A Note from author: So many “educational” reads end up really being an opinion piece. So, Danny wanted to be up front, yes… this is another opinion piece. Many kayak anglers have a system that works for them and they are entitled to their opinion as well. This does however, draw from Danny’s lengthy 30 year experience in the paddle sports industry and as a paddler / angler. So, we feel there is some good stuff in here to make you more informed on this topic.
Cold water paddling, Safety first. What to know before we go.
So, to start this piece, we must first identify the primary purpose. Staying alive when you are exposed to cold water. Hypothermia can set in within 5 minutes in the water temps we see in the Northeast in Spring, Fall and Winter. Along with the medical challenges of hypothermia alone, its biggest threat is that it greatly increases your chance of drowning. We realize who the audience of this piece will be, good natured anglers who want to chase their favorite species as soon as ice is out and into the Fall-Winter as long we can stand the temps. So yes, there are points on how different clothing options perform. But as a community, we must address the very serious risks that we face fishing in cold temps. So, before we get too deep into apparel options, let’s look at some easy things we can add to our cold weather paddling routine to decrease the likely hood of getting in danger.
PFD (Personal Floatation Device / life vest.) As we discussed, the biggest threat from hypothermia is drowning, once one becomes incapacitated. When facing cold water fishing, now more than ever, please wear your PFD.
Eliminate risks that you can control. Pick days that do not have wind in the forecast. Choose a location that is more sheltered from wind, as a backup plan.
Avoid the river when you know flows are going to be higher (Spring) making the skills you need to maneuver your boat significantly higher.
Paddle with a partner. Rescues from capsizes are always easier with two. If you can’t, or just don’t want to, leave a float plan with a friend. Where are you putting on, where are you heading? Have a plan to call that person at a prearranged time when you are off the water. If you don’t call, it is established that 10 minutes after that time, they should be calling for help. If that float plan changes while on the water, update your on land “partner.”
Stay close to shore! We are looking to limit risk, so in the event of a totally random and seldom capsize… why be in the middle of the lake? If your rescue skills are rusty, worse case you can swim quickly to shore and start getting warm. This is a challenge for anglers, as we often fish deeper water structure in colder temps. Avoid the temptation, change your plan and stay safe.
Okay, so now let’s look at some options for clothing.
Performance wear and sun wear.
Many brands are marketing direct to the angler, to help manage moisture, block UV and insulate. Some of us may just be wearing insulating layers we have for work, or cold weather sports. For the person who is 100% committed to the 5 tips we gave at the onset of this article and are very confident in their stability in their boat, this will suffice in keeping them warm… above water. However, you must be honest with yourself in accessing the risk you are taking. These types of clothes are going to offer little to no insulation against cold water and make swimming very challenging when soaked through. The odds of a capsize may be low, but are you willing to accept the outcome if something should happen?
Splash Wear and Foul weather gear.
It is important to note that splash wear aka “paddling jacket” and “paddling pants” along with the foul weather gear most anglers own, have no insulating properties. There is also no way of keeping water out of the garment and away from the body in the event you are swimming. “So why do they sell it?” you may ask. Well, splash wear / foul weather gear pretty much says it in the name, it is designed to keep splash or rain off in the event of foul weather. So, these would be for warmer days, when being absolutely soaked by the spray from waves or a driving rain would not only be uncomfortable but lower core temps. The closures around the neck, wrists, ankles and waist are designed to be comfortable and keep cost down. So, if you were to go for a swim, whatever you are wearing underneath would eventually be completely soaked.
(Authors Note- In this same category, I would like to address rubber boots. A staple of boat anglers for generations. These high, waterproof, boots are great for keeping feet dry in standing water. However, they offer no insulation and in the event of a swim, are going to fill up with water. Making swimming impossible, unless you send them to the bottom of the lake. (Which then becomes expensive.)
It must be told that neoprene only insulates when wet and does not breathe. So, dragging on a wetsuit, is going to be a hot and sweaty experience. Even with the amazing technology in today’s wetsuits, the snug fit through the shoulders, back and chest, make them a challenge for the paddling and casting motion. So additional effort is required, meaning more perspiration and fatigue. The draw to neoprene options is that that they are less expensive, so they do have a place for the budget conscious angler. But you should look at options designed more for paddling and less for surfing. (Often times we see inexpensive surf style suits, or you may even have one from water skiing or surfing.) Tank top style suits called a “Farmer John” and “Farmer Jane” allow freedom of movement and higher breathability (through the exposed arm pits.) Paired with a thin wicking layer against the skin and a wind layer over the top, this can be a great lower cost option. Thinner neoprene layers, that are sold as tops and bottoms, are also available. A favorite piece of paddlers is a zippered top, so you can regulate heat when paddling but zip back up to get warm if you should fall in. Remember though; unlike in a dry suit your feet are at the mercy of the cold water. (Authors note- neoprene is designed to warm the water that is trapped by your body temp. The challenge with feet, for paddlers, is that they do not move and therefore… do not produce heat. Wet feet will get cold, period.)
Are by no means going to win you any awards for fashion and at the $700-$1200 price range are not inexpensive. However, you will stay dry and depending on the investment you can make, can be highly breathable. A dry suit uses a combination of different materials to create a highly water resistant seal against your neck and wrists. (Waterproof feet are attached to the suit, so no need for a seal there.) Using a waterproof zipper, you close the suit to keep water out. (Most suits also offer a waterproof “relief zipper” as well, allowing you go number 1, without taking the entire suit off.) Underneath, you layer for the temperature of the water. This can be done with higher end fabrics, or as simple as cotton, depending on how well you want to manage perspiration. So as Summer approaches, air temps rise but water temps are still cold. You may wear just a very thin silk weight layer. Winter paddling, full on wool or expedition weight pieces. The suit will be made of some level of breathable fabric and depending on if you want to invest in a 2.5 layer material or 4 layer material, will be the deciding factor in how well the suit manages perspiration for you. Due to the looser fit of a dry suit; paddling is not inhibited in any way. In the end, the dry suit provides the driest safety option and gives lots of options depending on the water and air temperature combo. Yes, it is expensive, but I challenge you to go out to where you store your boat, electronics and tackle and start adding that up. Like those items, which too are expensive, the dry suit needs to be a consideration in your budgeting. (Author’s Note- Bibs (waders) have been a popular option for boat and shoreline anglers for generations. But, in the event of a swim water will get through to your underlayers. In the event you have attached boots, this becomes a very serious danger when swimming.)
So, as we go back to the original purpose of this piece, staying alive when you are exposed to cold water, we feel confident that the different sections of this piece can certainly better educate us to be safe and smarter in choosing what we where for fishing in cold water scenarios. Even if some of this is repetitive for you, or maybe you don’t agree with some of it, it opens the conversation and creates a discussion on safety when paddling this Fall-Winter-Spring.