As we write a late March column, it’s fun to look out a window and see blue sky. In the morning, on the way to work, I hear competing cardinals, and, upstate on weekends, the turkey flocks are out and about in our driveway, picking gravel and driving the dogs crazy.
But … we’re still wearing heavy winter coats upstate, where the water continues to freeze in outside pipes overnight! March nights around 0 degrees aren’t normal in the North Country, and nights in the 20s aren’t normal down here either. Besides, who ever heard of a substantial snow “event” predicted for the North Fork on March 26?
Yet there’s really no “normal” when it comes to March. Many years ago, we always pushed the season, beginning with our apprenticeship to a diehard trout fisherman some 50 years ago in Germany. On a spring morning on a wonderful private stream near Hamburg I remember catching a nice brown and my first rainbow before noticing that dark clouds had moved in. On the way back to the car in a snow flurry, my mentor took the pipe from his mouth, shook his head, and simply remarked, “Es Maerzt!” Yes, indeed, it was March then, and it’s March here right now.
On Long Island a decade later, winter flounder (remember them?) were the true sign of spring for us. One time, living on the West End, we made elaborate plans to rent a skiff in Moriches and enjoy an early spring outing. Back in Rockville Centre, it was gorgeous — and dead calm. Arriving on Moriches Bay hours later, westerlies were ripping the tops off shallow water waves, and the old hands at the shop gave us that classic advice, “Ya shoulda been here yesterday!”
At that time in our careers, I wasn’t smart enough to realize that weather forecasts alone were insufficient. You had to call someone local, someone who was down on the dock, or at least someone who had stuck his or her posterior out the door and actually had a true read on the immediate weather. If the wind was out of the west and medium-sized limbs were moving around 8 o’clock, you were in bad shape!
Experienced skippers have always obeyed such rules. The Montauk cod boats often push their luck with the southern schools of Atlantic cod through the spring equinox, but they always restrict their sailings. One of the first Forsberg proteges who moved out to Montauk from Freeport 40 years ago (but has since retired) was the talented Bud Dorman. He shifted from big party craft to a small six-pack, so he became quite conservative about sailings. Nevertheless, the urge to get onto a mass of fish could get him into trouble like everyone else. One late March day, we were with him off Block Island on perhaps the best local cod trip of our career — splendid weather, plenty of fish to 25 pounds. On the way back through afternoon southwesterlies, Dorman told us we were the first trip he had had in weeks. On his last sailing, the afternoon winds whipped up the high seas so suddenly, the return trip turned dangerous. In fact, waves crashing over the bow smashed the cabin windows!
When we first shifted flounder operations from the west end creeks and channels, we brought our 12-foot cartopper, powered by an ancient seven-and-a-half-horse Johnson, with us and launched from convenient Peconic beaches every spring. A couple of harrowing experiences soon taught us that livery rentals, 16-footers with high gunwales, were far safer. One time we made a long run with our “Dinky” around Shelter Island to fish off South Ferry for a couple of hours and paid little attention to the rising seas and increasing winds; we were “around a corner” and pretty well sheltered. Getting back to the launch at Uihlein’s Port of Egypt was a scary adventure that involved a lot of zigging and zagging and avoiding as much open water as we could. In retrospect, we probably should have gone ashore, hitched a ride back, and brought the car over to the island later to fetch the boat and gear.
Smart outdoors persons, like gamblers, know “when to hold ’em” and know “when to fold ’em.” Only last week we received a communication from friends who canceled a season-opening field trial in East Windsor, Conn., north of Hartford. The area, once known as “Pelton’s Pasture,” is infamous for clay soil, streams coursing through it, and poor drainage, so the snow cover and ice layer common to the northeast this winter was still hanging around. Having seen horses slide down on muddy roads (injuring riders in the process) and dogs caught up in swift flowing streams (pulled out by handlers), the organizers wisely pulled the plug.
OK, March has remained a lion far too long, but let’s hope the weather relents and won’t turn us into April fools, too!