Kayak Angling Safety Reminder: What’ll Kill You And How To Mitigate That Risk

I don’t know what the deal is, but for some reason I’ve become a lot more safety conscious in recent years. Fatherhood? Old age?

Where in my younger days I wouldn’t have blinked about how bad the weather was or how ankle-breakingly steep a fishing trail looked, anymore I’m practically strapping on my lifejacket at the first sign of rain.

Kidding aside, it’s depressing to read about hunters and anglers who lost their lives because they weren’t properly prepared for conditions.

It’s so simple to strap on a PFD. It’s so simple to tell someone where you’re going — really, it’s not an invasion of your privacy, just common sense.

Yet many times we ignore basic safety procedures and do things that all but challenge Mother Nature to cut our fishing and hunting lives short.

She’s not one to mess with.

With a string of kayak fishing and touring deaths over the last six month, our Mark Veary thought it might be a good idea to post a safety article he did for the November 2016 issue of Northwest Sportsman magazine. Here it is in full:

How To Not Die While Kayak Fishing

By Mark Veary

You may have wondered why, for the last seven years, nearly every Kayak Guys column I’ve written has included a brief “Requisite Note on Safety.” The reason is simple: The articles are focused on how to make the most of limited opportunities once you’re on the water. They’re written to excite and entice fellow or future kayak anglers by showing what’s possible. Thus, there’s been limited space for an in-depth discussion on what might kill you.

Until now.

A dory piloted by Mike Kent brings in kayaks and kayakers who had to be rescued off of Oregon’s Cape Kiwanda when a 10- to 15-mile-an-hour east wind came up during otherwise calm seas. (SANDY WEEDMAN)

According to U.S. Coast Guard statistics, paddle sports deaths (those that involve canoes and kayaks) have been on a steady rise for the past 10 years. To be specific, since 2005, these unfortunate occurrences have increased by a staggering 78 percent. This trend doesn’t need to continue.

Nobody who finds him- or herself in a life-and-death situation starts that day thinking they’re going to die. If they had, they’d have taken the time to avoid the scenario that has them scrambling for redemption. Better yet, they’d have long since identified all of the potential threats to their continued existence and acted to minimize those risks.

Of course, the statistics aren’t specific to kayak fishermen, but you can be sure that all of the responsible failure modes are applicable to our humble craft. To make matters worse, pursuing the Northwest’s premier species offers a whole new catalog of threats.

The first threat that comes to most people’s mind is drowning. While this is often a USCG official cause of death, it’s facilitated by controllable factors such as hypothermia, adverse weather, fatigue, inexperience or lack of preparation – things that can be mitigated with proper equipment, an action plan, practice or informed avoidance. Let’s look at both:

Northwest waters, especially the ocean, are way too chilly to go out on in blue jeans and other garb that is all but useless for warding off cold shock and hypothermia. (SCOTT BREWER)


Cold shock: An immediate, physical reaction to sudden, unprotected contact with cold water, cold shock causes an involuntary deep inhalation followed by uncontrolled panting. This involuntary breathing can facilitate drowning. If that weren’t enough, the added strain on a victim’s heart can, in some situations, induce cardiac arrest.

Hypothermia: Defined as a drop in the body’s core temperature to below 95 degrees Fahrenheit, mild hypothermia is characterized by shivering, loss of small motor control and confusion. Moderate hypothermia results in profound confusion and loss of strength and large muscle control. Severe hypothermia will cause your heart to stop beating. Hypothermia can happen even in water approaching 70 degrees, though it happens progressively faster as the water temperature drops.

Constraint/constriction: Every length of cord, cable or line on your kayak is potentially deadly. All it takes is one loop around a limb or your neck to limit your mobility and thus your ability to reach the surface or re-enter your kayak. If that line is attached to an anchor, a crab trap or a big angry fish, you’ll have mere seconds to react.

Along with crashes, entangling in ropes and fishing line (inset) is another very real risk for kayak anglers. (SCOTT BREWER)

Blunt force trauma: This is probably the least controllable threat and includes a wide range of events that culminate in a great deal of kinetic energy being transferred to your body. Sources include but are not limited to contact with a transiting power boat, hitting a branch while floating through rapids, getting hit in the head by your cannonball weight or having a large fish land on you. Don’t laugh, this has killed people.

