Three inches of rain meant one thing to Tommy Akin: ducks would be swarming into west Tennessee's Obion River Bottoms. So he and two buddies loaded up their boat on a cold January day in 1974 and pushed off from a makeshift ramp 50 yards upstream of a bridge.
"My friend who owned the boat assured me the motor would start on the first pull, so he told me to push off," recalls Akin, a public relations manager from Greenfield, Tenn. "I pushed us out, but it didn't start on the first pull."
Before his friend could pull the cord again, the swift current carried the boat into a bridge piling. In a second, the vessel flipped on its side, filled with water and threw the three hunters and their gear into the frigid water. All three managed to grab the craft, now lodged against the concrete piling, but everything they owned had either sunk to the bottom or washed away. That was the least of their worries.
Ask any duck hunter who has spent more than a few years in and around boats, canoes or kayaks and they'll likely have a similar story. Most end with little more than a bruised ego, maybe some lost equipment or a hard lesson that makes a great tale for the duck blind. But every year, at least a few hunters don't live to tell about their ordeal.
"I always heard your boots will suck off your feet if they aren't fastened to your belt, and they were right. Both boots were pulled off," recalls Akin. "The current was very fast and it was hard to hold on to the boat and the water was very cold. One of my friends managed to pull himself on top of the boat and then onto the bridge, which wasn't very far above the river because of the high water."
Akin and the other man, however, were still in the water, struggling to hang on when their friend ran to the truck to retrieve a rope. He managed to pull the second man up, but the rope didn't reach Akin, who was slowly succumbing to hypothermia and exhaustion. The two others flagged down a passing tractor-trailer and found a chain long enough to reach him. He lived, due largely to wearing a life vest, unlike 395 of the 484 boat-related drowning victims in 2010. Although there are no statistics, it's a safe bet waterfowlers are at greater risk of drowning than other groups; the rougher the water and the worse the weather, the better the hunting. Cold water is just part of the game, and hunters are either wearing waders, bundled up in multiple layers of heavy clothes, or both.
Just 16 at the time, Todd Barnes was checking traps in January when he spotted a pair of otters swimming along the shore. An avid duck hunter, who didn't always follow the laws back then, Barnes had a shotgun across his lap in case he ran up on some birds, but when he saw the otters, worth about $60 each at the time, he decided to swing his boat toward the animals to see if he could get a shot.
"All I can think is that I hit a wave as I was making a sharp turn," he says. "The next thing I knew, I was airborne. It was like I was in slow motion and then I hit the water."
He was dressed in a wool jacket and blue jeans, but he wasn't wearing the most important item: a life vest. Two hundred yards from shore, Barnes' first thought was, "I'm dead. This is it." He went straight to the bottom in 7 feet of water, struggled to tear off his hip waders and then pushed to the surface only to be greeted by his own boat speeding directly at him, which may have saved his life.
"I was able to grab the side of the boat and hold on. Once I did that, it started spinning in circles and I was able to work my way back and reach the throttle," he remembers. "Somehow I managed to pull myself in and run for the boat ramp. I could barely unlock my truck I was so numb."
In hindsight, Barnes, now 47, doesn't think he did anything inherently wrong, except, of course, leaving his life vest in the bottom of the boat.
Mark Brendemuehl did make a bad decision when he and a friend crossed Minnesota's Artichoke Lake on a windy day a few years ago. After driving 45 minutes in anticipation of a diver hunt, the 43-year-old Minnesota man and his partner weren't about to change plans. So despite the nagging feeling that told him to go somewhere else, Brendemuehl and his friend pushed off from the ramp and motored out toward the open water in a 16-foot V-hull. The going was smooth at first, thanks largely to a long peninsula that buffered the north wind. But things got ugly fast.
"As soon as we cleared the point, white caps and brutally cold water crashed over the bow. The overloaded boat was already taking some water and we had a ways to go," he recalls.
Anyone who's been in a similar situation will probably say pretty much the same thing: "I should have known better." For some reason, many hunters, waterfowlers in particular, ignore the voice that says crossing a big, rough lake in a small boat is a recipe for disaster.
