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Grays Best

Sailors Take Warning

Out there beyond the Weather Channel, it’s just you, your ancestors, and their poetry.
by James R. Babb 

Peer up the paternal stem of my family tree, and before the résumés vanish in the mists of time you’ll see a policeman, two masons, four farmers, two “planters,” a fishing master and three sea captains. Beyond a last name and a Y chromosome, they share one thing common to most of our ancestors: outdoors occupations ruled by weather.

According to the 2000 census, 80 percent of Americans now live in urban or suburban areas, and except for brief recreational expeditions into the vast open spaces we live and work mostly indoors. To us, weather is a helpful television program advising us to take along an umbrella, leave early for work or run for shelter. Only two or three generations ago, however, weather was a personal thing, and our ability to predict its actions determined how successfully, even whether, we lived our lives.

Which is why it’s puzzling that so many of today’s immensely knowledgeable anglers risk unsuccessful fishing, even involuntary pruning from the family tree, simply because they don’t know tomorrow’s weather unless the Weather Channel tells them.

Not to knock the Weather Channel. Before meteorologists got eyes-in-the-sky satellites and Doppler radar in the 1960s, weather prediction was an even more imperfect science. An hour before the Great Hurricane of 1938 roared ashore and killed 700 people from New York to New Hampshire, official weather forecasts still called for cloudy skies and gusty winds.

Nowadays we turn on the tube and watch the live-action approach of everything from regional showers to national disasters. In most settled areas we can listen to government weather broadcasts on pocketsize radios—even receive automated alerts of hazardous weather for your specific location. But the pace of local weather often outruns regional forecasts, and in the backcountry, weather-radio coverage can be unreliable to nonexistent, leaving you up that ancestral tree with only your observations, knowledge and, of course, poetry.

“Red skies at morning, sailor’s take warning; red skies at night, sailor’s delight,” dates back to Biblical times. But unlike such antique flapdoodle as whistling for a wind or consulting woodchucks about the onset of spring, this old saw is accurate roughly 70 percent of the time.

In the northern hemisphere, weather moves mostly from west to east, “weather” being revolving areas of high or low pressure. In the northern hemisphere, high-pressure systems revolve clockwise and mostly mean dry, nice weather. Low-pressure systems revolve counterclockwise and mostly mean the opposite.

We see a red sunset because the sun’s low-angle rays refract through the dry, dusty air of a high-pressure area to our west. If those rays get lost in the moisture-laden clouds of an oncoming low-pressure area, we see a gray or yellow sky.

A red sunrise means high pressure has passed to our east and the low-angle sun is illuminating clouds making in behind it. A violently red sunrise means the air to our east is saturated with moisture and portends a substantial storm, often moving from south to north, as in a northeaster or a hurricane. As Lieutenant William Bligh wrote in his log during the epic voyage of the Bounty’s launch, one day the sun “rose very firey and Red, a sure indication of a Severe Gale.” So severe a gale that the crew jettisoned most of their belongings and baled nonstop for days, and Charles Laughton, Trevor Howard and Anthony Hopkins nearly didn’t get to say, “This is mutiny, Mr. Christian.”

But we can’t always rely on old sayings to keep us safe from bad weather. I predicted countless storms based on whether cows were reclining or standing until I finally realized that cows know nothing about weather or anything else. But some useful bits of weather lore have survived science’s skeptical glare, and the intrepid angler could memorize them in less time than it takes to tie a dozen of the Hot Fly du jour, and likely fish more successfully to boot.

Most of these come down to us from our mariner ancestors, because more than anyone else sailors were, and are, at the weather’s mercy. But if you’ve ever tried to cast a heavy bunker fly on a deep-sink shooting head with a crosswind gusting past 25 knots, you’ll realize that fly fishers are equally in the climatological crosshairs. And so:

Mare’s tails and mackerel scales say next day you will shorten sail. High thin cirrus clouds blown into the shapes of horse’s tails typically precede a low-pressure system by a good 24 hours, and when they morph into fish-scaly-looking cirrocumulus then to thicker and lower altocumulus, figure no more than 12 hours before things ugly up.

Rain before wind, halyards, sheets and braces mind; wind before rain, soon you may make sail again. A lowpressure system typically arrives with gentle rain that builds in intensity with a rising wind. (In tidal waters, conditions almost always change with the turn of the tide.) But a blast of wind followed by rain usually comes from a local thunderstorm, a brief event of an hour or less. A useful wrinkle, and just as true: Long foretold, long last. Short notice, soon will pass. An even more useful wrinkle for us fisherfolks: Clouds a-gathering thick and fast, keep sharp eyes on sail and mast. Clouds that slowly onward crawl say shoot your lines and nets and trawl.

Backing winds say storms are nigh, but veering winds will clear the sky. Veering winds trend clockwise and say high-pressure. Backing winds spin counterclockwise and say lowpressure. According to Buys-Ballot’s Law (after a pioneering 19th-century Dutch meteorologist, not a Chicago election), if you stand in the northern hemisphere with your back to the wind and extend your arms, your left hand points to low-pressure and your right to high-pressure. (South of the Line it’s the opposite.)

A halo ringing moon or sun says rain’s approaching on the run. And in a more specific but not necessarily more accurate variation, Ring around the moon, rain by noon; ring around the sun, rain by dawn. A glowing halo around the moon or the sun means its light is refracted through a veil of high-altitude ice crystals, the leading edge of a low-pressure system overspreading your area. Expect rain and increasing wind. Fish early and hard, as fish tend to feed up before things weather in. And then beat the storm back to camp and read a book.

Campfire smoke a-lofting high says pleasant days and clear blue skies. Campfire smoke a-rolling low says rains will come on with a blow. Smoke is a primitive barometer, rising unfettered in high pressure and hugging the ground in low pressure. This is surprisingly accurate, tracking even short-term fluctuations in atmospheric pressure.

Seagull, seagull, sit on the sand. It’s never good weather when you’re on land. This is accurate only if there are no seaside fast-food joints, where you’ll find as many panhandling gulls on a fine day as a dirty one. But seagulls are far more at home in the air than on the hard, and when they’re lined up on the beach with their hands in their pockets it’s best to pay attention. Gulls are way smarter than cows.

If grass is dry at morning light, it’ll surely rain before the night. If grass is damp and pearled with dew, it shall never rain on you. Well, “never” is a strong word. A dewless morning doesn’t always mean it’ll rain before dark. It does usually mean it’ll rain within 24 hours, though. But in the Age of Gore-Tex rain, is but a minor diversion for anglers. What worries us is wind and, even more, lightning.

Beware those bolts from north or west, towards south or east the bolts be best. Lightning is more fun to watch than to encounter, especially with rods made of graphite, a near-perfect conductor of electricity (fiberglass and bamboo are insulators). Lightning to your north or west says you’re in the storm’s path, and it’s best to flipper your float-tube ashore and make yourself small. Lightning to your south or east will pass you safely by. You can estimate how far off the storm is in miles by counting the seconds between flash and boom and dividing by five. Will Ryan, Tom Fuller and I once sat out a lightning storm high on the shoulder of Maine’s ironrich Mount Katahdin where the flashes and booms arrived simultaneously, above, below and on all sides for more than an hour. And we were sore afraid.

Learning more about weather, like learning more about fishing, is its own reward. Spotting an oncoming storm using the knowledge of your intrepid forebears is just as gratifying as catching a trout on their antique rods and obsolete flies, lending a flush of pleasure and a solid connection with a slowerpaced life from which we all grow ever distant.

James R. Babb is the author of Crosscurrents, River Music, and Fly-Fishing Fool, all of which which are available from

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