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Thursday, April 2, 2015

Springtime fishing fury

Earlier this week I decided to take a day off to go fishing.   It's spring time, the weather was good, the bass should be spawning, and the overnight temps are perfect for camping.   It's a really slow time at work and there was only a 30% chance of rain.   Mathematically that means there's a 70% chance that I'm going fishing.   

By noon on Tuesday I was packed up and rolling toward Pickwick Lake.   I would fish til dark, camp on the river, have a bonfire, howl at the moon, wake up and fish some more.   This is always a good trip...it's the perfect way to de-stress and recharge.   


By 2 PM I was fishing on Bear Creek between Tishomingo CountyMS on the west, and Colbert County AL to my east.   Around 5 PM a storm moved in and I found myself juuuuussst on the edge of it.  When it began to rain I ducked under the cover of a nearby dock and waited it out.   I used the downtime to update my wife and eat a PBJ.    Luckily it slid south-east and I missed the worst of it.   By the time I finished my sandwich, the edge of the storm had slipped away and I got right back to fishing.   Below is a picture of the first storm that I dodged.   As you can see by the light in the picture below...you can't get much closer to the edge of the storm. 

bear creek 5 pic 1 by scarfam, on Flickr

Now that I had officially dodged the "30% chance" of rain that was predicted, I fished like a man with nowhere to go.  To my right, the sun was on the downhill slope to the western horizon   I was facing south and just casting away with dreams of a full-grown, hog-sized largemouth slamming my jig.  

A short time later I looked north over my shoulder and saw that the mouth of Bear Creek (where it meets the TN River)was totally socked in.  I could tell from 4 miles away that there was significant rain in that area.  As it turns out, I might not have dodged the full "30% chance" of rain.  Maybe I had only dodged 15% of it.  

Normally I'd just leave the lake when I saw a storm coming, but with the low odds of rain, and my plan to camp, I had a little more leeway to make the decision.  

Ordinarily, rain at the mouth of this creek wouldn't be a big deal, but for me to go home now meant that I'd have to drive 4  miles north, then hit the main river and run another 5 miles to my truck.  

The previous storm slid harmlessly to the south-east and very respectfully got out of my way so I imagined that this storm would do the same.  After all, there was only a 30% chance of rain, and I'd already seen some...so this shouldn't last long.  I still had almost two hours of light.  I'd just slowly fish my way north, and by the time I get there this latest shower should have moved on to greener pastures.   

Nothing could be further from the truth.  As time passed the storm didn't seem to go anywhere...it just turned darker shades of gray until it was the color of "I'm going to kill you".  This was not good.  These clouds were so dark that they'd give Jim Cantorie nightmares.  As I waited for the storm to pass it only intensified.  It looked like it had stalled right at the intersection of these two bodies of water...and it just sat there getting angrier and angrier by the minute.  It almost seemed like it took it personal that I had blown it off as "just another rain shower" and was now summoning something big to show me just how wrong I was.  

As sunset approached, the storm intensified and began throwing off huge...HUGE amounts of lightning.  

I was in a metal fishing boat, filled with graphite rods and I did not want to be the only thing in the middle of the lake in that type of lightning storm.  

Thanks to modern technology, I called my father in law for a radar update.  He said that if I gave it about 30 minutes the worst should be past me.  Comforted by that report, I took shelter in a cove and fished for another 30 minutes, which put the time right at dark, then called for another update.  

There was still a lot of lightning in the area so I wasn't terribly hopeful.  He said that based solely on radar, it looked like the ONLY opening I would have for the next several hours was right then.  He said that I might be able to make it back to the ramp between storms, but to be cautious as the situation on the ground might not be what it looks from the radar. 

Armed with that info I decided to make a run for it.  I didn't want any part of what was about to happen.  It was dark, there was a small break in the storms in my way, and I now had a 7 mile run to get to my truck.  

