Last week, Mark McQuown of Garmin Marine and I were fishing the Oil City stretch of the Allegheny River. The mood was positive, having just landed a 4.25-pound 19-inch smallmouth bass. As we continued to work a calm current section of shoreline, another boat from our group, piloted by Gamma Fishing’s Dale Black, pulled in next to us as they headed back to the ramp. One of the boat’s occupants, outdoor writer Darl Black, had just taken an unplanned swim in the river.
Darl had lost his balance while maneuvering to take a photo and went overboard. Fortunately, he had been wearing his personal floatation device. What could have been a tragedy was merely a temporary inconvenience. Within an hour he was in dry clothes and back on the water.
The wearing of a PFD is especially important now that fall has arrived. Immersion into cold water can leave even the strongest of swimmers in jeopardy. The body reacts to the sudden drop in temperature by channeling blood flow to its core, severely reducing the function of extremities needed for swimming. The heavy clothing commonly worn this time of year adds to the dilemma.
The most common excuse for not wearing a PFD is one of comfort. Poorly designed flotation vests are indeed cumbersome. But properly thought-out ones add little bulk and can provide a welcomed layer of insulation now. Inflatable PFDs are another option and are so streamlined you hardly know you’re wearing one.
Over the years I’ve experimented with a wide variety of PFD designs, some of which I liked, others not so much. Here’s what I’ve garnered from those experiences.
Flotation vests marketed as also serving as fishing vests are not my first choice. Why? In general, too many pockets. The pockets themselves are not so much the issue, but rather the zippers that typically accompany them. Zipper pulls have an uncanny way of snagging fishing line. Somehow the line off your rod finds its way behind the slim opening where the pull attaches to the zipper.
While I distain vests with multiple poofy pockets and their line-grabbing zipper pulls, I do like ones with streamlined hand-warmer pockets. Such pockets often feature fleece lining. When combined with a chemical hand-warmer they provide the hands with a welcome reprieve during a cold fall or winter day and allow the use of lighter gloves. I’ve found vests of this type more common in what’s often classified as paddle sport PFDs. My favorite is Cabelas’ Full Motion Life Vest.
Inflatables are also a good choice particularly during the warmer months, when the insulating value of a traditional vest is not seen as a plus. Inflatables come in automatic and manual models. The former deploys automatically when immersed in water. Manuals rely on activation by the user via a pull cord. Automatic models can also be inflated manually.
The advantage of automatic inflatables is not needing to rely on having the wherewithal to activate it in a stressful situation. The downside is that they are prone to accidental deployment. Most units use a water-soluble wafer to shield the CO2 cylinder. When the wafer dissolves, the cylinder is triggered, inflating the vest. It’s not uncommon for the vest to accidentally inflate when repeatedly exposed to humid environments, in my case the enclosed bed of my truck.
Rearming an automatic vest can get pricey, and it’s not easy to purge all the CO2 from the vest.
Higher-end inflatables, such as those made by Mustang, use what the company calls hydrostatic inflator technology, triggered from water pressure, making them less likely to accidentally deploy. This advantage comes at a comparatively higher price, though.
One other consideration regarding inflatables is that they don’t offer as much buoyancy during really cold weather. You know how a basketball will inflate to seam-stressing hardness under a hot, summer sun? The opposite happens to inflated objects during cold weather.
Regardless of what type of PFD works for you, now’s the time of year when it’s vitally important to be wearing one.