U.S. Coast Guard Division of Boating Safety
Going after waterfowl can take hunters into some of the toughest environments, including ice, snow and water temperatures near or below freezing. When the flooded bottomlands and fields are locked up with ice, ducks will head to the open water of a large river or lake to loaf at midday. Good shooting, but dangerous territory for both hunter and dog.
If you hunt from a boat, it makes sense to take measures that in an emergency can help everyone on board make it out alive. Remember that small, open-constructed boats used for hunting have little to no freeboard (the distance between the top edge of the boat and the waterline), and even less when fully loaded with hunters, dogs, decoys and other gear. It’s easy to overload the vessel unintentionally, and an overloaded boat is more likely to capsize, even in relatively calm water.
On most mono-hull boats up to 20 feet long, the maximum load capacity can be found on the capacity plate, which is permanently affixed to the hull by the manufacturer. It notes the maximum horsepower rating and maximum load weight at which the boat can safely operate. If a capacity plate isn’t present, one easy formula for calculating the maximum load for a mono-hull boat is to multiply the boat’s length by its width and divide by 15. Therefore, a 6-foot-wide, 18-foot boat can carry up to seven people safely — 6 x 18 = 108/15 = 7 — but you’ll need to account for any dogs as part of that passenger load.
Make sure your load is distributed evenly to keep the boat balanced. Standing for any reason in small boats, and even changing seating positions, can raise the center of gravity and make the boat less stable. A raised center of gravity means that a wave, wake or a sudden turn can send a person overboard
For safety’s sake, complete a pre-departure checklist to make certain your boat is in good working order and has all the necessary safety equipment on board. File a float plan to let others know where you’ll be hunting, your boat’s description and when you expect to return. Be sure to wear a U.S. Coast Guard–approved float coat/jacket or life vest at all times (available in camouflage).
With fewer people out on the water, hunting with a friend is especially important. If you are injured or fall in the water, having one or two other people along means someone can help you back in the boat or call for assistance.
Remember to carry a first-aid kit and an onboard emergency kit that includes a dry change of clothes; calorie-dense snack food; fresh water; a thermos of coffee, cocoa or other warm beverage; duct tape; a waterproof portable flashlight with extra batteries; flares and matches. Stow these items in a waterproof bag to protect them.
Also, remember to stay away from alcohol when you’re out on the water. In many states, hunting with firearms and drinking alcoholic beverages is against the law. It also hastens the onset of hypothermia should you fall overboard.
Depending on where you hunt, you may want to carry a mobile phone only as a backup to a VHF-FM marine radio. In outlying areas, mobile phones frequently lose the signal and in any case are unidirectional, meaning only one person receives the phone call compared to many who may hear a VHF-FM radio distress call. Consider an Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) or other emergency location devices.
Life jackets are essential boating equipment in any season, but in cold weather, float coats, camouflaged vests and life jackets not only keep you afloat but also provide added insulation. If you fall overboard into icy water, the first reaction is to gasp and inhale water. A life jacket can give you the crucial minutes you need to regulate your breathing and safely re-board your boat.
Think about how you would retrieve anyone else who falls overboard. Climbing back in can be next to impossible in heavy, cold, wet winter clothes — even for someone otherwise uninjured. Hunters who boat in cold weather should practice (under warmer conditions and in a safe location, such as a swimming pool or shallow area) how to get back in the boat, as well as how to get passengers back aboard.
Consider the Dogs
For your dogs, the right gear and a thorough knowledge of the environment can also make the difference between safe hunting and unnecessary risk. In cold weather, which is practically the definition of waterfowl hunting, a float coat can give your dogs some needed support in an emergency and help with one of the most serious dangers: breaking through the ice.
Many professional guides won’t send their dogs on river retrieves in winter without added flotation, and it makes sense for anyone boating with a dog in deep water. Even a time-honored water dog can’t swim indefinitely, and a dog treading freezing water can go into shock and suffer the same effects as hypothermia in humans.
Planning for different worst-case scenarios before sending the dog can leave you better prepared when something goes wrong. Thoroughly scouting a hunting area during daylight hours can help both of you avoid many hazardous areas. In waterways frozen over with ice, check the thickness. White or cloudy ice is not safe to walk on. Safe ice is clear to bluish in color and at least 2 inches thick to support a dog and 4 inches thick for a hunter on foot. Check the depth of the water, too. Have your waders on and make sure you can get to your dog if you need to.
Plan Ahead Before you head out:
– Consider taking a boating safety course, as well as a first-aid and CPR course.
– Check the capacity plate (if affixed to the hull) or calculate the maximum load to make sure you don’t overload the boat with passengers, dogs and gear.
– Make sure your boat has enough fuel and is in good operating condition for winter weather. Ensure you have the required safety equipment on board, including flares or other visual distress signals, and that your navigation lights are in working order.
– Check the weather forecast, bearing in mind that conditions can change quickly.
– Dress in layers and wear good quality, non-slip footwear with socks.
– File a float plan. Tell a friend, family member or someone at the marina exactly where you are going, who is hunting with you and when you plan to return. Don’t stray from the plan, and if you do, alert the person holding your float plan.
– Carry a VHF-FM marine-band radio. Use your mobile phone only as backup, and put it in a waterproof container designed for cellphones.
– Take along a well-stocked first-aid kit.
– Pack a basic survival kit, including blankets, matches, a disposable lighter, a dry change of clothing, some calorie-dense food and warm beverages like coffee or cocoa in a waterproof bag. Do not drink alcohol while boating. It can impair your judgment and may speed up hypothermia should you fall in the water. Note that in many states drinking alcohol while hunting is against the law.
– Make sure you have a U.S. Coast Guard–approved life jacket of the correct size and type for you and every passenger (and, on the water, make sure they are worn, not just stowed). Consider adding flotation for your dogs.
– Invite a friend. Boating with at least one additional person means that if someone is injured or falls in the water, the other can summon assistance or help the other back into the boat.