Tips for winter kayaking
The biggest thing by far that puts people off kayak fishing in the
winter is the cold, or the assumption that they will be cold. What you have to
remember is that our sport is quite physical. We aren't just jumping on a boat,
heading over the horizon and sitting on the gunwales waiting for the fish to
come back after you just scared them away with your dirty great motor. Just
sitting there you are going to get cold very quickly! With kayak fishing you
have paddled to your fishing spot raising your heart rate, got the muscles and
blood pumping and you have created body heat so you feel warm. Of course you do
want to stop paddling at some point to fish and you do need to try and retain
that heat. There are a huge range of products on the market for us kayakers but
they pretty much fall into three categories: thermals; waterproofs; and technical
wear. So I'll quickly run through them.
Thermals are great for keeping you warm. The way they are woven traps the warm air around your body and wicks away any moisture from the skin. You can also layer them if it's a particularly cold day. There are two distinct types of thermals; man-made polypropylene and natural fibres (merino wool being the most popular). The both have their pros and cons: natural is normally warmer than polypro, but polypro dries a lot quicker than the natural materials. This is very useful if you are on a multi-day fishing trip as you are able to dry your thermals for the next day. Thermals are a relatively cost-effective option, too.
As well as your under layers, what you wear on the top will have a huge bearing on keeping you warm. People immediately link waterproofs to keeping the water out and keeping you dry, which they should do, but they also have another use in that they stop the wind. This will block that wind chill factor from passing through to your body, so this layer is about stopping the elements from robbing you of any heat. As before, there are several options out there depending on your budget but even a cheap one will keep out the wind if nothing else.
This is a term that refers to clothing that has been made for a specific purpose. They are not made from a single fabric but of several layers that are then sandwiched together to form a single piece. They normally contain a warm inner layer, a wind and/or waterproof layer and an outer layer which is quite often neoprene. There are different manufacturers of these and some are better than others, but the normal rule of thumb that the more you pay the better they are seems to run true with these. One of the best (and my personal choice) is Sharkskin; one of the more expensive choices but it does work. It sports a totally water and windproof membrane in it so it stops the wind chill. I also wear a paddle top over the top as a secondary water/wind layer.
One common misconception is that the compression wear used by athletes will also keep you warm. Compression wear constricts against your skin which in turn causes blood to flow to come to the surface of your skin and the surrounding muscles (the reason why athletes wear it) which will make you feel warm. This is actually only psychological – your body is actually losing heat.
What bits need warming up?
Where on your body should you keep warm? Well, “everywhere” is the correct answer here, but the act of paddling and fishing does keep your upper body active so you may not need quite so much focus on these areas. What you do need to pay particular attention to is the parts of you that aren't active and don't get used as much, such as your legs and your feet.
You can keep your legs warm with a long john type thermal or technical wear under a pair of good paddle pants. I wear the Sharkskin long johns under my NRS paddle pants, which together keep me both warm and dry.
I definitely suffered cold feet (literally!) during my first few seasons. My feet always got wet launching my kayak and then I just couldn't keep them warm. I was just wearing standard dive booties but then got told about wearing a good pair of wool socks under my boots. That worked wonders – even though they were wet they were able to keep me warm. Then I found the Sharkskin socks and they work even better, but if you don’t want the outlay at least try wool socks.
Your face is another area that, once the rest of your body is fully covered, it will start to feel the cold and the wind chill. A neck gator is fine or better still (and what I use) is a buff. This will stop some of the wind and give you an insulating layer. The buff I use is the same one I use all year round but there are thicker winter versions available too. The other advantage of the buff is that it offers UV protection too so protects you from sunburn – yes, you can still get burnt by the winter sun.
Lastly, don't forget your head. Your head is a huge outlet for heat, even more so for those of us who are a little thin up top. In the winter throw on a beanie, you can get them in good fluorescent colours these days so you will still be visible from a safety point of view. If you don't want to wear a beanie and want to stick with your cap etc there are also skull cap options in both thermal or technical wear that you can wear under your normal head wear.
So you are out there floating around on the ocean, wrapped up to the eyeballs in layer upon layer and, after sitting there fishing for an hour, you are starting to feel cold. With your legs stuck in the kayak, what can you do now? It's simple – start moving, put the fishing rods away and pick up your paddle. Just go for a quick paddle. It doesn't need to be miles, just enough to raise your heart rate and get that warm blood pumping around your body again. Even if the fishing is good on your spot, just paddle away and back in a loop, you'll soon warm up again.
If the quick paddle doesn't work and you just can't get warm then face the facts: you are going to have to pull the pin and paddle back to shore. The last thing you need is to get hypothermia while out there on a kayak. It’s not worth the risk. Some of the first signs of hypothermia are getting goose bumps, feeling cold in your extremities (hand, nose, feet etc), numb feet and/or shivering uncontrollably. Another sign is that you are unable to do complex motor functions – you can talk but you paddling strokes are sloppy and tying knots is next to impossible. If you are displaying any of these signs then it's time to start paddling to the nearest shore line before things get worse. A call to Coastguard is a good idea at this point so they know where you are and what's happening, just in case.
This is a good time to remember the buddy system. Fishing with a friend or friends means you always have someone with you watching your back who can assist should you need any help with paddling and you can both keep an eye on each other. Do look after each other. I’ve been there myself on a trip up to Matai Bay in Northland. I came off the water on a cold and wet day with the beginnings of hypothermia – serious shivering and numb hands and feet. My mates packed me off to my car where I cranked on the engine and wound up the heater to warm up while they took care of my gear on the beach. Thanks guys!
Please don't put the kayak away for the winter – get out there and do it. Winter fishing can bring you some very good catches; the fish tend to head out deep or to the shallows. The deeper fish may be out of reach but those hanging around in the shallows will be your target. It's a time to go paddling along the shorelines discovering the rocky outcrops and gutters where the fish will be bunkered down for you to try and tempt them out. Don’t forget those guys in their big noisy motor boats can’t get in close to the shoreline like you can in your kayak.