Vital survival tips for winter fishing
Published: Sunday, January 13, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 12, 2008 at 11:50 p.m.
Every few years you read about some tragic boating accident during winter, when a boat sinks or drifts away without a proper anchor, or fishermen somehow wind up in the water with hypothermia, often with an unhappy ending. All it takes is the right combination of misfortune and bad luck.
Any number of unpleasant situations can develop. Winter fog may roll in, usually on warm days when the water is cold. Fish bite very well in that kind of weather, but fog may cut visibility to zero. Without radar to navigate, you may be stuck with little
chance of rescue until it lifts.
Smaller boats now often carry GPS screen navigators that track your progress even through local channels and past navigation markers — but they don't show other boats. While offshore in open water, a simple GPS will bring you back to the Number 1 channel marker off each port, where you can idle the remaining distance. Keep a sharp lookout in fog.
If you're socked in by fog, hunkered down from a storm, run aground or have a disabled engine, you're going to need a few items.
Years ago while living on the bay, I put together a simple, zippered “survival bag.” There had recently been a tragic accident, where four out-of-town fishermen had swamped their big johnboat in whitecaps during a mid-January cold front. There was only one survivor, who had somehow swam ashore and crawled into a hole under Spartina grass — huddled all night in a howling wind. His ordeal was a pure test of survival, but his inner torment was worse. Among the drowned were his best friend and two 10-year old boys.
If the four had stuck together, made shore and had a survival bag with waterproof food and matches, and a plastic tarp, things might have turned out differently. A little zipper bag seems like cheap insurance. At least it increases the odds of survival.
Sure enough, on a January morning five years later, I ran the boat hard aground while duck hunting on a very remote bay with little tidal flow. The tide took 17 hours to rise four inches and barely float us free. We had tried to loosen the boat all day, but at sunset lit a hearty campfire with gas from the boat and made the best of it.
Tip No. 1: If the boat has a below-deck gas tank, unplug the gas hose from the motor, and poke a fish hook in the metal stopper inside the hose clip. Squeeze the gas bulb a few dozen times and you can fill an empty drink can or water bottle with gasoline. With an old fashioned, six-gallon gas tank, carry ashore and use with discretion. Damp driftwood without kindling will explode into a cheerful bonfire.
On the night of our stranding, we cooked hearty Manhandler soup over a driftwood campfire on the beach, and slept in our chest waders under a small tarp like The Three Stooges in a double bed. It was a pleasant 70 degrees and the mosquitoes were moderate.
At 3 a.m. the boat floated free and we escaped that little bay under brilliant moonlight, zig-zagging 20 miles past crab trap buoys, back to the bay house and straight to bed. At dawn, a pea-soup fog closed the door on boat traffic, remaining most of the day. When it lifted that afternoon, a cold front slammed the coast with 30-knot winds and cold rain. If our boat hadn't floated free, we would have been stuck there in bad conditions — this time without food. The zipper bag eased our stranding, but it was only good for one night.
There's nothing like a little preparation. Here are a few key items to remember while boating in cold water or weather:
* Standard cell phones provide little coverage beyond the shoreline. Instead, rely on a good VHF boat radio that was “radio checked” with another boat.
* Always keep a five-gallon bucket on board for bailing water, when not holding fish or bait. The bucket may help if your bilge pump(s) quits working.
* Warm jackets for everyone on board. Balmy weather at the marina doesn't apply during a winter boat ride. Much less an overnight stranding.
* Knit hats are useful, much better than a “gimme” cap. They're crucial for holding in body heat. Your head loses body heat quickest.
* Wire cutters or needle-nose pliers for crab traps. Wrap a wire crab trap around your propeller, and you're not going anywhere without serious wire-snipping. Bring a backup pair in case one falls in the water. This is a handy tool in the boat, compared with simple “hook-outs.”
* A spare anchor, so you won't drift away in a storm.
* A folded plastic tarp takes up little room, but will shield the crew from wind and rain. Don't settle for the smallest tarp in the store.
* A can opener and knife, even though you have pop-top soup cans. A can opener will easily retrieve cans cooked over an open fire, without burning your hand.
* A couple of Bic lighters are nice, but you can more safely throw wooden matches at a gas-sprinkled woodpile. If people are soaked or shivering, you want an instant fire. Make them back off for a moment, before igniting.
As it turned out, our little survival bag, when called to the test, did lack several items. Advil would have been nice for multiple sore muscles, after trying to rock a 2,000-pound boat free. Tabasco sauce would have spiced up our soup. Mosquito repellent would have been handy. And a half pint of snakebite medicine would have made our beach campout a little more pleasant after a long day.
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