"Part of it is ego," said Brendemuehl. "No one thinks it will happen to them. I certainly didn't when we left the ramp that day."
Instead of turning around and heading back, the two hunters decided it was safer to keep the boat straight rather than risk turning it across the waves. Their destination, an island still ¾-mile away, would provide a break from the steady wind, a wind that would surely dwindle as the day wore on, figured Brendemuehl. Not only did the wind not settle, it blew harder and the temperature dropped. When they went to retrieve their boat, (beached on the other side of the island), Brendemuehl and his friend found it to be water-filled and coated in ice. They couldn't tip it, but they managed to bail most of the water out and break off the layer of ice that formed on the hull, but the trouble didn't end there.
"The ice formed so thick on the gas lines that it broke them," he says. "We couldn't get any wetter than we already were, so we decided to take our chances and drift and paddle to shore. We eventually made it and walked back to the truck."
It's not just overconfidence that pushes smart hunters to do dumb things. Dedicated hunters love their sport so much, they are willing to push the envelope a bit more than the average man, even if it means taking more risk. Besides, no one wants to skip a day in the marsh.
Even if the risk is relatively high, you can reduce any chance of danger by following a few simple precautions, the most important of which is to wear a life vest.
"I have no doubt a life jacket saved my life," says Akin, 66. "I always wear one when I'm in a moving boat now."
Barnes always wears one now, too. So does Chesapeake Bay guide Captain Jeff Coates. Although he hasn't been in any harrowing situations, he's prepared for anything the Bay might throw at him. Along with standard safety items like life preservers, Coates carries a Pelican case filled with a flare gun, an extra cell phone, a waterproof marine-band radio and an emergency position indicating radio beacon, or EPIRB. It's a small device that sends a constant locator signal to satellites and receiver stations all over the world. With a push of a button, rescuers can locate anyone, anywhere. Coates has never had to use it, but he makes sure he shows his clients how to operate it before they leave the boat ramp, just in case.
Though EPIRBs aren't cheap, U.S. Coast Guard recreational boating safety specialist Dennis Sens says $700-$800 is a small price considering the alternative.
"A rescue vessel or helicopter can be on its way within 30 minutes or less of receiving a distress signal," he says.
That may seem quick, but in the cold water typical of duck country it can feel like an eternity. Sens says hypothermia is a leading killer in winter boating accidents. He worked a case where a large boat capsized in 50-degree water. Although rescuers were on the scene in less than 2 hours, several people died from hypothermia.
"If we were 15 minutes later, I have no doubt there would have been other fatalities," says Sens. "Coast Guard rescue personnel are required to wear survival gear when water temperatures fall below 65 degrees. That's how serious the risk of hypothermia can be."
Life vests can be bulky, but Sens says there are a variety of Coast Guard-approved personal flotation devices that are compact. Inflatable PFDs are a great choice. So are buoyant jackets, often called "float coats."
Staying on the surface is important, but getting warm right away is equally vital. That's one reason Brendemuehl always carries a change of clothes in a dry bag when he's on a boat and always leaves a spare set of clothes in his truck when he's hunting on foot. Extra clothes may not necessarily save your life, but it can certainly save your day.
"I was wading in Minnesota when I tripped on a submerged barbed wire fence and went completely under," says Brendemuehl. "Fortunately, my wader belt was cinched tight, which I always make a point to do, so my lower half stayed mostly dry."
Smartly, he took his coat, gloves and hat off before he waded into the marsh to set out the decoys. It's a standard procedure for Brendemuehl for that very reason.
It's also a good idea to carry a windproof lighter to start a fire. Barnes actually carries a propane blow torch, not just for starting fires, but for thawing ice-crusted steering cables and other moving parts that can stick in extreme cold. It's saved him on more than one occasion. For Brendemuehl, safety in the duck marsh starts at home.
"I make it a point to tell someone, usually my wife, exactly where I will be hunting," he says.