Have you seen the “drowning duck hunter” spot on the Outdoor Life Network? I hope every waterfowler in the country has, and I hope the fish’s eye view of what it might be like to drown has caused each and every one to take a serious look at what could happen should they fall overboard. No camera can capture the true horror of knowing you have only a few seconds to live as your lungs begin to fill with water but it comes darned close.
Some self-proclaimed experts would have us believe the careless use of firearms accounts for most accidental deaths among hunters each year but boating accidents are the number one killers. Statistics indicate that a waterfowl hunter is more likely to die from drowning than anyone else whose sport requires them to be on or near water. Speedboat racing and extreme kayaking are dangerous when viewed on TV. But statistically speaking, those guys are much more likely to return home to their families than you are.
You only have to look around at a popular boat-launching site to see one of the reasons why waterfowling is such a hazardous sport. Seldom will you see a single duck or goose hunter wearing any type of personal flotation device (PFD). Most are wearing so much clothing they would sink like a sock full of lead if they fell overboard or the boat hit a rock or a submerged log and sank. As far as I know, all states require one PFD in the boat for each passenger and while many boat owners comply, the vests are often stowed in out of the way places where finding one during an emergency would be impossible. Even if you are lucky enough to locate one and pull it on it might not be in good enough condition to keep you afloat. So I take my own PFD, even when hunting in a boat belonging to someone else. Anytime I am in a duck boat and it is moving you can bet I am wearing mine. People have kidded me about wearing a life vest but that’s okay because I figure my life is my responsibility and I plan to do everything possible to make it last a long time.
I have hunted ducks in Old Mexico several times but only one hunt causes cold chills to run down my spin each time I think about it. The water was not supposed to get rough in the bay our blinds were located in but it surely did that night. Just when the storm seemed as if it could get no worse, it did. On top of that, the motor on our small boat died and its Mexican pilot (who spoke no English) could not bring it to life. He had nothing to use in bailing out the boat so we did the best we could with freezing hands. Occasionally a twinkle of light caused me to wonder how far away the distant shore was but I was convinced it was too far to swim in cold water. There were seven of us in that tiny boat and I was the only one wearing a PFD.
Several factors will determine whether or not you survive a dip in the drink while duck hunting. In addition to the temperature of the water, body fat content and body movement all play a critical part in coldwater survival. Small people lose body heat more quickly than a large person, which means that children are the first to succumb to hypothermia. The more you move in water the faster your body will shed heat. Wearing a PFD allows you to float with a minimum of movement and its insulating value lowers heat loss from the upper body. When in water far from shore it is best to stay as still as possible. Minimizing the amount of body surface exposed to the water is also important. Pulling your legs up close to your chest and wrapping your arms around them does just that. If the boat is still partially floating, even upside down, you must climb atop it because your body loses heat more quickly in water than in air.
Personal flotation devices are available in several styles and in various camouflage patterns. One of them, the basic vest, is so inexpensive there is no good excuse for not owning one. I just received a catalog from Mack’s Prairie Wings in Stuttgart, Arkansas. A Coast Guard-approved vest is three dollars more than 25 rounds of premium grade 12-gauge ammo loaded with steel shot. The same vest costs two bucks less than 10 rounds of Remington’s 10-gauge Hevi-Shot ammo. I like the vest-style PFD because it is light, it doesn’t take up much room in my duffel bag and it is easy to pull on and off. It is also available in youth and grownup sizes. As handy as it is, the vest does have several major shortcomings. It does not keep as much of the upper body out of the water as a flotation jacket or coat, nor does it retain body heat as efficiently. Most hunters find it impossible to shoot while wearing a vest because its extremely wide and thick shoulder straps leave no room on the shoulder for the butt of the gun. Someday, some duck hunter who decides to manufacture a life vest specifically for duck hunting will solve that problem.
For all the reasons I have just given, the flotation jacket, coat and parka are better than the vest. They do a better job of retaining body heat and they keep more of the upper body out of water. Those I recently examined had no flotation foam in the shoulder area to interfere with gun mounting. The jackets and coats are far more expensive than a vest and usually run around $150. That’s a lot of money but it is still a lot cheaper than most funerals.
THE FLOATING GUN CASE
While I am on the subject of things that float like Ivory soap, have you tried one of the soft floating gun cases? I have one and it is the cat’s meow. I never worry about my beat-up old Model 870 getting wet and muddy but some of the vintage guns I hunt with deserve a bit more respect. The case I have is large enough to hold two shotguns, each inside a soft padded case. It might not float with that much weight but it has kept my guns dry in some pretty awful conditions, like the rather lengthy boat ride on Lake ILiamna in Alaska. By the time we got there everything in the boat was wet except for the two guns in my case and my clothing (the latter stowed in a waterproof duffel bag).
