The East Wind
There’s an adage New England fishermen widely use regarding the wind’s direction and the quality of fishing that prevails: East brings the least, west is the best. Its wording may vary depending on the teller, but its meaning is always the same and most times it’s the truth – game fish activity and catch noticeably decline during an easterly breeze. I can’t recall when I first heard the saying, but I know I was very young – too young to understand what it really meant. And certainly too inexperienced to understand why it was so. Over the years I continually heard that expression, usually on the dock or in a tackle shop from crusty fishermen whose names I didn’t know, but men clearly revered as “old salts” by those who did know them. I came to see the truth in those words and believe in them. Though I don’t consider myself an old salt (yet), I now find I’m reciting that adage to young and otherwise uninitiated New England anglers. I recall the mystery associated with the east wind phenomenon that puzzled me for years, despite its truth. Like everything with fishing (and the sea, for that matter), there are no absolutes, but here in New England there’s a sound basis – a reason – the east wind quells the fishing.
Like many elements that affect the quality of fishing, the wind can have a major impact or a minor, more subtle influence. The east wind phenomenon I classify as subtle – it comes and goes with the day-to-day weather, as opposed to the substantial, lasting ravage brought by a hurricane, for example. Subtle factors are much more difficult to observe, hence expressions such as ‘east is least, west is best’ can easily remain mysterious, despite their consistent – and obvious – result. Many people never ask why, or give up trying to sort it out and just accept the truth in the saying. I’m not one of them. I love trying to unravel this kind of stuff . . . sometimes there isn’t an explanation, and I love that, too. Fortunately, I’m an inveterate sight-fisher, which enables a greater understanding of fish behavior through direct observation.
I live in a Rhode Island coastal town called Westerly. Aptly named, as our prevailing winds are from somewhere out of the west. Do we get winds from other directions? Of course – there’s plenty of stuff from the north (especially in winter), the south (especially in summer), and yes, the east, which is our least prevalent wind direction. And this is the case throughout coastal New England and much of the Northeast. But during most of our fishing season (spring and summer) the prevailing breeze is from the southwest – it is the harbinger of good weather and it’s the day-to-day expected wind during protracted periods of stable, pleasant weather. This is the period when fish are least migratory . . . they’ve settled in to a coastal region and become comfortable in their habitats and daily feeding patterns. We, as anglers, get pretty comfy with all this, too, and we tend to pattern our fishing approaches accordingly. Both fish and fisherman become acclimated to these conditions as “the norm”.
Back to sight-fishing – I spend a great deal of time each season visually stalking stripers (and other game fish) in clear, shallow water. By course, I’m able to observe these fish closely in all wind conditions. It is not only amazing to see their change in behavior, but also how quickly it occurs when the wind shifts to the east. Fish that were moving low and slow in very shallow water, actively feeding, often tailing and very willing to take a fly, change almost immediately when the wind shifts east. Within a half-hour – sometimes sooner – they move deeper – still observable – just in deeper water. No longer meandering about looking for prey, the fish are moving fast now, often with other fish and they’re pasted to the bottom . . . they are clearly not happy. When a fly is adequately presented now (a heavier pattern and longer lead), fish that were quite receptive earlier in the day now veer away from it and speed up some more. Those fish that do respond favorably most often won’t strike – they may come to the fly, but they’re edgy and overly inquisitive before they give you the blow-off . . . they’re uncomfortable. Why the sudden mood change? “What the hell’s the big deal with a wind from the left or from the right?” one wonders.
Before we explore the mechanics of what’s going on, it’s beneficial to look at the big picture. First, why is this phenomenon not universal? Why in the Florida Keys (and likely The Bahamas), for example do inshore fishing guides pray for easterlies (southeast, being most prayed for) and loath anything out of the west? Why is a nor’easter not such a bad thing back in New England in the fall? Nor’easters can make for crazy-good fishing in October and November. These, and other, apparent contradictions must somehow relate to the “big picture”. Is a particular wind’s effect on local fishing a regional thing? Is this wind effect seasonally dependent? What the heck is going here?
