By John Neporadny Jr.
Special to BassFan

Going overboard is never a good experience for a bass angler, but the situation could become deadly if it happens in frigid weather and cold water.

Early in his career, Kevin VanDam had the misfortune of falling overboard while practicing for a Bassmaster Invitational at Florida’s Rodman Pool in January, when the air temperatures were in the 30s. “My boat bumped into a tree and I fell in, but I was able to immediately get right back in the boat,” said VanDam. “I was fortunate that I had another rainsuit and some extra clothes in the boat that day.”

The Major League Fishing star was lucky enough to get out of the water quickly before the cold could affect him. However, there have been other cases throughout the years when bass anglers have fallen overboard in cold water and either drowned or succumbed to hypothermia (a dangerously low body temperature caused by prolonged exposure to cold).

A United States Coast Guard (USCG) press release on cold-water survival and hypothermia sheds some light on human casualties associated with cold-water immersion below 59 degrees. The release stated researchers in Canada discovered “people often do not die of actual hypothermia but from a variety of problems where mild hypothermia causes them to lose their physical and mental ability to survive.” A typical case involves “a victim in the water not able to keep their back to waves, inhaling the next wave and dying from drowning” in spite of wearing a life jacket.

The growing popularity of wintertime tournaments is exposing more bass anglers to the frigid elements, so they need to take preventive measures to keep safe on the water. VanDam suggests a priority for wintertime safety is to always fish with a partner. He also recommends anglers should always wear a life jacket.

“I don’t think anybody expects to fall out or to get knocked out of the boat, but the smartest thing is to always wear a self-inflating automatic life vest even while you are fishing,” he said “There are really advanced life preservers now that basically inflate by pressure, not by getting wet.”

Prevention Tips

USCG Chief Petty Officer Steve Durden of the Commercial Fishing Vessel Safety Program offers the following prevention tips to help anglers avoid cold-water disasters:

> Invest in a marine radio – “Cell service anywhere isn’t near as good as our radio service,” Durden said. “The Coast Guard has what is called Rescue 21, which is a series of radio towers that allows us to triangulate your position relatively quickly when you broadcast a distress. That is something we cannot do with cell service. A cell phone is a good backup, but have a marine radio on board.” A VHF marine radio will also provide a better signal to contact local water authorities on lakes without Coast Guard stations.

> Carry an EPIRB or PPIRB – An Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) sends a signal from the boat’s device to satellite systems to pinpoint your location to the Coast Guard. Durden stresses registering the EPIRB with the Coast Guard and personally registering a PPIRB, which is a Personal EPIRB with a built-in GPS that you can take while fishing in another angler’s boat.

> Wear proper clothing – Durden suggests avoiding cotton, which provides poor insulation. “You want to wear synthetic-type materials,” Durden said. “When the water is below 50 degrees, the Coast Guard requires us to wear dry suits and we recommend the same for fishermen.”

> Don bright caps – Durden advises that when you are in choppy water, the part of your body visible to rescuers is only about the size of a volleyball or smaller, so you need to wear a bright cap such as a hunter orange skull cap.

John Neporadny Jr.
Photo: John Neporadny Jr.

Avoid fishing alone in the winter – take a partner so immediate help is available in a man-overboard situation.

> Always wear a floatation device – “There are tons of them out there and manufacturers make them really comfortable,” Durden said. “What we tell people is the best kind of lifejacket is the kind that you wear. The ones sitting in your boat don’t do you any good at all.” The Coast Guard officer recommends using automatic inflatable devices rather than manual inflatable models. Durden warns that when you fall in the water with a manual inflating vest you might go into shock mode and your first thought won’t be about pulling the activation tab or ring.

> Attach a beacon to your floatation device – A strobe light attached to your life vest and reflective tape placed on the shoulders of your life vest generates plenty of flash to help rescuers find you quicker in rough water.

> Leave a float plan – Let a friend, relative or someone at the local marina know where and how long you will be on the water. “I know with bass fishermen they are going to move around a lot, but letting someone know your general area is better than nothing,” Durden said.

> Clear the deck – Stow away any ropes, extra tackle and gear that could cause you to trip and go overboard.

Emergency Steps

When you or your partner goes overboard, Durden recommends taking the following steps during this emergency situation:

> Contact the Coast Guard or other emergency services immediately – Durden advises before attempting to pull someone out of the water, you should contact an emergency service first in case you also end up in the water.

> Repeat yourself – Durden suggests when making an emergency call, say “mayday, mayday, mayday” and give your name, GPS position and nature of your emergency three times to the radio dispatcher.

> Activate your PPIRB.

> Remain calm in the water – Remember the 1-10-1 rule in which you will experience cold shock and gasping followed by hyperventilation in the first minute you enter the cold water. Durden advises you must regain control of your breathing within that first minute. “It is a big shock when your body hits that cold water and your natural reaction is to empty your lungs, so you need to get that breathing under control after you lose all the air in your lungs,” he said. Then in the next 10 minutes you can try swimming to the boat before you lose movement in your muscles. If you remain in the cold water, you have approximately 1 hour before becoming unconscious due to hypothermia.

> Conserve heat with HELP – If you are too weak to reach the boat and no rescuers are nearby, you must conserve your body heat by floating motionless with your arms holding your shins in a fetal position known as HELP (heat escape lessening position).

> Keep core temperature warm – Once you or your partner have been retrieved from the water, it is imperative to keep the body core temperature up. “You want to get out of the wet clothing as fast as you can,” Durden said. He suggests getting into dry clothes or covering up with a warm blanket. You should also avoid moving around much, which can lower your body temperature, and avoid drinking alcohol. “That is what is going to kill you,” Durden said. “Alcohol will cause the cold blood that is in your extremities to come into your body core and lower your core temperature."

> Go to the hospital – Durden advises going to a hospital when you return to shore even if you think you are fine. “The hospital has ways to warm up the body more gradually and preserve that core temperature that you are not going to be able to do on your own,” Durden said.

For more information on hypothermia, visit the Coast Guard’s web site ( and request the Commercial Fishing Vessel Safety Division flyer titled “Cold Water Survival & Hypothermia – You May Not Know As Much As You Think.”