Dos and Don’ts of Winter/Early Spring Kayak Fishing | Kayak Angler Magazine | Rapid Media
Accidents can happen at anytime, be prepared. Accidents can happen at anytime, be prepared. Photos: Courtesy Safe Boating Council

Don't get caught without your PFD while fishing in cold water (or any water).

Many boaters enjoy spending a bright and sunny day on the water in the winter and early spring. What looks like a perfect day can quickly become hazardous if you end up in frigid waters, so it’s important to understand the extra precautions to take during the off-season.

When 51-year-old John Stravalle of Newburgh, NY headed out to go fishing on an early evening in January in Lackawaxen, PA, he never thought he’d find himself fighting for his life in 33-degree water. After attempting to retrieve his anchor he fell overboard from his canoe, and began the difficult task of swimming to shore in the frigid Delaware River. Once on shore, he was helped by a local homeowner. Thankfully, before Stravalle launched his canoe that day, he read a sign on the access bulletin board that stated: Mandatory Wear of the Life Jacket Nov. 1st – April 30th. He was wearing his life jacket. “This sign saved my life,” said Stravalle.

This is just one of the many types of incidences the National Safe Boating Council learns about during the winter or early spring involving a boater, hunter, paddler or angler. Often the individual involved in the accident sets out on their trip alone, and neglects to wear a life jacket or file a float plan with the details of their trip.

A person who falls into the water experiences increased danger with water temperature that is below normal body temperature (98.6 degrees F). As mentioned in the Cold Water Boot Camp USA series, you have one minute to adjust to the cold shock of being in the water, 10 minutes of meaningful movement to get help and get out of the water, and one hour before he/she becomes unconscious from hypothermia.

The North American Safe Boating Campaign, known as Wear It!, shares wearing a life jacket is the simplest life-saving strategy for safe boating. Whether you’re boating, hunting, paddling or angling, taking a few extra minutes to make sure everyone on board is wearing a life jacket can make a difference in keeping you and your loved ones safe in the event of an emergency. Accidents are unexpected and happen very quickly.

Cold Weather PSA body 1

Here are some tips to keep in mind before you go cold weather boating this winter and early spring.

  • Do make sure everyone is wearing a life jacket. Even experienced swimmers can experience shock within one minute in the frigid water and may lose muscle control within 10 minutes.
  • Do file a float plan with someone you trust that includes details about the trip, boat, passengers, towing or trailer vehicle, communication equipment, and emergency contacts. Download a free float plan template at
  • Do dress properly for the weather, always wearing layers, and bring an extra set of clothes in case you get wet. Remember, dress for the water temperature, not the air temperature.
  • Do catch your breath. A sudden unexpected fall into cold water causes an involuntary gasp (or torso) reflex. It takes less than ½ cup of water in your lungs to drown. If you remain calm, you have a greater chance of self-rescue.
  • Do look for ways to increase your buoyancy. If you’re in the water with others, huddle together with everyone facing inwards to help everyone stay afloat and keep warm.
  • Don’t panic if you fall into the water. Stay afloat with the help of your life jacket, regain control of your breathing, and keep your head above water in vision of rescuers. Stay with the boat if possible.
  • Don’t apply heat to extremities like arms and legs of a rescued victim. This sudden change in temperature may cause cardiac arrest.

Recreational water activities during the winter and early spring are a lot of fun, but always remember safety first. And, like John Stravalle, you never know when wearing your life jacket will save your life. Always Wear It!

Rachel Johnson is executive director of the National Safe Boating Council, the lead organization for the North American Safe Boating Campaign. The yearlong campaign, simply known as Wear It!, promotes safe and responsible boating and the value of voluntary life jacket wear by recreational boaters. Wear It! unites the efforts of a wide variety of boating safety advocates and is produced under a grant from the Sports Fish Restoration and Boating Trust Fund, administered by the U.S. Coast Guard. For more information about boating safety and life jacket wear, follow on Twitter at and Like at, or visit

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