Weather: Freezing temperatures, gale force winds and lightning are, of course, threats to your survival. That’s obvious. What’s not so obvious is the impact of wet clothes from a spring squall, a thick fog bank or an unexpected change in wind intensity or direction that catches you miles from your take-out.

Surf: Surf conditions in the Northwest can be deceptive. What looks like a 3-foot swell from shore might actually be twice that high as you roll across the outer sandbars. Worse yet, given our proximity to the swell-generating North Pacific, a morning of flat and glassy conditions sometimes turns into an afternoon of
12- to 15-foot swells.

Medical emergency: This category speaks for itself and becomes more of an issue with age.


PFDs: A personal floatation device won’t save your life on its own but it will give you the time you need to implement your recovery plan. A properly sized and adjusted PFD is the first piece of safety equipment that a kayak angler should purchase. It should not obstruct re-entry to a kayak in the case of a “wet exit” and must be comfortable enough to wear all day.

To increase the likelihood that you’ll wear your PFD consistently, regardless of conditions, select one that can be used to store your most common fishing accessories such as scissors, pliers, fishing license, etc.

Two points for flying a safety “flag,” but the urge to get on the water should never trump safety considerations. (SANDY WEEDMAN)

Immersion gear: Most bodies of water in Oregon and Washington are too cold to be tolerated for long without appropriate immersion gear. The colder the water, the quicker symptoms of hypothermia will manifest.

Nobody expects to fall out of their kayak while fishing, unless they’re performing a surf landing, but accidents do happen. Thus, anytime that you’re fishing in cold water, regardless of the ambient air temperature, you should be wearing a wetsuit or a drysuit with underlayers appropriate to the water temperatures. This is doubly true in the ocean where waves, currents and chop can complicate, and thus delay, re-entry to your kayak.

Safety flags: Nobody wants to be run over by a power boat, and there is simply no better way to be seen on the water than by flying a safety flag. For maximum effect, the flag should be brightly colored and fly at least 5 feet above the water line.

Safety knife: This tool has one purpose and one purpose alone: to cut you free from something that is constraining or constricting you. It isn’t for cutting bait or cleaning fish. It is to save your life under the worst possible circumstances.

Your safety knife needs to meet the following criteria every time you fish from a kayak: 1) Be sharp; 2) be attached to your person at all times; and 3) be readily accessible to either hand.

You will hopefully never have to access your safety knife on the water. That said, you will want to practice drawing, holding and using it until you’re sure that you can do it with either hand, upside down, in moving water, with a cord around a hand, your torso or your neck.

Re-entry practice: There is no substitute for experience, except maybe for practice. Even experienced kayak anglers benefit from regular practice re-entering their kayaks. This should be done while wearing your fishing PFD to ensure that you know how to accommodate the added girth.

If you aspire to fish the ocean, practice re-entry in the surf. Better yet, practice paddling out and surfing back in, on small days, without your rods or tackle. The surf landings will provide ample opportunities to hone your re-entry skills.

If you struggle to re-enter your kayak, consider purchasing a “Self Rescue Ladder.” These handy devices help to keep your kayak upright while assisting you in climbing over the rail. Just remember to store this device in an area that is easily accessible but doesn’t create a constraint or constriction hazard.

Fish with a partner: There are many threats that can’t be planned for. In these cases, it’s extremely helpful to have a reliable partner nearby. Sometimes, simply having a level head to talk you through a difficult situation can be a game changer.

No doubt about it, fishing out of a kayak is risky, but it’s a manageable one for those who prepare for immersion, carry rescue gear and go out with partners, like author Mark Veary, here fighting a fish on a cold day in the Columbia Gorge. (MARK VEARY)

Research: In the age of the internet, there’s no excuse for getting caught off guard by weather or ocean conditions. Hourly forecasts with excruciating detail are just a click away. Some of my favorite sources include: iwindsurf.com for accurate, pinpoint wind forecasts; and magicseaweed.com for detailed info on swell height, direction and period.

For further information on venues, rigging and best practices, check out NorthWestKayakAnglers.com.


What you just waded through may seem ominous, scary or overwhelming, but in practice becomes the background for a lifetime of fun and exciting fishing trips. There’s no need to be afraid when you’re prepared. Enjoy kayak fishing in the Northwest! NS

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *