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January 23, 2008

Working the Weather

How you can do every bit as good a job forecasting as the TV experts

Once upon a time, not all that long ago, the best you could expect regarding weather prediction to help plan your fishing was a combination of supernatural or physiological phenomena (the knee/elbow/fingers you blew out in high school ache when bad weather approached) or old wives' tale poems such as:

When the wind is in the north
The fisherman goes forth;
When the wind is in the south,
It blows the bait in the fish's mouth;
When the wind is in the east,
The fish bite the least.
When the wind is in the west,
The fish bite the best.

Obviously technology has changed weather forecasting in a major way over just the past five years. If you're serious about fishing, you need available advanced technology because today's weather reports give you waaaay more than weather. For example, they can honestly tell you where the fish are (OK, at least where they're likely[[ital]] to be).
 
Once strictly the realm of megayachts, today anyone with network capable screens (and software), the proper antenna and the proper weather receiver can have the most sophisticated and pertinent-to-fishing weather information at the literal touch of a button. 
 
Whether it's water temperatures, temperature gradients, chlorophyll conditions, barometric pressure (lowering pressure's probably responsible for your football injury aching), wave direction, surface winds or more, you can have it delivered to your boat while you're fishing.

Where It Starts
Every news program has its weather guy/gal boasting of the latest Doppler this, that and the other thing. Bottom line is that there are only a limited number of weather info sources. One is the government; some others include the WSI Corporation and Baron Services. WSI (around since 1973) is owned by the same people who own The Weather Channel (Landmark Communications). Barons - newer on the scene, having formed in 1990 -- has rapidly become one of the alternate power sources in weather forecasting. 
 
Both companies collect raw weather data from sources such as the National Weather Service, the military, other governments and elsewhere, and then disseminate it to you, the consumer, in a variety of methods. The most important method as far as you care (how the info gets to your boat) is likely via your chart plotter connected to a weather receiver, benefiting from a subscription to a service provided by a satellite radio company such as Sirius (who uses WSI) or XM (who uses Baron via WxWorx). 
 
While both services offer stand-alone satellite receivers, to get the maximum benefit out of them, you'll want to integrate them with a display like the one on your chart plotter. You can receive XM on Garmin, Maptech (they offer Sirius as well), Marine PC, Capt. Jacks, VEI and others, and through WxWorx, operating on PCs and PDAs. Sirius bundles with Furuno, Raymarine, Northstar, etc. When combining weather info with your chart plotter, your chosen brand of electronics will dictate whose weather service you'll use.
 
If you don't use a chart plotter (be still my heart ?), you have the option of using those stand-alone weather screens that can provide the information in a text (rather than visual) format.
 
In addition to the aforementioned two weather-provider powerhouses, other weather info sources include SkyMate (hardware, software and subscription service; www.skymate.com), Ocens (WeatherNet, assorted software, etc.; www.ocens.com), Xaxero (weather fax and satellite service; www.xaxero.com), the NOAA/NWS - National Weather Service (www.weather.gov/view/validprods.php) and their Satellite Services Division (www.ssd.noaa.gov), Weather Underground (www.wunderground.com), Crown Weather (www.crownweather.com) and still others. 
 
Most meteorological outlets use data in GRIB format (GRIdded Binary -- a mathematically concise data format commonly used in meteorology to store historical and forecasted weather data, allowing for rapid download of charts). Go to GRIB US (www.gribus.com) for free software to make your own charts on DOS-based PCs.

Available Features
So what valuable stuff can you get from the info provided by Sirius or XM who got it from The Weather Channel who got it from WSI or Barons who got (some of) it from the NOAA/NWS (ah, what a tangled web)? Let's take a close look at the two services.
 
Sirius offers three levels of service: Mariner, Voyager and Professional. They can be purchased monthly, seasonally (six months) or annually and require a one-time activation fee of $50. Information in the Mariner package ($59.99, $359.94, $719.88 respectively for month, season or year) includes weather radar (updated every five minutes), lightning-strike info, tropical storm tracks, sea-surface temperature, marine-zone forecasts, buoy reports, surface features and pressure forecasts (present, 12- and 24-hour), plus forecast wave heights, direction and periods on three-hour increments to 24 hours, forecast winds on the same schedule and more. 
 
XM WX has four levels or packages: Skywatch, Fisherman, Sailor and Master Mariner. The Fisherman package requires a one-time $50 activation fee and costs $29.99 monthly. The service includes radar coverage, surface observations, marine-zone forecasts, buoy data, sea-surface temperature, wave heights, surface pressure and more. The Master Mariner package, more in line with the Sirius Voyager package price-wise ($49.99 monthly), includes pretty much everything the Sirius package features. WxWorx also offers an end-of-season suspension package that allows you to keep the basic service for free and enables you to restart in the next season without paying the activation charge.

And That's Not All, Folks
Of course, maybe you're quite happy with the NWS reports you pull down from your computer the night before your trip. You can get most of the info in text format, and if you can actually read the font that the NOAA/NWS uses without going blind, the info is as good as it gets. But - and it's a big "but" with fishing - maybe you only need the water temperature for the areas you'll be fishing. Northeastern anglers spend all spring, summer and fall out at the canyons chasing warm-core eddies spinning off from the Gulf Stream, and the only way this is possible is via satellite photos showing water temperature. 
 
There are a lot of ways to access this information. You can avail yourself of the government's MODIS system (Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer) for starters (oceancolor.gsfc.nasa.gov;  modis.gsfc.nasa.gov/data/directbrod/index.php), but you'll need to know what you're looking at.
 
You can also go to www.sstcharts.com, where the free charts even have a lat/lon locator on them; move your mouse over the chart, and the lat/lon you're pointing at reads in two boxes below the chart. The site also has other charts available for free as well. 
 
Rutgers University (www.marine.rutgers.edu has temperature and chlorophyll charts as recent as the past hour in some cases. 
 
Then there are outfits like SST (www.sstol.com) that allow members to access their most current charts from an Internet-capable color cell phone or PDA. Membership is $149 for a season, April 15 to Nov. 15. Terrafin (www.terrafin.com; a year-round service) offers a $99 membership and covers the continental United States and much of Mexican waters.
 
There are also more sophisticated options such as those offered by ROFFS (Roffer's Ocean Fishing Forecasting Service, (www.roffs.com), which collate, interpret and analyze environmental data and send it to you via e-mail or fax. Services like this have been a mainstay for serious offshore anglers as long as there have been fax machines around to receive the info. However, today's electronics make this information available on your boat as well. Here's a big caveat: To date, none of the electronic weather services do as good a job of interpreting the information as subscription services such as ROFFS or Offshore. It's one thing to see the color gradients and let your cursor tell you the water temperature. It's another to know what that means for your fishing productivity.

Then ?
All the fancy downloading will - eventually - put you where you need to be on the water, but then what? Well, there's one more piece of equipment that no serious angler should be without and that's an accurate temperature sensor. You can have all the lat/lon, Loran numbers and colored charts, but you still need a means of telling you where the lines of temperature differ - no matter how accurate the info you have. 
 
Stubbornly following where a temperature is supposed to be makes no more sense than going without the information. So once on the water, search with your temp sensor (yes, a thermometer is a temp sensor), and look for actual differences in temperatures and trends because you'll want to be where the temps vary the widest. 
 
Most sounders have the ability to display temperatures either via the transducer or from a separate and dedicated sensor. The latter mount the same as the transducer - either thru-hull or transom-mount. A dedicated or add-on temperature transducer doesn't require any fairing; it just needs to be located where it remains in touch with the water. 
 
Now, check the weather and head out to that spot that only your weather service knows about and go catch some fish.