A few falls ago, I canceled a late October trip to Cape Cod because of an iffy weather forecast. NOAA was calling for the wind to become northeast at 15 to 20 knots and for a better than 50-percent chance of rain. That weekend, while it was overcast and drizzly, the wind never blew as forecast, and the rips off Succonesset Point were full of midsized stripers that fed throughout the gray days. The peak of the migration passed through while I held out for better weather.
Another time I made a spur-of-the-moment early November trip to Martha’s Vineyard on a tip from Kenny Vanderlaske. The night before, he had caught stripers to 42 inches, and I was anxious for one more chance that year. When we walked out onto the beach at dusk, the temperature was already just above freezing, and the wind was soon supposed to come from the north at 20-plus knots. The fish were there again, and the beginnings of that north wind pushed bass and baitfish against the beach while the real blow held off until near midnight.
It’s really not so unusual. Dim light from overcast skies, the turbulence of surf or currents agitated by the wind, or a rapid change in the barometric pressure can all make things happen on tough weather days. Many fishermen would have checked that weather forecast and stayed home, but by being a bit imprudent I got in on a great evening’s fishing.
Not that it’s always smart to ignore conditions. If you’re going to be in a boat, or on some low piece of land, weather can endanger your life. But most of the time tough conditions aren’t life threatening; they’re just uncomfortable or difficult to fish. But there’s a lot that you can do to make the most of tough conditions, even sometimes to make them very productive indeed.
When fishing from a boat, anglers can use the wind to their advantage by timing their drift to position the fly at the correct depth as you approach fishholding structure.
The wind probably ranks as every fly fisherman’s biggest natural enemy. Wind not only makes it difficult to cast, but also makes it hard to see fish (though, alternatively, it does sometimes concentrate surface feeders and magnify the spray from their splashes). There’s a limit to how much wind even a tournament-quality caster can cast into. And certainly there are times when the wind makes it dangerous to even go out in a typical fly-fishing skiff. My advice on boats is that if there’s any question in your mind, don’t go. In most cases, however, you can fish from shore or boat on windy days. You just need to identify a “storm hole” for your boat fishing.
On my part of the Cape, my storm hole’s often Wood’s Hole. I can launch a small boat inside the highly protected anchorage and move out into the boulder-filled tide rips on almost any day. When the weather confines my available fishing grounds, I make it a point to work each structure a bit more thoroughly. As a result, I’ve gotten to know the Hole well, and I can usually find some good fishing there. I find that frequently when I’m forced to work a confined area, things happen that I would have missed had I been on the move.
The same is true from shore. Your favorite regular spots may become unfishable in a blow, but a corner of a jetty just inside an inlet may be OK. Often when it blows, baitfish will collect in comparatively quiet spots. And there, because they are confined, they become especially vulnerable to predators.
There are things you can do to increase your odds beyond just selecting a place where you’re sheltered from the wind. Vary your presentation style. Don’t just present a Deceiver on an intermediate line. Try casting a heavily weighted fly a bit up-current and bouncing it through a likely pocket, or letting a retrieve swing right to the edge of the jetty or deep-edged shoreline before slowly retrieving along the structure. Sometimes fishing a fly that is larger than the baitfish present will cause a bigger fish to take. On that November night back on the Vineyard with Vanderlaske, the bass would only take a floating fly, and it had to sit there motionless for a few seconds before they would hit it. Experiment.
A number of casting techniques also make fishing in the wind easier. Almost everyone’s forward cast is stronger than his backcast. Often, it’s advantageous to make your forward cast into the wind, and shoot your backcast out to where you want to present your fly. On several occasions the east-side jetty at the east end of the Cape Cod Canal has been the salvation of what would otherwise have been a blown-out weekend. A heavy northeast wind packs the fish at the canal’s entrance. With a little practice, a meager flip into the teeth of the gale allows you to effortlessly backcast an entire fly line into the prime feeding areas.
