Some of the coldest situations I’ve ever been in involve fishing in the winter. Let’s face it—while winter fishing can offer interesting challenges and opportunities, it can also be downright chilly. The mix of moisture with low air temperatures is the perfect recipe for hypothermia and frostbite. And those situations are far more serious than feeling a bit uncomfortable. Unless you take the right precautions, they can literally threaten life and limb.
There are a few tips that can help you avoid these problems. Most importantly, I make a point never to fish alone in the winter, whether I’m ice fishing, or wading an open river. If someone falls in the water in summer, that’s usually a laughing matter—perhaps a bit “brisk” but usually refreshing, and the ego is typically the only thing that suffers. But in winter, getting wet can spell disaster and time is of the essence. So a team approach is always best.
Hypothermia is when your core body temperature drops, and you lose heat faster than you can generate it. It’s important to remember that it doesn’t have to be below freezing to experience hypothermia. In fact, even in the summer, prolonged exposure to cold water will cause hypothermia.
Symptoms include feeling numb, dizzy, disoriented, slurring speech, shivering, and weakness. If you or your fishing buddy experience any of these, take action.
If you’ve fallen in the water, replace wet clothing with dry clothing. It’s always important to have spare clothing handy when fishing, especially in the winter. If you’re hiking along a river, carry a backpack with a change of clothes.
Always carry extra mittens or gloves, and hand warmers. If you’re fishing—and successful—odds are your hands are going to get wet, no matter what you do. To prevent frostbite, put your hands in warm, dry gloves or mittens often, and avoid prolonged contact with the water. If your gloves get wet, swap them out.
Carry a thermos with warm liquid, like decaffeinated tea or soup. Caffeine can actually exaggerate the feelings of cold, so avoid those drinks. You also don’t want to shock the system of a person who is already suffering from exposure, so don’t have them drink anything that’s beyond warm. Best to maintain a steady flow of warm hydration as you fish.
Have blankets or sleeping bags available, at least in your vehicle. And be sure to have a cell phone or radio so you can contact expert help if you need it.
If someone is experiencing hypothermia, you want to keep them calm but alert, warm and relaxed (preferably lying down), and sheltered from the elements. And you want to get them to medical care as soon as that’s feasible.
With some advance planning and precautionary gear, anglers can avoid these problems altogether.
Kirk Deeter is the editor of TROUT magazine (the publication of Trout Unlimited) and an editor-at-large for Field & Stream.