At first, Travis Mueller didn't think much about the wave that washed over the front of the boat. He was busy watching ducks against the fading western light as he and two friends motored their way across a northern Iowa lake. A pile of ducks lay in the bottom of the boat.
"We came out of the cove and the front of the boat hit a wave and went under. We started taking on more water with each wave," recalls Mueller, sales manager for Avery. "I'm still not sure why, but one of the guys panicked and jumped over the side."
As he jumped, his foot caught on the blind frame, rolling the boat and spilling the two other hunters into the lake. It was near dark, they were at least 400 yards from shore and there wasn't another boat on the water.
"It was November, too, so the water was pretty cold," adds Mueller.
After clinging to the capsized boat for at least 30 minutes, the wind pushed them close to shore. Mueller shucked his waders and walked barefoot three miles with his friends back to the truck.
That was a decade ago. Since then, 100 or more duck hunters have reportedly died after capsizing, getting swept away by strong currents or stepping into water over their heads. There's no telling how many others had close calls similar to Muellers.
"When you are 18 or 19 years old, you don't think that sort of thing can happen to you," he says. "We still talk about that day. We agree that those two guys that drowned in Oklahoma could have been us. We were lucky."
Those two guys were country singer Craig Strickland and his friend Chase Moreland. Unlike most fatal incidents involving duck hunters, their story made national headlines in part because of Strickland's fame, but also because of the circumstances.
At the time, Oklahoma's Kaw Reservoir was in the midst of an epic storm that ultimately killed dozens of people along its path. Winds blew up to 50 mph when Strickland and Moreland went missing, according to Oklahoma Highway Patrol trooper Shaun Vann, the lead investigator in the accident. The air temperature was 34 degrees and the water temperature was 35.
"There were five-foot swells reported in the same area," says Vann.
An epic storm isn't always a necessary ingredient. At least eight other duck hunters died last season, including a 30-year-old Kansas man who drowned after his canoe capsized in a farm pond. A Michigan hunter apparently fell over while his friends went to get the truck and trailer after a morning hunt. A Mississippi hunter drowned after his boat overturned and his waders filled with water, pulling him under, according to a coroner's report.
Will It Float?
There are a half-dozen YouTube videos of hunters jumping into lakes and swimming pools with neoprenes on. They all floated. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't wear a life jacket.
Retired U.S. Coast Guard Commander Dennis Sens urges hunters not to trust their waders as floatation devices. Many of the drowning victims he recovered during his 29 years in search and rescue were duck hunters wearing waders. Using them as a primary floatation device is foolish, says Sens. Mueller can't recall if the neoprenes he wore when he went overboard kept him afloat. However, he doesn't remember struggling to stay above the water and he wasn't wearing a PFD.
"We came out of the cove and the front of the boat hit a wave and went under...one of the guys panicked and jumped
over the side."
"I started swimming toward shore until one of my friends yelled at me to get back to the boat. I do remember that they weren't filling up with water, which may be why I thought I could make it to shore," he recalls. "I don't know what would have happened if I kept swimming."
Trooper Vann swears neoprene waders don't pull you under.
"It's an old wives tale that if neoprene waders fill up with water, you will drown," says Vann, a longtime diver with OHP. "Neoprene has buoyancy. If I'm wearing a 3 mil wet suit, I have to use weight to get me under. If I'm wearing 7 mil, I have to add even more weight."
Vann, however, agrees that the combination of numerous layers of wet, heavy clothing and pockets filled with shotgun shells and other gear could pull you under. He acknowledges that lots of hunters wearing waders drown. That's why it's always a good idea to wear a belt and keep it cinched tight to trap some air.
Wear It Always
Whether or not neoprene chest waders are a death trap or a life saver is beside the point. There was a common theme among almost every duck hunting-related drowning victim from the most recent season: They were not wearing a life vest.
According to USCG data, nearly two-thirds of all boat-related drowning victims in 2014 were not wearing a life vest. Cabela's has a wide variety of suitable/non-restrictive life jackets, including inflatables similar to the ones you see during pre-flight airplane safety instructions.
