Ahhh, summer in South Florida. Intense heat, humidity, hungry bugs, and almost daily afternoon thunderstorms. The fishing, though, can be awesome!
In fact, as I write this very intro, lightning cracks nearby while rain taps on the window by my side. I may be extremely cautious of lightning when outdoors, but I'll still sit right next to a window during a strong thunderstorm....makes sense, right?
I have a love/hate relationship with lightning.
For its entertainment factor, I absolutely love it. When I'm inside writing, doing chores, or just downright bored, an active thunderstorm provides some excitement and noise to break up the day's monotony. If I'm outside fishing, running, or hiking, however, that's a whole other story....then I'm literally paranoid of lightning! I'm sure many folks who spend a lot of time outside probably feel the same way.
Before initially moving to Florida about 15 years ago, the "lightning phobia" had yet to set in. I'd been coming here to Florida on vacation with my family once or twice each summer, and as long as a thunderstorm wasn't directly overhead, I was out fishing. Deep in the tangles of my mind I can still recall catching snook at a local pass one evening while calmly watching lightning forks dropping just a few miles to the east. For the record, snook fishing was always great just before and just after a storm moved over! Apparently, some guys thought it was even better DURING a storm, as I've seen my share of brave souls stay out in the midst of torrential rain and deadly electricity—not smart!
When I finally did move to Florida, it didn't take me long to quickly gain a huge respect for lightning. I've had a handful of extremely close encounters with lightning, but none stands out more than one day in May of 2003.
My dad, sister, and myself were about four miles offshore on my 17 foot center console. We weren't fly fishing, but were just tossing a few baits and lures at some cuda and spanish mackerel that were hanging around a small wreck. I knew the storm chances were up slightly that day, and small cumulus clouds were visibly starting to bubble up over land as they always do. It looked like we still had some time before we had to head in, plus the fishing was decent, so we kept on fishing!
A short while later, the clouds had drifted, grown, and a few narrow curtains of rain had developed underneath near the beaches. The storm cells had moved quite a bit closer, with the cloud edges now kind of overhanging our intended course back to the boat ramp. No lightning was seen yet, but I was now thinking it's probably time to go before things really got going. The cells were obviously intensifying and were slowly moving in our general direction.
It was just minutes later when from behind me I thought I faintly heard the word "lightning" come out of my dad's mouth.
I turned and asked him if that's what he indeed said, to which he pointed to a nearby cell and said "yep, there was a bolt...let's go." Just then, a throbbing rumble of thunder cut through the sky. My dad doesn't get too worked up about a lot of things, and apparently being in a small boat on open water with lightning nearby didn't seem to freak him out as much as it did me. Even more surprising, my sister wanted to keep fishing!
On the other hand, my reaction was the total opposite. "REEL EM UP!" I shouted (this phrase still remains a common "inside" term between me and my sister when weather threatens, regardless of where we are). I knew we had now waited too long and I was instantly in a nervous rush to organize the deck and get out of there. My nervousness turned to sheer panic literally less than two minutes later when the wind went from less than 5 to probably 30+. I had never experienced such an abrupt weather change on the water in my life!
With everything put away I fired up the Yamaha, turned to port, and set a course for the inlet.
What was literally just flat-calm seas quickly transformed into wind-whipped 3–4 foot whitecaps—a real handful in a 17 footer. Luckily, the boat was very seaworthy and we were quartering into the waves on the way in so I wasn't too worried about the chop, but boy was it a slow, wet pounding. The rain, salt spray, and occasional lightning strike close off the starboard side made the 30 minute run seem like 3 hours. I felt like we could get zapped at any second!
I have never felt so vulnerable. Being on the wide open, rough gulf, on an open boat full of fishing rods and metal things, complete with lightning popping off nearby is an all-around horrible feeling.
No, this is not a ghost typing this—we made it back alive. Luckily, we skirted the very worst of the storm and avoided running directly through what appeared to be the most dangerous part. As we made it inshore and idled to the ramp, I remember shaking like a leaf and never wanting to go boating here in the summer ever again. Of course that never happened, but it definitely changed my whole perception of lightning and the need to leave early.
On top of the story I shared here, I've since experienced a few other lightning-related situations I'd rather not repeat.
Nowadays, I'm ridiculously cautious about lightning when outdoors. Between watching the skies and the radar app on my iPhone, I try to get off the water before nearby clouds even start to attain any type of meaningful growth. If storms are around, I either won't fish at all or at least keep them at a distance of, say, 10 miles or so. In summer when storms are so common here, the fishing I do usually slows past about 11am anyway, so I'll often head for the cool confines of air conditioning no matter what the sky looks like.
Everyone has their own guidelines as to what they feel comfortable with, and I'm sure I'd be viewed as a wimp by some, but I'll always err on the side of caution.
Anglers are always some of the most at-risk folks when it comes to lightning, and I'd prefer to not gamble with my life. Just because the sky starts to look threatening but there's no lightning yet doesn't mean the very first strike can't happen nearby or even directly overhead. The fish will always be there. As they say: "There's always next time!"
Link: NOAA Lightning Safety and Info