The weather is streaky this time of year with stretches of warm weather that have anglers thinking open water, and the fishing can be the same way. Pre-spawn movements and reports of hot bites for all species, across the map, can get the adrenaline pumping and the eyes seeking open water. While the weather and fishing may heat up and cool down depending on the fickle spring weather, one thing that should not be inconsistent at this time of year or any other is the attitude of anglers toward life jackets. As most rivers have opened up and the icy grip of winter is weakening on many lakes, angler excitement to put a boat on the water is nearing its seasonal peak. But all too often, fishermen overlook their own safety in spring, a particularly treacherous time.
Most state laws require that a U.S. Coast Guard-certified life jacket or personal floatation device (PFD) be on the boat for every occupant, but the rules don’t go so far as to require their actual use on anyone, save for children. But a stowed life jacket is like an unused seatbelt in a car – ineffective when it isn’t worn. Over the last 15 years, a number of comfortable gear-focused life jackets have been developed, many specifically for anglers, with D-rings, tackle pouches and storage for vital equipment, and the old, boxy uncomfortable foam life jackets are a thing of the past.
Many anglers will wear a life jacket while they are on a boat in motion; but when the trolling motor comes down, the life jacket comes off. But oftentimes, drowning can occur when the boat is anchored, drifting or being powered by just a trolling motor – times when many anglers feel it is safe to be without a PFD, but can be subject to other factors such as sudden wind, current or waves, or the wake from other nearby boats.
Life jackets should be worn by all occupants on the water at all times. According to a recent Minnesota Department of Natural Resources tally, nearly 90 percent of all recent drowning deaths in boating scenarios could have been prevented if the victim had been wearing a life jacket. Nearly half of the deaths in the study were the result of anglers falling out of their boats or capsizing while engaged in fishing activities.
In the spring, when open water is coldest and usually high and roiling in rivers due to runoff and meltwater, a fall in the water is a dangerous proposition. The shock of near freezing water hitting the body causes an involuntary exhaling from the lungs. This lowers the body’s buoyancy which in turn causes the neck and head to dip down to or below the waterline, which then can result in the inhalation of water as a person struggles for air. When that happens, panicked breaths result in more inhaled water, creating a grave situation.
But a fall into the water can be dangerous any time of year, particularly with so many things that can go wrong on the way down. Many drowning victims without life jackets also show signs of head and neck trauma evidencing a sharp blow, most often resulting from a fall while standing in an unstable boat. This can render the victim unconscious and unable to swim even if he normally would have been able to. A life jacket acts as insurance, when properly worn, that the head and neck will remain above water, even if the wearer is stunned or knocked unconscious when falling out of the boat.
As you ready your boat and get ready for that first launch this season and are checking to see if you have all your necessary gear – rods, tackle, GPS, snacks, phone and more – don’t forget the most important piece of equipment. It should be snug on your body, and on those of your fishing buddies as well. Snap a life jacket on this season, and make it a habit to wear one every time you hit the water…in our outdoors.