Safety…. I Dunno… Third?

January 9, 2017

Well, here’s something I didn’t expect to be doing right now.  I didn’t expect to be updating the blog, and I certainly didn’t expect to be writing about waterfowl hunting safety.  But here I am…

It struck me though, as I just read another piece about duck hunters dying on the water.  Three hunters and a dog drowned out on Corpus Christi Bay, during a small craft advisory.  This is one of those things that’s worth writing about.

Just a week ago, I was horrified to read about a young father and his 5 year-old son, drowning during a hunt in Texas.  It was the child’s first hunt, and any of us who are hunters can probably imagine how excited both father and son were for this occasion.  And then, for it to turn as it did… I mean, how do you even wrap your head around a tragedy like that?

There aren’t a lot of details about this, except the father and son were found in the water, near their capsized boat.  Their dog had made the shore, and apparently led the searchers back to the bodies.  Neither father nor son was wearing a life jacket when the bodies were recovered.

I have a morbid habit of trying to put myself into the minds of people in those situations, trying to imagine what they went through as it was happening.  It’s painful, especially in a situation where you know it took some time to play out.  The boat capsizes, and dumps father and son into the frigid water.  There’s the terror and shock of the actual event, of course.  For the child, there must have been a terrible wonder that, suddenly, the world is not safely in his dad’s control.  And then, for the father, the realization that he has put his child in that situation.  For all the good intentions, he knows this is his fault.  I can’t help wondering if dad had a final, remorseful realization that he did not make the youngster wear a life jacket… or that he wasn’t wearing one himself so he could save the child.

Of course, I can’t know any of this.  Maybe, mercifully, both the victims were instantly knocked unconscious and had no time for terror or self-recrimination.  I can only project from my own experience.  And I know that I almost never wear a life preserver when I’m duck hunting.  This could be me.

A life jacket, by the way, isn’t a guaranteed survival tool.  Waterfowl season takes place in the winter, when water and air temperatures are dangerously low.  Hypothermia and cold water shock are responsible for many deaths every year, even for hunters and fishermen who are wearing proper flotation gear.  In harsh conditions, the only thing a life jacket will do is make it easier for the recovery team to find your body.

But the fact is, a person weighted down with heavy clothing, ammunition, calls, and whatever else doesn’t stand much chance of surviving long enough to become hypothermic if he’s dumped in deep water.  I’ve gone overboard in hip boots and in waders, and I can speak first hand to what happens when they fill with water… and the fact that I’m still speaking at all speaks to how lucky I have been.  I can give some credit to self-rescue techniques I learned as a child (thanks, Boy Scouts of America!), but truthfully, there’s an awful lot of luck involved in my continued existence.

And still, knowing this, I almost never wear a personal flotation device… even in winter, when loaded down with gear, hunting frigid, rough water.  What the hell is wrong with me?

That’s an open question, I guess, and there are probably lots of viable answers.  But let’s not go there.

It used to be that flotation devices simply weren’t convenient to wear with hunting gear.   Life jackets and vests were bulky, immobilizing, and often, orange.  None of these things made for better duck hunting.  They were uncomfortable.  They made it hard to shoot or maneuver in the boat or blind.  And, unless they were well camouflaged, they spooked birds.  It’s no wonder that some of us who hunted “back in the day” chose to forego the insurance of a PFD.  (I do recall a coat I once owned, called the “Float Coat” or some such, made by Stearns, that had built in flotation.  It was uncomfortably bulky, but it seemed to work well, was camo, and waterproof.  I wore that thing out, and haven’t seen one like it since.)  I’ll also add that nobody made us wear them, when we were younger.  None of the adults I learned to hunt from wore them, and they never pushed me to the habit either.

These days, though, there are all sorts of options available for the safety-conscious sportsman.  Many of them are tiny and unobtrusive until you need them.  Some have quick-inflation with CO2 cartridges that can be manually, or even automatically triggered.  You can slip one on with a belt, or a low-profile harness that goes right over your heavy coat.  Of course, some of these can be pretty pricey, but considering what most of us already spend on waterfowling gear, is that really a valid deterrent?

So, here’s where this leads…

First of all (and this isn’t new for me), any time you’ve got a kid in the boat, that kid should be wearing a PFD.  This is actually law in some states, and I feel like it should be law everywhere.  Kids don’t always make the best decisions for themselves, and they’re even worse when their models (grown-ups) don’t practice what we preach.  The kid gets a life jacket or vest, or the kid stays ashore.

But what about us “models of appropriate behavior”?

I expect that this is not unique to me, but there’s probably a subconscious, stubborn, macho reason to resist wearing a PFD.  It’s past time for me to get over that.  I am not going to become a PFD evangelist or anything, but I do think wearing flotation gear on the water is something more of us should really be considering… especially when the weather and water are cold and rough.   With that in mind, while I’m not willing to make this some sort of 2017 resolution, I am going to make the extra effort to use my gear (stuff I already have, by the way) more consistently… especially when I’m out on deeper water, such as the river or waterway.  Want to join me?




