Stay alive and thrive winter kayak fishing

Winter kayak fishing offers beauty and few crowds, yet you must be prepared to handle the cold and a possible dunking. Photo Jeff Little

Winter fishing offers beauty and few crowds, yet you must be prepared to handle the cold and a possible dunking. Photo Jeff Little

Winter Kayak Fishing Tips

By Jeffrey Little

Winter kayak fishing poses many hazards and discomforts. Here's a list of tips that can alleviate the worst of those bone chilling barriers to a productive day on the water.

Proper Waterproof Attire

Having the right outerwear means that you should be able to survive full submersion in icy water long enough to self rescue. Wearing a rain jacket and waders won't cut it. You will become hypothermic within minutes, and your legs and arms will fail to do what you ask them to do, even if you can reboard your kayak.

A dry suit with latex wrist gaskets and at the minimum a neoprene neck gasket will provide you the time in the water without massive immediate body heat loss required to self rescue. The right inner insulating attire includes fleece, wool or other moisture wicking synthetic materials designed to insulate while keeping your skin dry. Cotton is the wrong inner insulating material to do this.

Hands

Keeping your hands functional is critical to your success on the water. When they get cold, you lose dexterity and feel, something that can cost you the ability to tie knots or feel a subtle bite. Rather than going with a fully insulated, fully closed ski style glove, or a fully waterproof neoprene one, I opt for a fingerless fleece glove made by Glacier Glove. This affords me the kind of connection with the rod blank required to feel the bite.

I carry more than one pair, so that as soon as one gets wet, I swap it out for a dry pair. To keep my hands warmer, I stuff a hot hands chemical warming pack on the backside of each hand, where all the vascular activity moves warm blood in and out of my digits. It also helps to put chemical warmers inside of your dry suit – one down each pant leg, or in the front pocket of a fleece hooded sweatshirt.

Foot and hand warmers can help, but making sure your gloves are dry is more important. Be sure to bring extras. Photo Jeff Little

Chemical warmers can help, but making sure your gloves are dry is just as important. Be sure to bring extras. Photo Jeff Little

Feet

Keeping your feet warm can be as much of a challenge as keeping your hands warm. One intuitive approach may actually be making things worse. More insulation should keep your feet warmer, right? But if that means that you put on two or three pair of socks, then cram your foot and those socks into your boot, you've actually reduced blood flow to your feet and limited the amount of air surrounding your feet.

Insulation requires air to work. To that end, I've learned that a pair of boots a size to a size and a half larger than I usually wear allows warm socks stay fluffed up instead of compressed. This results in warmer feet.

I've also used lithium-powered heated socks. While they afford an extra boost of low level heat over many hours, a much simpler practice can help your feet stay warmer longer. Even with the help of waterproof bibs or dry suit, warm socks like those made by SmartWool or Fits, and a heavy duty outer boot, your feet will still get very cold if you step into the water. The reason is that evaporation is a highly endothermic reaction.

I noticed it one day by realizing that one foot was much colder than the other. When putting in, I stepped into the water with one foot but not the other. So bring your kayak alongside the shoreline, and carefully sit down without setting your feet into the water.

Black

One of the best ways to stay warm is to wear black clothing. If the sun is out, a black beanie on your head, a black balaclava or a black fleece neck gaiter absorbs rather than reflects the sun's heat. If I am feeling the chill, I will often choose to fish in the sunlight rather than the shady areas and allow my black clothing to heat me up.

Nutrition

I earned a Bachelors of Science in Dietetics from the University of Maryland. I never imagined that my formal education on nutrition would factor into catching more fish, but it has. Being warm blooded animals, much of our metabolism is geared to producing and maintaining the right temperature for other metabolic processes to continue normal operation.

The calories we take in require certain vitamins, especially the B vitamins to be released through glycolysis. Cereals and breads are fortified with Riboflavin, Niacin and Thiamine. These are B vitamins. While these fortifications help, and most foods have certain B vitamins, I will use a B Vitamin Complex supplement before I leave the house on a particularly cold day of fishing.

That boost, along with keeping up with consuming high calorie foods such as trail mix and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches throughout the day keeps my mitochondrial furnace cranking out the heat inside each cell.

Not only will a cup of hot water warm and hydrate you, just holding the warm cup in your hands returns dexterity to your digits. Photo Jeff Little

Not only will a cup of hot water warm and hydrate you, just holding the warm cup in your hands returns dexterity to your digits. Photo Jeff Little

Taking Breaks

Because many of our cold water fishing requires slow presentations, once we are at the spot we are fishing, we don't move around much. This means that we don't have as much blood pumping to our extremities. I'll take breaks to hop up on shore, and pendulum swing my feet like skiers do to force warm blood down into my toes.

Even while staying in your kayak, hanging your feet over the edge and rotating your ankles will pump blood down there and warm things up again. Another warming break I employ involves hot water in a thermos. By simply holding and slowly sipping a cup of hot water, my hands regain feeling.

Bail Bag

Keeping a dry bag with enough clothing to get all dry clothing on in the case of submersion is essential to winter kayak fishing. My Watershed Dry Bag also has a fire starting kit. I have several ways to start a fire, including waterproof matches, a standard disposable lighter, fire starting sticks, newspaper, a piece of cardboard to block wind or fan air into the coals and a Zippo lighter.

I prefer the Zippo lighter, as it's operation does not require the kind of thumb and finger dexterity that is usually the first thing to go when you become hypothermic. Simply open the lid, and run the flint wheel along the palm of the opposite hand.

The Zippo doesn't ask much of a thumb that may not have anything left to give. Keep your body warm and dry while winter kayak fishing and it will respond when you need it.