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Be safe, but don't quit in bad weather

Being secure doesn’t always mean going home if you have a fishing spot close to your ramp or marina

With this winter’s tragic boating disaster in Florida still fresh in our minds, we might pause and consider two things as another Northeast season begins: The first is to heed the weather warnings and don’t go outside in rough conditions, and the second is that you just might salvage the day with a Plan B.

Tim Coleman

Just last spring — after a day with small craft warnings on the airwaves and Internet — we watched a private tow service bring a still-capsized craft back around Napatree Point off Watch Hill, R.I. One look at the scene was enough to see somebody had a bad day, hopefully not a tragic one.

Bad weather doesn’t mean just wind. With summer nighttime striper fishing waiting in the wings, small boaters without radar are best advised to stay home when fog threatens. A plotter, depth finder and GPS can tell you where you are, but not what’s coming at you — especially in the traffic lanes in and around Race Point on Cape Cod, Mass.

Many years ago, long before radar became popular for boats smaller than 25 feet, three of us spent a night in Massachusetts on the Cuttyhunk docks after Buzzards Bay and Vineyard Sound fogged right up to your nose, cutting very short a night of tossing live eels in the famed island’s south side rocks.

On another night in August, one of the guides gave us a chit toward another trip rather than risk hitting Sow and Pigs Reef in nil visibility. We were sorry to lose the time, but safe and sound the next morning.

On still another trip, this one trolling plugs in the Elbow Rip off Montauk, N.Y., we rounded Shagwong to find a much more ominous northwest wind than predicted plowing into a strong flood tide. The ride back to Old Saybrook, Conn., was a slow one in the classic 23-foot SeaCraft; the clear night made the blue flashing lights of rescue boats in and around Valiant Rock all the more visible as we went past the deep water in the Middle Race at slack tide.

Making up your mind to be prudent during marginal weather doesn’t mean you have to head home. Many of our bays and rivers along the New England coast offer shelter from an annoying breeze. It’s common practice to salvage a trip by tucking inside the lee of Black Point in Niantic Bay on a summer day, fishing either for scup or trolling the tube and worm for small and medium bass in 10 feet of water along the point’s east side.

Bass in the safe confines of a tidal river is a great way to get in an evening's fishing, away from a rough trip in more open water.

The same bay is often the scene of good blue fishing in the fall. Sometimes northeast winds roil the waters of the Sound, but small boats safely pursue blues that could be pushed in close to shore, waiting for bunkers to drop out of the Niantic River on the other side of the railroad bridge on the outgoing tide.

And if the coming weather has you skittish, try fishing near-shore spots, within easy running of safe harbor when the predictions come true.

Capt. Charley Soares and I often spent mornings with bad weather on the way, trolling the tube and worm or casting large plugs to all the structures just outside Padanaram Harbor, catching bass and bluefish there. We did not want to be on the backside of Quick’s Hole if the bottom fell out of the sky around noon. Other spots offer like chances to fish safely and still get a day on the water.

On another day with winds right at the edge of uncomfortable, the late Ted Keatley and I spent time chunking and casting for bluefish within the confines of Stamford Harbor, all the structure there offering a lee to safely wet a line. On nights when a rising wind against a stiff tide makes the normally nasty waters of The Race even more so, you can find boats tucked in rivers here and there, looking for stripers of all sizes, many brought inside looking for bunkers or hickory shad.

In the spring, small boaters — including tin boats in the 12- to 14-foot range — are at work in the Mystic River, which is often quiet before or after Memorial Day. Some are trolling, but most are drifting or anchored up — maybe with one rod on the bottom with fresh chunk bait, the other tossing a plastic killer, like a Slug-Go, Super Zoom or Storm Shad, for fish on the prowl once the sun is down.

Plan B can also mean drifting a live eel or fresh squid in some inshore breachways like Point Judith or the “inlet” of the Pawcatuck River past Sandy Point near Stonington, Conn. The deep hole near the end of Sandy Point has always been the spot to look for larger bass after dark around the end of May into the first part of June.

A few years back, a small boater, giving up some time after supper, boated a fine 51-pound bass in that spot. A few days later, fishing a 9-inch Slug-Go not too far away — the night was too foggy for me to be in The Race without radar — this writer caught a 46-pounder in about 3 feet of water just at the end of the ebb tide.

The former spot around Point Judith is a natural for an evening when it’s questionable for a small boat to make the run over to Block’s Island north rip. You can drift in the channel off George’s Restaurant on the ebb tide, or head even farther up into the Salt Pond to drift a bait near the junction buoy at the end of the pond opposite the site of the old Point Judith Fisherman’s Co-op. Both spots offer sanctuary from an annoying wind.

Another place that comes to mind is Annisquam River near Gloucester, Mass., a very busy waterway on a Saturday. But the boat traffic doesn’t seem to bother bass that respond to a chunk of fresh herring drifted along on a spinning rod with circle hook on the last hour of a tide. You could find yourself lowering the rod tip into the water to keep your line out of harm’s way as a larger boat passes safely by, about 20 feet away. But the noise doesn’t bother hungry bass. Their senses are sharpened by chumming with the same herring used for your hook baits.

One very foggy morning we came out of the Westport River to find the soup way too thick to effectively get in close to all the rocky washes from Hens and Chickens down to Warren’s Point. Using Plan B, we dropped the lead heads and plastic worms meant for bass to the bottom, jigging them slowly, catching a fair number of fluke on the incoming tide, all the while safe, watching for boats coming out of the river.

Being secure doesn’t always mean heading home. If you look around, you might just find a backup fishing spot close to your ramp or marina, allowing you and your guests to dunk baits or cast a lure before going back to work. Watch closely, use good — not macho — judgment, and maybe catch a fish or two as a payoff for using your noggin’.

This article originally appeared in the June 2009 issue.