Getting hit by lightning is not worth the few extra fish.
It was in the summer of 1987. Bill Selby, a fishing buddy of mine, and I were floating on the lower end of Little Piney Creek near Newburg, Missouri.
It was late afternoon and we could hear thunder in the distance. We had rented a canoe from a guy who lived just outside Newburg and we were determined to hit the late afternoon smallmouth between Newburg and Jerome before dark.
We were in a 16’ Grumman aluminum canoe. One half-hour later, we were smack in the middle of one of the worst thunderstorms I have ever been in. There were cloud to ground lightning strikes all around us. The air had a charred odor to it.
Selby was in the front of the canoe and while I did not see Rosary beads, I think I heard him reciting some “Hail Marys,” hopefully for both of us. It was that scary.
We debated what to do. Would the metal canoe attract lightning? Should we continue fishing? Should we get out and stand on the shore or under a tree or should we get inside a huge road culvert just downstream and hang on the metal sides of the culvert until the storm passed?
Obviously, we survived. And frankly, the “Hail Marys” may have done the trick for both of us, but at the time, it seemed to be purely a matter of luck that we made it.
In fact, just about all of the choices we were considering would not have helped had we been within 20 yards of a strike.
So what should someone do in that situation? Well, there is plenty of advice available.
Two of the more reliable sources on the subject of lightning safety are the National Lightning Safety Institute (www.lightningsafety.com) and a website known as www.struckbylightning.org.
Let’s see what the experts have to say.
First of all, for clarification, there are three types of lightning strikes that can injure you. We have the “direct hit,” which humans rarely survive; the “side flash,” in which a lightning bolt splits off from the main bolt as it goes to ground; and the “ground strike,” in which the electric charge spreads on the ground away from the point of contact after the bolt has reached the ground.
Generally, the side flash will extend no more than eight to ten feet to the side from the main bolt. The ground strike, however, can spread up to 100 feet from the point of contact between the main bolt and the ground.
Ninety percent of all injuries from lightning strikes come from the side flash and ground strike.
The best advice, and not the easiest to accept, would be to forego fishing that day if thunderstorms are forecasted for the area where you will be fishing.
But sometimes weather forecasts are not accurate or too sketchy to be taken seriously, so let’s assume the storm surprises everyone as it did us on that summer afternoon in 1987.
Now you are in the middle of that fishing trip on the Little Piney. The experts would say if you can hear thunder, you are within 10 miles of a potential lightning source and you are already at risk.
Lightning strikes have occurred ten miles from the source of the thunder — that is what is meant by a “bolt out of the blue.” They do occur.
The experts would say that if you hear thunder, you need to take action now. And that means first to get off the water as soon as possible.
Water conducts electricity. A lightning bolt that hits the water 20 feet away can spread laterally on the water and you could be electrocuted even if not directly hit.
As long as you are still in the metal canoe, you are at risk not because the metal canoe will attract a lightning bolt but rather because the metal on the canoe will conduct electricity if the strike on the water spreads laterally, and if any part of your body is touching the metal on the canoe.
Likewise, if you were to steer your boat into the road culvert downstream and you were to hold onto the edges of the metal culvert to keep the boat inside the culvert as we considered doing, you could still get shocked by holding on the metal culvert if there is a lateral effect to a bolt of lightning nearby.
According to the National Lightning Safety Institute, fishermen in boats are probably more likely to be hit by lightning than golfers. Perhaps that’s because you are the only thing sticking up out of the water.
On the golf course, on the other hand, there usually are plenty of nearby trees to take a direct hit rather than you.
Nuff said, right? Get out of the boat and out of the water.
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Okay, so you beach the boat. Now what? First, you do not want to continue fishing.
Waiving a fishing pole toward a thundercloud may be sending a “positive streamer” toward those negative electrons pooling under the storm cloud. More about that later.
Just put the poles in the canoe and look for a place of safety. If there is a nearby building that has a metal roof and grounded sides to the building, that would be a safe place so long as your body is not touching the walls of the building and so long as you are not touching the plumbing or other metal fixtures inside the building.
An open-air pavilion is usually not a grounded building and would not offer any protection. If you have an opportunity to get in a car, that would be a relatively safe choice so long as you are careful not to be touching the sides of the car.
By the way, rubber tires on a car do not insulate you from a lightning strike. Rather, it is that the electric current goes directly from the top of the car around the metal sides to the ground.
If you are in a car, roll the windows all the way up and cover your ears. Do not touch the radio or GPS system. You can, however, use your cell phone so long as it is not plugged in to the car.
If a nearby building or car is not available, you are best off if you stand in a grove of trees so long as they do not include the tallest trees in the area. You definitely do not want to be standing next to the tallest tree.
But let’s suppose you have no grove of trees nearby. It is just the two of you, on the shore, without shelter. Here is where the experts seemingly disagree.
One school of thought is that you should first separate yourselves by at least 20 feet. Next, you should “assume the position.”
This is commonly referred to as the “lightning strike squat.” It means to squat down, without putting your hands on the ground, so that only your feet are making contact with the ground.
In fact, some say it would be preferable to be squatting only on the balls of your feet but that can be difficult and probably not realistic.
Others suggest that you should put your feet together, which will prevent a ground strike from traveling up one leg into your body and down the other.
All of the experts seem to at least agree that you definitely do not want to be lying flat on the ground because this would expose your entire body to a ground strike.
I used to fish a lot in Montana and I experienced some pretty frightening lightning on the Yellowstone River in the late afternoon.
If a thundercloud were overhead, our guide would make us get out of the drift boat and out of the water, put the fly rods down, spread out and “assume the position.”
The last thing he would say is, “If you feel the hair on your head begin to rise, you are about to buy the ranch.”
He wasn’t kidding. The technical explanation for this phenomena is that objects on the ground, including you and the hair on your body, are attracted to the electromagnetic pull created by the build-up of negative electrons in the storm cloud overhead.
This means your body is sending a positive streamer toward that cloud — an invitation or path, if you will, for that bolt of lightning to come from the cloud down to the ground right through your body.
So, what is the other school of thought on what you should do when you have no nearby shelter? You are to keep walking or running until you do find appropriate shelter, even if it is a mile or two away.
The idea apparently is that by squatting, you are wasting valuable time. Frankly, this advice, while well-intended, is not realistic in my view.
First of all, in order to continue running or walking, you are “more elevated” and perhaps more exposed than if squatting. And who is to say that the energy expended in running or walking fast during a storm does not trigger a strike?
Obviously, there have not been many human experiments to test this issue. I am no expert, but for now, if I am caught out in the open, I will continue to squat, thank you very much.
While there may be some disagreement on what to do in a lightning storm once you are off the water, we can surely agree that you need to get off the water.
Getting hit by lightning is not worth the few extra fish.
(Bill Hoagland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)