An Outdoor View: Blown off

Posted: Friday, August 27, 2010

One part of fishing that seldom makes it into print is being "blown off" -- unable to fish due to weather. In this context, "weather" means wind, either present or expected. Wind can create waves high enough to make fishing unsafe, uncomfortable and impossible.

When the marine weather forecast includes increasing wind and small-craft warnings, charter-boat skippers have to decide whether to go out, or to remain in the harbor and return their customers' money. If conditions are marginal, skippers sometimes will let passengers decide. If the passengers are frail, elderly or prone to seasickness, the boat will usually remain at the dock. Ultimately, the decision is the captain's, and safety should trump all other considerations.

The pressures to go out in marginal weather are considerable. When you've spent a lot of money and effort to be standing on the dock at sunrise, and you're anticipating an exciting day on the water, being told that the trip is off is the last thing you want to hear. You might be on vacation, and this might be your only chance to go fishing. What's more, the captain, given the choice, would prefer to keep your money. It's common policy to give full refunds for cancellations due to weather.

Deciding whether to go or not can be difficult. On a halibut-fishing trip this summer, there was a light breeze -- less than 10 miles per hour -- at 7 a.m., when I arrived in Homer. However, the morning weather report promised increasing winds. Ever the optimist, I figured we'd be out on Cook Inlet and catch our limits of halibut before the water became too rough to fish. But boats that had gone out earlier began reporting on the radio that they were running into six-foot waves 15 miles out. Our skipper opted to fish the relatively calm waters of Kachemak Bay, where he had caught halibut a couple of days before. It was a good backup plan, but it wasn't meant to be. The wind increased, it blew right up the bay. Combined with the current of an extreme tide, it was enough to cause boats to drag anchor, making fishing nearly impossible. Along with several other charter boats that had diverted from the inlet to the bay, we ended up skunked.

Sometimes, if you're on a seaworthy boat with a good skipper, fishing in rough water can be fun. I recall one windy day in Homer when a skipper gave four of us the choice of going or not. We all wanted to go. He took us out about 10 miles from the harbor to a "chicken patch" where he figured we could at least catch some small halibut. The water was so rough, we had to fish sitting down. Despite the harsh conditions, we caught our limits of halibut, including a 60-pounder. We later learned that we were the only boat that went out that day. I'd been worried about my companions, but they had a great time.

Another time when the weather was windy, I went lingcod fishing off the southern end of the Kenai Peninsula. That was a long trip from Homer, but the skipper had fished with his customers before, and he knew their limitations. We did a lot of dancing around on the deck, trying to keep our balance while drift-jigging, but we caught fish, had fun and made it home in one piece.

Rant, rave and speculate about it as we will, weather happens, and there's nothing we can do about it. It remains mysterious, fickle and uncontrollable, defying modern forecasting methods and technology. For those of us who fish the saltwater, it's a major part of the deal.

Les Palmer lives in Sterling.

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