for branches and underwater obstructions, to get retrieving dogs accustomed to the boat before the hunting season, and to keep a low center of gravity when moving around or shooting from the boat.
"Although hunters may consider the risk of falling overboard or capsizing to be small, such accidents pose a serious threat," Zellmer said. "Going overboard into cold water can quickly render a hunter unconscious and may kill those who are not wearing proper clothing and a life jacket. The absence of other boaters on lakes and rivers in the late fall and winter also greatly reduces the chances of a prompt rescue," he added. "Carry a cell phone, but don't count on it as your primary safety tool when boating. It takes time to find boaters, and you don't have a lot of time if you end up in the water from fall through early spring."
The cold truth
The dangers of cold water need to be understood and heeded. According to the U.S. Coast Guard, more hunters die each year in the United States from drowning and hypothermia than from gunshot wounds.
People lose body heat 25 times faster in cold water than in cold air, and hypothermia – the body's inability to produce heat faster than it's being lost – can occur in any water less than 70°; relatively quickly in the colder water temps of late October. The Coast Guard estimates that in 50-60° water a victim will become exhausted or unconscious within two hours and may survive in the water for one to six hours. In water colder than 50°, the hypothermia victim may lose consciousness within 30 minutes and can survive for only one to three hours without medical attention.
"These survival times may seem long, but on big waters, help can be a long time coming, Zellmer said. "If a person goes overboard near sunset or after dark, the possibility of a timely rescue is unlikely."
If you fall overboard or capsize in cold water, panic and shock can set in quickly. The shock from falling into icy water triggers an involuntary gasping reflex that can cause you to inhale water through your mouth. Without a life jacket, a person can drown without ever coming back to the surface. Cold shock may result in cardiac arrest or loss of consciousness. When the head and chest are exposed to cold water, heart rate and blood pressure can increase suddenly. Once you get past the initial shock, you feel disoriented and thrash around getting a sense of bearing and composure.
Wearing a life jacket is critical to protecting yourself and increasing you chance of survival.
Water quickly robs your ability to help yourself. Cold water numbs extremities and draws off body heat. Cold fingers can't fasten a life jacket or grab a rescue rope. Cold legs can't kick long to keep you afloat. The life jacket not only allows you to float without expending energy, it also provides insulation.
If you do fall overboard, these tips may help save your life:
"Our best advice is to play it safe," Zellmer said. "If the weather gets rough, adjust your hunt plan. Consider hunting from shore. Consider cutting the hunting day short if the weather turns really foul, and consider that it's more important to stay healthy to hunt another day than to place yourself or others in a risky situation."