Wind and White Water
by Rich Troxler
In my years of surf fishing, I have come across many, of what I consider to be misconceptions, regarding 2 related conditions. The first is how does wind affect fishing, and the second is about white water, a term that gets used a lot in connection with wind and surf fishing. These two conditions usually trigger quick study, knee-jerk reactions in many surf fishermen, but they also have a complex reality underneath those reactions. Understanding the cause and effect of wind and white water can help you decide whether it is a good thing, or a bad thing, at the time you go fishing. And yeah, there are other factors, like moon phase, and time of year, that need to be considered in the overall view, but this thread is on wind and white water.
Let me start by saying that what follows is based solely on my personal observations, and like all information sets, is always open for debate, improvement, and re-consideration. Furthermore, these observations have been made in my fishing backyard, which covers most of Long Island NY, the South Shore oceanfront, the entire South Shore bay system, and the North Shore waters of Long Island Sound. Understanding how Long Island lays out, in relation to the wind directions I will be referring to, will be helpful in transposing the forthcoming scenarios to your own local area. And as always, if you have something that differs from my observations/conclusions, then by all means, please speak up. Surf fishing should always remain a work in progress.
There is a saying in the study of statistics that “correlation does not imply causation”. But as fishermen, correlation and consensus are all we have to go on, the only things we have to base our decisions on. We can’t talk to fish, or bait, and get their viewpoints on what they think for a given set of conditions, so what we are left with is something akin to; “if it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, etc”. So I’ll start quacking now, save your wise quacks for later.
“It was the best of times and it was the worst of times” – Tale of Two Cities.
“One man’s meat is another man’s poison.” – Popular Idiom
The above two sentences pretty much summarize what I think of wind, as it relates to surf fishing. The short version of wind is that is can either enhance a set of conditions and spur a bite, or it can blow the conditions up and ruin a bite. And many times it will do both, at the same time, depending on where you are fishing. So what makes a good wind or a bad wind?
Well, a lot depends on where you are fishing, so let’s break the following examples down into two sub-groups, the open beaches of Long Island and Long Island’s south shore bays. Let’s further break down the open beach group into 3 basic locales, south shore beaches, north shore beaches, and eastern shores of Montauk. You probably already know where this is headed and your conclusions are probably correct, but I’ll restate the obvious once again. Like most things in life, one size does not fit all, and no one direction of wind is either beneficial or detrimental to all fishing locales on Long Island, or anywhere else for that matter.
SO WHAT DOES WIND DO -
Wind does several things. Basically, it reacts with water and affects the fish/bait living in the water. Trying to cover every possible scenario would take more time that I have at the moment, but if you apply a few basic concepts on the effects of the wind on water and fish/bait, it may help you find a location and wind-driven scenario that puts you on a bite. So here are my basic observations on what wind does.
BAIT – The generally accepted axiom for wind, where bait is concerned, is that white bait is blown with the wind and bunker feed into the wind, and I’ve never seen anything that makes me doubt this. This dynamic relates to locating bait and tracking bait movements in both the bay and the ocean. Here are couple quick scenarios for illustration purposes.
Spring of 2010, on our South Shore ocean beaches, the bunker schools stayed offshore as they passed by on the way north. The prevailing winds were/and are typically southerly in the spring, and bunker feed into the wind. We were dying for a couple days of hard northerlies, just to get one shot at them, but it never happened. The boat guys had all the fun, all within a mile of where we stood. This June (2011) we have had some northerlies ;-)
In the fall, it is much more common on the South Shore of Long Island, to find schools of bunker within easy casting distance of shore. The prevailing winds of fall are northerly and bunker feed into the wind. There have been many times in the fall, when I have seen unmolested bunker schools so close to shore, I could almost whack them with my rod tip. This, courtesy of several days of hard north wind. This applies to peanuts also, which have been the bait du’jour of many a South Shore fall blitz.
The September white bait blitzes on the South Shore of Montauk are the stuff of legend. As local surf fisherman extraordinaire, John Skinner put it, “it’s like fish porno.” White bait is typically blown with the wind, and the prevailing winds of September are almost always southerly. Granted there are other factors that can and may be involved, and some species that don’t seem to care one way or the other which way the wind blows, like mullet, but the general rule of thumb seems to be supported by these scenarios. Movement of bait in the bay tends to follow these same general rules. So the basic rule to remember here is:
WHITE BAIT IS BLOWN WITH THE WIND, BUNKER FEED INTO THE WIND.
