• A boater on Lake Hartwell enjoys an evening boat ride, despite the cooler temperatures. Photo/Bill Powell
  • This bass boat has been officially been put in storage for the winter. Photo/Michael Isom
  • Though North Georgia is usually spared the harsh winters that people far up north experience every year, we occasionally see a colder than normal season, as evidenced by this wintery photo of the Hartwell Dam. Photo/Bill Powell

Winter months call for aquatic preparations

It’s that time of year again, when leaves and temperatures are falling and lake activity dwindles.

For boat and dock owners, it’s a time to evaluate and prepare their property for the potentially damaging effects the winter months can bring.

Though North Georgia typically experiences mild winters and doesn’t contend with the blistering cold temperatures like far to the north, there are still precautions that need to be taken.

Mark Haltom, owner of the Dock Depot in Hartwell, shared his expertise on winterization methods to ensure lake equipment stays in tip top shape for enjoyment when summer rolls around again.

“Starting off, dock-wise, you’re going to have to chase water,” Haltom said. “They (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) always let the water out in the winter time. Even if it’s full and we’ve had lots of rain, they’re still going to let it out.”

The Corps conducts a scheduled drawdown for its lakes every winter with a maximum guide curve of four feet.

Corps Senior Public Affairs Officer Billy Birdwell explained that the annual drawdown is to make room for the spring rains that are usually not far away.

“If we are at full pool at the beginning of the drawdown, we gradually draw the reservoir down 4 feet until mid-December,” Birdwell said. “If natural causes have already brought it down that far, we don’t take it 4 feet more. We will not intentionally exceed the 4 feet. Natural processes may take it lower than that, but we cannot control that. The part that we can control, we don’t take it down more than 4 feet during the winter. We do that gradually.”

Birdwell went on to explain that the water levels stay that way through the end of December and, in January, the Corps gradually starts allowing the levels to rise so that they’re back to full pool by April 1, weather permitting.

“We’re trying to make enough room so, in the spring, we can bring it back up because we expect to get some spring rains and refill,” Birdwell said.

Though the main focus of the winter drawdown is to make room for spring rain storage, Birdwell said there are other secondary benefits of the lower levels.

“The winds are higher in the winter, so the waves lapping against the shore causes erosion,” he said. “So, we pull it down a little bit so that it doesn’t hit the part of the shore that would really harm us if it were to erode, in other words up toward the trees. But it’s mostly to make space for spring rains.”

In the interim before spring, Haltom said the most important thing you can do to protect boats and docks is to keep the water out of the tight spaces and act before the freezing temperatures creep in.

“Things like ladders and lake water pumps, anything that can hold water, can freeze and bust,” he said. “I’ve seen hand rails on docks that have been under water and have water caught inside bust open. Ladders bust and break if they don’t have proper weep holes for the water to run out.”

As for boats in particular, Haltom said outboard motors are less susceptible to freezing temperatures than inboard, but are best kept in the down position so water drains out. The gear case can be damaged if water freezes inside, which can cost upwards of $6,000 to repair. 

Haltom recommends getting your boat serviced now if you plan to hang up the keys until the season is over.

“A good rule of thumb is before it gets to 32 degrees, especially for an extended period of time, make sure that you winterize,” Haltom said. “It can cause a lot of expensive and annoying damage. Water is incredibly powerful when it freezes. It doesn’t take a lot of water to do some damage. Just get the water out.”

Haltom also advised that, with today’s gasoline, anything sitting for a long period of time can suffer performance issues if left untreated. The ethanol in gas is hydrophilic, meaning it has a tendency to mix with water.

Haltom recommends using a fuel treatment like STA-BIL 360 with ethanol treatment that neutralizes the effect of the ethanol and helps preserve the gas.

Dock Depot and other aquatic retailers in the region provide a myriad of services, including boat winterization/servicing, dock monitoring for out-of-towners, and even boat storage.

Though the temps might be falling, Birdwell added that there is still time to enjoy the lake.

“It’s still a great time to be out on the reservoir, even in the winter. People do a lot of winter fishing,” Birdwell said. “Fishing is great and boating is still great. The winters are not harsh here. There’s still plenty of time and opportunity for people to get out there and enjoy the reservoir, and we encourage them to do so. And always wear that life jacket.”

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