Lifejacket in small boats, canoes and kayaks a must

Serving two masters is never fun, and that’s somewhat how I feel this time of year.

Trout season is in full swing, of course, but the smallmouths in the nearby Juniata River are also in pre-spawn mode and biting like crazy most days. Most of the time, I can’t resist the chance to catch river smallmouths in the spring. Not only does the average size of the bass caught seems to be a little better than other times of the year, but the higher springtime river flows also make those hard-fighting fish feel even stronger.

So far this spring, the upper Juniata River has been full of water, and more water than I like for fishing out of my kayak. I generally monitor the USGS river gage on the Juniata at Mapleton Depot via the Internet to give me an idea of the current river conditions. If the gage height there is between 4 and 5 feet this time of year, I’ll consider fishing from the kayak.

When the river is higher than that, constantly fighting the heavy current is a chore and doesn’t suit my fishing style. For the past month or so, however, the river has been running from 6 to 7 feet at Mapleton, so I’ve done my smallmouth fishing from the riverbank so far this spring. Fortunately, I’ve found a couple of spots that fish well from the shore during those ample springtime water levels, which have produced some grand fishing so far this year.

One of those days was last Sunday afternoon when one of my best fishing friends from western Pennsylvania joined me to enjoy the warm weather and sunshine on the banks of the Juniata. Shortly after we started fishing, I saw two kayakers coming down the river. As they floated by on the opposite side of the river, I noticed neither of them was wearing a life jacket. Two or three other small boats also drifted by during the course of the afternoon, and none of the passengers in those were wearing their life jackets either.

A couple of years ago, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission passed a regulation requiring all boaters to wear a life jacket while underway or at anchor on boats less than 16 feet in length or on any canoe or kayak from Nov. 1 through April 30. This regulation applies to all Pennsylvania waters. During the rest of the year, adults aren’t required to wear a life jacket, and the law only requires a life jacket to be on board and ready for every passenger on any watercraft. So not only were those folks inviting a ticket and fine, but they were also risking their safety as well.

The requirement to wear a life jacket during the colder months of the year was implemented because falling into cold water is dangerous, and many drownings occur every year because of such incidents. Even though we have finally enjoyed some pleasant days with air temperatures in the 60s and 70s, water warms much more slowly, so the water in most lakes, streams and rivers is still considerably colder.

And don’t think just because you are a good swimmer that falling into cold water won’t be a problem. The shock of being plunged into cold water unexpectedly is inherently dangerous, and surviving such an accident often has little to do with swimming ability.

Maybe the best testimonial I’ve heard for wearing a life jacket when boating on cold water came a few weeks ago when talking about springtime fishing with a fellow I know. He told me he had received a ticket for not wearing his life jacket and was obviously not pleased about that. Not long after that, he and another friend were fishing together in his small boat.

While making a turn, his had slipped off the tiller of his outboard motor. The boat swerved quickly and threw him over the side and into the water. This time he was wearing his life jacket and was convinced he might have drowned if he hadn’t. The next time he saw the conservation officer who had cited him, he thanked him for probably saving his life.

I’ve loved being on or around water. I have never fallen out of my kayak or any other boat while fishing, and I hope I never do. But I also don’t want the first time to be the last time either, so I wear my life jacket when boating on cold water. It’s not only the law, it’s just the smart and safe thing to do.