Pro Tips: Understanding the Risks of Cold Water Can Save Your Life

Written by: Drew Price, Master Class Angling

When you’re fishing high, cold water, it helps to have a buddy for safety.
Photo by Sandy Hays

By early spring, most fly anglers are champing at the bit to get on the water, and with good reason. The air and water are warming up, and visions of big fish–hungry after their winter slumber—fill our daydreams. But as exciting as this time of year can be, anglers should never forget that the early season, along with late fall and winter, offer some serious danger in the form of cold water. 

Knowing how to handle the risks associated with it is vital. According to NOAA, cold-water risks are present in any water under 60 degrees Fahrenheit, while the Red Cross sets the limit at under 70 degrees. For many anglers—such as those on tailwaters–this danger is present throughout the year. 

A Shock to the System

Falling in is sometimes funny, but it can also be incredibly dangerous.
Photo by Tim Bayha

When a person falls into cold water, especially water under 40 degrees, there are immediate physiological effects, known as cold shock. Upon entry in cold water, there’s an instant gasp reflex, followed by rapid breathing (or hyperventilation). The sudden intake of breath can lead to breathing in water, and cold shock also leads to body incapacitation, in which a person loses control over muscles in their arms and legs, making it harder to swim or to grasp anything. The body also responds with a rapid increase in blood pressure and heart rate, which can lead to cardiac arrest, and there’s a decrease in cognitive ability. Clearly, cold shock is extremely dangerous. 

Cold water quickly draws heat from the body, as well, and the colder the water, the faster that happens. Hypothermia can set in quickly, leading to unconsciousness. 

All of these things are incredibly frightening, especially when combined with high, fast-flowing water. When considering whether you should go fishing or not, consider the following factors to determine your risks: projected air and water temperature, weather, water conditions, and your preparedness for all of these.

Be Prepared

USGS gauges can often help you determine if it’s safe to fish.

In early spring, the water is often high and cold from runoff and recent rains. It is not worth risking your life to chase trout. If you are planning to fish still water from a kayak and it looks like it will be a windy day, stay on shore. Being aware of weather conditions and how they are supposed to change throughout a day can literally save your life. On tailwaters, additional risks to take into account are dam releases. Be prepared for scheduled and unscheduled releases, keeping an eye out for clues to rising water levels. 

Making good decisions while on the water is important, too. If the wind is picking up while you’re on a pond or lake in a watercraft, to head back to the launch or shelter in place on the shore. If you are fishing cold water and your flies get hung up on the bottom–especially in a spot you are unfamiliar with–don’t try to retrieve them. Better to lose some flies and retie your rig than risk a dangerous dunking. Don’t try to cross fast water that is over your knees, and when crossing any moving water, take your time.

The Red Cross offers CPR, first aid and water safety classes. Take them. They are required for most guiding licenses but make sense for anyone spending time in, on or around water. This is a no brainer.  

The Right Gear Can Save Your Life

Wearing a PFD (left) and the emergency cutoff cord can make a huge difference.
Photos by Drew Price

While it isn’t always fun or “cool” to wear one, a US Coast Guard-approved life jacket can make all the difference if you fall in. If you are worried about how bulky a life jacket is, consider one that features a CO2 cartridge. They are smaller, lighter and work very well. A life jacket will keep your face above water so you don’t breath some in during the gasp reflex, and you’ll stay above water if you become unconscious. This gives an opportunity for rescue. In many states, wearing a life jacket is mandatory from November 1 to May 1.

If you are in a watercraft, always have a throw rope with a floatation device to help someone who falls overboard. If you are running an outboard, use the kill-switch cord. This will stop the engine if you fall in, keeping the boat nearby. It is the law that you must wear the kill-switch cord while underway. 

It should go without saying that you should have good wading boots, use a wading belt, and carry a wading staff. What you are wearing makes a huge difference, too. The old adage “cotton kills” is true; when wet, cotton holds less heat than air does. Wool, polypropylene, or fleece will remain warm when wet. Remember that surviving the initial dunking is only part of the situation you will be dealing with. Then you need to stay warm enough to get back to your car. It pays to carry extra dry clothes with you in your vehicle or in the boat.  

One of the most important things you should do is to let someone know where you will be, when you are leaving, and when you plan to return. Many of us fish solo, and no one knows where we are. A good procedure is to check in with someone when you leave and when you return. It makes a huge difference and could save your life. Keeping a charged cell phone with you, have a battery backup. If you are in a place without cell service, you might want to have some form of emergency beacon or means of radio communication. 

Close to Home

The loss of Jon Zukowski has had a profound effect on the angling community of northern New England.
Photo courtesy the Zukowski family

This article is dedicated to the life and accomplishments of my friend, Jon Zukowski, who was lost in an accident on the Connecticut River on April 6, 2022. Jon was an amazing angler, guide, fly tier, fly shop owner, and conservationist who was very well respected in northern New England. Jon’s loss has had a profound impact on the people in his life.

Live your best life and be safe. Please. 

For further information about cold water dangers, check out the NOAA Cold Water Hazards and Safety page.

Special thanks to Jess Lukas at the Greater Burlington YMCA for her knowledge and advice when I was writing. 

Drew Price runs Master Class Angling, a guide service in northwestern Vermont, where he takes clients fishing for everything from smallmouth bass and pike to bowfin and carp. But he also loves chasing big trout and landlocked salmon in the rivers that flow into his beloved Lake Champlain. 

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