Burton on the Bay:
Not Fishing Weather

If we always went by weather forecasts, we'd be out of business or damned close to it. They're not always right, but our business is a marginal one, and fishing days lost when we could have fished usually can't be made up.

   -Capt. Bruce Scheible

Ordinarily it would have been decision time, but a couple mornings ago the decision was obvious. There would be no fishing for the abundance of sea trout, bluefish and rock off the mouth of the Potomac.

For the fish, things were pretty much as usual a few feet below the surface. But for fishermen who ride the top of those same waters, conditions were unacceptable. Winds from the west were sustained at 35 knots; gusts were stronger.

Smith Creek, a relatively protected nook inside the mouth of the mighty Potomac, showed whitecaps, and waters off a small point of land adjacent to Scheible's Fishing Center were a dingy froth. We didn't have to check on the Potomac itself or the Chesapeake to know what things were like.

But we had expected it. In these days of sophisticated weather forecasting with satellites and computers, the National Weather Service has taken the surprises out of the weather. We pretty much know a day ahead of time, often several days, what things will be like. Surprises are rare.

But I'm old fashioned, which is a way of admitting being old, and I kind of miss the surprises. Yes, I know that the more the weathermen can tell us what's ahead, the better we can make our plans.

When my crew embarked on the approximately 80-mile run to Wynne, inside Point Lookout where Scheible's Fishing Center is located, we knew how dismal the odds were that we would go fishing the following morning. Hurricane Irene, sweeping up the coast, was then in North Carolina after having dumped a foot or more of rain in Florida, Georgia and Cuba.

But there's always a chance, especially with hurricanes, which can stall or, better still, make a sharp turn out to sea. And when fish are biting and fishermen have already scheduled a weekday off work, they're prone to take chances. To hope for miracles.


Forecasting's Science

However, the odds are lopsided against them. Weather has become a precise science, and these days hurricanes can't hide. They're tracked better than Monica Lewinsky and Michael Jackson. How come, I asked Fred Davis of Pasadena, who four years ago retired as chief of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration weather operation at BWI.

"They've become even better than when I retired," he said. "The radar is better, the satellites are more sophisticated and more weathermen are flying the necessary old prop planes into the storm. They know where to enter and where to leave, and they get an awful lot of information."

That's one job this writer doesn't want. Forget about Jonah in the whale's stomach. Imagine flying a prop plane smack into a hurricane's center to get all the details. No thank you.

I've got a better chance to ride out any storm inside a fortified and well-stocked house than aboard any kind of aircraft flying into the eye of a hurricane. But exceptionally accurate forecasting is not restricted to the likes of hurricanes, floods, tornadoes and such, Fred tells me.

He recalled that about 10 years ago, when collecting information from boaters about the accuracy of weather forecasting on Chesapeake Bay, he discovered the weather watchers were 87.5 percent accurate. And that was 10 years ago, which in this computer age is ancient history.


Vs. Fishermen's Hope

Yet my crew of anglers, knowing full well the odds, headed for Wynne, which incidentally is only a dot on the map these days, a few old fish and crab houses, a residence or two, a primitive campground/trailer park and Scheible's charterboat, waterfront restaurant and motel complex - no country store or anything else. Lots of great fishing, but no longer a post office.

We knew by the rains during the night and the howl of the wind there was little likelihood we'd see a fish - unless it was blown out of the waters of Smith Creek. But weathermen have been known to be wrong, and winds have been known to die off.

Alas, Irene was determined to hit us, though not with the fury experienced to the south. Bruce took one look, and the decision was made. "Poker day," he said as he looked to his long dock of which the T-end was wiped out by 80-knot winds of Hurricane Floyd last month and is currently being restored.

As a precaution, all his boats, including the big headboat Bay King, had been piloted up into a nearby deepwater creek the night before, and there they would stay until the winds abated and the whitecaps flattened on Smith Creek. No other parties had bothered to make the drive. They had called ahead, and Bruce told them what their chances were. Some re-booked for later; others didn't.

They had legitimate excuses: No normal bad weather but a hurricane, at least the periphery of one. But much business is lost when fishermen make their decisions to stay home a day or two before a storm is forecast. Bruce has a policy something like that of Fred Donovan at the Rod 'n' Reel at Chesapeake Beach.

Hurricanes are an exception. Except for something like that, fishermen are expected to show at the docks in the morning for decision time. "The captain doesn't want to go out in bad weather or when it's threatening. He and his boat take a beating," said Fred. "But weather is local and sometimes there are places where fishing is possible.

An effort is made to accommodate those who call ahead with a change of plans based on weather forecasts, but sometimes they can't get the boat or the fish they want. Some forfeit deposits, but not those who show up and the weather-wise skipper decides he wants no part of a bumpy Bay.

It's not like the way it was with the curmudgeon (and dependable fish-catcher) of all Bay charterboat skippers, the late Capt. Harry Carter, who sailed out of the mid-Bay on the Eastern Shore side and who had his own inflexible sailing policy. He'd study the weather once the party was aboard, but once he turned the key on the engines, the fishermen paid.

| Issue 42 |

Volume VII Number 42
October 21-27 1999
New Bay Times

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