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Fishing - Seek forecasts beyond the six o’clock news

Even on a clear day, a well-planned fishing trip can go bad fast in the wrong sea conditions

The day looked great on the evening news: yesterday’s winds lowering overnight to light and variable in the morning. Based on that, you called your team and left the marina bright and early, the boat gassed, the bait on ice and everyone expecting a good day away from the job.

Listening and watching for weather changes can help you avoid situations like this one, where the right combination of wind, swell and tide can make running an inlet a dangerous proposition.

Why, then, did the morning get off to such a bad start?

For one thing, the designated weather-watcher might not have listened close enough. While the prediction was sunny with light winds, the sea conditions in the morning were 2 to 4 feet going down to 1 foot or less in the afternoon. The former sea state may not sound like much, but it could make for a long, wet ride to Montauk, N.Y., in a smaller boat — making your day on the water another victim of not watching the weather.

How about that trip in the morning, planned to cast lures into the rocks on the south side of Fishers Island, N.Y.? The weatherman says it’s only going to blow 10 to 15 mph from the southwest. That doesn’t sound like too much, but it’s enough wind when it’s blowing against a stronger flood tide to make casting very difficult. The sea state can easily become jumbled on the east part of the island, the wind always pushing your drifting boat into, not away from, the rocks.

I have a friend who lives in East Lyme, Conn., who listens to the marine weather two to three times in a day, checking for a change in the forecast from the night before, not wanting to be out in any wind blowing against the tide. He wants calm conditions to drift for fluke in the deep water of eastern Long Island Sound, not wanting to waste truck gas that can be as high as $4-plus per gallon and boat fuel at the marina — almost $5 last year.

Listening and watching for weather changes should be a part of the routine of any careful boater, saving not only time calling off a bad trip, but also perhaps life and limb. If you take a small boat around the lee side of an island for night stripers, are you sure the wind isn’t going to be blowing against the tide rip at the island’s end when you head home? How about fog if your boat lacks plotter and radar? Do you want to navigate the shipping lanes and the minefields of pot buoys with visibility down to 50 feet or less?

How about an invitation to go aboard a larger boat heading out into the Gulf of Maine, anchored on a hump, dunking bait for haddock with the forecast calling for 20-mph winds from the northwest? The boat might be more than adequate to take such a day, but is your sensitive stomach? It’s tough to enjoy haddock while tossing breakfast over the rail.

Then, there could be the time the evening forecast calls for thunder boomers just after dark, clearing up before midnight. One such Friday night comes to mind when Dr. Frank Bush and I waited in my truck at a marina along the Mystic River near New London, Conn., having coffee and watching the storm move overhead then off to the southeast. When it cleared, as the weather forecast had predicted, we loaded my 23-footer for a trip to the west end of the Watch Hill Reefs where we caught 24 stripers before quitting at daybreak.

As you become more adept at the game of fishing and weather, you notice trends that work in your favor. For instance, it’s common for summer evening forecasts in Southern New England that call for southwest winds from 10 to 15 mph, but in reality the wind lays down at sunset, making for a calm night on the water. It’s not a 100 percent rule, but I’d bet a morning coffee it’s close to 70 percent.

With experience, you note weather conditions that have produced good fishing in the past and then try to be out when the same conditions occur in the future.

If you arrive home the day before a northeast storm is due and find the air still and quiet, that would be a good time to try for bass and blues. The calm before the storm often produces superb catches, but make sure your boat is capable of getting you home when the wind starts up.

In eastern Long Island Sound, a night with hazy, summer air — perhaps threatening to fog over, but never closing in — with ebb tide and light southwest breeze is often a night when large bass hit well. Keeping track of the conditions that produce good fishing, either in your head or on a computer, is often the first step to being on the water at the right time.

How about the times you guess wrong? Prudence is often the best adviser on those times. Years back, we trolled deep-diving Danny plugs in the rip at Gay Head on Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., in the afternoon, then ran over to the backside of Cuttyhunk to cast eels into the rocks after dark. However, fog rolled in and we hot-footed into Canapitsit Channel, arriving at the charter dock just before it socked in up to your nose. To make a long story short, we spent the night on the dock, lacking radar, before making the run back to Padanaram in the morning when it finally cleared.

One afternoon, we got caught in a blow that swept in from the north, interrupting some striper fishing along the shoreline at Little Compton, R.I. Thanks to quick thinking by Capt. Charley Soares, we headed into close to the lee of the beach, threw the hook and waited as the storm blew out to sea over our heads. Upon getting back around to Sakonnet (R.I.) Harbor, we saw numerous boats out looking for a sailboat that overturned in the sudden winds.

Unfortunately, no matter how close you watch the weather, you will have times when it all goes south. Here’s one of my favorites: Twenty years ago, I listened all day to the weather with Capt. Wally Albrecht, who has since died. We were hoping to make a run the next day far out into the Gulf of Mexico from Key West, Fla. It all looked good, so we departed Oceanside Marine just before 7 a.m., the bait iced down thanks to a donation from another charter captain. We headed 62 miles to the northwest to fish a wreck called the Crystal, the fish biting for the first 20 minutes — until the sharks found us. It was a long ride home, all the planning and preparation for naught, but at least we had calm conditions.

The vagaries of the weather will keep one forever guessing, but with effort you’ll know the difference — most of the time — from a promising day to one better spent on the honey-do list or some catch-up work at the marina. To arrive at that point requires work and serious thought as you constantly watch and evaluate the weather.

Tim Coleman has been fishing New England and Long Island waters for more than 30 years. He was managing editor of The Fisherman magazine’s New England edition until 2001, and is now a freelance writer based in Rhode Island.

This story originally appeared in the February 2009 issue.