Subverting Disaster while Fishing in Freezing Temperatures
While musky fishing in January and February might seem like a foreign concept to some, it is a welcomed perk of living in the south. Admittedly the winters in the muskies' southern habitat range are generally mild, some years are simply brutal. So far 2024 is not pulling any punches when it comes to bone-chilling temps, howling winds, and subsequently broken musky gear. So, for the few, the brave, the musky mentally ill crazy enough to be on the water during gale-force winds, snow, and all-around gnarly conditions let’s look at a few tips to help save your musky gear from damage and most importantly your safety on the water.
Regarding your safety, a few factors come into play the main concern being Hypothermia. Hypothermia occurs when your body loses heat faster than it can produce it, causing a dangerously low body temperature. Normal body temperature is around 98.6 Hypothermia occurs as your body temperature falls below 95 F (35 C). Some of the symptoms of Hypothermia are shivering, slurred speech or mumbling, shallow breathing, weak pulse, clumsiness/lack of coordination, drowsiness, confusion, and loss of consciousness. While these are just a few potential symptoms of Hypothermia, identifying them early in yourself or a fishing partner can prevent a bad situation from getting worse.
As a professional musky guide, I try to be aware of my clients and how they are coping during the day with casual questions. “Are you staying warm?” or “How are you holding up?” come to mind. These questions are used simply to gauge their response and see if we should head to the truck for a warm-up and regroup. But I can assure you in sub-freezing temperatures things can turn on a dime. One instance from my twenties stands out in my mind as I witnessed a guide client pass out from the cold. I thought this somewhat elderly gentleman had dosed off while trolling but unfortunately, it wasn’t the case and immediate medical attention was required. Simply put, be aware of how you and your boat partner are feeling don’t try to be tough, and under no circumstances be stubborn. Take breaks and warm up if needed, there is no trophy for pushing the limits of safety.
Admittedly my biggest fear is falling off the boat during winter fishing. With water temps in the 40’s and below an unexpected plunge could end in tragedy. In an attempt to make sure I wake up on the right side of the grass, I wear an ice fishing float suit during winter months. Not only do these suits eliminate the need for endless layers of thermal clothing, but they also provide floatation in the event of an accident. If investing in a floatation suit is not in the cards for you, I highly recommend wearing a life vest of some sort during winter months. Many options are available that are comfortable for musky fishing all day. Having floatation in cold water can be a lifesaver as it only takes seconds for your body to go into shock when submerged in cold water. Now that we have gotten the macabre aspects of winter musky fishing covered, on to the gear.
From my experience, musky reels are usually the first piece of gear to fail in freezing temperatures. During the day, your braided line is transferring small amounts of water on and into your expensive musky reels. As water seeps and intrudes into the crevasses and subsequently gears and mechanical parts of your reel ice can build up which is the cause of most failures. To avoid this completely is nearly impossible, but some preventative measures and quick fixes can be utilized before catastrophic failure occurs.
Firstly, if your reel feels different at any point stop reeling immediately even if you are mid-cast. Often your reel handle will feel “tight” and after a few more turns something will go “boom “if you don’t stop immediately. If you feel this tightness in the handle or your reel feels “different”. The first element to inspect is the worm gear and the pawl. Your reel's worm gear is exposed and is an easy place for ice to build up. The aforementioned “tightness” is your reel's pawl being obstructed by ice that has formed in the worm gear. The friction from the pawl attempting to push through the ice is what is typically causing the extra resistance on your reel handle.
To remedy an iced-up worm gear or pawl I will often use a small lighter to heat the stainless-steel worm gear to get things loosened up. Once any obvious ice is removed, I will vigorously shake the reel to get the water buildup out. I will then use a dry towel to wipe down exposed parts then apply a quick spray down of the worm gear with WD-40. This will help to wick away water and slow the reoccurrence of freezing. If I know I am heading out into sub-freezing temps often I will pre-spray worm gears with WD-40. But during long cold days, reapplication is often required.
If you have access to multiple rods and reels, I highly recommend swapping setups regularly. This allows for setups to be placed in front of or over a heat source to rid them of any ice. Some anglers will use a bucket with a small candle and place reels over them. While this will work, I am apprehensive as even a mild heat source that is highly focused could theoretically damage and weaken the braided line. I prefer to use a small propane heater that is far warmer so things de-ice faster and is far less direct so the line will not be damaged if exposed to this heat source for a short duration.
Frozen rod eyelets are not only annoying but they can quickly cause you to miss a strike or lose a fish due to a damaged line. Just like reels the culprit is mainly line spray freezing from your braided line. One of the best ways I have found to help alleviate frozen rod guides is applying Vaseline to them before starting a trip and reapplying as needed. First and foremost, let me tell you this sucks. You will have Vaseline on your gloves, your braided line, and your reel, you might get weird looks from your fishing buddy for having Vaseline in your boat, etc. But it will help prevent frozen eyelets. I have in the past heard of anglers spraying WD-40 on their rod eyelets but it doesn’t last nearly as long and requires constant reapplication. I can assure you this is my last resort for combating frozen eyelets but if you are grinding in the most brutal and bitter winter conditions, it can make a huge difference in your day.
When confronted with iced-up rod eyelets many anglers will “pop” the ice out of them with their hands. While this works be aware that the ceramic inset in your rod's eyelet is highly suspectable to popping out with the ice, be gentle be cautious when breaking ice manually from rod eyelets.
Keep in mind lures can fall prey to the icy hand of death during winter muskie trips as well. In extreme temperatures, hard plastic lures need to be inspected constantly for water intrusion. If water gets inside of your lure and freezes the results are rarely positive. I mention this because many trolling tactics during the winter musky season require that repeated impacts be made with cover and structure hence the higher probability of water intrusion.
Wooden lures with an epoxy finish also become slightly more brittle in extreme temperatures and require inspection. I have seen more than a few glide baits with long lateral epoxy cracks during the winter months. While most are from impacts with rocky cover, others have been from water intrusion. If you have epoxied lures with small nicks from teeth or impact water can and will seep in. The tiniest bit of water intrusion and freezing can ruin an epoxy finish. With this in mind keep an eye out for nicks and dings and fill them quickly with super glue to prevent further water intrusion.
These observations are just a tiny fraction of the things that can go wrong while on the water during a harsh winter’s day. I could go on for far too long regarding musky gear and cold temps much less boats, trailers, and getting stuck on ramps, etc. But we will save those for another article, so I will leave you with this. Be smart when you’re on the water during the winter, address gear issues immediately before failure can occur and above all else take your personal safety seriously until things warm up.