North Fork Outdoors: Unpredictable weather calls for preparedness

“Will it ever really be spring?” has certainly been the cry heard throughout the East this year. Just when we think it’s arrived (I’m penning this column as the mercury rises into the 70s today.) our hopes get dashed.

When I started from our upstate farm last Sunday night, it was 34 degrees, and the peepers and frogs, singing that afternoon, were silent. This year has been particularly difficult, what with frozen pipes and unusual snow events, but there’s still an upside for cod fishing or spring skiing. Snow on upstate hills lasted through Easter, and water temperatures in the 40s made for what many anglers said was the best cod season they’d enjoyed in decades.

Big swings in temperature are nothing new, although they are exacerbated today by our changing climate. On the North Fork, despite occasional summer temperatures in April, we know that, thanks to the ocean climate, winter isn’t really over until Memorial Day, especially on the water. During the ’70s and the ’80s when winter flounder fishing was so good (This was 20 years before over-exploitation caused stocks to crash) friends from back west would drive out to fish with us in the Peconics in mid-April.

One Easter weekend, Ernie Marshall from Holbrook joined us, dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, as noon temperatures off Southold went to the mid-90s, a record for that date. A couple of years later, in early May, we joined another friend, Ed Schiller from Cutchogue, for an excursion off Robins Island, looking for the first weakfish of the season. The deck of his small boat was covered with frost when we arrived, and we fished with heavy, waterproof gloves all morning. The winds ripped out of the northwest all day and temperatures never got out of the 40s. Sound flounder fishing in May with the Captain Bob or Peconic Star or Brand X were the same way. You never knew what to expect!

Under such circumstances, the duffel bag of gear you bring into the outdoors or aboard a small craft is important, maybe more important than the tackle you carry. The age-old principle of layering governs what you wear, and you’d better think hard about what you can put on or remove. If you’re lucky, very lucky, your boat has a cabin where you can remove coveralls and “rubberized” outerwear (foul weather gear like Grundgens or Helly Hansens) temporarily to get at the clothing underneath.

If not, you’ll have to brave the elements to change and carry a good waterproof carry bag to stash anything you take off. Fortunately for those in the outdoors today, underwear is far lighter and far more versatile than it was even a generation ago. Some of the thermal undergarments we wear today and many of our “polar fleece” garments handle a wide range of temperatures, so you can work comfortably unless the mercury swings 30 degrees or more. Footgear, gloves, and caps are a matter of individual preference and comfort. Wide or narrow feet, good or poor circulation, and coordination — all these dictate how you finish dressing. I hate thick, clumsy gloves, but wet fingers get cold in a hurry. Do I wear “Glacier Gloves,” wool gloves with finger cut-outs, or simply carry a bunch of full-fingered woolen gloves so I can switch them during the day? Do I want woolen scarves or “Turtle Fur” neck liners — a choice between traditional (dorky?) style and skiwear? How hard it is to decide whether to wear rubber boots and heavy socks in double layers or snowmobiler’s boots that get “slopped up” after a day on deck!

Perhaps the only activity whose discomfort level under trying conditions compares with late fall wildfowl hunting or early spring saltwater angling is horseback riding. We haul all sorts of gear and tack with us when we judge field trials or run dogs, and often fight cold and rain for hours on end. One of my solutions is to “schlep” a couple of coats, multiple pairs of boots and gloves, and several sets of rain gear to handle the full range of precipitation from gentle mist to typhoon.

No matter what the page says on the calendar, my carry bag has jeans and light wash pants, T-shirts and flannel shirts, lightweight and thermal underwear, ball caps and watch caps, light cotton work gloves and lined skiing gloves. Often friends laugh when they see my pile in the tack room of the horse trailer.

I still remember the day in mid-May two years ago when we pulled in to a trial in Freeland, Pa., high up in the Poconos. The first day was hot, and I took lots of kidding about my gear. Then came Sunday when a 40 mph wind blew from the northwest and the temperature stayed in the mid-30s all day long.

No surprise; the kidding stopped!

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