By Nick Simonson
As anglers, we proudly display our passions on our sleeves, quite literally. Sweatshirts emblazoned with Rapala, Vexilar, Huk and Humminbird logos are as standard issue amongst our ranks as camouflage is within the armed forces. Whether it’s due to brand loyalty or just some clothing picked up with a purchase or as part of a rebate program, these well-known names in the outdoors stand out in the photographs we take along springtime shorelines and against the vast open waters of summer, with walleyes, bass and muskies held aloft, tying our favorite fish to our favorite tackle and on-the-water companies. We become billboards for these brands without even thinking about it, but when it comes to donning the one item of clothing that could save lives, many of us think twice.
Whether it’s comfort, looks, or some sort of nanny-state stigma, anglers are notoriously bad at wearing their life jackets while on the water. This time of year – and really anytime there’s open water – the choice to not put one on can be deadly. I recall arriving at the lodge for an annual sturgeon tournament a few years ago and hearing a story that made me make life jackets a part of my everyday on-the-water apparel. The middle-aged man huddled over his beer at the bar seemed stone-cold sober, despite the fact that he had obviously been there for a while by the time I arrived, and my buddies explained his state as I greeted them.
While fighting a large sturgeon on the chilly waters of the Rainy River, he toppled from the stern of the boat and into the flow which was running fast and just a few degrees above freezing. With no life jacket on, he quickly sank in the rolling current and his fishing buddy was unable to reach him as he drifted away and began to drop below the surface. Amazingly enough, a speeding boat was buzzing into the area and saw the man go under and zipped over, lowering a net into the water where the angler’s hand had just disappeared under the surface. Miraculously, they snagged it in a single pass as his fingers faded from view below the brown-tinged water. With some effort, the sputtering, freezing fisherman was pulled aboard the passing boat; his life certainly saved by the efforts of the good Samaritans who happened to be coming through the spot at just the right time.
The next morning, under my ice fishing jacket and overalls, I clipped together the three straps of the bright yellow life jacket I had brought with in the back of the car to placate my wife and proceeded to fish the chilly weekend sturgeon tournament and the rest of the spring and summer with one on.
Having rarely utilized them as a younger angler, I was fortunate to only fall out of the boat on accident twice, both in shallow water and in the heat of summer. Since beginning to wear my life jacket on every trip, regardless of whether I’m in my tiller boat, my console-based craft or the family pontoon, I’ve yet to hit the water, but I rest comfortably knowing that if I did, my life jacket would be there to help me stay afloat, no matter how cold, wavy or inhospitable things may get. Best of all, once worn, it becomes as familiar as a seatbelt, a treestand harness or a blaze orange vest, and it now feels no different than those safety mechanisms I employ in all other aspects of my outdoor adventures.
The man at the lodge bar was lucky, everyone in the boats around him knew how serious his situation was, and they didn’t need statistics to prove it. However, each year according to the U.S. Coast Guard, hundreds of people die in boating accidents, and in cases where drowning is the determined cause of death, 84.5 percent of those individuals were not wearing life jackets. As more and more people take to the water each year, and most states do not require adults to wear personal floatation devices (most requirements are limited to children), the risk for accidental drowning remains high should things go south in a watercraft. Particularly in the spring, when cold waters cause an immediate loss of buoyancy due to the shock and rapid exhale the body experiences upon submergence, life jackets are a vital tool in surviving an on-the-water emergency.
We don’t think twice about our inadvertent role in capitalism and marketing programs wearing our favorite fishing lure sweatshirts or caps on the water each spring and summer. We don’t hesitate to don a safety lanyard in the treestand or slap on a little extra orange heading into the field each fall. For the life of me, I can’t figure out why I didn’t wear one sooner, and why other anglers refuse to do so now, when most modern life jackets are lighter, more adjustable, and in some cases, almost unnoticeable when worn. This season don’t give it a second thought. Wear your life jacket from ice out until ice up and help set a new standard that will change your brand of fishing…in our outdoors.
Featured Photo: Got One On. Wearing a life jacket during any openwater stretch – not just in the chill of spring – is a good idea. Today’s PFDs are light, adjustable and don’t interfere with fishing. There’s no excuse not to wear one anytime you’re on the water. Simonson Photo.