To cast safely in high winds, position yourself so that your back is to the wind. This means that the casting plane of your fly line is a straight line drawn from where you stop your backcast to where you stop your forward cast as it’s being blown away from your body. This practically eliminates the danger of hooking yourself. You’ll need to play with the exact angle of the casting plane-to the wind it does not have to be 90 degrees–to get the best cast and remain comfortable. Such a casting stroke, when combined with a good set of foul-weather gear, results in a lack of fatigue that gives me staying power.
The technique I’ve just mentioned can also be used when casting from a beach. If the wind is blowing your normal forward cast toward your body, you can turn your back to the wind, reversing the casting plane. Now your forward cast is toward land, and your backcast toward the water. On a steep beach this has the additional benefit of allowing you to use your superior forward cast to make sure you are clearing the high beach. You may not cast as far from shore as you could under more favorable conditions, but at least you can work the water. And besides, under windy conditions the fish may be close to shore anyway.
You can also hide from a howling wind behind a sand dune or rock jetty and still make a good cast by tossing a high false cast up into the wind. Shoot your backcast out over the water by using a big open loop and allowing the wind to carry the line. With a little thought, it’s usually possible to find a way to present a fly to the fish in most seemingly difficult situations.
Whether fishing from shore or boat it often helps to use a stripping basket to keep your fly line from blowing into some troubling loc’tions. But I’ve seen the wind pull all of the fly line from a stripping basket and strew it along a jetty. Using a higher-sided basket and equipping it with long monofilament fingers will help. A line basket hanging at a 30-degree angle from the front of a caster is an open invitation to the wind. Pruning off the rigid edge from the basket on the side toward you will allow it to stay more level when pulled tight against the angler. You can also use slimmer, more wind-resistant flies to help your fly line straighten out, and short, aggressively tapered leaders to help avoid tailing loop knots. And make sure to wear glasses; no fish is worth the loss of your sight.
Another casting tip worth mentioning for windy conditions utilizes the ancient roll cast. If you fish strictly salt water you may have almost forgotten about the roll cast. We sometimes use it to bring up the last few feet of a heavy sink-tip line so that we can pull it free with our backcast. But in much saltwater fishing, the roll cast has little or no application. One day, though, I was fishing for bonito on the jetties at Menemsha. The tide was ebbing, I was on the Lobsterville side, and the wind was howling from the west. A backcast was nearly impossible to straighten out, and additionally it was blowing the Deceiver right into the back of my head. I took a break while another angler moved by me and set up shop a few yards to my left. This man’s technique was to let a nearly full fly line swing across the current, strip in only a few feet and roll cast. Utilizing the height of the jetty and the wind, he roll cast 70 feet or more of line right back out into the prime water. In reality, this application is actually a classic one for the roll cast, since the wall of wind at the angler’s back provides the same obstacle that a line of trees growing to the edge of a river does.
Boat fishermen can use the wind to add to their casts. In many of the spots where I fish deep structures for big stripers I actually prefer a modest breeze. You must let your fly sink to reach those fish. Don’t sweat a long cast; just toss out what is comfortable, and while the boat is drifting away, feed line and let the fly sink. With practice you’ll learn to time everything so that the fly has sunk to the right depth, and in the right place, just as all of your fly line has been fed into the drift. In other cases the wind will hold the boat against the tide, giving you a longer time to make your presentation. Learn to use the wind to help you fish a particular structure to your best advantage, and if the wind makes one place impossible, figure out a substitute. Think in advance of what effect the environmental conditions will have on the fishing in a particular spot.
When the wind makes it difficult to reach fish with a normal cast, try sending your strong forward cast into the wind and presenting the fly on the back cast.
Cold is another weather-related problem that fly fishermen often face, no matter where they fish. While those on the North Atlantic coast endure the harshest conditions, even anglers in Florida sometimes cancel trips because of frigid mornings.
