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Cold water danger to duck hunters

Many duck hunters are preparing for the Oct. 1 Minnesota opener. The boat has been repainted, missing decoy anchors replaced and dozens of shells carefully arranged in ammo boxes.

Unfortunately, a number of hunters may have forgotten to pack their life jackets, noted Tim Smalley, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) boating safety specialist and life-long duck hunter. "Ever since 1988 when life jackets were first required on duck boats, the lack of flotation devices is still one of the most common law violations among waterfowl hunters, and the most common cause of duck hunter deaths," he added.

DNR records indicate the law is working. In 17-years since life jackets were first required, ten hunters have drowned in boating accidents.

According to U.S. Coast Guard statistics, more hunters die every year from hypothermia and drowning than gunshot wounds. In 2003, three Minnesota duck hunters drowned in two separate boat accidents. In one case, a hunter wearing a personal flotation device and waders capsized his boat while placing decoys. He didn't survive, possibly due to the hypothermia-inducing effects of cold water. In the other tragedy, two hunters in a 16-foot boat loaded with equipment, capsized on the Mississippi where water temperatures were reported to be in the high 30's. They were not wearing life vests and died from hypothermia and drowning. There were no duck boat fatalities in 2004.

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

And of course having a life jacket doesn't do any good if it's stuffed under the 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. Smalley said hunters who have to wear waders in the boat, should practice floating in them in warm shallow water.

The Minnesota DNR offers these tips:

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

- don't overload the boat

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

- stay near the shore and avoid crossing large expanses of open water, especially in bad weather

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

For hunters wishing to learn more about duck hunting boat safety, the DNR has a free publication about waterfowl hunting boat safety called "Prescription for Duck Hunters." The publication is available by calling the DNR information center at (651) 296-6157 or toll free 1-888-MINNDNR (646-6367) or download download a copy from



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