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Hypothermia Symptoms and Response

with Neil Luehring, Angler’s Covey Guide and retired Fire Fighter

The cold weather is not far away, so it is time to prepare for the challenges that the late season and winter fishing can create.  Neil Luehring, one of our fly fishing guides and retired Captain on the Colorado Springs Fire Deparment, reminds us that hypothermia is a threat anglers face in fall and winter because of two crucial elements: water and dropping air temperatures. 

Winter fly fishing has its rewards — but safety comes first.

Hypothermia Defined

Hypothermia happens when you lose body temperature faster than the body can produce heat – resulting in a dangerously low body temperature.   Hypothermia is most often caused by exposure to cold weather or immersion in a cold body of water.  Think tailwaters in December in January.

So picture this scenario.  Your buddy is going to make that cast to try and get just a bit closer to the bank upstream.  With the stretch, though, at the end of his cast, his foot gets a little sideways on the icy rock.  And he takes a plunge into Blue River.  He feels the water slosh in his waders and his fleece and base layers are wet. Not long after he scrambles out of the water, you notice he is begin to shiver uncontrollably.

Or this scene.  The fishing is going pretty well into the afternoon.  You decide to stay out for “just one more cast,” and over the next hour the temperature begins to drop.  Hypothermia can begin to occur if you are out in cold enough temperatures long enough and maybe you just skimped a little too much on enough layers of clothing that day.  Your body starts to shiver as the sun drops lower in Elevenmile Canyon. 

Hypothermia Progression

Hypothermia progresses in stages.  Mild hypothermia is marked by

  • shivering,
  • dizziness,
  • hunger,
  • trouble speaking,
  • nausea,
  • lack of coordination,
  • slight confusion,
  • faster heart rate,
  • and faster breathing. 

The body is trying to warm itself – and shivering is the body’s effort to do that.  Shivering, lack of coordination, and trouble speaking may be the first thing you notice about your buddy.

Image from VeryWell

Someone with hypothermia usually is not aware of their conditions. If you are the one who took the plunge, it may be imperceptible because of your own confusion. The symptoms may be worsening, and not as noticeable, because the changes can be so gradual.  The confused thinking counteracts any self-awareness or knowledge about hypothermia that you may have. In other words, because of the worsening conditions, you may not even know that you are in trouble.  And while fly fishing alone may be quite enjoyable, solo adventures in winter may not be the safest bet.

As hypothermia worsens, the symptoms get more severe: 

  • increased shivering (although shivering can actually stop at some point),
  • clumsiness and worse coordination, 
  • slurred speech and mumbling,
  • confusion or poor decision-making (some people even begin to take off warm and dry clothing),
  • drowsiness and lack of energy,
  • lack of concern about one’s condition,
  • progressive loss of consciousness,
  • weak pulse,
  • slow and shallow breathing. 

Preparation in Winter Months

“As with most safety issues, the best approach is prevention – and a little preparation goes a long way,” Neil says.

Neil Luehring, stays prepared for conditions when he is guiding clients in the fall and winter.  It’s good advice for anybody fishing during those times:  “I carry a bag in my vehicle that contains a couple of old towels, a sweatshirt and sweatpants, and a sleeping bag so I can get somebody warmed up should they fall in or show any of the signs of hypothermia.”

Response and Care for Hypothermia

To respond to and care for people who show those early symptoms (or even before the symptoms appear if they have gotten wet in cold weather), take the following steps: 

  • Remove any wet clothes, hats, gloves, shoes, and socks.
  • Protect the person against wind, drafts, and further heat loss with warm, dry clothes and blankets.
  • Move gently to a warm, dry shelter as soon as possible.
  • Begin rewarming the person with extra clothing. Use warm blankets.

“As with most safety issues, the best approach is prevention – and a little preparation goes a long way,” Neil says.  “I am going to add a fleece blanket to my bag as well. It is a good idea to bring a change of clothes during the colder months” and Neil encourages guides to remind clients to bring that change of clothes on their trips. 

Additional Resources on Hypothermia

U.S. Forest Service

Center for Disease Control has some great info on hypothermia and winter weather, in general.

Information from the Mayo Clinic on hypothermia and winter safety.

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