Hunters and fishermen are very careful on cold water excursions
With Alabama’s abundant waterways, hunters can sometimes only access their hunting grounds via some type of boat or vessel. This applies not only to waterfowl hunters, but also to deer and small game.
When it is cold and the water temperature is low, the use of personal flotation devices (PFDs) is crucial for safety in the event of an accident and hunters end up in the water. Drowning is not the only risk. Hypothermia sets in within minutes in freezing water.
Paul Barnard is a 35-year veteran in the US Coast Guard (USCG) with 20 years of active service, including stays at Dauphin Island and Brookley Field. Currently as a boating safety specialist stationed in the New Orleans District, which covers 26 states, Barnard urges all hunters and boaters who take to the water this time of year to do exercise caution and wear PFDs.
Barnard leads USCG’s Operation Artemus Borios, which aims to keep hunters and boaters safe during the winter.
“Artemus was the Greek goddess of the hunt, and Borios is the god of cold, wintry winds,” Barnard said. “The goal of the program is to reach hunters and all boaters who operate in cold weather to discuss the dangers of these activities. This is an awareness-raising and enforcement operation. Execution is not a ticket write operation. In fact, we engage people at the wharf before they launch. The application focuses on the preventive aspect.
Last year, two young duck hunters went missing while hunting on the Mississippi River. The two hunters were never found after extensive search efforts.
In 2009, two hunters used a canoe to access areas of the Mobile-Tensaw Delta to go squirrel hunting. Their canoe was found half submerged. The body of one of the hunters was found in January 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico.
In 2013, a 16-year-old duck hunter drowned on Lake Martin after his canoe capsized.
In February 2014, two brothers died while fishing on the Coosa River after their canoe overturned.
In January 2021, three duck hunters fell into the water when their boat capsized in the Tennessee River. One of the hunters drowned.
Barnard said the boats used for hunting are generally smaller with little freeboard and are frequently loaded with hunting gear ranging from climbing racks to blind gear and dozens of duck decoys. In addition, hunters often wear thick coats and waders to cope with the cold. Barnard said the combination of these factors poses a high risk of capsizing and drowning.
“Ducks often fly when the winds are howling,” Barnard said. “Cold fronts can pass during hunting trips and bring dangerous conditions with them. Combine that with small, heavily loaded boats, and it’s a recipe for disaster. Watch the weather closely. Avoid large waters when the winds are strong or are predicted to be strong. “
Barnard said donning a PFD before leaving the dock is the best practice. It may be too late to try to put on a life jacket when the boat is in water or has already capsized.
“Wear a life jacket,” he said. “Do it. Modern PFDs are comfortable, non-binding and affordable. Some of the inflatable PFDs are available in camouflage. They are camo when worn, but the bladder is bright yellow when inflated for visibility. They can easily be adjusted to accommodate bulky hunting gear. There are many other approved camo life jackets and flotation devices on the market. For boaters who will not be wearing a PFD, their PFD should be easily accessible. They can’t be buried under a mound of blind material and a bunch of decoy bags. Personally, I always wear an inflatable on my belt. Others wear the vests. It’s about finding the right balance between comfort and protection. .
“The cold kills. Cold water and cold air kill. A cold water shock can occur when the water temperature is less than or equal to 70 degrees. People pant naturally and uncontrollably when submerged in cold water. If you’re underwater without a PFD when you take that reflex breathing, you’re in big trouble.
Barnard said the 1-10-1 rule applies to most people when they are in cold water. It takes a minute to control your breathing. Those in the water have about 10 minutes of useful motor control. Once they’re out of the water, expect an hour of reduced physical ability.
“The danger of hypothermia persists when we are out of cold water,” he said. “Having a change of clothes in a dry bag can save your life. The 1-10-1 rule is a general rule. The colder the water temperature, the greater the effect of the cold water shock and the onset of hypothermia.
Vance Wood, a conservation enforcement officer with the Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries, said the majority of hunters he and his fellow officers see without PFDs are younger.
“They didn’t have the mentorship of older, more experienced hunters,” said Wood. “They are new to the game, and sometimes they feel invincible. But they are not. Wearing waders in deep water is a prime example. They are made for shallow water. In transit to and from your hunting area, you may be crossing bodies of water 30 or 40 feet deep or more. Do not wear your thigh high boots. Wait until you arrive at your seat to put on your thigh boots. A PFD may not be enough to keep you afloat if you are wearing your waders. When you factor in the effect of hypothermia, you need every ounce of buoyancy you can get.
Hunters often visit their duck caches or hunting areas in low light conditions. Getting to these areas can involve winding through narrow waterways. Barnard advises maintaining boat speeds that allow the operator to stop in time to avoid an accident.
“Boaters should expect other boaters to go around these blind turns and intersections of waterways and slow down,” he said. “GPS is not a radar. It can show you where you need to go, but it won’t show other boats. Allow sufficient time to travel at a safe speed. And always wear the circuit breaker that will shut off the engine if you lose control of the boat.
A method of communication with the Coast Guard or friends and relatives is also crucial if there is a problem during excursions.
“Most hunting skiffs don’t have a VHF radio installed,” Barnard said. “In most of the coastal areas along the Gulf of Mexico, a portable VHF radio will have the power to reach Coast Guard antennas. In more interior areas, you will not have this VHF coverage. You will have to rely on other reliable means of communication.
“A PLB (Personal Locator Beacon) can provide emergency communications in areas without VHF coverage. Commercial satellite subscription communication devices are also on the market at a reasonable price. Too many hunters rely exclusively on a cell phone. Privileged hunting areas are often beyond the reach of mobile phones. The kind of accidents that cause hunters to call for help can also find their cell phones wet. It is always a good idea to keep cell phones in a waterproof case. I keep a VHF radio, PLB and my cell phone in a waterproof case when out on the water.
Barnard also recommends carrying an emergency kit that includes items that will be visible to search and rescue units. Kit should include flares, fire starter, flashlights, glow sticks, orange bandanas and signal mirrors as well as bug spray, sunscreen, multi-tool, first aid supplies basic, ropes, communication devices, emergency blankets and everything in between. it could help hunters stay warm and dry or attract attention.
“As hunters we dress in such a way that we cannot be seen, so having something that helps us to be seen can be vital,” he said. “Silver survival blankets help keep you warm and provide high visibility.
“And file a detailed float plan. Every year, reports from overdue boaters come in with very little information about the trip or the boat. There are many float plans available on the internet. Hunters should fill out one and leave it to a responsible person who can call the authorities in the event of a delay.
Most waterfowl hunters have a canine hunting companion, and it is important to also take care of your dog with a neoprene vest which provides some flotation and extra warmth.
“Our dogs are pretty tough,” Barnard said, “but they are subject to the same environmental risks as we are.”
David Rainer is an award-winning writer who has covered the great outdoors of Alabama for 25 years. A former outside editor at the Mobile Press-Register, he writes for Outdoor Alabama, the website for the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.