I motored out of the protected cove in which I had taken shelter earlier, and made for the main channel.  I don't think I made it a quarter of a mile before I realized it was a death sentence to continue.  Huge lightning was everywhere.  Some of it lit up large sections of the sky, it danced back and forth inside massive storm clouds, it slammed down to earth in giant white bolts...it was horrendous.  Every time a big bolt flashed I lost my night vision and it took a second or two to get it back.  After a few hundred yards of this I realized that while there may be a break in the rain...there was no break in the lightning...there was no way I was going to chance running through this weather to try to make it to the truck.  About the time I'm thinking this, another bolt flashed directly off my bow and blinded me, I'm doing about 20 MPH and when my vision comes back it's filled with something big...right in front of me!  I was about to hit something.  I had just enough time to duck and brace for the impact when this towering mass went right over me.  It was birds...a huge flock of white birds had lifted off the water right in front of me.  Holy crap! I couldn't believe it.  That was the exclamation point on my earlier decision.  




I killed the throttle on the spot because in addition to everything else, I realized amid this pandemonium that I had forgotten to rig my running lights.  The only thing that could make this situation any worse (aside from a giant sea creature attacking my boat) would be for me to be running around in this maelstrom with no lights.  I had been so pre-occupied with everything else that I had simply forgot to put them up.  As desperate as the situation felt at the moment with the water heaving, and lightning slashing, I stopped long enough to put those lights up...then I got back underway.

So after being blinded by lightning half a dozen times and giving a flock of birds the scare of their/my life, I turned the boat around and started back for the cove I was in earlier.  At that point I saw what looked like lightning hitting the water back at the cove.  The entire shoreline flashed with what looked like blue-electricity in the water.  It was wicked...it looked absolutely evil.  I was totally disoriented at this point.  It's dark, the wind is howling, rain is spitting, the lightning has me surrounded and now appears to be striking the water over and over in the one place I know I can seek shelter. 

It took a few seconds to figure our what was going on.  The lightning wasn't hitting the water...what I was seeing was a world class optical illusion in some seriously difficult conditions.  

The west side of Bear Creek has a lot of sheer rock walls that plunge off the hills and drop vertically into the lake.  When the lightning behind me flashed, the intense light bounced off the rock walls that line Bear Creek and created a visual that looks like a long line of electricity in the water.  It was surreal.  It looked other-wordly.  I know it's difficult to picture so allow me to use an analogy.  Suppose you walked into your living room and saw a unicorn fighting Chuck Norris right there in front of your couch.  It would take you a few moments of stunned hesitation to put all of the various facts into place so you could tell exactly what you were looking at...that's where I was at this point.  

After a few minutes of hasty retreat I was motoring back into the sanctuary of my beloved cove.  I was on high alert at this point, it was extremely dangerous and every decision needed to be the right one.  Just then my iPhone unexpectedly adds to the chaos with an incredible squawking...BAAAHHH...BAHHHH....BAAAHHHH!!! Flash flood and severe weather alerts are now joining the chorus of lightning, wind,rain, and thunder.  It...was...chaos. 

Once I got back into the cove I had good shelter from the wind and there was no rain in that location.  I decided I'd just pitch my tent and spend the night right there.  It would dangerous to camp here, but to try to make it to the truck in this weather would be suicidal.  

I got a nice campfire going, set up my tent, and then with a huge sigh of relief and a "thank GOD that is over" I looked north and marveled at the lightning show.  I was at the base of a huge ridge that would keep the wind off me, and I pulled the boat up on the protected side of the gravel bar that forms the mouth of the cove. No matter what the wind did...it couldn't affect me here.  

The fire was now roaring, and I started making dinner with my Jetboil stove.  I was bent down over the stove when I heard it.  It sounded like the fabric of the universe itself was ripping open right over me.  There was a sizzling, crackling, ripping sound that ended with a crash of thunder of unbelievable volume...if God has a shotgun...that's what it would sound like.  I about jumped out of my rain jacket.  

I thought the storm was going to stay to my north on the main river, but it had shifted a bit south.  Rain now began to hit the campfire.  No big deal, it's a good fire, and a light rain, I'll just get in the tent until it passes.  Then the rain got heavier.  The fire went out.  The tent began to leak.  The boat was filling with water.  And I was stuck in the most God Awful lightning storm I have ever experienced.  Natures fury had come to visit.

