And actually, before I get into these, most of them are good ideas for kayak anglers year round!
Mary May and I with a couple big, January catfish
1. Wear your PFD!
On every single trip, you should be wearing your life jacket. Do it!
2. Use the buddy system
I have been in multiple situations on the water where the buddy system helped save some major headaches, and on a couple occasions, helped avoid a potentially life threatening situation. Although finding a fishing buddy can sometimes be difficult when the thermometer drops, it should be part of your pre-launch checklist. It might also be a good way to meet a new fishing buddy via your favorite fishing forum.
3. Alert others to where and when you are going
This is simple, especially with cell phones, texts, and emails. At times, my trips are spur of the moment. But before every trip, I tell Mary May where I am going, who I am going with, how long I will be gone (that isn't always as accurate as I foresee) and my general travel plans.
4. Pick your fishing location intelligently
I LOVE a good kayak fishing adventure. I live for those moments I can escape the power boat world and float down a river into the middle of nowhere without a human for miles. The winter is not a time to do this. In fact, I actually don't mind fishing around power boats in the winter because if something goes wrong, I have potential rescuers nearby. But the bottom line is to stick to familiar and/or popular waters during the colder months.
Granted, my car looks like a hobo lives in the back, but I do this pretty much year round. But during the winter, I keep one spare set of clothes in the car and another in a dry bag in the hull of my kayak. Although most folks immediately think of changing clothes if you flip your kayak, having dry clothing options can be good for many reasons. You might spill a bait bucket on yourself, have an arm accidentally get soaked while releasing a fish or take a wave over the side.
6. Dress appropriately
This means dress in layers, wear appropriate clothing (non-cottons) and bring accessories like a knit hat and gloves. Clothing that is either waterproof, quick dry or that retains heat well when wet is a must. I also like to wear an insulated base layer and big, thick socks. My typical winter attire also includes a good set of waders. Clothing these days can go a long way to avoiding hypothermia, especially when combined with other tips mentioned here.
You are rarely alone while crappie fishing the bridges at Jordan Lake, NC
7. Check and re-check the weather
I have been caught in a few storms that really ruined a fishing trip. These were all mid-summer storms that blew in out of nowhere. Thankfully, winter weather tends to be more stable. But extreme conditions (wind, rain, excessive cold) can turn a winter trip ugly in a hurry. This not only includes time on the water, but also the drive home. Be sure to thoroughly check the weather before you leave home or via smartphone before you launch.
8. Carry a light, whistle and other signaling gear
In North Carolina, a light and whistle are mandatory, although I know many folks who don't carry them all the time. In winter months, they are extra important. I actually pack extra batteries as well for my lights. You might also want to consider bringing a signal mirror, air horn, GPS with locator or other safety/signaling gear.
9. Emergency kit
Again, this is an item I bring on every trip I make since I have plenty of storage in my Stealth 12. I highly recommend including a first aid kit, Gorilla tape, fire starters, matches and/or a lighter and an energy bar or two. Put everything in a waterproof container and put it somewhere safe. If you do flip, but can't make it back to the launch, those items can keep you alive until the cavalry shows up.
10. Bring your electronics and keep them dry
These days, almost everyone has a cell phone and the coverage networks are getting bigger and better. Bring your phone, GPS and heck, even my camera has a locator feature on it. But then, keep them dry. Put them in a waterproof container, not just a Ziploc bag. Too many things can go wrong with a Ziploc. Also, your fishfinder battery should be noted here too. It should be in a waterproof container for many reasons, but it could save your life if necessary.
11. Wear bright colors
This is important on multiple levels. First, you can be seen by other boaters who might think they have the lake to themselves and not be paying full attention to what is in front of them. Second, if a search is necessary you would be easier to spot. And third, winter months mean hunting season for most states. Although it might sound silly, bring colors help discern you from a deer, duck or other game animal.
A couple gorgeous cold weather crappie
12. Stay hydrated
Always bring enough water, Gatorade, etc. to keep your body hydrated. Bring more if you plan on paddling a longer distance. And again, have an extra bottle or two in your car when you get back to the launch.
13. Practice Turtling
I am throwing this one in here knowing full well that cold weather practice isn't realistic. But if you know you love to kayak fish, then you know in advance you will be out there during the winter months. So take those nice, sunny summer days, empty your yak, and practice flipping it. Then practice doing a deep water re-entry, walking it to shore or swimming it to shore. Being prepared is the best way to avoid a major disaster.
14. Remember those at home
All too often, I read about someone who flipped and the first thing they say is - oh no, I just lost hundreds of dollars of gear to the depths of the lake. There is no doubt that it sucks. But, there is no way to put a dollar amount on a life. Your life is the most important thing and you should always keep in mind just how much those folks at home love you and want you to make it back safely.
One of the coldest days I have ever kayak fished. Ice formed on the deck of the yak that day...but we still caught fish!