It's that time of the year that many big water anglers look forward to! Cooler temps and BIG fish! The big fish are on the feed in preparation for winter and the spawning season ahead. If you plan it right and do your homework, you can catch the fish of a lifetime during the cold water months. Many anglers personal best walleye are caught on Lake Erie in late fall/early winter during November - December and in spring during March - April. Boat ramps are less crowded as the pleasure boaters are done for the season. The crisp air brings refreshing peace through the lungs as we take deep breaths in hope it will last just a little while longer before touching foot back on dry land and the stresses of daily life. This time of year it also means higher risks when fishing from a boat in cold water conditions. These risks are not only health safety risks, but additional risks to boating equipment. In this blog we will touch on various cold water risks, some safety tips and boat preparation for fishing in these wintry conditions. Really we just want to slap some thoughts, observations and experience on paper to speak out loud and hope to increase awareness for our fellow fisherman. As always, fish at your own risk, make good decisions and take anything from this with a grain of salt. We aren't hear to tell you what to do, just trying to help spread some awareness! The more years we fish, the more we learn and the wiser we become, or at least we hope to. Plan, be safe and enjoy the rewards of cold water fishing!
Ron Schmitt with a giant December Lake Erie Walleye
Big Fish Risks and Rewards
We all tend to feel a little more bullet proof when we are jacked up and motivated to go out and catch big fish this time of year, but we must also remember the increased risks when fishing on big water in cold temperatures. Chasing those trophy size walleye or other fish can be very rewarding during the cold water months and bring great reward, but the risks are plentiful. Hypothermia is a major risk when venturing out onto the big water in cold conditions. Water reduces your body heat nearly 30x faster than air. Hypothermia is a major concern and risk during all cold water activities. Our bodies simply cannot produce heat fast enough to compete with the rate at which hypothermia takes heat. The colder the water, the faster we lose the battle. Keep in mind that hypothermia and heightened risks don't require freezing temperatures. Water temps of 70 degrees and less are when the dangers of hypothermia and cold water shock can really start to increase. Water doesn't have to be "freezing cold" to be a safety concern, which is a common misconception. It's hard to believe that 70 degree water can cause hypothermia, but it 100% can. If you can get hypothermia in 70 degree water, it's pretty easy to understand why it's important to take cold water safety serious when fishing big bodies of water that have 33-50 degree water temps during later fall, winter and spring seasons.
Zach Greene with a big cold water Lake Erie walleye. Photo courtesy of Meals on Reelz Charters
Boat check before leaving the dock
Boats can break and have issues, just like anything else. With lots of moving parts and added accessories, it's imperative to do a safety check on the trailer and at the dock before heading down the channel out to the big water. Depending on your type of boat, method of propulsion, etc, there may be many other things not listed here that you should check before heading out. Know your vessel and do your safety checks accordingly. Here are a few things we review before heading out on the big water.
- Bilge and Livewell Systems. Any pump/hose systems you have in your boat should be checked before making runs out on the lake. You can visually inspect these on the trailer but it's best to do a quick inspection of the bilge as soon as your boat is in the water and before leaving the dock. You want to catch a missing drain plug or cracked hose/fitting now and not when you are miles out on the lake. Launch the boat, open your access and visually inspect the bilge area for any signs of taking on water. We have been lucky enough to never have a hose burst or fitting crack, but we know others we have had it happen and the boat fills with water FAST.
- Drain Plug. Almost every boater forgets to put the plug in at least once. If you have never had this happen, you are lucky. You don't want this to happen during the cold water time of year, let alone any time of the year. Always double check that the drain plug is in and tight before heading out, especially during the cold water fishing season. Some anglers carry a spare on the boat as well.
- Motor Operating Normal. During the cold water months, we always let our outboards warm up before putting them under load. It's a good idea to let a motor run at idle before ripping on it at WOT. One thing we always do is start the motor in the water when we are still on the trailer. We always jump back and check to confirm the tell tale is working. Some outboards can run for awhile without pumping water, especially during the winter months. An overheat situation could happen out on the lake, rather than at the ramp if you aren't paying attention. Make sure your motor is pumping water through the system by the tell tale. Also, make sure the stream looks normal and strong. A weak tell tale could turn into an overheat situation later in the day and the outboard can go into protection or limp mode, which can be dangerous in cold weather if you are miles out on the big water. If your visual inspection creates concern, listen to it. You should also have an idea what your outboard sounds like when idling. If you are having trouble keeping it at idle or its sounding different than normal, you may have a fuel system concern and that is alarming. We like to make sure to listen to our outboard if its telling us something is up. If it speaks to you, listen. Getting stranded miles out on a rough lake with freezing temps can be the starting ingredient in the recipe for disaster.
