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Lightning rod

2/13/2009

When it came, the rain advanced as an army. One moment I was casting for cobia from my kayak; the next, I watched as a wall of water galloped across the sea toward me.

The first drop came right along with the first couple of hundred. From deep inside the storm, I heard a lightning bolt split the sky and thunder pealing just behind it, deafening.

Storms on the open water are never fun, but riding one out in a kayak is downright sobering. Kayaks have shown a recent resurgence as fishing craft, and rightly so. They launch anywhere, their minimal draft allows you to reach places larger boats cannot, and they carry no chance of engine trouble.

Still, a powerboat does have its advantages, and never is that clearer than when you find yourself on open water looking at storm clouds. Lightning strikes may be a rare — they kill about 100 people and injure 500 in the United States annually — but sitting helplessly on craft barely larger than yourself while lightning splatters all around forces you to recalculate those odds, especially when your rods start quivering with electricity ...

Let's back up a second, because it's important to explain how quickly this particular trip went from pleasant to panicked. This was just a few years ago, when I was in college, my early days of chasing saltwater game fish with a fly rod.

I found myself cutting some class to spend a bit of time camping along the Louisiana coast, venturing out in my kayak to stalk feeding redfish in the shallow marsh behind one of the barrier islands. It was a trip I had taken many times before without incident.

I got in several days of great fishing, landing numerous redfish and a few large black drum, before a shift in the wind along with an exceptionally high tide caused the water in the shallows to rise several feet.

Sight fishing became nearly impossible in the already murky marsh until the winds shifted again, so I decided to fish the surf on the Gulf side of the island instead. I'd seen some jack crevalle busting bait in the surf two days prior, but after fishing for a while without seeing any bait (much less fish) I started looking out to sea, toward the near-shore oil rigs dotting the horizon.

I had always wanted to kayak out to one of the rigs anyway. With nothing better to do, I dragged the kayak across the beach, paddled it through the surf break, and was soon on my way.

The rigs I was headed for are only a few miles off the coast and don't hold the various reef fish and tuna associated with blue-water rigs. Still, in early spring, they're known to be good places to look for jacks, large bull redfish and cobia. With a large pencil popper on a 10 weight fly rod and some extra water, I paddled ahead, optimistic.

As the rigs swelled on the horizon, several thunder clouds suddenly appeared in the distance as well. This isn't unusual; warm rising air in the Gulf can form a storm in a hurry. These, though, were moving quickly and in my direction. Even in a powerboat, I'd be a sitting duck. In a kayak — forget about it.

I'd been caught in storms on the coast before, but always while fishing the marsh. There, I'd pull back up to the beach, leave the kayak, and find a dune to sit behind and wait. It was a lousy way to spend a day of fishing, but hardly life-threatening.

This was different. The day turned from mid-afternoon to dusk in an instant as the rain cascaded over me. The sea heaved beneath the kayak; I felt queasy, but at least I appeared to be in no danger of capsizing. The number one concern was the lightning.

As bolt after bolt tore through the sky, I hunkered into my jacket, cursing my luck. When at last I pulled my head out, I became acutely aware of a buzzing noise behind me.

There at the back of the kayak, I saw my 9-foot graphite fly rod standing up in its rod holder. I had completely forgotten about it but there it stood with its entire length shuddering visibly and emitting a buzzing sound that seemed to be increasing in frequency.

Funny how a little static in the air can turn a fly rod into a lightning rod.

I did the only thing I could think to do: snatch the rod and throw it overboard. It wasn't a moment too soon. The closest strike yet thudded nearby, rattling my chest and scorching the air with the smell of a large electrical short, like a blown transformer.

I laid down the best I could in the kayak for the remainder of the storm and tried to make myself small. Time passed — 15 minutes? An hour? — and the sun returned. I'd been blown dramatically off my course, and set to paddling toward camp against an increasingly strong current, thankful to be alive, ready to be on dry land.

The next morning I fished the surf again (to no avail) before packing up camp and starting the long drive back to school. I still fish by myself on big waters from time to time, and if the forecast starts to turn on a trip I'll still pack rain gear and hope for the best.

You can't altogether avoid weather-related risks if you're outside. But there are also a lot of rookie mistakes that get learned the hard way if you aren't careful. I'm now religious about breaking down rods when storms roll in. Hearing that buzz once was plenty. Hearing it even once more, I know, could be the last.