WATER – In it’s simplest form wind pushes water. The scientific name for this phenomenon is “air-water interface”, but all you really need to know is that it creates waves and drift currents, one of the causes of sweep (sideways beach current). It can also hold up / speed up tidal current and delay current associated with tidal change. So how does this affect fishing?
BAY - When I’m fishing in a bay, wind direction usually just dictates where and how I will fish. During periods of high wind, bays GENERALLY do not experience the same level of disruption that open beaches do, so there is usually some place to fish. Under “normal” wind conditions in my area, I am usually more concerned more with east/west winds than north/south. If you look at a map of the Long Island south shore bay system, my reasoning should become apparent. Much of the structure/spots I fish are oriented where the east/west flow of water matters.
How does it matter? For starters, predicting when the tide will turn in the bay is a trip in itself, but throw a stiff wind in the mix and it becomes a downright laugh riot. Never the less, understanding the effect of the wind will at least allow you make a decent guesstimate and not leave you standing on a bank for 2 hours waiting for the current to change.
It also will affect current speed enormously. Some spots may benefit from a wind running the same direction as the outgoing tide, providing increased water speed running over the structure and giving the predator the advantage it needs to make it want to hold in that spot. Conversely, a strong wind running against the outgoing tide, that very same spot will most probably have very slow current (advantage bait fish) and no reason for the predators to stick around. Same thing applies to inlets, which most in my area have a north/south orientation. Northerlies/southerlies will affect their tidal current change and speed, regardless of the phase of the moon. The general rule here is:
WIND DIRECTION AND STRENGTH SPEEDS OR DELAYS TIDAL CHANGE AND CURRENT AND MAY TURN ON OR KILL A SPOT.
OPEN BEACH - Let’s move to the open beach and see what wind does to it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard fishermen complaining about the lack of white water. I’ll talk with guys, who mentioned that they didn’t fish a particular night because of the flat water conditions, or there wasn’t any “white water”, and were very surprised to find that I had been catching fish in those calm conditions. It’s not easy to sum up all conditions that make catching fish on the open beach possible, so I’ll work this from reverse.
For starters, I’ll state the obvious, but judging by the reaction of many fishermen, perhaps the not so obvious. Wind does not create bait or fish. White water does not create bait or fish. Those two elements need to be present before they can be either positively or negatively affected by wind and white water. It perplexes me how many fishermen just simply do not understand this simple concept.
So what does wind do to the open beach? Again, this all depends on how much, which way, and where you are, but a few things are fairly obvious. Wind will create waves in the general direction it is blowing. The harder the wind, the bigger the waves. Other factors can be involved, such as ocean swell from offshore storms, but these will also be affected by local winds. An offshore tropical storm (by default south of us) will almost always be accompanied by a southerly blow, but if for some strange reason it comes ashore during a strong north wind, then the wind will knock that surf down every time.
Wind can also contribute to sweep, again with the understanding that certain local conditions can affect sweep direction and intensity. And the longer the large waves created by a hard wind, the more likely the water will dirty up and make it hard to fish. And as previously discussed, wind can and will affect the direction that bait move. White bait is blown with the wind, and bunker feeding into the wind. Simple yes?
Then I’ll repeat it again only different. The wind that blows the white bait off shore, may very well bring any bunker schools in the area, onto the beach. For the open beaches of Long Island in the fall, a northerly will flatten the ocean and HOPEFULLY bring any migrating schools of bunker onto the beach and well within casting range. If light, it won’t even blow sand eels and some white baits off the beach. If southerly, and not too hard, it will put the white bait right up on the beach, many times right behind the first breaker, but it will move the bunker off the beach.
WHITE WATER - So how does white water, that thing that many surf fishermen crave, fit into all of this? The simple version is that white water provides a feeding advantage to the predators. Let’s take a typical south shore beach with white bait and bass present. With a moderate south wind you will probably experience moderate surf, nice clean water with rolling breakers that create just enough disturbance that the smaller white bait are have trouble negotiating it. The white bait is there because the prevailing southerly put them there. Ring the dinner bell. My simple take on this scenario is that the white bait is blown by the wind, seek shelter under white water, the bass like the cover of white water, and the underpowered bait are no match for the swimming power of the bass.