Vann, who talked to family members after the two men died, says they planned on using their 12-foot boat to tote their gear as they pulled it behind them. It was not equipped with a motor.
"The water was much deeper than normal for that time of year," recalls Vann.
The two men may have stepped off a ledge and gone over their heads, they may have been hit by a large wave or they could have lost hold of the boat in the high winds and rough water. Those details will likely never be known. What is known is that the water temperature was 35 degrees. Neither body had a life vest on when they were recovered.
The Silent Killer
Moreland's body was found in about two feet of water. However, his waders were "well up on shore," says Vann. The cause of death was listed as drowning, but there's no telling exactly what happened in the last moments of his life.
"He may have gotten out of the water and taken his waders off and then gone back into the water because he was disoriented. We just don't know," he adds.
Strickland was found in the woods about 75 yards from shore. He had also taken his waders off. His cause of death was ruled as hypothermia.
"Hypothermia can make people do some pretty irrational things. I've seen it," says Vann.
Based on a chart published by the Minnesota Sea Grant, both men likely became disoriented from the cold water in less than 15 minutes. At temperatures just above freezing, a victim can go unconscious in as little as 15 minutes.
"Putting a life vest on after you are already in the water is difficult at best," says Sens. "Climbing back into a boat or swimming to shore can be almost impossible in cold water and wet, heavy clothes. Wearing a life vest is always a good idea."
Wearing a float coat is an even better idea. Mustang Survival makes one in Mossy Oak Duck Blind. It not only serves as a Coast Guard-approved floatation device, it allows excellent mobility and is insulated to stave off hypothermia.
You don't have to fall in to succumb to freezing temperatures, of course. There's no better example than the infamous Armistice Day blizzard of 1940. More than 50 duck hunters froze to death in the upper Midwest after a mild morning turned into a blizzard with temperatures and wind chills plummeting in a matter of hours. Many of the victims were completely unprepared.
That's no excuse these days. A simple safety kit can save your life. Backwater Performance Systems sells one that includes a mylar blanket, a fire starter kit, a whistle and a portable back-up power supply with accessories to get a boat started if it breaks down. It even comes with a USB cable so you can charge your phone.
Common Sense First
Preparing for the worst is always smart, but Sens says most waterfowl-related boat accidents can be avoided before you pull out of the driveway.
"Make sure your boat is capable of handling the water and all the weight you put in it. Overloaded or undersized boats are a common factor in many duck hunting-related incidents," he adds. "Not having the proper safety gear is also a big factor in hunting-related deaths."
That includes something as simple as a hand-held or boat-mounted GPS. Anyone can get lost. Heavy snow, thick fog or even darkness can make navigation nearly impossible, even for foot-bound hunters. A 14-year-old Utah boy suffered from frostbite and hypothermia after getting lost in the marsh around Great Salt Lake last December. Temperatures dipped to 4 degrees.
A hand-held GPS (and the ability to use it) could have gotten him to safety. A number of manufacturers, including Garmin, sell hand-held GPS units that are a snap to use. So is onXmap's smart phone hunt app.
It includes everything from topo maps and property boundaries to real-time weather data. It also includes GPS mapping to track your location and mark your route. It's a good idea to keep electronics in something water-tight so you can use it after taking an unwanted dunking. "Always have a plan and tell someone where you are going and what time to expect you back. Check in from time to time with a text or a call, especially if conditions are bad," he adds.
If you hunt remote country, consider a pocket-size personal locator device like a SPOT Gen 3. It comes with an SOS button that sends your GPS coordinates to local authorities. It also allows your friends and family to track your activity and it comes with a check-in button to let loved ones know you are OK.
None of those should take the place of common sense, though. Check the conditions and trust your instincts, says Mueller. It's advice that would have saved the lives of Strickland and Moreland, who sent an ominous Tweet just before their hunt. "In case we don't come back, @BackroadCRAIG and I are going right through Winter Storm Goliath to kill ducks in Oklahoma. #IntoTheStorm."
There's nothing wrong with a little adventure. That's part of a good duck hunt. However, if you have an uneasy feeling about the situation, it's probably for a good reason. Skipping a hunt now means you'll have more opportunities later. No duck is worth your life.