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DNR urges duckboat discretion

Most duck hunters are already packing their gear for the Sept. 27 Minnesota opener. The boat has been repainted, missing decoy anchors replaced and the piquant bouquet of Hoppe's Number 9 wafts up from the basement.

"I wonder how many hunters have forgotten to pack their life jackets," mused Tim Smalley, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources boating safety specialist and life-long duck hunter.

"Ever since 1988, when life jackets were first required on board duck boats, the lack of flotation devices is one of the most common violations DNR conservation officers find while checking waterfowlers," Smalley added.

DNR records indicate that although some hunters still forget to carry life vests, the law is working. In the 15 years since life jackets were first required, seven hunters have drowned in boating accidents.

"That's seven too many, but in the bad old days before duck hunters were required to have life vests, sometimes seven hunters would drown in boating accidents in a single season," Smalley noted.

Last year two duck hunters drowned in separate boat accidents. One hunter, who fell out of his boat while placing decoys, wasn't able to stay afloat without a life vest. In the other mishap, three hunters in a 10-foot boat, equipped with a small outboard motor and loaded with gear, capsized in choppy conditions with water temperatures in the high 30s. They all wore life vests, but one died from hypothermia after being immersed in the frigid water for over two hours.

The law requires that there be a readily accessible U.S. Coast Guard approved wearable life vest for every person on board duck boats. For boats 16 feet and longer, there also has to be one Coast Guard approved throwable device (seat cushion) in the boat. Seat cushions are no longer approved as primary flotation devices, so everyone aboard needs a wearable personal floatation device of the proper size and type.

Of course, a life jacket does no good if its stuffed under a boat seat when the accident happens.

"Trying to put on a life jacket during a boating accident would be like trying to buckle a seat belt during a car crash," Smalley said. "You just don't have any warning that an accident is going to happen, so the smart thing to do is wear a life vest on the way to and from the blind."

There are new inflatable Coast Guard approved flotation devices made with duck hunters in mind.

"The advantage to an inflatable life vest is that you can wear one and you almost forget you have it on because they are so comfortable," Smalley said.

The most common fatal duck hunting accident is a capsizing or fall overboard from a small overloaded boat. Cold and rough water conditions often figure into the death-dealing mix. The DNR advises hunters to take several trips in an adequately sized boat to and from the blind, rather than overloading the boat. Avoid cutting across large expanses of open water. Stay closer to shore so in case of a capsize, you have a much better chance of being seen by potential rescuers. Stay with the boat, even if you have to climb on top of it when its overturned.

"There is an old saying in water safety that you only have a 50-50 chance of being able to swim 50 yards in 50 degree water," Smalley noted. "Just try holding your hand in a bucket of ice water for three minutes. It just about can't be done. Now imagine having your whole body immersed in water that cold."

Contrary to common belief, waders and hip boots will not flip a practiced wearer upside down. By bending knees to keep the air trapped in the boots' shins, a hunter can trap enough air to stay afloat long enough to return to the boat.

"We have heard from hunters who survived by simply following that simple procedure," Smalley said. "Bodies of drowned duck hunters have been recovered with waders pulled half way down. When the waders are pulled down, all the air trapped inside is released and you have a more difficult time staying afloat."

Another problem with taking off waders in the water is that it requires the hunter to immerse the face and head, which can induce what drowning experts call the torso reflex.

"The torso reflex is the automatic gasp for air that happens when your face is suddenly immersed in cold water," Smalley said. "If your mouth and nose are under water when the gasp occurs, drowning is the probable outcome."

Smalley advised hunters who have to wear waders in the boat, to practice floating in them in warm, shallow water.

The Minnesota DNR offers these tips to help make duck hunting trips safe and successful:

o wear a life jacket to and from the blind, with or without waders

o don't overload your boat

o learn how to float in waders and hip boats or don't wear them

o stay near shore; avoid crossing large expanses of open water, especially in bad weather

o let someone know where you are going and when to expect your return.

The DNR has a free waterfowl hunting boating safety brochure, "Prescription for Duck Hunters," available by calling the DNR Information Center at (651) 296-6157 or 1-888-646-6367. It may be downloaded at





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