Thunder and Lightning
By Ronnie Garrison
I admit it. I am scared to death of lightning.
I have fished when the air temperature was 15 degrees and I had to dip my rod in the water every cast to melt the ice in the guides. I have fished when the wind was so strong the front of my boat dipped under about every third wave and my trolling motor would not hold my boat in place. I have fished at night when it was so dark I could not see the rod in my hands.
But if I hear thunder fairly close by, I am off the water!
It all goes back to a night when I was about eight years old. The old wooden house I lived in had a huge screened-in porch with a concrete floor, and two of my friends and I were “camping out” on it in our sleeping bags.
About midnight there was a ferocious thunderstorm. Lightning flashed every few seconds, and thunder made the house shake. I was terrified for what seemed like hours, just knowing I would die. It is an irrational fear, but still it overwhelms me almost 60 years later.
Over those years, I have had many bad experiences with thunderstorms while fishing. In the mid-1970s, Bob Pierce and I were fishing at Bartlett’s Ferry during the summer. We had run way up the Chattahoochee River, picking our way around unmarked mud flats and stumps to get there after lunch. It was cloudy but not raining. Suddenly, at about 5 p.m., there was a crack of lightning and an immediate boom of thunder very close to us. The wind started howling and the rain began pouring down.
We could not run the 30 minutes back down the river to the boat ramp, so we pulled into a small creek that was just a few feet wider than the boat. I hoped the overhanging trees would give us some protection from the wind, and, in theory, lightning would hit one of the taller trees up on the bank and not get to us. Even back in there, the wind made me stay on the trolling motor to keep us under the protecting trees. After a few minutes, I realized the boat was no longer moving with the wind. It had rained so hard that rainwater in the boat had pushed the motor to the bottom of the creek.
We stayed there for about three hours before the storm stopped. We had to raise the motor and push with paddles to get the boat off the bottom and pull the plug as we tried to get on plane to drain the water. We barely made it back to the ramp before dark. After that, I put a bilge pump in the boat!
Another late afternoon summer trip was to Jackson to practice for a weekend night tournament. My dog Merlin was with me. It was one of those cloudy, hot, sticky days of August, but there was no wind, rain, or thunder. I was fishing right at the dam just as it got dark. Back then, there was no drum line to keep boats away from the dam, and it was a good place to fish. Suddenly wind started howling over the dam, rain fell in proverbial sheets, lightning flashed, and thunder boomed.
I was scared to try to run back to Kersey’s boat ramp, so I eased over right beside the dam and tied the boat to it. I hoped the concrete dam extending 20 feet up with its metal rails on top would protect me. I sat down in the driver’s seat to get as low as possible, and Merlin crawled under the console. Even with my eyes tightly closed and my face resting on my arm on the steering wheel, I could still see the bright flashes. The thunder was immediate, with no time between the flash and the boom. I sat there for two hours until the storm passed enough to allow me to run back to the ramp, load the boat, and go home. No more practice that night.
Most folks are not worried about getting struck by lightning in a boat—I saw that at a Top Six Tournament at Lanier in the early 1990s. I was Boat 23 in the first flight of 92 boats. We were all sitting in a big group out from the ramp waiting to take off. Without warning, there was a flash – crack – boom, with no time between them. I hate that; it means the lightning is very close. I looked around, and the folks in the other 91 boats just sat there.
I couldn’t stand it, so I cranked up, idled to a nearby dock, and got under it. I told my partner that if he insisted, I would get out under the dock and he could take the boat out in the storm. He declined and waited with me. None of the other boats moved until the tournament director let them go. They all took off. About 30 minutes later, after the storm passed, I took off too, a little late but much safer.
If you are brave enough, or dumb enough, fish in the lightning. I will be somewhere protected, waiting out the storm.