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March 29, 2011

Finding the Right Forecasting Service

Forecasting services take the guesswork out of where to fish

Does this scenario sound familiar? It's been a crazy month at work, the kids have had nonstop activities, and the home project list is nearly complete. But the weatherman is calling for perfect conditions this weekend, and you can't wait to finally get offshore after those dolphin and wahoo your buddy's been raving about. If so, you may need professional help ­- a detailed fishing forecast.

Running the gamut from free public access sites hosted by NOAA, the U.S. Navy and universities to private companies that charge a fee for detailed analyses, forecasting services help pinpoint sea surface temperature breaks, ocean water color changes, surface currents and other conditions. In other words, the rips and weed lines, eddies and temperature breaks that concentrate bait and hold game fish. With leisure time such a precious commodity these days and the cost of fuel rising, that type of data can mean the difference between running around all day and actually catching fish.

"It's always good to have information," says Capt. Billy Maxwell, who runs Tuna Fever, a 57-foot custom charter boat, out of Oregon Inlet Fishing Center, on North Carolina's Outer Banks. "The eddies of the Gulf Stream move around fast, especially in the spring and fall months. In four hours they can be gone. That's why I've been using a forecasting service for years. It pays off in terms of time and fuel savings and helps me put my clients on fish."

You usually get what you pay for, and it's no different with fishing forecasts. All providers rely mainly on orbiting United States and international satellites to generate oceanographic data and on computer modeling. With the free sites, however, the user has to personally screen a lot of content to get to the pertinent stuff and then interpret what it means. Image resolution is typically low. Captured images can be deceptive too. For example, simple sea surface temperature contour maps often show clouds or other atmospheric conditions rather than the actual surface of the ocean. The automatic data processing used by many of the free sites is getting better, but inaccuracies and geographic distortion still exist. 

"The motion of the water is the key," says Dr. Mitchell Roffer, who started Roffer's Ocean Fishing Forecasting Service in 1987, after earning his Ph.D. from the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. "Subtle changes in ocean conditions often have great consequences when locating fish. Those places where water pushes into bottom structure like ledges result in feeding fish or the dispersal of fish."

Roffer's team of analysts develop detailed summaries of current ocean conditions based on fisheries biology, oceanography, satellite images, buoy data, radar and anecdotal reports from vessels. The newest satellites, including Envisat and MetOp-A, are monitored to collect sea surface temperature and ocean color info. Roffer also works closely with NASA and NOAA on projects to keep up with the latest technology. The end product is a detailed map with waypoints and a text summary of real-time fishing conditions that is e-mailed as a PDF file or faxed to clients. The analysis includes hot spots where favorable conditions have occurred for several days. Updates are also available while you're actually fishing. For certain events like the Mid-Atlantic $500,000 and Big Rock tournaments, Roffer's generates QuickTime movies of ocean currents.

So will all the snow or El Niño ruin this season's fishing? Roffer doesn't think so.

"Other than some muddy plumes nearshore, the snow melt won't have much effect," he told me. "Neither will El Niño affect fishing on the East Coast or Gulf of Mexico. It's difficult to say how long it will last. But the warm water will impact Central America and the West Coast. As it moves farther north, the marlin and tuna will follow."