Actually, it was a conspiracy with Mother Nature. Once, I was caught in a freak storm that blew in from nowhere, with nasty swells, high winds and a spotlight that shorted out. The other was during a heavy fog that rolled in on a bitterly cold January morning. Both times, the chances of recovering from peril were 50-50 at best. Suffice to say, I’m far more cautious now and always have redundant forms of life preservation in place, including wearing a personal flotation device from the time I step into the boat until I’m hunting.
It is always shocking and alarming to see so many hunters motoring off from the boat ramp into the dark abyss, boat loaded to the gills and not a PFD in sight. On average, I see maybe 20 percent of hunters wearing a PFD, which means most hunters seem to be daring fate about surviving a water accident. With an abundance of PFDs available, it’s unthinkable that ignorance or something as asinine as machismo keeps people from donning the thing that can save their life in the water.
PFDs come in several types, sizes and ratings, so let’s look at the best options for duck hunters.
The Ol’ Standby (Type II)
This is the ubiquitous orange life jacket found on most boats. You know, the one the game warden or Coast Guard asks for when they pull you over. They’re usually stored somewhere, and most folks fumble around trying to remember where they put them. These are typically inexpensive and cumbersome to wear when running the boat, but something is always better than nothing.
Another low-cost alternative to these types of vests are hybrid vests such as the Universal Sport Vest by Onyx Outdoors. Vests such as this retail for less than $30 and give you more mobility, pockets and D-rings. I usually keep three of these in the boat for my guests to wear. They also offer a good bit of insulation on cold mornings, and you can even get them in Realtree Max-5 for those ultra-spooky ducks that are unfazed by motors but spook off safety orange in the dark.
Comfort and Safety (Self-Inflating Vests)
When I’m running the boat, there are a lot of moving parts, especially when navigating tight sloughs or timber routes. For that reason, a bulky life vest is not always the best option. I did it for years, but with the advent of newer, higher-buoyancy inflating vests, the switch was a no-brainer. These types of vests are more expensive than your standard buoyant-foam vests, but the freedom of movement and comfort are well worth it, at least to me.
Not all inflating vests are created equal. Some require manual inflation in the form of a ripcord or CO2 cartridge. The inflation is almost instant. However, if you’re knocked unconscious, the vest will not inflate on its own, rendering it useless. To be as safe as possible, get the version that inflates automatically when placed in contact with water. Also, check the buoyancy rating in pounds listed on the package. My vest is a deep-water vest made for open-ocean rescue, and it inflates to 35 pounds of buoyancy — about twice that of Type II vests. With that vest, I can manually deploy or rely on automatic deployment should I be incapacitated at the time of submersion.
Don’t Forget the Throwable (Type IV)
Last I checked, these are required on all boats in addition to life jackets. These also double as seat cushions and are great to insulate your dog from a cold boat deck if it decides to lie down during the ride. Although they’re not designed to keep you floating, especially when wearing waders and potentially heavy water-soaked clothing, they’re required by law and can be used as extra floatation in a hunter-overboard situation.
We never plan for bad events, if we knew when and where incidents would occur, they wouldn’t be called accidents. So, when you’re on the water, always have an emergency game plan and the proper safety equipment. And for goodness sake, wear your dang life jacket, because drowning can really cut into your duck hunting time.
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Realtree waterfowl editor Brian Lovett has been an obsessive duck and goose hunter for more than 30 years, chasing his passion on the Dakota prairies and the marshes and open water of his home state of Wisconsin. He's been a writer and editor in the outdoors industry since 1991.