6 Responses to “Safety…. I Dunno… Third?”

  1. Neil H. on January 9th, 2017 12:23

    Great timing. I bailed on two hunts this weekend, one as the maiden voyage for my new kayak, and the other with a friend in twelve foot aluminum. We were only going out in the ponds rather than the open bay, but a decade of windsurfing have taught me that gusts over 40 can start doing weird and unexpected things with objects… like aluminum boats. Add forecasts for thunderstorms and forget about it.

    Back in the day, I routinely went out windsurfing, albeit in a wetsuit (which provides both warmth and some flotation), in conditions up to 30mph on the open bay. Six foot rollers were all part of the fun. However, in windsurfing, I was usually at a launch with dozens of other people who all look out for each other on a nice sunny day. Still I’ve done a few two hour swims when the wind shut off.

    All of that experience makes me feel more cautious, not less. Duck hunting, in camo, with no wetsuit, probably alone, I am keenly aware of how vulnerable I am. Duck hunting in a kayak is highly likely to be a solitary activity. It takes place during the most unpredictable time of year for weather. If you have a problem it probably means things have gotten worse, not too calm.

    One of the first things I bought was a PFD. It’s cut for kayaking and has no padding on the shoulders. It seems like it will work pretty well. I’ll be digging out my VHF radio or buying a new one.

    Still I have feelings about whether I should just bag the whole neoprene waders thing (with belt of course) and just wear a wetsuit and a camo layer over it. I’ll mostly be in sloughs and ponds. I’ll certainly go to a wetsuit for fishing the open bay. It sounds like you’ve done some self rescue in waders. Were they the old rubber ones or neoprene? You also kayak. What are your thoughts?


  2. Phillip on January 9th, 2017 14:37

    Heya, Neil.

    Sounds like you have experience to know how unpredictable (and potentially dangerous) it can get out on the water… even on skinny water. That’s a head start over a lot of folks, but we also know that familiarity breeds contempt… or at least complacency. I know it did for me, and I have to watch that.

    As far as choosing waders vs. wetsuit, I guess it depends on what sort of hunting you’ll be doing. If you’re staying in the boat, jump shooting the sloughs and such, I think a wetsuit is a winner. You’ll be working enough to keep up some body heat, and you probably won’t get too wet… although if you do go over the side, that’s what the suit is for. The downside of a wetsuit is, once you do get good and wet, you’re going to want to stay active. Standing or sitting in a blind, in a wet wetsuit, gets miserable fast.

    Waders, on the other hand, are warm and dry as long as you stay sunny-side-up. If you do get wet, neoprene waders have the advantage of a wetsuit, to some extent, although they’re generally a little too roomy for good insulation when wet. It will sap the body heat out of you over time. The other advantage to neoprene waders is that you can wear them with a wading belt to keep some water out and air in. This provides a lot of buoyancy if you do go overboard. Combined with a flotation vest, it’s the best of both worlds.

    Back when I had my near miss in waders, they were the old, rubberized canvas, boot-footed things. They’re particularly dangerous, as were the hip boots, because once you get water inside, it forms suction and they’re extremely hard to pull off underwater. They’ll pull you down like diving weights. Self rescue at that point is mostly about not panicking. In the waders, I was able to roll over on my back and trap some air inside until I could reach the side of the boat, and I had a friend aboard who pulled me back in.

    I bought a CO2 inflating belt for kayak fishing. It’s a little bulky in front while paddling, but it’s more comfortable than a standard vest. My plan is to start strapping that on when I’m duck hunting this season. I’d like to get one of the inflatable harness-type PFDs, but the good ones are a little outside my budget right now.

  3. Safety…. I Dunno… Third? | on January 9th, 2017 15:40

    […] Safety…. I Dunno… Third? […]

  4. JAC on January 11th, 2017 09:33

    I just dropped in to tell you something, but having read your piece, my mind’s a blank.

    I’m just going to go (unsteadily) back to what I was doing and send an e-mail later if I remember what I was going to say.

  5. Phillip on January 12th, 2017 08:13

    It happens to us all, John, particularly as we enter a certain demographic.

  6. Dan Mikals on March 16th, 2017 15:42

    Just stumbled across this blog. Happy find for me. This article stood out because I duck hunt every weekend of the season in the N.TX area. The boating accidents all seem so avoidable. I feel for the families left behind. Time to get over being macho and wear the dang PFD!

    Speaking of macho (or crazy), I just got into hog hunting. I’m hooked! I look forward to reading your blog posts. Keep it up!


    Dan Mikals