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Boating Tips from a Waterfowl Hunter

Contact: Ann Van Buren, Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation If you are a serious waterfowl hunter, a boat is probably an important piece of your equipment. It can also place you in serious danger unless you use it wisely. "Looking back on it now, we were doing so many things wrong, no wonder we swamped our canoe," said Milt Coffman of Boise about the fateful day he had to swim for his life while duck hunting on the Boise River several years ago. "First off, we never considered the consequences of loading three large men, four guns and two dozen decoys in a canoe," he said, "as we planned to use the boat only a short time to get us down river to the duck blind. We were so focused on getting all the greatest gear we could for the hunt, we didn't check the weight capacity for the boat or have an agreed upon plan if things went awry. Of course, it was a sunny day, so we sat on our life jackets instead of wearing them," Coffman said. "The river channel had changed since the previous month and there were new obstacles. We went around a bend and were suddenly pinned sideways against a tree that had been dropped by a beaver. The guy in back decided to jump out onto the log and save his own skin, which forced the canoe to turn into the current. With 200 pounds over capacity and our gear piled high in the center, it didn't take much to lose balance and capsize. I lost my Winchester 101 custom shotgun but consider myself lucky I wasn't trapped under the tree!" "Overloading and not wearing life jackets are leading reasons Idaho typically loses a couple of waterfowl hunters every year," said Ann Van Buren, boating education specialist with the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation (IDPR). "The larger reason of course, is the icy temperatures that prevail, especially the cold water," she said. "Cold water zaps your energy as it wicks the heat from your body 25 times faster than the air would at that same temperature," Van Buren said. "If you fall in, you only have a few minutes before the cold can render you numb and unable to swim." "Most boats float even when capsized or swamped, so climb in or on the boat to be as far out of the water as possible. Wearing a life vest is a must. It will help preserve body heat and keep you afloat even if you are unconscious. Foam life jackets can be worn under clothing, but the new inflatable styles should be worn on the outside of the clothing," Van Buren said. Find shelter, change into dry clothing and warm up slowly. Here are the most important tips to remember when using open boats less than 16 feet in length during the cold months:
  • Life jackets don't work unless you wear them at the time you fall in. More than 70 percent of Idaho drowning victims could have survived if they had worn one. Idaho law requires a life jacket on board for every passenger, and a throwable (type IV) personal floatation device is required in boats over 16 feet long. While Idaho boaters are not required to wear their jackets, it is very strongly recommended. Many companies now make camouflage life jackets and float coats that can be worn while duck hunting that do not flare birds and are reasonably comfortable to wear while shooting. Such an item would be an excellent Christmas gift for someone on your list who enjoys duck hunting!
  • Stay within the load limits shown on your boat's capacity plate. All vessels under 20 feet in length and constructed after November 1, 1972, must have a capacity plate permanently affixed to a location clearly visible to the operator while the boat is underway. The plate lists (among other things) maximum allowed horsepower, maximum number of persons, and maximum weight capacity in persons and equipment. If your craft does not have a capacity plate, use this formula: boat length times width divided by 15 gives you the number of passengers who weigh about 150 pounds. Distribute the load evenly and keep it low.
  • In a canoe, each person should paddle on the opposite side at all times to maintain balance.
  • Stay seated. Standing to shoot is not worth the risk of parting company with your boat. Sitting on the sides can also capsize the boat
  • If you capsize on a large lake, it is better to sit on top of the boat than to swim more than 100 feet with a life jacket, or 50 feet without a life jacket. By swimming or treading water, a person will cool 35 percent faster than if remaining still.
  • Do not swim unless there is absolutely no chance of rescue and you are absolutely certain. Be sure to cover your head after getting wet, because 50 percent of the heat is lost there.
  • Leave the booze at home. Alcohol makes you more susceptible to hypothermia, interferes with your ability to swim and impedes your ability to make quick decisions in an accident.
  • Don't be afraid to cancel the trip once you get to the water and bad weather has set in.
  • According to Coffman, who hunts practically every week, "Lots of things can happen to put a boater in the water. Usually it's Mother Nature that gets you, so you have to plan ahead for these things. I did learn my lesson from this and always wear my life jacket now," he said. Be sure to renew your boat's registration if you plan to hunt in January. New year decals need to be displayed on the bow of the boat January 1. For information contact IDPR in Boise at 208 334-4197 or Coeur d'Alene at 208 769-1511 or your local county motor vehicle office.