- Overall walkaround. A walkaround to check that nothing crazy happened during the trailering process, etc, will help catch any random issues that could arise. You never know what can happen when trailering your boat. One time we hit an object on the road when trailering and it shot from the truck tire into the side of the boat. Never assume your boat is sea worthy without doing your walk around!
- Radio/Cell Phone Check. Confirm your VHF Radio and cell phone is working. Hopefully you don't need them, but turning them on and confirming the cold didn't kill them is always a good idea. Cell phones don't always have signal when miles out on the big water, so having a VHF Radio is always a good idea.
- Safety Gear. Double check that all safety gear is on the boat and nothing is left in the truck. It's easy to forget stuff. This time of year, just take some extra time and precaution in making sure you have all safety gear on board.
- General Gear. There are some extra items you can take with you on the boat during the cold water months that can add peace of mind and serve a purpose in case of emergency.
- Change of clothes
- Emergency blanket ( Space blanket )
- Extra warm, dry outerwear. Layering is best.
- Extra hats and gloves
- Check the gas gauge. It sounds crazy, but we know people who have ran out of gas on the water. Don't go out on big water if your fuel level is questionable. You have to always account for the fuel that might be needed in the event of an emergency situation. Running out of gas miles out would not only be embarrassing, it could be the start to a disastrous situation.
- Jumper cables or jump pack. Cold weather drains batteries fast. Many starting batteries that are on their last legs are exposed during cold weather. Keeping a set of jumper cables on board or a jump pack will help make sure you can get back to the dock, in the event you have a dead battery situation.
Captain Mike Downey braving the spring cold water temps. Photo courtesy of Relentless Grind Guide Service.
Preventing a man overboard situation
It shall be assumed that everyone shares the same common goal when fishing this time of the year. Catch big fish, be safe and don't fall overboard! With that in mind, there are some precautions that can be taken in the event you are ever faced with this type of incident.
- Travel at safe speeds when covering water. Underwater obstructions and floating debris can be very difficult to see, especially with a chop on the water or large, rolling waves. Keep an eye out when underway and understand the risks that are out there floating around us. It's also a great idea to keep the life jackets on when underway.
- Always use your kill switch when operating the vessel. Running aground or hitting an unexpected obstruction can throw the driver and/or passengers forward or out of the boat. A kill switch will stop the engine, which keeps the boat from essentially driving away from the incident. If you and your passengers go in and your miles from shore with a drive-away boat, you are in a BAD spot.
- Stay inside the gunnel walls. Don't try to be a hero and straddle the outboard to reach the net for a fish when the water is 40 degrees. Try to keep off back decks if you are in a multi-species boat equipped with them. Extend your net handle and be patient. When trolling, the boat is always advancing forward. If you go in when trying to extend for a big fish, the boat will be out of reach instantly. In seconds you will be a mile away.
- Don't fish alone. If you fall in the water and you are alone, the risks and challenges will increase dramatically. It's never a good idea to fish alone on big water, let alone during cold water conditions. Almost every type of thing that could go wrong will be worse if you are solo. We all struggle with schedules meshing but it's still no excuse to scratch the itch and venture out on the big water alone in the cold water months.
- Keep an eye out for icy surfaces that form in the boat. Floors can ice up quickly during wintry conditions and depending on the type of floor, things can turn into an ice rink. Days with cross winds and water spray help add the water coating to compound the issue.
- Use extra caution during activities on the front decks. Whether you are fishing or deploying the trolling motor. The front deck offers a very minimal amount of protection from falling over as the bow gunnels are typically much shorter than the cockpit area of the boat. Keep the deck clear of extra rods, etc, as everything on the floor is an additional tripping hazard and safety risk.
Big Lake Erie walleye a few days before Christmas
Safety gear to increase survival times during a M.O.B. situation
- Life jackets. We learned during captains training that life jackets increase the survival time of a victim in a MOB incident dramatically. Without a life jacket, the victim in the water will have to use lots of energy to stay afloat. This uses body heat extremely fast, where with a life jacket, it keeps you afloat and allows you to reserve some of your energy. Keep in mind that not all life jackets are created equal. The newer inflatable life jackets are lightweight and convenient, but most manufacturers do not recommend using them when temperatures are 40 degrees or less. If the auto inflate feature doesn't work due to the cold temps, the victim will have to manually inflate, which isn't a good scenario at all. If you hit your head on the way in and are unconscious, you aren't going to manually inflate either. Make sure to do your research before purchasing an auto inflate or look up the specifications on the one you already own! You may be surprised what you find.