I previously mentioned the basic surf fishing territory I would be examining covered 3 directions. North, south and east. There’s and old adage, particular to fishing in these parts, that goes “wind from the east, fishing is the least, wind from the west fishing is the best”. Is this really true? Certainly not for those who fish Montauk. So why do the Montauk fishermen love easterlies? Simple, for the same reasons as the scenario presented above.
Most coastal storms in the northeast, are preceded / driven by easterlies, and they absolutely love them out at the point. It typically puts any white bait in the area on the beach, and the predators are never far behind. So the onset of a coastal storm is the big event that many have come to associate with “classic” bass fishing. But an east wind is mostly for them. So in it’s simplest form:
WHITE WATER = ADVANTAGE PREDATOR.
So what are the favored winds on the open beach, any open beach? Again, it all depends on how hard and from what direction. If you are fishing the north shore of Long Island, then you probably favor a moderate north wind. The same north wind that pushes the bait within the reach of your cast, flattens the surf of the adjacent south shore beaches, and quite possibly blows the white bait off the beach. But it may also bring bunker within reach. And vice versa. As for east and west winds, I may love them / need them in the bay, but I absolutely hate them on any of the open beaches of Long Island, except an easterly out at Montauk Point. But regardless of whichever way they may blow, I try to use my understanding of their effect on bait movement and predator tendencies, to locate fish/bites, regardless of where I might be fishing.
So in general, I prefer moderate to light winds and put my trust in my ability to find a bait/structure scenario to fit the conditions. I don’t care much for extreme wind conditions, and I don’t wait for weather anomalies, like the onsets of storms, or any of the storied weather conditions, to go fishing. I believe that stable weather conditions provide the most consistent and longest lasting bites and runs. Then again, how many times have we stood on the shore late in the season, watching the boats have all the fun because the prevailing winds had blown the bait offshore, and the herring were feeding on them, and the bass on the herring. A nice on shore blow might have helped there, huh.
Here are my clipsheet views on wind and white water, in no particular order.
WIND CREATES WAVES AND BLOWS WATER IN IT’S DIRECTION.
WIND DIRECTION AND STRENGTH SPEEDS OR DELAYS TIDAL CHANGE AND CURRENT AND MAY TURN ON, OR TOTALLY KILL A SPOT.
WHITE BAIT IS BLOWN WITH THE WIND, BUNKER FEED INTO THE WIND.
CLEAN WHITE WATER = ADVANTAGE PREDATOR.
WHITE WATER DOES NOT CREATE BAIT OR FISH, BOTH MUST BE PRESENT FOR WIND TO HAVE ANY EFFECT.
STABLE WEATHER LEADS TO LONG BITES AND RUNS. THE LACK OF WIND DOES NOT BLOW THE PREVAILING BAIT AWAY.
EXTREME WINDS = POSSIBLE SHORT SPURT OF ACTION AT ONSET GENERALLY FOLLOWED BY DIRTY WATER / UNFISHABLE CONDITIONS.
EXTREME WIND / WEATHER IN THE FALL CAN CAUSE BAIT TO BOLT, COLLAPSING THE FOOD CHAIN.
AT THE END OF THE DAY, IT STILL COMES DOWN TO BAIT, STRUCTURE, AND WHAT WIND DOES TO BOTH .
There’s a whole bunch of scenarios that I didn’t get to, and like everything, there are exceptions to every condition and rule. This is what makes fishing so interesting. My main point I was trying to make is just go fishing. Don’t let a bunch of preconceived notions about wind put your butt on the couch. There are so many factors that can spur a bite, and understanding how wind affects the water and the predator/prey relationship within the water, can only increase your chances of finding fish. And most of all, keep it simple. Bass fishing is not rocket science. Don’t wait for a degree, or until you can download all the cheats, just take what you know and go apply it and build from there. It’s what you learn along the way that gives any journey it’s value.
Please feel free to add your own experiences and viewpoints and I’ll thank you in advance for your contributions.