Fishing safety starts with following basic boating safety. The things happy and successful anglers do—standing to cast a lure, bending to boat a fish, moving around in the boat, or atop the river, lake or ocean—all have safety repercussions. Then, there’s the weather, boat traffic, sharp knives and hooks, but still, fishing’s a lot of fun. It just makes sense to fish safely.
Follow these tips to enjoy a safe fishing experience:
- Wear a life jacket.
- File a float plan.
- Remember that a neat boat is a safe boat.
- Keep hooks and lures in tackle boxes.
- Don't fish alone.
- Ensure you have proper safety equipment onboard.
Wear a Life Jacket
Start with a life jacket. We might have bristled at the bulky, scratchy and confining life jackets of our youth, but most of today’s are comfortable. Today, nobody’s going to call you a sissy for wearing a life jacket. Look at photos and videos of bass pros and kayak angling’s “hot sticks”—they’re all wearing one.
Here’s why: You never know when you’re going to tumble overboard, have a boat mishap or otherwise end up in the water, and the only life jacket that can help you then is the one you already have on. So consider your life jacket your most important fishing-gear investment. Make sure it’s comfortable enough to encourage wearing and fits properly.
Same with your whole fishing crew: Conservation and marine patrol officers often tell stories of lifting a youngster by the life jacket only to see the shorty slip out. Funny—for a second—until one considers the consequences in crisis. A life jacket so old it tears at a tug likely won’t save its wearer when needed either.
For adults, the wide range of options include increasingly popular inflatable life jackets, as well as ones built into fishing vests, hunting coats and other likely-to-be worn clothing (remember that an inflatable life jacket only meets U.S. Coast Guard and many state-law requirements when it’s worn, not just in the boat).
Tip: Tuck a whistle into a life jacket’s pocket—many come complete with one—so you can easily summon help from a distance if bobbing in the water. Reflective features can aid rescuers too.
File a Float Plan
Like all boaters, anglers should file a “float plan”: a fancy term for a note listing where you’re going, with whom, when others should expect you back, what the tow vehicle, trailer and boat look like, and where the towing rig will be parked. Be specific about when authorities should be called if you’re late. Don’t forget to update those with whom you placed the plan if your schedule changes.
A Neat Boat Equals a Safe Boat
Safety’s a good catch on board an angling boat too. Keep lines neatly coiled to prevent tangles and slips. Double-check livewell and baitwell supply lines and drains to make sure you’re not filling a hull with water. Having the landing net stashed handily reduces the chances of a mad-scramble mishap. Knives should be sharp—and blades covered when not in use.
Sharp Angling Advice
Keeping hooks and lures in tackle boxes—and those boxes closed—helps avoid hooking a fisher instead of a fish. Learn one or two methods for hook removal, just in case. Wear safety glasses to protect eyes from errant casts or fish-thrown hooks. Fish teeth and fins can cause injury too, so handle them carefully.
Don't Fish Alone, But...
“Don’t go alone” is great advice, but if you’re an angler, you probably will—at least occasionally. That makes it doubly important to file a float plan, triply important to wear your life jacket. Clip on the engine-shut-off lanyard when underway, or consider adding an electronic cutoff switch that shuts down the motor if you’re more than a few yards away from it. New boats have boarding ladders to help you climb back in; if yours doesn’t, think about adding one.
Some of the best fishing is at the iffiest times of the year, or the day. Avoid—and be prepared for—trouble. It’s always good to carry safety items such as flashlights, water, maps, a cellphone or radio, and electronic SOS devices, as well as the visual and sound signals required by the Coast Guard.
If any of the crew have medical conditions, make sure their medications and devices (oxygen, EpiPen, etc.) are on board too. Take clothing to match conditions both hotter and colder than you expect: waterproof sunscreen, full-coverage and sun-blocking clothing, a broad-brimmed hat, as well as extra layers and waterproof, windproof outer layers. Wear nonslip shoes. Don’t overindulge in alcohol; its effects are heightened during a long day on the water.
Be Conscious of the Environment
Safety applies to the environment, too. Don’t transport live organisms (fish, bait, weeds, etc.) from lake to lake. Clean and dry your gear, and keep each fishing spot the best it can be.
Looking for more on safety and fishing? Read...
- Best Time to Go Fishing: Saltwater & Freshwater Guide
- Planning a Fishing Trip with Kids
- Explore All-Purpose Fishing Boat Types
- Saltwater Fishing
- Freshwater Fishing
Editor's Note: This article was originally published in March 2010 and updated in October 2019.