The weather is cold and hot this time of year, and the fishing can be the same way. Streaky, inconsistent and uneven until the first warm stretch of weather brings April into May. One thing that should not be inconsistent is the attitude of anglers toward boat safety at this time of year. As most rivers have opened up and the icy grip of winter is weakening on many lakes, angler excitement to put a boat on the water is at its seasonal peak. But all too often, fishermen overlook their safety in spring, a particularly treacherous time.
State laws in Minnesota, North Dakota and most other states, require that a U.S. Coast Guard-certified life jacket or personal floatation device (PFD) be on the boat for every occupant. But a stowed life jacket is like an unused seatbelt in a car - useless if it isn't worn. 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, drownings 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 PFD.
Life jackets should be worn by all occupants on the water at all times. According to a 2007 Minnesota Department of Natural Resources study, of the 15 boating-related drownings last year, 13 of the deaths could have been prevented with properly employed PFDs. Nearly half of the deaths were the result of anglers falling out of their boats or capsizing while engaged in fishing activities.
A fall into the water can be dangerous, more so if a blow to the head, neck or other body part occurs during the incident. This can render the victim unconscious and unable to swim even if he normally would be able to. A life jacket acts as insurance, when properly worn, that the head and neck will remain above water.
If not unconscious, a life jacket provides added buoyancy. Particularly in the spring and fall, a sudden submergence in cold water can take a person's breath away - literally. The body's natural reaction to a rapid change in temperature is a panicked exhale, thus reducing the amount of air in the lungs. This in turn reduces the natural floatation of the human torso, causing the neck and head to sink under water. In both cases, whether it is a hot day in August on Leech Lake, or a cold day on the Red River in April, a PFD will save a life.
For every tragedy there are several survival stories. Recently, a co-worker related the experience that cemented his use of PFDs. He and his friend stood up quickly after a walleye bit to play the fish and land it. As they both stood, the boat rocked and both men lost their balance. My friend from work fell out of the boat and, in an attempt to catch himself, hit his head hard on the aluminum edge of the boat. Though not knocked unconscious, he stated he saw stars and was dazed for several seconds. His friend fractured his wrist when he fell to the floor of the boat and was unable to react immediately. After a few seconds, both men were able to get the situation under control and get in to the local hospital for treatment.
"I normally never wore PFDs, but it was cold that day, and I was using it as a layer over my jacket," he recalled, "looking back, I was lucky I wore it and I won't ever be on the water without one on in the future."
As you ready your boat at the launch this season and are checking to see if you have all your necessary gear - rods, tackle, GPS, snacks, phone and more - don't forget the most important piece of equipment. It should be snug on your body, and on those of your fishing buddies as well. Snap a life jacket on this season, and make it a habit to wear one every time you hit the water...in our outdoors.