- Float Suits. Float suits are becoming more popular with cold water anglers each passing year. Not just for ice fishing but for cold water fishing from a boat. The added buoyancy built into these float suits will help keep you floating without requiring the use of energy from treading water, etc. Some float suit companies claim their suits are sealed and not only keep you floating but help trap body heat. We cannot confirm this, but it's of course a great concept if it works in the moment.
- Boarding ladder. Whether you have a fixed ladder or an emergency ladder stowed away in a compartment, you should always have a ladder on board for re-entry into the vessel. Many anglers cannot do a few pull ups, let alone pull themselves back aboard with the added weight of soaking wet clothing, boots, etc. Even with others in the boat, pulling a heavy person with soaked clothing back in isn't a cake walk. A ladder will always help. In the event you don't have a ladder, a piece of anchor or dock rope could be used from cleat to cleat to help create a single step that the person in the water could use.
- Throwable flotation device. Keep your throwable accessible at all times and educate other anglers in the boat of it's location. Throw the throwable to the man overboard as soon as possible. This added flotation could litteraly be a life saver. When trolling, you will have to be very quick as you are driving away from the person in the water. Act quickly but stay calm!
- GPS Unit. Many gps units made today come equipped with MOB buttons to quickly drop a waypoint on the gps to track the location where the person fell into the water. If your unit doesn't have this button, simply add a waypoint or take a picture of the gps location where they have fallen in. In currents, wind and waves, the man overboard will float away from the location, but its imperative to have the starting location for emergency help that is on the way. It will also help you increase your odds of circling back to find them if things are hectic, wavy and in low visibility conditions.
December fishing on Lake Erie - Boat spray freezing things up
General Safety Precautions and Cold Weather Boating Tips
For the things we missed, we will slap together our remaining thoughts and tips below. We will also cover a few tips regarding cold water maintenance items to keep your boat in tip top shape during the winter fishing season.
- Drain your trailer before pulling up the ramp. To help keep the ramp from turning into an icy mess, take a minute to let your trailer drain at the bottom of the ramp before pulling up.
- Drain water from outboards. Outboards are self draining and you must get the water out before heading back home. We like to park our rig and trim the outboard all the way down for a few minutes. We will then trim up and down a few times to make sure all water is out. This helps make sure there is no water left to freeze while trailering home or while in storage.
- Watch the wind, wave and weather forecasts. Know the full forecast before heading out on big water. Wind and waves compound cold temperature risks in a hurry. Don't push your limits. Click HERE to see our resource center for forecast checks.
- Remove water from livewell and bilge systems. Getting the water out of your livewell and bilge systems will help ensure you don't have a hose or fitting crack/burst. Many boat manufactures design boats with the hoses self draining by gravity, but not all. Captain Bob Greene with Meals on Reelz Charters gave us a good tip to help with this. When super cold temps are in the forecast, he uses a shop vac to pull any remaining water from the livewell/bilge systems on his boat. Place the shop vac over the drain fittings. It's not advised to use compressed air for this. RV antifreeze can also be used to flush out these systems, but you will want to make sure you catch the spillage and not let it spill on the ground.
- Battery Maintenance. Depending what type of winter we are going to have, we will either leave the boat batteries plugged into the charger or we will pull the batteries and store them inside during deep freeze conditions. We will still trickle charge them if brought inside to keep them maintained.
- Float Plan. Develop a float plan and tell someone where you are going, etc. It's always good if at least one person on land knows what your float plan is in the event of an emergency. Telling them you are going fishing isn't enough. Tell them what port you are going out of at minimum.
- Boat safety briefing. Before we charter anyone out onto Lake Erie, we run through a safety briefing. We review anything from how to use the GPS for a M.O.B. situation to safety gear locations, use and more. No matter who you are taking out with you, make sure they are familiar with the vessel and what's on board in the event it's ever needed.
When planned properly, fishing big water during the cold water season can bring great reward. Some of the best fishing of the year happens during these months. Our favorite months to fish are December and January on Lake Erie when the weather and wind allows. Just be prepared and BE SAFE. Good luck to everyone this cold water fishing season and FISH-ON!