An Ocean of Air
by Ed Mitchell
Wind. On the coast, you can run from it, but you can't hide. Coming from the north, coming from the south, coming out of every corner of the compass, the wind always seems to be there. It might be a light sea breeze, or a run-of-the-mill prevailing wind, but it could be a gale, a hurricane, or a Northeaster. Onshore, off the land, shearing down the beach, like your shadow it forever follows you. And so the more you fish the salt the more you realize that taking on the challenges of the sea are only part of the game, for you must also face an ocean of air.
When saltwater fly rodders talk about the wind most often the conversation revolves about one central complaint -- the difficult of casting. If there is a boater in the crowd, rough seas are the next concern to arise. Still, that is usually as far as the discussion goes. Now there is no denying that both of these problems are important and worthy of our attention, but in truth the wind impacts our angling in a number of ways, many of which are rarely discussed.
In this article I am going to focus on what is perhaps the most dramatic and least mentioned way in which wind influences coastal fishing. Naturally what I have to report is based on my experiences and hence most pertinent to the manner in which I fish and my home waters -- which is to say mainly from shore in Southern New England. If you fish in this region- fine - this article should benefit you. But even if you live elsewhere, I hope that by mixing my observations with your knowledge of your own waters, you may better understand the role wind plays in your locale. And regardless of where you wet a line, I would like at the very least to spur you to think more about the impact of wind.
My basic premise is this: Wind direction has a major effect on the feeding behavior and migration of near shore game fish. Because the winds are lightest and most consistent during the dog days of July and August, this phenomena is not very evident in the summer. During the spring and fall, however, when winds are far stronger and more variable, a shift in the wind can have a profound influence on the fishing.
In the spring the migration of striped bass and bluefish up the coast into New England is likely snapped into gear by the lengthening hours of sunlight. But the rate of migration seems to be heavily influenced by wind direction. If the prevailing southwesterly wind holds, the migration is very often on its typical timetable and the fishing is on track as well. While this southwesterly wind is in place the fishing is apt to be good to excellent. And the longer the wind persists, the more predictable the fishing becomes. All is well.
If the wind swings from southwest to the northeast, however, in April, May or June, all bets are off. This signals the arrival of a cold front and frequently the fishing near shore shuts down with the speed of a pricked balloon. So completely does the action die that anglers find themselves muttering that old angling adage 'Should have been here yesterday.' Fact is I would like to coin a slightly different phase. 'You should have been here when the wind went the other way.'
How can a cold front change things so dramatically in one day's time? Obviously fish are wild creatures and therefore survival dictates that they remain sensitive to changes in their environment. And of all the environment elements, fish are perhaps most sensitive to water temperature. And more over every species actively seeks to stay within its own preferred thermal niche. In the spring, water temperatures are marginal and therefore even a small drop in water temperature can produce a marked change in the behavior of migratory fish.
Now you might be thinking that a single day of cool air temperatures could not possibly chill local water. You are right. But the strong wind associated with a cold front can alter water temperatures in the space of a tide or two by driving in colder water from offshore. And that is exactly what happens; here is a dramatic example. I have seen a stiff northeast wind in June drop the water temperature nearly five degrees on Lobsterville beach on Martha's Vineyard, in the space of one day.
Can fish feel the change in wind direction associated with a front? I'm not sure, perhaps not. But strong fronts and the winds that accompany them are also connected to significant changes in barometric pressure. One comes with the other. For instance with a cold front the pressure drops increasingly until the front passes, at which point the barometric rockets up. And I have a hunch that fish can sense that change in the barometric pressure. At least it has long seemed to me that fish, particularly those in relatively shallow water near shore, react to those changes in pressure. It could be that rising and falling barometric pressure are in essence a warning to fish that environmental conditions are about to change and that they need to get ready.
Here is something else I have seen on the water. The more abruptly the front arrives, and the faster the barometric pressure changes, the more dramatically the fishing changes. So for instance a weak cold front, one traveling 5 to 10 knots will have less of an effect. This is particularly true if the weather preceding it has not been terribly warm anyway. A bigger cold front, one moving at 20-knot north wind and accompanied by a change in barometric pressure, will have a much bigger impact, especially if it arrives after a long period of warm southwest wind. This type of sudden blast sends near shore game fish hightailing out from the beach. True the action may be red hot just before the front arrives, but expect it to then shut off like a light switch. Likely fish are reacting to the weather in a preemptive way -- grabbing a big meal and then scrambling for the sanctuary of deep water before the situation has a chance to really deteriorate.
How long does the lull in action last? In the spring, most cold fronts last only a day or two. And once the wind turns southwest again, the fishing builds back. If you must fish during the cold front, your best bet is to work from a boat over deep water. If the cold front becomes stationary for several days, the water temperature may drop even further and the fishing will remain very poor. But as soon as the southwest wind returns, get to the beach. The fishing is likely to bust wide open.
In the spring, an east or southeast wind is usually a precursor to a warm front. As with a cold front, initially you get a falling barometer. Again expect the action to slow, but this time not for long. As the front nears rainy weather may show up, and the bite resumes. After the warm front passes, pressure increases slightly, the wind goes southwest again, and the fishing is fine.
The autumn migration is linked to the shortening hours of sunlight, but as in the spring water, temperature plays a critical role. In early fall, the wind in my area is still mainly in the southwest. Normally, northerly winds make a grab for the reins in October, however, and by November the prevailing wind is northwest. If the summer has been warm and the southwest wind hangs on well into October, water temperatures drop slowly. As a consequence the action may not be as intense as it can be, but the longer it takes for water temperatures to fall the longer the season lasts, especially if there is an abundance of forage fish available.
In the fall cold fronts bear down with much greater speed then they do in the spring. Once again these fronts are going to reduce water temperature, but forcing cold water inshore stimulates the fishing by kicking the migration into high gear. So a northern blow can be a good thing, lighting a match under the fishing. For instance striped bass that have been spread out over a large area begin to school, feeding en mass and with greater urgency. If a series of back-to-back northerly blows push through, it increases the fish's desire to leave, and what's more it seems to prompt them to take the quickest route south. This can not only reduce the length of the season; it can literally cut some shorelines out of the picture.
Tagging studies have shown that in a typical year striped bass and bluefish coming down the coast from Massachusetts will feed along the Rhode Island coast and then push into Long Island Sound, traveling as far as the mouth of the Connecticut River before turning south toward Montauk. If the fall is very stormy, these same fish may well take a short cut home, cutting across from Rhode Island directly to Montauk.
If a northeast blow has pulled the plug for shore anglers, all they can do is wait for a shift in the wind. As soon as the wind turns back to the southwest the fishing near shore will resume, often with a vengeance. It must also be noted that the impact of a particular wind direction during a particular season can be highly local. In the fall, for example, several days of Northeast wind may be the kiss of death for anglers fishing from shore in Connecticut. The wind will drive plankton, forage fish and game fish off the beach. That same wind, however, may well pile everything up along the shores of Long Island creating a dynamite bite for anglers all the way to Montauk.
Originally published by www.flyroddingthecoast.com. 2002
Articles by the same author
- Essential Skills - Dry Fly and Mayfly with Oliver Edwards
- New Canadian Beaver report spells doom for Scottish salmon
- Fly Fishing for Atlantic Bass - new book reviewed
- The Streamside Guide - Road Trips
- Wet Fly Fishing on Rivers - Essential Skills with Oliver Edwards
- Venezuelan smorgasbord at Los Roques
- Pope of the Madison
- The principles of layering - the base layer
- Game Fishing by Bob Church
- The Streamside Guide - Planning the Trip