Every year, a few of us try it. November comes up so fast, with so much fishing we’d intended to do not done. So we decide to stretch the envelope a bit, hold tight in the slip a bit longer, resolving to go sniff out a few more codfish or prowl the beachfronts, up in the lee, the northerly blows no real threat as we jog out to intercept a few late-running bass and blues deep in month 12 before the weather sours in earnest.
Fishing late holds distinct rewards — psychological as much as piscatorial — but it also presents some challenges. For one thing, especially in the colder years, fishing into overtime generally means fishing in solitude — a tug hauling a barge east of west along the inside lanes, a couple of draggers outbound for the canyons, chasing a shot of squid or a quick limit of fluke, banking on Christmas prices, but precious little recreational traffic. When everything’s running smoothly, a cold, uncluttered ocean is a gift from the heavens. But there are hazards, too: electrical systems carrying the extra strain of cold air and incessant damp, fuel-system troubles that arise when heavy seas slosh around what’s in the tanks, stirring up accumulated gunk and putting it out in circulation. When such problems arise, it’s a much less forgiving ocean.
It probably goes without saying that the weather, which confounds our plans 12 months a year, destabilizes in memorable ways come December, and the closer we get to January, the more volatile it all becomes. Fronts that turn on a dime at any point in a season come and go less predictably and more violently with the onset of winter weather patterns. The only good news for us is that last word: patterns.
For one thing, big low-pressure systems — the three-day easterly blows lumped under the heading “nor’easters” — usually arrive with a familiar sequence of wind shifts, southeast swinging east and then northeast. And, as in October, when a round of hurricane remnants and the accompanying easterly gales began to slide out to sea, the wind reliably comes on out of the west or northwest and hard — the extent of the cold front’s fury proportional to the intensity of the exiting low that pulled it down into place. A stiff, sodden south wind still foretells stormy weather, often precipitation. Sure, it’s colder around New Year’s, but if you pay attention, there’s some order to our climatic chaos.
Oddly enough, the same might be said of NOAA forecasts — that there’s a perverse sort of order even to botched forecasts. Consider the all-time classic, the myth of northeast wind, 5 to 10 knots. Every mariner knows it: If there’s low pressure moving in, with easterlies of any kind in the works, it will blow 15 to 25 with gusts, 25 to 30 with gusts, maybe nearer to 35 knots, but it simply does not blow less than 15 knots. And the later in the season, the more farcical the forecasts become. If it’s gray outside and the wind’s from the east, stay home. Period. Other blown forecasts can often be ironed out long before you leave home with a quick visit to NOAA’s Data Buoy website (www.ndbc.noaa.gov), where you’ll find current conditions to compare and contrast with marine forecasts.
Since winter fronts frequently arrive early — or stall out, coming on well behind predicted timeframes — the buoy reports will let you debunk a suspect call well before you leave home. If, for example, it’s been blowing northwest at 5 to 10 and the forecast is predicting it will continue at that clip through late afternoon, then swing due south and hard, and the Montauk buoy’s already reporting south winds 15 knots or so and 3- to 5-footers with no troughs, guess what? In December, never take a forecast on face value.
More important, once you’ve committed — once you’re 10 miles southwest of Martha’s Vineyard, prying cod off a school of sea herring — always mind the westward sky. If something looks a little eerie or the wind comes up on a tide change — and hours ahead of schedule — don’t wait until you’re in a gale; bee-line it for the barn. Bear in mind that the greatest hazards between you and home may well not be in open water but at the inlet or at some contour line where the flow of water over a sharp rise forms a towering sea. Consider places like The Race at the eastern end of Long Island Sound.
It’s not just the dramatic weather — the backdoor cold front or the pop-up squall — that creates white-knuckle sea conditions. Something as simple as a tide change that pits current against a stiffening breeze can close up the troughs in a hurry, turning an orderly chop into a tilt-a-whirl. A storm system passing even well offshore will send up a heave that can throw yet another troublesome influence into that mix. And then there’s the threat of ice. When you add a strong wind — real or apparent — to frosty air and seawater, you make ice, building a glaze on all exposed surfaces and adding weight above the waterline. The ice threat is particularly dangerous on boats with towers or other large superstructures, where the boat becomes less and less agile, slower to stand back up from each roll.
It pays to take an unflinching look at the range of your experience; your boat-handling, mechanical and navigational skills; your crew; and your boat. Unless you’ve logged enough hours at the helm to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the boat — its seakeeping characteristics — as well as how she feels at a range of running speeds and angles, it’s unwise to stray too far from safe harbor. It also pays to do whatever you can — starting with all those things you intend to do every season but never do — to eliminate unnecessary weight and secure gear that might shift under way. Also, between winter trips, consider the effects of sustained cold — empty the freshwater tank and disconnect the washdown hoses after use. If you have a suspect bilge pump, replace it and, by all means, keep an extra on board. If you think you might make a habit of extending your seasons, you might also think about some of the higher-level safety gear — for example, a life raft, an EPIRB, and a ditch bag with a handheld VHF, personal locator beacons, etc.
Thankfully, there’s no compelling reason to push the weather in our winter fisheries anyway. Bottom dwellers like codfish or deep-water sea bass tend to go off their normal feeding patterns during unsettled weather, then resume when the wind drops out and the water cleans up between the blows. From a practical standpoint, the best odds for success will be during the calm spells or, better yet, about 24 hours ahead of storms. So it’s not only foolish to head out into heavy weather but also futile.
Better, for so many reasons, to choose your day carefully, file a float plan just to be sure, hang the spring lines in high spirits and then wring every last therapeutic second out of your stolen hours afloat.
December 2012 issue