Serious bass anglers seek to minimize splash when they cast. However, when there is no splash — because a finesse worm goes up but does not come down — something is wrong.
A few bass pros have experienced that frightening sensation. Virtually all have felt the hair on the backs of their necks stand up or have seen fishing line rise eerily. Each occurrence indicates that a lightning strike could occur at any moment, as positively charged particles are moving up a person or object, creating a target for negatively charged particles in the clouds.
Far beyond these very close calls, however, the serious threat of lightning striking exists far more often than most anglers probably realize.
"Lightning can strike up to 10 miles from a thunderstorm, with blue skies overhead," said Steve Kuhl, warning coordination meteorologist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) National Weather Service (NWS) office in Washington, D.C. "You are in danger of being struck by lightning if you can hear thunder."
Lightning strikes rank second only to floods among causes of storm related deaths. According to documented reports, an average of 73 people die annually from lightning strikes, more than the number killed by tornadoes and hurricanes combined. Most deaths occur from either cardiac arrest or ceased breathing from the time of being struck. Approximately 400 strikes are reported annually, and the NWS knows that numerous other strikes go unreported.
Approximately 70 percent of all lightning strike victims suffer serious long-term effects, some of which do not show up right away, according to the NWS. Most lightning injuries are neurological. Common symptoms include memory deficit, sleep disturbance, chronic pain, dizziness and chronic fatigue.
Because of the time they spend outdoors, fishermen need to understand the danger of lightning, each spark of which can be five miles and 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit and can contain 100 million electrical volts. Fourteen percent of all lightning strike victims get hit while participating in water sports, including fishing, boating and swimming.
New Jersey Pro angler Pete Gluszek believes that most tournament anglers recognize the danger of lightning ? at least to some degree ? but that few anglers know exactly how to react when a storm develops. "I've heard all sorts of advice about where to go and where not to go, but sometimes those ideas conflict, and no one seems to know for sure."
Steve Kuhl says that the first thing everyone needs to recognize is that ALL thunderstorms contain lightning and are dangerous. "With that in mind, fishermen need to stay informed about the weather and keep an eye on the sky, watching for things like darkening skies, rising cloud tops and increasing winds," he said.
Kuhl suggests that anglers look carefully at the forecast and consider staying home on days when the thunderstorm risk is high. He also suggests using NOAA weather radio to keep track of conditions while on the water.
Kuhl pointed toward the "30/30 rule" as important to know and follow for everyone who spends much time outdoors. The first half of the 30/30 rule states that after seeing a flash of lightning an individual should begin counting. If he hears thunder in less than 30 seconds, it's time to seek shelter. The second half of the rule is that outdoor activities should not be resumed until 30 minutes after the last clap of thunder is heard.
Most people seek cover when thunderstorms are upon them — often when the rain hits. However, many wait too long to get out of harm's way, or return to outdoor activities too quickly. Because of that, more lightning casualties actually occur before rains start and after rains diminish than while it is raining, according to NWS statistics.
Any thunder that follows a lightning flash by less than 30 seconds is within six miles of the observer, and individual lightning strikes from any given storm easily can be six miles from one another.
Anglers who are fishing well away from sheltered areas also need to take their running time into consideration. They should not wait to hear the thunder if bad weather is in the forecast, but instead should start moving toward a safe place as soon as skies begin to look threatening.
Another common mistake made by outdoor users is finding false security in a shelter that does not provide adequate protection. "Something like a boat shed or a bridge provides little to no protection from lightning," Kuhl said. "A fully enclosed structure, such as a house or a marina, is truly the only safe place to be during a storm."
The worst place to go in any thunderstorm is under the canopy of trees, which tend to get struck by lightning because of their height. Twenty-three percent of all lightning strike victims are under trees, usually having gone there to seek shelter from the rain.
If an angler does get caught in a storm, and there truly is no opportunity to get to proper shelter, the safest option is to get as low as possible in the boat and assume the "lightning crouch" according to Kuhl. Resting on the balls of your feet, which minimizes body contact with any other surface, squat as low as possible, head ducked, and cover your ears with your hands.
Tournament bass fishing professionals fall into a very high risk category. Along with being fishermen, they are outdoors workers. "We spend so much time on the water, whether competing, practicing, doing other events, or just fishing," Gluszek said. "When it comes to weather, we see it all."
Adding significance for anglers who earn their living competing in tournaments, they cannot simply stay off the water any time the forecast suggests a possibility of thunderstorms. Even beyond competition days, their schedules of promotional and practice dates tend to get pretty difficult to manipulate on short notice. If they don't fish a lake on a day they had planned to, often there will not be another opportunity.
Under tournament rules, anglers may leave the boat only in the case of an emergency. "I consider a lightning threat an emergency, and I tell all the anglers to go to a marina or do whatever they need to in order to stay safe until a storm passes," said Trip Weldon, BASS Tournament Director. Rules simply state that partners must stay within sight of one another if they are forced to leave the boat.
"We also might delay the takeoff if a big squall line is coming through. We did that last year at Eufaula," Weldon said. "The anglers' safety is of the highest importance."
For more on lightning and how to stay safe, check out the NOAA lightning awareness website at www.lightningsafety.noaa.gov.