Is it Safe to Use My Fishing Kayak in the Winter?
In our last blog we talked about Fall Fishing and finding the fall bite. The fall fishing window opens and closes relatively quickly for large portions of country. For many, November signals a big drop in both air temperatures and water temperature. When that happens, many put their fishing kayaks away for the winter. If you are too addicted to your kayak (not a farfetched concept if you own one), is it safe to use your kayak through the winter months?
If you plan on using your fishing kayak through the winter months, you'll need to make sure you have the right gear and take the right precautions when setting out on cold water. Let's talk more about why cold water is dangerous, gear that you can both wear and have on your kayak to keep you safe, and tips to keep yourself safe on the water.
Why Cold Water Is Dangerous
Many people reading this may think to themselves, "I'm a good swimmer and could get myself to safety." The problem with this thinking is most people don't account for their body's natural response when entering cold water unexpectedly (such as capsizing or falling overboard). Most fatalities occur in individuals not wearing a life jacket and before hypothermia even has a chance to set in.
Cold Water Shock
Almost immediately upon entering cold water, our body enters a shock state. Within the first few minutes, cold water shock can lead to gasping, hyperventilating, and panic. For many who are not wearing a life jacket, this often leads to drowning within the first two to three minutes of falling overboard.
To combat this phenomenon, a person must focus on their breathing first. Do everything you can to slow your breathing to prevent yourself from hyperventilating or panicking.
Failure of Arms, Legs & Extremities
If you manage to slow your breathing down and avoid panicking from the cold water shock, you must next focus on conserving heat. Within roughly 30 minutes of entering cold water, your arms, legs and extremities will begin to fail from heat loss. No matter how good you are at swimming, rapid cooling of your arms and legs will decrease your ability to keep your head above water.
Without a life jacket, fatality usually occurs due to drowning once you are no longer to keep yourself above the water.
Anywhere around that 30 minute mark of immersion in cold water (may be sooner depending on water temperature), hypothermia starts to set in. Simply put, hypothermia is a medical emergency where your body reaches a point it is losing heat faster than it can generate heat.
Once hypothermia sets in, your entire body is effected. You will lose meaningful use of your arms as well as your ability to think clearly. Eventually, you will lose consciousness altogether.
What Do I Do If I Enter Cold Water?
If you plan to kayak during cold weather and water months, you need to be prepared to enter cold water. We will discuss proper gear to both wear and bring in the next section, but here are some basic strategies to keep in mind if you find yourself in dangerously cold water:
- Have a lifejacket or PFD on at ALL TIMES
- In the first minute, get your breathing under control
- You have 10 minutes of useful movement, use it wisely
- Assess your area/situation & make a plan
- Perform most important task first, such as locating potential rescue
- Self rescue only if possible, don't use up body heat if you can't
- One hour of meaningful consciousness, focus on slowing heat loss
- Keep you knees to your chest, with head, hands & feet out of the water
- Stay with your kayak – it is easier to find by rescuers and floats even if capsized
Other simple precautions to take when kayaking during the winter months include sharing your float plan with someone responsible and not going with you, not overloading your kayak with unnecessary gear, carrying a whistle or horn, and pay attention to the weather to avoid windy or extreme weather. Dive deeper in to the floating technique with the Minnesota DNR.
Must-Have Gear for Winter Kayaking
Fishing from a kayak always presents different challenges, and dangers, than fishing from the shore or from a larger boat. When temperatures drop both outside and in the water, you need additional gear and strategies to stay safe in your fishing kayak. Here are what we consider must haves when fishing from your kayak during winter months:
- A dry or wet suit
- Dry suits keep you dry but don't prevent heat loss so you need to dress warm under a dry suit
- Wet suits provide thermal protection by a thin layer of water & the suit itself, but you don't stay dry
- Have a dry bag with extra clothes, flashlight and matches
- Always let someone know where you are launching from and when you plan to return (float plan)
- Fish with a partner whenever possible
- Have your life jacket on at ALL TIMES
- Plan your routes ahead of time and share with someone
- Avoid rough waters and inclement weather at all costs
Kayak Differently In the Winter
Pick Your Water Responsibly
Give pause to the types of water you want to fish on during the winter months. Some rivers and streams that you paddled on during the summer months may not be good water to kayak on during the winter months. While capsizing in the summer is also dangerous, it is infinitely more dangerous in the winter months. Rough, fast-moving waters should be avoided during the winter.
Avoid Bad Weather at All Costs
Simply put, if the weather is windy or extra cold, don't go. Choose your days far more carefully in the winter than you might in warmer months. Any added weather element increases the risk of capsizing or falling overboard. Look ahead at your forecast and handpick the days you think are the best conditions to take your kayak out.
Accept the Conditions Your Location Offers
If you live in a warmer climate, some of these issues may not be as severe for you. In the southern portion of the United States, you may have warmer conditions year round and your water temperatures will stay a bit warmer than the northern states. You still need to take every precaution you can if your water temps are consistently below 60 degrees.
If you live in the midwest or any northern state, you may have a hard time finding open water during the winter months. Most open water in the northern states are the great lakes or rivers. These waters typically involve more dangerous conditions even in good weather conditions. While using your fishing kayak is always enticing, you need to gauge benefit vs. risk on these waters. Unlike the south where water conditions stay warmer year round, there is no wiggle room here for the gear you take and all of the cold water strategies we talked about – EVERY precaution has to be taken.
Ask Questions & Learn From Others
One of the biggest mistakes anglers can make is being stubborn. Ask for help on sites like our public fishing forum, the Kayak Anglers Resource. Sharing knowledge (like in the discussion, Fall Fishing Tips) is how we grow our sport. If you are hesitant about kayaking in the winter, take your time to do your research and ask questions to those who have experience. There is a learning curve to every season of fishing, but you don't have to learn alone in the cold!