This story starts like most of my stories. A guy in a kayak is fishing up a creek. The only thing is, it’s not just a story; it’s true.
During the only real cold snap that Central Texas saw this year, a few anglers found a pattern that was producing fish: the colder the weather, the better. If you were layered properly, the cold didn’t bite much and the fish would be there waiting for you. As Jesse launched that afternoon into the sub 50 degree and dropping air temps the day’s outlook was chilly but favorable. It was warmer than it had been but still cool enough that the fish should be biting and layers were necessary. The north wind was dropping the temperature but as long as he kept dry everything should be fine.
He paddled the half mile to his starting point and began seeing fish. A buddy had joined up to fish and the day was shaping up. Jesse’s friend spotted a tremendous fish lounging under a mat of vegetation near some vines and beneath some overhanging branches and called him over to try his finesse bait. This wasn’t the common four or five pound fish found in these waters but a true giant he estimated at over 10 pounds. The fish of a lifetime. He pitched his bait to the behemoth and watched her take the bait and start swimming away with it. Heart racing, mind in a fervor, he set the hook, watched the bait sail out of the fish’s mouth and entangle itself in the branches and vines seven feet overhead. Adrenaline still pumping, Jesse decided to try to untangle the mass above while balancing in his 28 inch wide kayak. It wouldn’t be an easy feat but he could do it.
Standing up seemed to be easy and he soon discovered keeping his balance would be the issue. Moving toward the bow of the kayak he steadied himself by grasping at the branches above with one hand and untangling the line in the other. In a short time he had all but one loop undone but every time he reached for it the branch it was on would sway out of the way. Jesse knew he would have to get closer and tried to steady himself by grabbing a branch in each hand. As he made the move the kayak shifted and a shudder went through his body as his center of balance unwontedly shifted. Instinctually he released the newest branch he clung to, a two inch thick limb of trouble and tried to regain his balance. While trying this the cold, damp thoughts of falling out of the kayak seemed to be playing in slow motion simultaneously with his efforts to regain stability. The kayak started to list and he reached for the limb he had previously held. Facing the water the limb gave way and the thought of submersion was becoming a reality frame by frame as Jesse belly flopped into the water and out of his kayak.
At this point his Navy training, his preparation for re-entry, his studies of just this type of situation paid off. While the water was warmer than the air Jesse knew the timer had started. Dismissing thoughts of continuing to fish for that 10 pounder, he climbed back on his kayak. As he surveyed the deck for losses, he realized everything was still there. His lashing and leashing had paid off. Now it was time to move. Knowing the cold that would soon settle in his bones, he started paddling toward the launch at a very brisk pace taking deep breaths and focusing on the task at hand. When he cleared the mouth of the creek onto the main lake the wind cut him and the cold was seeping deeper as his fingers began to numb. Jesse had several layers including wool socks, Patagonia Capilene upper and lower base layers, ski bibs treated with a water repellant and an North Face 800 Goose Down jacket to keep him warm even in wet conditions. It wasn’t luck, it was preparation. He reached the launch, cold, numb in places not as well covered and wet. The cold air wasn’t making this easy. He remembered that you are supposed to get the wet layers off of you but he didn’t have any other clothes to change into. He decided to shed a couple of layers and it proved to be a mistake. With nothing to change into, and still wet, the cold north wind cut through him like a dagger and he began shaking. A mistake he wouldn’t make again. Jesse found a towel in his vehicle and dried off as much as possible and then let the heater do its job. When he had finally recovered from the cold he recounted what saved him that day. Preparation for just such an event by practicing and watching videos, multiple layers of good water wicking materials, and not succumbing to the temptation to stay out longer and fish were all key players that day.
We can learn some dos and don’ts from this story but most of all I hope we all take the potential threat of cold water submersion as a real one. Failing to plan is planning to fail.