When it’s cold, I’ve come to accept the biggest challenge to be remaining supple enough to cast after the frigid run across Long Island Sound in 30-degree weather. While running in the boat, I wear enough clothes so that I would sweat to death if I had to make a cast while still fully dressed. Insulated underwear is a must; fleece pants rather than blue jeans help, too, especially with foul-weather gear like a windbreaker. I wear a fleece neck gaiter pulled up over my face and a wind-block fleece hat with earflaps. Pull that hood over the whole thing and zip up the throat.
I can’t stand to wear gloves when I cast. My answer is to warm my hands between fishing spots. I wear a good pair of winter-weight gloves, and I have at least another pair in reserve in case one gets wet. If I’m not casting I’ve got them on. I always wear short boots in the boat, and inside them I wear a pair of neoprene socks. Neoprene is warm even if wet, and in the boat, especially on cold days, your feet won’t do much sweating anyway.
Perhaps the most important piece of equipment, though, is the big waterproof bag that I take with me so that I can de-layer before casting. By taking the extra time to add or subtract clothing as the moment dictates, I’m able to tolerate a lot more cold than most people are willing to fish in. And I’ve found that the fish don’t necessarily mind those cold mornings.
Rain ruins a lot of fishing trips. Yet fishing in light or moderate rain can often be productive. With few exceptions, overcast days are better for fishing than bright ones, but fishing ceases to be fun when everything is soaked. Keep you flies in weatherproof plastic boxes. Keep your extra clothes in a waterproof duffel bag, and keep your extra tackle in a waterproof gear bag. In a pinch, a trash bag will work for this purpose; I always have a couple of extra ones stashed in my gear should I need a quick waterproof layer.
Many people keep foul-weather gear stashed on board, but not boots. Wet feet will make your trip miserable, no matter what kind of pants or jacket you’re wearing. Stash a pair of rubber boots where you can get at them if needed. Driving rain makes it nearly impossible to see while running a boat at any speed. Even if you don’t need glasses for your vision, a set of wraparound sunglasses or even plastic safety goggles are a great comfort and safety feature in an open boat during a fast run in the rain.
No matter what the condition, fishing first light is often required for success on a number of game-fish species, so I often find myself making the run out to the grounds in total darkness. To be ready for this important time, a little organization goes a long way. I often start with one outfit that has a black fly and either a floating or intermediate line to keep my presentation near the surface as I probe the shallows that I suspect are still h’rboring feeding bass. You’ll benefit if this outfit is set up the night before with just the right fly, a new leader, clean fly line and a sharp hook.
Also, on several nighttime occasions, I’ve nearly stuck my thumb into the mouth of a bluefish thinking it was a bass. A small, waterproof, plastic flashlight held around your neck with a piece of heavy cord can be held in your teeth to look into a dark tackle bag or to help land a fish. The light can also be used to signal a boat that’s running too close.
Another good idea, especially in marginal conditions, is an inflatable life vest. A few years back, I bought one of the CO2 ones that automatically inflate when immersed in water. If I hit a log and was thrown from the boat while running in the dark, or if I tripped from an unseen wave and went over the side in darkness, the light and the vest could save my life.
Gear preparation is the best way to avoid gear failure on the water. Everything becomes more difficult in the rain, the dark, or in high winds and rough water. Think ahead and have your gear ready for the task. Anticipate the fishing that you’ll be doing and have rods pre-rigged with the flies and lines of choice. Start out with fresh knots and leaders, but have others ready to go in small plastic bags marked with a waterproof marker to indicate the length or pound test. Don’t wait until you put on a new fly to crush the barb and sharpen the point. Flatten the barb and dress the point before you tie your flies.
And above all, don’t lose faith. When the weather looks threatening, a one of my friends says, “the fish don’t mind, they’re already wet.” He’s right. A good angler learns to work with the wind, using it if he can, and working around it if he can’t. There simply aren’t enough days in the year for most of us to get out fishing. Rather than sitting out those marginal weather days, why not make the most of them. And as I’ve learned, some of them may hold the best fishing that you’re likely to run across all season.