WEATHERBY PERFORMANCE OUTERWEAR
During more than half a century the name Weatherby has been synonymous with fine shotguns if you are a wingshooter or super-accurate rifles if you are a big-game hunter. We can now add clothing to that list of accomplishments. Weatherby jumped into the outdoor clothing market about three years ago with the introduction of its Performance Outerwear line of garments for big-game hunters and waterfowlers. In 2002 the company introduced its new Performance Wool lineup, first
in a 27-ounce weight and now in a 14-ounce weight for hunters who walk more than they sit. I have worn the Big Game outfit on several hunts for mule deer, caribou and black bear and it kept me so warm and dry I could not find a single thing to complain about. The same goes for Weatherby’s Performance Wool. The shirt, vest, parka, cargo pants and ice cap kept me just as warm on a Canadian deer hunt as they did on a hunt in Romania for bear and stag. Since this is a magazine about waterfowling I won’t say anymore about those items but I will use up a bit more space telling you how impressed I have been by the performance of Weatherby’s line of clothing for duck and goose hunters.
Something I noticed right off the bat when first wearing the Weatherby parka was its comfort and the freedom of movement it allowed when I was shooting. This is mainly due to the utilization of articulated elbows in the coat. The same type of construction in the knees of the cargo-style pants eliminated any binding or restriction of movement regardless of whether I was climbing into a duck blind or squatting to pick up a shell I had dropped. Two layers of fabric in high-stress areas such as the seat of the pants and the elbows of the coat spell many years of service even when subjected to harsh conditions.
The outer shell of the parka and pants is Cordura Plus. Basically a tough material made mostly of nylon, it is extremely resistant to punctures, rips and abrasion. When wearing the parka during rainy weather I noticed that water had a tendency to bead up and roll off, just as it does on a freshly waxed car. Scotchgard is what causes it to do that and in addition to making the material water repellant, the treatment resists stains from the hot coffee you always spill in your lap and the muddy paws of your Lab. The waterproofing doesn’t stop there. Sandwiched between the outer shell and a soft liner, a breathable membrane keeps water from coming in while at the same time allowing perspiration vapor to escape.
All garments have more weatherproof pockets than you will ever need and that’s saying a lot to a duck hunter. The parka, as an example, has two large cargo pockets on either side with snap fasteners on their flaps. Both have elastic shell loops. Two zippered slash pockets located higher up are positioned exactly as they should be for stowing a couple of chemical hand warmers. Another vertical pocket located just inside the front storm flap is an ideal place for your wallet, hunting license, car keys and other valuables. The great ideas don’t stop there. Two more zippers extending across the chest and beneath the armpit on both sides of the parka can be opened to allow excessive heat to escape during rainy weather without opening the front of the coat. The Weatherby catalog calls them “armpit vents.”
Layering is a key word in cold-weather clothing and zippers inside both the parka and the jacket make it easy to add either of two optional liners. One is fleece and the other is down-filled. Both have a windproof liner and since they also have their own detachable hood, either can be worn as an outer jacket. Weatherby clothing has top-quality, snag-free zippers throughout and long nylon pullers on all of them are easy to find, even in the dark. The massive No. 8 zipper at the front of the coat and the parka is covered with a snapped storm flap.
During the past two years I have worn Weatherby’s Performance parka or jacket on most of my waterfowl hunts, including the most recent one in the South American country of Uruguay. Believe me when I say the weather doesn’t get too wet or too cold when either is worn over the down-filled liner.
ANKLE-FIT HIP BOOTS
There are times when hip boots are better than chest waders, like when hunting in Alaska and the potholes are long walks apart. Most states have their official flowers, birds, trees and other things. The Carolina wren is the official state bird of South Carolina and the yellow jessamine is its official flower. If the various states ever decide to adopt official boots, the hip boot will surely start appearing on the flag of the state of Alaska.
The first time I hunted in our biggest state I took along regular hip boots and if not for the generosity of my guide who agreed to switch with me, my feet would not have made it beyond the third day. Ankle-fit hippers are the only way to go in Alaska but they are extremely difficult to pull on in the morning and even more difficult to pull off at the end of a long and exhausting day. This holds especially true if your foot has an extremely high arch like mine. My first ankle-fit boots were so difficult to remove I would have left them on during the entire hunt had it not been for getting mud inside my sleeping bag at night. Since discovering the Bog-Buster hip boot from Cabela’s I have worn nothing else.
When the three-way adjustable Velcro strap across the top of the foot is buckled the Bog-Buster fits as snugly as a conventional ankle-fit boot. With the strap unlatched, the boot becomes as easy to remove as a regular hipper. A Neoprene upper extends all the way inside a hand-laid rubber boot, similar to a pair of stocking-foot waders. At 2 1/4 pounds each they are also lighter than all-rubber hippers and actually weigh about the same as the all-leather boots we wear while hunting quail in the uplands. You won’t sweat in them like you do when wearing other types of hip boots and yet they are quite warm in cold weather and 100 percent waterproof. They are tough too; in addition to wearing them on numerous duck hunts, I’ve worn them on several hunts in Alaska for bear, moose and caribou and they just keep on trucking. I like the Bog-Buster so well I have squirreled away a second pair in case my old ones eventually wear out or Cabela’s decides to discontinue them.