We know to avoid dangerous weather. Sometimes, it finds you anyway
I've never been much for east winds. Can't trust 'em.
Sure, an east wind is really just like any other. But a northeasterly breeze on a dull winter day usually heralds snow or sleet that night. A straight easterly blow during spring typically brings a soaking rain and subsequent cold front. And even a seemingly harmless southeasterly flow on a hot summer afternoon can signal thunder boomers and other nasty stuff.
Why the aversion to east winds? I usually hunt the western side of a vast shallow lake, so east winds always bring waves. Within minutes, a light easterly ripple will become a chop. Then, one wave will break, and then another. Before long, the lake is covered in whitecaps, and cones of spray fly from every bombarded shoreline. There's almost no escape.
Well, that's not quite true. There's one little spot you can hide. It's a small point that juts out west from a marsh and then curves southward and back west toward a weedy bay. Some people call it the Fish Camp. When an east wind howls, it might be the only place a guy on the western shore of the lake can be shielded while watching decoys.
But trust it? Nope.
A West Wind Backward
I flipped on the Weather Channel in the pre-dawn darkness and took in the lowlights.
Rain. Winds east at 30 mph, I mumbled. Great. Can't hunt open water. Can't hunt from the blind.
My brother-in-law Jay picked me up 15 minutes later. He loves rain and east winds as much as I do.
Are we really going to do this? he asked, dreading the answer.
Well, I think if we set out at the Fish Camp we should be OK, I said. The wind will be at our backs, and it's only about 200 yards to the boat landing.
He sighed and rolled his eyes, and I could read his thoughts. Maybe we'd be better off courting mallards at a sheltered marsh than chasing big-water ducks during what promised to be a memorable storm. But it was November, and the big blow should have signaled the vanguard of a major migration. There was no question it would bring ducks, so we had to be out there.
The early-morning setup actually went smoothly. We set out four lines of decoys, tied the boat in a small channel to the north and settled into an old stone blind on the point. Believe it or not, the rain stopped soon after sunup.
The wind, however, continued howling — and even increased.
No biggie, I said, trying to convince myself as much as Jay. It's just like hunting in our regular blind with a 35-mph west wind, right? We've done that dozens of times.
True. But I had to remind myself that this wasn't a west wind.
Considering the weather, action was slow. We shot one mallard early and saw few other ducks, most of which were mergansers. But the wind kept blowing, and we kept waiting, certain something would happen.
At about 9:30 a.m., a brief flurry of activity erupted. We shot a mallard out of a passing flock and then killed a bluebill that decoyed perfectly. Suddenly, it seemed ducks were working all around us.
Then we realized why.
In less than a minute, the wind had shifted from straight east to south-southeast. That meant it was surging the length of the 30-mile-long lake through a large gap to our left. Small offshore waves were becoming pounding onshore breakers.
And then the gale intensified. We learned later the wind was steady at 40-some mph with gusts to 50. Five-foot waves began surging over the small point, spraying us and threatening to wash the blind away. I couldn't really consider them whitecaps because the wind immediately knocked the foam of their tops, filling the air everywhere with spray.
On shore, the wind whipped and ripped the tops of giant oaks, willows and cottonwoods, sending leaves and branches flying. And as the blow crashed into the boat landing to our north, it toppled a Porta-Potty — if you've ever tipped one over, you know how heavy they are — and sent it flying 100 yards across the pavement into a fallow field.
Should we wait this out or get out of here? I yelled, suddenly forgetting about ducks.
We knew the answer. The temperature was plummeting, and the wind and waves had become extremely dangerous, even in the small bay.
Immediately, we stowed our gear in the boat and fired up the motor. When we left the channel and hit open water, waves crashed into the hull, shoving the boat hard to the north and pulling us past our decoys.
I'm not going to be able to hold it so we can stack the lines, Jay said. We'll just have to throw them in the boat.
We eased the boat up to each string until I could grab the farthest downwind anchor. Then, I pulled in the blocks and tossed them in tangled heaps on the deck as my brother-in-law tried to keep us steady.
After 15 minutes, we were finished — soaked, wind-burned and half-frozen, but finished.
Go, I shouted.
Jay turned the boat and motored toward the landing. That was a mistake. After a few yards, we realized the wind was bringing us in at a fast clip. Jay stopped the motor and actually put it in reverse, but it wasn't enough. We zipped toward shore, and it seemed like we'd crash into the dock or beach the boat on the concrete ramp.
There was no time to consider options. With one powerful surge, the boat was at the dock. I rolled over the side, grabbed the gunwale and tried to dig my feet into the sand. Jay also jumped ship but held onto the transom while grabbing a dock post. Miraculously, the boat stopped.
Moving quickly, we trailered the rig, threw off our wet gear and headed for shelter. Yeah, we'd done the smart thing and left, but we'd still been lucky.
The Skies of November
Later that day, in the safety of my garage, we untangled the frozen decoy lines and watch the wind rip strips of aluminum fascia off my neighbor's house.
We later learned the storm was very similar to a famous gale that had hit Wisconsin and Michigan on Nov. 10, 1975 — 23 years earlier to the day. That storm, which had produced steady winds of 43 knots and 12- to 16-foot waves on the Great Lakes, had sunk the iron-ore freighter Edmund Fitzgerald on Lake Superior. The event, of course, was immortalized in song by Gordon Lightfoot.
We were more fortunate than the 29 sailors on The Fitz. We'd messed up some decoy lines, frozen our fingers and scraped our boat hull a bit. But we'd survived to hunt another day — at least another day when the wind blew from the south, west or north.
I know what you're saying. The east wind hadn't caused our problems. The sudden switch to the south wind had been the culprit. That's true. But that east wind had suckered us in and set us up for disaster.
I'm telling you, don't trust 'em.