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Safety measures critical, wise winter boater warns

Rescuers retrieve an overturned boat on Hauser Lake in 2004 after two hunters capsized while shooting at ducks. The men survived. Victims of other winter boating mishaps haven’t been so lucky. (File)
Rescuers retrieve an overturned boat on Hauser Lake in 2004 after two hunters capsized while shooting at ducks. The men survived. Victims of other winter boating mishaps haven’t been so lucky. (File)

Savvy sportsmen learn that foresight is key to surviving cold- weather boating mishaps

Wind gusts of 26 mph came out of nowhere and whipped up whitecaps on the Snake River.

Spray from waves coated ice on my gun, waders, the fur on our retrievers and the deck of the drift boat.

Doctor Zhivago meets the duck boat.

Hard-core sportsmen never put their boats away, especially during steelhead fishing and waterfowl hunting seasons.

Winter is no deterrent. More often than not, you’ll find boat trailers and pickups parked at boat ramps along the Clearwater, Snake, Salmon and Columbia rivers all winter.

My son and I have been hunting in brutal December and January weather for decades. We’ve been stuck on the river in winter a couple of times, once in the dark with a dead battery in the jet sled and another time with a stuck throttle on the boat motor.

We’ve battled 3-foot waves of 36-degree water trying to row a driftboat downstream only to be blown upstream, despite the current.

We’ve been lost in fog even with GPS.

Come rain, sleet, snow, and dead batteries, one thing’s for sure: We’ve never taken cold-weather boating lightly.

U.S. Coast Guard statistics show that 20-25 percent of boating accidents occur in winter months, when the consequences of going into the water are dire. Even an uninjured person can survive only minutes in winter-cold water.

It’s mind-boggling to see how casual some hunters and anglers take winter boating. Here’s a common scenario:

Three duck hunters riding in a small overloaded fishing boat with a large retriever and stacks of decoys, guns and other hunting equipment.

They barely have enough freeboard to keep lapping waves from filling the boat.

It’s common to see steelhead anglers and duck hunters not wearing life jackets while trying to navigate river swirlies and currents during the cold-weather months.

Of course, winter boating can be enjoyable and problem-free if you take some precautions.

Winter boating safety tips

Here are some of the cold-weather boating tips compiled from more than four decades of experience.


• Let a responsible person know exactly where you will be going and don’t stray from that plan. Give them a map or GPS coordinates.

• Give friends or relatives an estimated time of arrival at home. Call if you are going to be late.

• Write down the names of the people with you, your license plate number and a description of your vehicle and the boat ramp where it will be parked. Give copies to friends.

• Check the weather before going. If it’s going to be extremely windy or foggy, it might not be the best time to be on the water.

• However, duck hunters don’t let any weather stop them. Do a specific search for a weather report for the area where you will be and perhaps alter your destination accordingly. See the National Weather Service’s website at

• Scout the water you will be on beforehand in daylight and on milder days. River flows vary in the winter, and it’s good to know where stumps, submerged logs, sandbars and other obstacles are, especially if you’re going out on the water in the dark when duck hunting.

• Know what the flows will be and what the river’s channels or rapids will be like at those river levels. See the USGS water information website at .

• Have a cell phone available because you might have a signal in some areas. Put it in a waterproof container designed for cell phones. Some boaters have marine or CB radios.

• Take a GPS along with pre-set coordinates. If fog rolls in, you could be totally disoriented. Make sure you have extra batteries.

• Take extra clothing, food, a survival kit and a first-aid kit in dry bags.

• Make sure your boat has enough fuel and is in good operating condition for winter weather. If you have a nonmotorized boat, make sure equipment like oars, ropes and life jackets are in good shape.

• Make sure your boat’s running lights are operating and that your flood light has batteries and is working.

• Carry signal devices, such as flares. A watertight container painted red or orange and prominently marked “distress signals” is recommended.


• Recognize that even slight changes in the weather can make hypothermia a threat.

• Don’t wear cotton jeans or sweat shirts.

• Dress in layers with wool or synthetic base and insulating layers topped off with rain and wind gear. Wear clothing that wicks perspiration and keeps your body core warm.

• Wear a waist belt with waders to prevent them from filling up in a mishap. Waist-belted waders actually trap air and keep you afloat.

• Wear a life jacket. Cold water quickly saps your strength, and wearing a life jacket could give you time to safely re-board the boat if you fall overboard.

Life jackets also give you crucial minutes to regulate your breathing after the shock of falling in. The first reaction when hitting cold water is to gasp and suck in water.

Life vests provide insulation and slow the onset of hypothermia.

• Flotation suits are a good idea, and I wear one that is camo. Flotation suits come as one-piece suits or a jacket and pant/bib combination. They can be worn like regular cold-weather gear, but provide flotation. By law, you still need to have a life vest.

Flotation suits also retain body heat when you are in the water.


• Don’t overload a boat or canoe with decoys, hunters, guns, ammo, dogs and other gear. Statistics show more than half of all boating deaths occur with small boats. That’s because they are usually open to the elements and more vulnerable to wind, waves and swamping.

• In addition, I carry a small safety fanny pack on me at all times. It contains a windproof and waterproof lighter, a small waterproof fire-starting kit, signal mirror and emergency strobe light.

The fanny pack also acts as a belt around my waders.

If you become separated from the emergency gear in your boat, you can still light a warming fire and signal rescuers.