Recreational Boating Safety – Safe Wade Fishing

Bob CurrieBy Bob Currie, Recreational Boating Safety Specialist
U. S. Coast Guard Auxiliary Station Galveston Flotilla
We lost three wade fishermen this past week in our area. They all had two things in common: they were wearing waders and they were not wearing life jackets. You might not think that wade fishing would be a topic for a Recreational Boating Safety article, but in our area many of the wade fishermen started out in their boats. For most wade fishermen, everything works out fine and they go home with the limit of their favorite fish. However, too often we have wade fishermen who end up at a different home-the funeral home. This column is about what you can do to help ensure that you return to your home rather than the funeral home. Each safety measure below increases the chances that you will return to the right place.

The Station Galveston Flotilla of the US Coast Guard Auxiliary operates out of the USCG Station Galveston base on Galveston Island. They aid the Coast Guard by providing maritime observation patrols in Galveston Bay; by providing recreational boating vessel safety checks; and by working alongside Coast Guard members in maritime accident investigation, small boat training, providing a safety zone, Aids to Navigation verification, in the galley, on the Coast Guard Drone Team and watch standing.

Wear a Life Jacket
We have had six wade fishermen (including the three mentioned above this past week) recently drown in the Galveston area. The common denominator for all wade fishing deaths in our area is that none of the fishermen were wearing a life jacket. You should wear a life jacket designed to keep your head elevated. It is rare for me to see a wade fisherman wearing a life jacket, yet wearing one is the only sure way to survive stepping off into a hole. Earlier this year I was on the Search and Rescue team for the wade fisherman who drowned off Texas City Dike. He wasn’t an older person in poor health. He was a man in his early 20s and appeared quite fit. He did not have a life jacket.

There are life jackets designed specifically for fishing. I used the old standby, Google, and searched using “fishing life jacket.” I found many types, most of which had similar designs. They had large arm cutouts so you could cast easily. They had large pockets for carrying small bait boxes, and they had a pocket for a cell phone or radio. The above life jacket costs $32.29. I spend more than that on jig heads. Notice the colors: bright red, orange and yellow. Those are the colors you want to wear. You have no idea how hard it is to spot someone in the water wearing a dark blue life jacket, let alone the person with no life jacket who only has their head above the water. You would probably lose your cap if you went underwater, but the same principle applies to caps- wear a bright color if you want to enhance your chances of being seen.

Wear Good Wading Shoes
Wade fishing is not the time to wear flip flops or other loose-fitting shoes. Rubber soled water shoes with cleat patterns are the best. If you are wearing a pair of waders, you will have to buy shoes at least one size larger so they fit comfortably over your waders. In the warm months I sometimes wade in just blue jeans, so the wading shoes I wear then are a size smaller than the ones I wear over my waders. Many immersions are due to slipping in mud or on rocks. Good wading shoes can help you keep your grip on the bottom. If the water you are wading in starts getting deep, consider getting back in the boat and moving to a shallower area. Step sideways in deeper water to help maintain your balance. Try to avoid mud. Sand and gravel are better wading substrates.

Wear Shin Guards
Shin guards to protect against stingrays are essential equipment in our area. Our prime wading areas are also the prime feeding grounds for stingrays. What salt-water fisherman has never caught a stingray? They are everywhere, and they are especially dangerous to wade fishermen. When wade fishing you should always shuffle your feet when walking. This will help stir up the stingrays so you don’t step on one. It is when you step on one that you are in danger of that venomous spine being driven into your calf. Always move slowly when changing positions, even when backing up.

Take Safety Equipment When You Leave the Boat
Sure, you have to carry a rod, tackle, bait, and net, but don’t skimp on the items that can save your life. If you are 20 yards from your anchored boat and a rogue wave dislodges the anchor and your boat floats away, what are you going to do? If you are prepared, you will have a whistle, a knife (non-folding preferably), a mirror, a personal signal light, and a radio. Yes, a radio. There is no excuse for not having a marine FM/VHF radio on your boat and in your possession when you leave your boat. You can now get a waterproof, floating marine walkie talkie for less than $100. It fits in the pocket of your life jacket quite nicely. You can reach the Coast Guard immediately on Channel 16. For a little extra money you can upgrade to a marine FM/VHF radio with DSC (Digital Selective Calling) and have pushbutton emergency calling that sends a digital signal to the Coast Guard with your name, boat information, and other pertinent data.

Never Fish Alone
Another common denominator with many wade fishing deaths is that the fisherman was fishing alone. In correlation with fishing with a partner, it is equally important that each fisherman have all the discussed safety equipment, including the radio. The most recent wade fisherman who drowned recently was fishing alone. Two wade fishermen drowned at the same time. They may have been caught in a thunderstorm. The Texas City Dike fisherman had people nearby who saw him go under, but nobody was close enough to be able to assist him. None of the deceased wade fishermen were wearing a life jacket. I also recommend that before you step out of the boat you give the persons to whom you sent your float plan a phone call and let them know that you are anchored and about to wade fish near the boat. Your Coast Guard app will give you your exact coordinates to give to your friend. Be sure to let them know when you safely return to the boat. There is no such thing as too much information when your life could depend on it.

Consider Using a Wading Staff
River fishermen have long used wading staffs to aid them in remaining upright and avoiding deep holes. Google “wading staff” and you will find many choices. Some are fold up types that can be carried on your utility belt. Any type of stick will do. If you have any experience at all wade fishing, chances are you have stepped off into a deep hole. Remember the gasp reflex. When you are immersed in cold water the gasp reflex can make you inhale water. We had a drowning death on my home beach in two feet of water due to this reflex. The goal is to not be immersed. A wading staff could help.

A Note About Waders
Waders are waterproof gear with suspenders to help hold them on. In many of the wade fishermen drowning cases the fishermen were wearing waders. Once you drop below the surface wearing waders they quickly fill with water. Water weighs 8 pounds to the gallon, and it is quite easy to quickly add 10 gallons of water to your waders if you accidentally submerge. That’s 80 extra pounds of weight dragging you down that you are trying to overcome. If you can regain your footing then you stand a chance of surviving, but if you have stepped off into a hole then you do not have much of a chance of overcoming that weight trying to drag you down. If you find yourself submerged while wearing waders, try to regain your composure and get out of those waders. You can use your handy knife to cut your way out, or you can cross your arms over your chest, hook your thumbs in the suspenders, and pull the suspenders and waders down enough to allow you to surface. It’s a long shot, but it is something you can try. Your best bet is still wearing a life jacket.

NOTE: Never enter the water from your boat unless a re-entry ladder is deployed.

If you are going to wade fish from your boat, consider the many options listed above to help you return home safely. Each option you add decreases your risk of drowning. The most important thing you can do to help ensure you survive your wade fishing trip is to always wear a life jacket.

For more information on boating safety, please visit the Official Website of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Boating Safety Division at Questions about the US Coast Guard Auxiliary or our free Vessel Safety Check program may be directed to me at [email protected] SAFE BOATING!


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