“We want all hunters to come back to shore safely. However, the lack of flotation devices is still one of the most common law violations among waterfowl hunters, and the most common cause of duck hunter deaths.” According to Tim Smalley with the Minnesota DNR whose waterfowl season opens in just a few days. Minnesota made life jackets mandatory in 1988. Thirteen hunters have drowned in boating accidents since that time. “While 13 deaths is 13 too many, before life jackets were mandated, three to six hunters died in duck boat accidents nearly every season,” Smalley said.
According to national statistics, more hunters die every year from cold water shock, hypothermia and drowning than firearms mishaps.
The law requires a readily accessible U.S. Coast Guard approved life jacket for every person on duck boats. Plus, for boats 16-feet and longer, one U.S. Coast Guard approved flotation seat cushion must be on board to throw to someone in distress. Seat cushions are no longer approved as primary flotation devices, however. Everyone on the boat needs a wearable personal flotation device of the proper size and type.
Life jackets made with the waterfowler in mind are available in camouflage colors. According to water safety experts, having a life jacket doesn’t matter if it’s stuffed in a decoy sack when the accident occurs. “You just don’t have time,” Smalley said. “Trying to put on a life jacket during a boating accident would be like trying to buckle a seat belt during a car crash.”
The DNR discourages hunters from wearing hip boots or waders in the boat due to safety concerns. Hunters have drowned while trying to take their waders off after they have fallen into the water or their boat has capsized. That releases any trapped air in the boots and at the same time binds the victim’s feet together so they can’t kick to stay afloat,” Smalley said. “However, if you do wear that sort of foot gear and suddenly enter the water, by pulling your knees up to your chest, air trapped in the waders or hip boots can act as a flotation device. You should practice that maneuver in warm shallow water before you need to do it in an emergency.”
The DNR offers these water safety tips for duck hunters:
- Wear a life jacket to and from the blind; there are now life jackets available for around $40 with mesh in the upper body that allow hunters to shoulder a gun but still offer protection from cold water.
- Don’t overload the boat; take two trips if necessary.
- Learn how to float in waders and hip boats or don’t wear them in the boat.
- Stay near shore and avoid crossing large expanses of open water, especially in bad weather.
- Share trip plans with someone, advise them to call authorities if traveling party does return on schedule.
- In case of capsizing or swamping, stay with the boat; even when filled with water, it will provide some flotation and is more likely to be seen by potential rescuers.
“If you are near enough to a cell phone tower, it’s not a bad idea to bring your cell phone along in a waterproof, zipper lock bag to call for help if you get into trouble,” Smalley advised. “You can use the phone without removing it from the bag.”
The DNR has a free publication about waterfowl hunting boat safety called “Prescription for Duck Hunters.” It is available by calling the DNR Information Center at 651-296-6157 or toll-free 888-646-6367.