I checked my iPhone for the radar update and I thought it was broken because I just couldn't believe what I was seeing.  I thought there was one small storm to deal with...but my phone was showing a huge line of red and yellow with flood warning boxes and severe thunderstorm boxes laid over the radar.  This storm system was over 150 miles long and all of it was lined up to slowly crawl right over the top of my position.  If the radar was right, I was about to get a multi-hour beat down of biblical proportions, with only a leaky tent for shelter.  


radar by scarfam, on Flickr

I was now officially stuck.  All I could do was hunker down and hope I didn't get hit.  For the next four hours there was not a 5 second time frame that didn't have lightning.  It was striking close and loud, every three to five seconds for hours on end.  The thunder boomed longer than anything I've ever heard, many of the booms rolled on for longer than 30 seconds.  Eventually I sent a text to a friend that said simply "this has to be what Hell sounds like."

At some point I laid my goretex jacket in between the rain fly and the tent to reduce the leaking...and that worked like a charm.  It was  one of the few actions I could take to improve my position, but it made a huge difference mentally.  

For the next few hours I sat in the tent sending texts to update my situation with friends and family.  A hunting buddy from Idaho cleverly began sending me music videos with appropriate themes.  First came Eddie Rabbit's "I love a rainy night."  In between thunderous crashes just outside my tent one might have been able to hear me laughing.  His texts were a huge boost to morale.  

Adding to the fun was that I don't have an automatic bilge pump on my boat.  So every now and again I had to go out in the storm and turn on the pump to keep the boat from sinking...and make no mistake...this storm was sinking the boat if I didn't run the pump.  The last thing I did before trying to get some sleep was to set an alarm to go off every hour all night so I could get up and go run the bilge pump.  

The weather updates from the family kept me apprised of the storms track and intensity.  It was nice to know when I was about to get a break in the chaos.

Sometime after midnight the storm let up enough that I was able to pack up and head to the truck.  When I finally got underway it was really peaceful.  The water was smooth, the air was cool, and I watched the storm raging over the ridges to my south.  I knew exactly what those folks were dealing with because I had just been pounded by it for hours.  

Interestingly, way out there in the middle of the channel...the air was tinged heavily with the scent of pine.  I spend a ton of time on that river and I've never experienced that before.  My only guess is that so many trees got hit by lightning, or broken by the wind that the whole county smelled like Pine-Sol.


The next morning I found out that the piece of ground right across the creek from me got pummeled with hail, as did a few places just north of me (1 to 1.75 inch hail)...the hail missed me by maybe half a mile.  The national weather service had issued a bulletin while I was on the lake detailing the storm with terms like "constant cloud to ground lightning", "large dangerous hail", and "60 to 70 MPH winds".  I never got the memo. Last night was the loudest and unfortunately, the most dangerous night I've ever spent outdoors.  Had I had a way to avoid it I would have, but I got caught off guard and had to make the best of a bad set of cards.  

I pulled in to the safety of the harbor around 12:20 AM under a light rain that gave no clue of the intensity of what had happened over the previous hours.  The ramp was eerily calm.

That marks the first time in my life I was happy to get off the lake.  It could have been pouring down rain at that point and I wouldn't have cared...nothing could compare to the beating I had just taken...everything else was pleasurable by comparison.

A few minutes later I pointed my truck west and began my 100 mile crawl through more thunderstorms, flash floods, downed limbs, lightning, fog, and fatigue.  I crawled into bed at home around 3:30 AM.  

My wife laughed when I finally got home and all I had to say about it was that I need to upgrade my tent.

The video below is from the initial (and very unsuccessful) run I tried to make back to the truck.  These were the best conditions I had for most of the night.  After I shot this it got so bad i had do take shelter in the tent for about 4 hours.  The video was shot with an iPhone…at night…so maximize your screen size…and it helps if you watch it in a low light environment…then it’s almost like being there.  

Video:


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4IggKn6E3E0

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