By Nick Simonson
This time of year, as meltwater starts flowing and rivers begin opening up, many anglers’ eyes turn to that moving water as a first opportunity for spring fishing. Often running high, dirty and fast with the increasing melt, even the smallest rivers present an extra element of concern along with those conditions, and that is their temperature. Because of this added condition of water temperatures in the upper thirties or low forties, falling into a swift-moving flow can be extra dangerous, making the need for and use of a U.S. Coast Guard-certified life jacket more important in early spring.
The body’s natural reaction to immersion in cold water is a sudden and rapid exhale of air from the lungs. This in turn immediately decreases the buoyancy of an overboard angler and increases the panic level in many who find themselves in chilly, moving waters. Without that ability to stay afloat and in a shocked and panicked struggle against the flow, a dangerous situation can occur as hurried breaths result in more inhaled water which quickly increases the risk of drowning. As a result, the varied and challenging conditions experienced on rivers this time of year require the use of a life jacket to hedge against these risks and provide the added buoyancy needed to get out of the water and back on the boat, or dry land, and keep an early outing from becoming a catastrophe.
A stowed life jacket is like an unused seatbelt in a car – it is 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. This alone should spur more usage of life jackets not only in spring, but year-round.
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 life jacket, but can be subject to other factors such as sudden wind, current or waves, spring debris such as logs, deadfalls and ice chunks flowing downriver or the wake from other nearby boats making their way upstream to favorite early-season spots.
Life jackets should be worn by all occupants on the water at all times, regardless of less-restrictive legal requirements. According to multiple reports from agencies around the region, upwards of 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 those reports were the result of anglers falling out of their boats or capsizing while engaged in fishing activities, further proving that a boat doesn’t need to be at top speed, or even in motion, for the life-saving value of a life jacket to be confirmed.
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 that person 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 set for that first launch this spring and are checking to see if you have all your necessary gear – rods, tackle, GPS, snacks, phone and more – don’t forget to wear the most important piece of equipment required for a safe spring on the water, your life jacket.
(Featured Photo: Modern life jackets are more comfortable, durable and customizable than in seasons past. They certainly don’t get in the way of good fishing! Simonson Photo)