While observing fish behavior at the onset of an easterly here in New England I’ve also paid close attention to other variables, notably the water itself – its temperature and its movement. One miraculous phenomenon was immediately apparent years ago when I first embarked on sight-fishing northern beaches. When shoreline waters were dirty – clouded with sand, fouled with weeds, etc. – an east wind cleared the surf zone, often within a tide cycle or two. Another observation was how cool this cleared water became. Cooler air temps made perfect sense, as an easterly rolls in off the open ocean, but sudden four or five degree water temperature drops were intriguing. Clear water was surely not the reason the fish became agitated . . . there was more to this puzzle. Continued observation revealed that east winds notably disrupted near-shore water movements, too. Every coastline has subtle currents that become intrinsic based on shoreline topography, tides, and prevailing winds. These prevailing water movements are the norm and marine life at all levels within the food chain come to expect each subtle current at each stage of the tide throughout each day of each season. Longshore drift, a well understood marine physical phenomenon, is a prime example of a delicate current that is easily perturbed by a change in wind direction. Natural surface slicks, formed out of biological debris that commonly collects along the edges of current seams, provide a window with which subtle shoreline currents may be readily observed. With regular westerly breezes these slick lines form and dissipate with each tide just where you expect to see them. An east wind, on the other hand, disrupts these normal patterns, creating unusual flow and visual evidence of how a contrary wind “shuffles the deck” so-to-speak with regard to normal, expected near-shore water movements and temperatures. When the wind swings to the aberrant direction, several things take place that upset the apple cart: water temperatures rise or fall, expected tides go off schedule, and day-to-day water movements suddenly shift to an unfamiliar course. None of this may seem like the end of the world to us, but try to envision it from the fish’s perspective.
Why does such a delicate change in routine bother marine life so damn much? Well, the marine world is a subtle and complex environment. Life here is simple – creatures prey on other creatures and do their best not to be preyed upon, or otherwise perish in this unforgiving world. That’s it – it’s basic. These creatures, including the game fish we pursue and their prey, respond to and rely upon subtle water movements and changes in water qualities just to survive another day. Imagine if you came home one evening and your kitchen cabinets were entirely rearranged. Not just the spices all in a new cabinet and the soups all in another, but the whole shebang thoroughly dispersed in unfamiliar locations. It could make you crazy. But if you knew in a day or two that everything would return to normal, you’d probably abandon cooking for a day or two and simply order a pizza and get back to the regular routine when the kitchen was back in order – just the way you expect it to be. Marine life doesn’t have the order-out option. Instead, they choose to lay low for a day or two – going “off the chew”, as the young guys like to say – and they get back to regular feeding when the “kitchen” is back in order. It’s a silly analogy, but accurate. Fish aren’t the only creatures of habit prone to getting upset over what we perceive as “little things”. If you have a cat, try a sudden litter box relocation across the room sometime – a mere 12-foot move – see how that goes over. Humans often have difficulty comprehending the everyday subtleties in the world’s of animals and fish.
Keeping in mind that there are no absolutes in fishing, nor the Wild for that matter, let’s look at some obvious contradictions to the east wind phenomenon. First, why does it not seem to matter quite so much during the fall seasonal migration? Nor’easters routinely produce outstanding fishing. Game fish (and bait) are migratory then – they are not comfortably situated throughout an area or region in “residence” as they were for several months prior during the non-migratory portion of their seasonal existence. They’re on the move now. These fish are not resident creatures – they’re from other areas, other shores and they no longer know a “norm” in the here and now. They’re on a nomadic tear and they have no “kitchen” now. Chaos has become their friend. Some species, such the tunas (including false albacore), live an entirely nomadic life. They’re always on the move in search of enough biomass to sustain their numbers (and they eat a lot). They never really set up a “kitchen”. They just roam and raid wherever they go. There is no normal day-to-day wind direction for these fish and winds from the east don’t appear to disturb them much – when they find food they blast it, and move on . . . and they never stop moving. I’ve had outstanding tunny fishing on an east wind, a west wind, and everything in between.
But for non-migrating resident fish that feed regularly in familiar places for long stretches of the season, such as striped bass in the Northeast and bonefish in tropical locales, a sudden wind from an infrequent direction really throws them off by way of disruptions in their expected daily water movements and water temperatures. They become uncomfortable in a suddenly out-of-the-ordinary and unfamiliar environment. They don’t like it. For the game fish we seek, this temporary “deck shuffling” likely strips them of predatory advantage, as their daily forage is suddenly not where they expect to find it when they usually prey upon it. The higher up the food chain you go, the more creatures expect things to be just the way they expect them. Without that, they likely sense vulnerability and their world is just too unforgiving for that.