Fall Boating Guide: Cruising in Autumn Weather

Fair weather boaters who limit their on-water adventures to a four-month warm-weather window are doing more than cutting their available season short: they’re missing out on what many boaters consider prime time to be on the water! The autumn season offers some of the best cruising of the year.

Fall foliage on pontoon boat, leaf peeping. Photo: Dan Armitage. Above: Thanks to waterfront hardwoods displaying their true colors, autumn is the most colorful time of the year for boating across much of North America. Photo: Dan Armitage.

The Joys Of Late Season Boating Adventures

Because so many boaters flee the water after Labor Day, one of the benefits of late-season cruising is the lack of boating pressure. You’ll notice it the moment you arrive at the boat ramp and discover that you may be able to pull right up to a launch lane without waiting in line. Once on the water, you’ll find it is quieter, which goes hand-in-hand with fewer wakes while increasing your odds at being able to access and enjoy prime fishing, tow-sports, swimming, and picnic spots all to yourselves. And when boating during the COVID-19 pandemic, this can be a welcome reprieve.

Leaf Peeping: A Golden Opportunity

We’re likely all too familiar with the rubber-necking traffic jams of urban leaf-peepers road tripping from the city out to the country to see the trees in all their colorful glory, but boats offer a whole new perspective on this pasttime. Of course, your latitude and the nature of the landscape surrounding your boating destination will determine when and where the best autumn foliage shows will take place, a popular draw to many late-season pleasure boaters.

Hardwood trees especially will start showing their true colors as days grow shorter and nights cooler for boaters who enjoy autumn “leaf peeping” cruises. And with attendance at most college and NFL football games limited this season, it’s a great time for fans to organize floating “tailgate” (aka “boatgating”) parties on the water, rafting-up or beaching their boats to gather and tune-in to watch or listen to their favorite teams competing on weekend afternoons.

Watersports And Fishing Can Actually Be Better

Depending on how late in the season you push it, if you enjoy watersports you may be surprised at how warm the water remains, even after the average air temperatures have dropped. Just know your limits. Anglers know that the fishing action typically picks up about the time the waters get too cool for swimming. Many gamefish species get more active as the water temperatures tumble each autumn and often return to shallow water where they are more accessible to anglers. Fish also feed heavily in the fall, putting on the weight needed to carry them through the lean winter months, making autumn a great time catch a lunker or the makings for a fish fry.

A Chance For Fall Boating Fashions

As weather conditions get chilly, you can don insulated apparel designed for keeping you comfortable on deck or in the water. For the latter, wet suits and insulated water wear is available in a wide variety of fabrics and styles and colors designed for offering comfort across a range of water temperatures and activities. Boaters who choose to remind remain on board have an even greater variety of specialty active wear designed to keeping the body comfortable while enjoying late-season sights and activities from the deck.

Anglers fishing on an aluminum boat in the autumn season. Photo: Dan Armitage. These anglers know fishing can be as hot as conditions are cool this time of year and are prepared with proper clothing. Photo: Dan Armitage.

Boat accessories that make a vessel more comfortable early and late in the season include portable canvas options that can convert an open cockpit into a fully enclosed “cabin” in a matter of minutes are available for most boat models, either from the factory or as a custom aftermarket addition. Panels of transparent isinglass can be custom made to be temporarily placed in a variety of locations to cut the wind, rain and spray while allowing a clear view of the surroundings.

Other on-board comfort options are portable boat heaters, with several 12 volt models made for a marine environment available to warm the cabin or the cockpit. Some boats, notably those designed for active tow-sports, offer built-in heating systems as options. Single-use and reusable versions of chemical and rechargeable heating pads are available in sizes and shapes made to be placed in coat pockets to keep fingers warm, sole-shaped to be placed in shoes, or with adhesive to be placed on clothing over the lower back or neck to help keep your body’s core temperature at a comfortable level while cruising.

fall_boat_accessories_for_keeping_warm_on_the_water_dan_armitage Portable hand warmers are handy – and welcome – accessories to have aboard during chilly late season cruising. Photo: Dan Armitage.

That said, as the season wanes, many popular boating waters exhibit their lowest levels of the year due to drought or intentional draw-downs for the winter months, in anticipation of abundant precipitation in the spring. Autumn boaters need to be aware of the water depth at all times and be on the lookout for underwater obstructions that might not have been a threat earlier in the year when water levels were higher.

Foggy day Fog is but one of the changes boaters may experience when extending their season into the autumn, especially early in the day. Another is shallow water, due to late summer drought conditions or intentional level drawdowns. Photo: Dan Armitage.

Keep in mind that the solitude that beckons many late-season offers boaters can become a liability in the event of a breakdown or other boating emergency. Compared to the busier times of the season, this time of the year there may not be other boaters in the vicinity to turn to for assistance, and many areas reduce their on-water law enforcement presence once the primary boating season is over, so water patrol boats may be few and far between. That makes it all the more important to make sure your boat and gear are in good working order, including your VHF radio and having a fully charged cell phone aboard. If a late season trip takes you to an area made remote by location or season, you might want to file a float plan with someone responsible ashore who will note if you are overdue and contact the proper authorities to come looking for you.

Before welcoming guests aboard for a cool, late-season boat cruise, confirm that everyone is aware of the chilly conditions you may face and are prepared to comfortably – and safely — handle them, while enjoying what can be a very special time on the water.

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in November 2021 and was last updated in September 2021.

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