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Angling in Cold Weather

The fishing is great; the ­dangers of hypothermia grave

Finally I had to face it; with morning temperatures in the low 50s, socks are a necessity. With regret, I moved my fishing shorts and warm-weather shirts into winter storage last week. Hauling my insulated long-sleeved undershirts and heavyweight long pants from the back of the closet broke the final link with summer. It’s going to be pretty much a cold-weather game from here on out.
    The good news is that the fishing is getting more exciting. With rockfish and bluefish gathering and feeding up for the winter, breaking schools are going to become more and more common. Tossing lures into a cauldron of feeding game fish always provides exciting memories to hold us over until next spring.
    However, there is a serious downside to the colder weather, especially on the water. Hypothermia is a medical term that describes the condition that occurs when your body begins losing heat faster than it can produce it. It’s a dangerous condition. About 1,000 people in the U.S. die from hypothermia every year.
    We are warm-blooded mammals, and our bodies operate under an optimal temperature of approximately 98.6 degrees. Our internal organs — particularly the heart, liver and blood vessels — generate and regulate heat. But if our core body temperature drops more than three degrees, we experience physical and mental dysfunction. From lethargy and confusion, eventual unconsciousness and even death can follow.
    The very old and the very young are at particular risk of hypothermia, the elderly because their bodies have lost some ability to regenerate and regulate heat, the very young because their small body mass can lose temperature rapidly. Extra care must be taken when they are on the water during cold weather.
    During summer months the spray blowing onto us from a moving boat is a refreshing way to cool off, but in the winter that experience invites trouble. The body loses heat much faster when it becomes wet, 25 times faster when immersed.
    A sudden rainsquall in October is no longer just inconvenient and uncomfortable. It now becomes dangerous. Worse is falling overboard. Immersion in 45-degree water can result in loss of dexterity and onset of confusion within five minutes, unconsciousness within 30 minutes and death within an hour — if the victim has not drowned first.
    Waterproof, windproof and heat-retentive clothing are our primary defenses against hypothermia. Foul-weather coats and pants are not only proof against rain and sleet; they are also protection from the wind and help retain body warmth. Fleece, synthetic insulators and wool are ideal heat retainers. Down should be avoided because once it becomes wet, it loses its insulating qualities.
    Don’t ignore gloves and footwear. Although our extremities are not critical to our inner core temperature, getting cold hands or feet is extremely uncomfortable. Both neoprene and wool are excellent materials in harsh marine environments. Always wear a warm hat. It is a myth that the body loses 90 percent of its heat through the head — but not if that’s your only unclothed part.
    Warm beverages give our inner core an extra shot of warmth. Hot cocoa, coffee, tea or plain hot water are effective antidotes to the onset of chill. Avoid or minimize alcohol intake. Alcohol actually promotes body cooling by dilating blood vessels, while giving the illusion of warmth.
    Bring extra clothing on board. When a person gets wet, get them immediately into warm, dry clothes. A Mylar or space blanket is an inexpensive, compact and effective item in your cold weather emergency kit. The blanket is waterproof and significantly reduces heat loss.
    Once ashore, the quickest way to restore the body’s core temperature is a warm (not hot) bath or shower. Avoid exposure to any form of extreme heat. The skin becomes very insensitive during episodes of hypothermia, and burn injuries are much more easily incurred than they would be otherwise.
    Cold-weather fishing on the Chesapeake is often fantastic, even better than in more temperate periods. Go prepared for good experiences and great stories. Ignore the accompanying danger at your own peril.