I’m new to cold water fishing. I’m not new to cold water, as I’ve grown up in the Pacific Northwest, and learned to avoid cold water at all costs. I’m also not new to fishing, though until recently I've only fished the warmer months of May through August.
My first couple of experiences with the 36 degree water I’m talking about came just this last winter, as I wanted to try out my new kayak build, and get some time discovering the ins and outs of my new fish finder. I didn’t think that I would actually do any fishing. But as fate would have it, one cast turned into 100 casts, which turned into 500 casts, which turned into me landing a couple of nice smallmouth. You can read more about that adventure here.
After the realization that I could catch bass year round, regardless of water temperature, my eyes were opened to the simple fact that my passion was now a year round sport. It had no off season. But, with that understanding also came the recognition that this hobby could quickly become my undoing if I wasn’t careful.
So to help all of you that are just getting into cold water fishing, or those of you that just wonder what this obsession looks like, read on, where I hope to give you the three dangers of cold water fishing, and the three best practices this time of year.
What is cold water fishing?
To start out, let’s define what cold water fishing is. Cold water fishing is any combination of factors that take submersion from a wet afternoon to a life and death experience. Technically speaking, this can be determined with the 120 rule. If the water temperature + air temperature is less than 120, you are in a survival situation, should you fall in. So in the fall, if your air temperature is 50 degrees, and your water temperature is still 70 degrees, it classifies as cold water. In the spring, if your air temperature is 70 degrees, but your water temperature is still 50 degrees, it classifies as cold water. In fact, cold water shock is at its most extreme when the water temperatures are between 50 degrees and 60 degrees.
And if you are desperate enough, like some of us up north, to go fishing when the water temperature is 36 degrees, and the air temperature is 12 degrees, and you can watch the water freezing all around you, yep, that’s a cold water condition.
What makes cold water so dangerous?
Your natural reaction when falling into cold water is to inhale deeply. This is more true the colder the water is. Cold water shock produces an involuntary gasp, which can fill your lungs with water. This is even true while wearing a life jacket. In fact people have drowned even while wearing a PFDt due to gasping as they enter the water.
- Cardiac Arrest
If you find yourself in the water, the gasp is not the only involuntary thing that happens to your body. The second response that your body has is that your heart reacts to the cold by going into overdrive. It realizes that you are in a survival situation and responds accordingly. Even if you are young and fit, you can go into cardiac arrest in a cold water situation.
As a result of cold water shock, most people will begin to hyperventilate. Your body responds to the sudden cold with rapid breathing. Rapid breathing not only raises your heart rate, but can also lead you to pass out.
What can you do to prevent the dangers of cold water immersion?
- Always wear a PFD
There is absolutely no reason not to wear your personal flotation device year round. The most important thing that you can do in a cold water situation is to keep your head above water. The PFD does this for you. Even when experiencing the disorientation and panic of cold water shock, the PFD allows you to breathe, and regain your composure.
- Always kayak with a buddy
If and when you find yourself in a cold water shock situation, having someone that is not disoriented and panicking is invaluable. Always paddle with a friend, and if possible, be within earshot of someone on shore. Never kayak alone in cold water. Your friend’s calm thinking is probably your best chance of survival.
- Always dress for submersion
Our partners at NRS make some of the best cold water submersion dry gear available. They suggest a full dry suit where only your head and hands would be exposed in a cold water submersion situation. While the gear may be spendy, it could also save your life. If you cannot afford a full dry suit, they suggest at least wearing dry pants with a gasket at the waist to keep water out. Never wear waders, as they will fill with water, and make it nearly impossible to get back onto your kayak.
What do I do if I suddenly find myself in the water?
- Don’t panic (1 minute)
The first minute of cold water submersion is by far the worst, and it is the most critical minute for your own survival. Start by getting your head above the surface of the water, and get your breathing under control. Tell your body that you are okay. Orient yourself to your surroundings, and come up with a plan.
- Get out of the water (10 minutes)
You have 10 minutes to get out of a cold water situation before you lose the use of your hands, arms and legs. Don’t worry about your gear. This is the time to save your life. Let people around you know that you are in trouble. Call for help. If you cannot get back onto your kayak, swim for shore. The clock is ticking.
- Dry off and get warm (1 hour)
Always pack extra clothes that you can change into to get dry. You have 30 minutes before hypothermia sets in, and one hour to begin to warm up before you lose consciousness. Get indoors and out of your wet clothes. If you are unable to get indoors, get to a protected place and call for help.
Whenever you are kayaking you always have to realize that you are only in between submersions. Even the best kayakers take the plunge from time to time. Every time you go out, there is a chance of going into the water. So instead of being surprised by it, prepare for it. Be ready in any conditions. And if you are, you can extend the sport you love long past when others pack their kayak away for the winter.
Bobby's Cold Water Adventure Gear List
Written and edited by Bobby Ulrich, Feelfree US Pro Staff Team Member