Search Gulf Coast Fisherman's
Hypothermia is a major contributing factor to many drownings associated with water sports. The loss of core body temperature quickly causes both mental and physical impairment that can make self-rescue of a paddler in the water more difficult within minutes. Extended exposure to water, and even wind after being in the water, can lead to dangerous conditions faster than you think. So let's review the best way to hit the coast in a kayak that considers your safety first.
The Waders Debate
I am often asked if I recommend waders for winter paddling and my general answer has not changed. If I do not know the paddler's skill set regarding self-rescue I always emphatically say, "No. I do not consider waders as a safe option".
That said, if a person has the ability to perform a deep water self-rescue after falling out of their kayak and can do so quickly and efficiently then waders may be a decent option. However, you have to make some provisions to retard water entry and you should only consider waders when you are paddling on protected and shallow waters.
To clarify this point further: as an ACA instructor I have participated in teaching probably over 100 people how to do self-rescues on the water. In teaching BBF (Belly Butt Feet) and other rescue tech-niques I have seen probably 20% of my students struggle significantly to get back in their kayaks. When you add waders that can take on water, wading boots/shoes, and full PFD's that add heft and bulk, you are making a dang-erous situation more tenuous.
Bottom line: if you struggle, or cannot do a self-rescue without waders, you should never consider using them when paddling! Also, if you have never attempted to get back in your kayak when you are decked out in full winter gear go practice now. Do not wait and see what happens on the day you have an accident and find yourself swimming!
For the record, I am in no way saying that waders fill with water and thus you will sink. Waders are more bulky than people realize, though, and if they do start to fill with water, they will be even heavier as you try to come up out of the water and into your kayak.
So, you can do a self-rescue quickly in waders? There are still more considerations to be safe if you are going to wear them in your kayak. If you do use waders make certain that you have a wading belt that is worn tight above the waist. Then, you should have a good splash top that is worn over the waders.
Your pull over paddling top should be made of synthetic, water-proof material and have a gasketed neck and sleeves to slow water entry. Over the splash top it is absolutely essential that you have a well fitted PFD. Inflatable PFDs are not a good choice for winter fishing with waders. Really, inflatable Type V PFDs are just too dangerous to be a viable option in cold water under any circumstances.
In the winter after Hurricane Ike, I helped rebuild the Rinando pier on Galveston's west end. It required being in the water to set posts for the pier. With a belt, splash top, and PFD I averaged about 5 minutes in chest/neck deep water before I started getting significant amounts of water inside my waders. After about 10 or 15 minutes I was shivering and had a good gallon of water past all the barriers. Water finds it own level, right?
The Other Option
When I paddle in cold water I would much prefer to be in a shorty wet suit with splash pants and a splash top designed for paddling. I wear neoprene water shoes with wool socks to help keep my feet warm, and of course I have a PFD over the splash top.
This set up allows me to be extremely comfortable while fishing and is much safer should I actually fall in the water. Granted, it will keep you in the kayak more because wading with wet feet in cold water is never fun, even with the wool socks. But again, this is the safest option for cold water paddling, and the only option for offshore and unprotected deep water.
Be safe this winter, and whether you choose waders or wetsuits remember that layering and good warm headgear will help keep you comfortable. Always bring a change of clothes secured in a dry bag, too.
Good luck chas-ing that big winter trout! Stay warm and most importantly - stay safe.