What to Do When You’re Outside With Thunder and Lightning

Watching for a squall, thunderstorm, or increasingly strong winds is prudent; be prepared to head in long before a situation gets bad. Photo © Ken Schultz

Although all types of storms pose danger to anglers, a thunderstorm is the most likely weather event to be encountered by people who fish, particularly in summer and in the afternoon or evening. Lightning is the leading cause of weather-related deaths and a high cause of weather-related injuries. Approximately one in four lightning strikes on humans happens to people involved in recreation; many are on or near water.

To avoid becoming a statistic, anglers should watch the sky for signs of an impending storm, get off the water early and especially if they hear thunder, and pick the proper places for refuge on land. Here is specific advice and info.

Check the Forecast

Whenever there’s the slightest chance of a thunderstorm, the first safety precaution to take is to check the latest weather forecast and keep an eye on the sky. Recognize the signs of an impending storm: towering thunderheads, darkening skies, lightning, and increasing wind. Tune into an NOAA weather radio, the weather band of a VHF radio, or an AM-FM radio if you can, for the latest weather information. If you have cell phone reception and subscribe to a weather app, you may get an alert as a text message. It is, incidentally, safe to use a cell phone or cordless phone during a thunderstorm, but not a corded phone.

Don’t Delay; Take Refuge 

When a thunderstorm threatens, getting inside a home, large building, or enclosed vehicle (not a convertible or the bed of a truck) is the best course of action. This is usually not possible for anglers unless they act well in advance of a storm. Many people put themselves in unnecessary danger by waiting too long to take action when a thunderstorm approaches.

Anglers who are wading or who are along the bank or shore need to get out of and away from the water. Anglers in boats should quickly get to a safe place on land whenever possible. If not possible, they may be able to get out of the storm’s path by moving, but only if they act well ahead of its arrival. You cannot outrun a thunderstorm that is close. To do so you need to know what direction the storm is moving in, so running is only effective on large bodies of water, and when storms do not cover wide expanses.

Stay Low, Avoid Metal

If you are caught outside on land, do not stand underneath an isolated tree, a telephone pole, or isolated objects, or near power lines or metal fences. Avoid projecting above the surrounding landscape. In a forest, seek shelter in a low area under a thick growth of small trees. In open areas, go to a low place, such as a ravine or valley. If you’re in a group in the open, spread out, keeping people 5 to 10 yards apart. Stay away from metal and do not carry or raise any objects, particularly metal objects or graphite rods. Remove any metal objects from your hair or head, and remove metal-cleated boots.

Do Not Lie Down

Lightning may strike up to 10 miles from the center of the storm, so precautions should be taken even though the parent cloud is not directly overhead. If you are caught in the open far from shelter and if you feel your hair stand on end, lightning may be about to strike you. Drop to your knees and bend forward, putting your hands on your knees. Do not lie flat on the ground. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), “running may help reduce the threat from ground current as it limits the time both feet are on the ground at any one time.”

If you are stuck in a boat (you should already have donned your PFD), and the same thing happens, or your fishing rod begins to buzz or the line rises out of the water, lightning is about to strike. Immediately drop your rod, crouch down, lean forward, and put your hands on your knees, making sure not to touch anything else in the boat.

The reason behind these positions, instead of lying flat, is that when lightning strikes, it seeks the quickest way through the object it strikes. The more things that you touch or have contact with, the more lightning will travel through the body in an effort to seek a way out.

Wait 30 Minutes After the Storm

Many lightning strikes occur without the warning of thunder, so precautions are necessary even when there is no thunder. When there is both thunder and lightning, you can tell how many miles the lightning is from your position by counting the seconds between the sound of the thunder and the sight of the lightning, then dividing that by five. Nevertheless, scientists say that if you can hear thunder, then you are in range of being struck and that you can be struck by lightning even if the center of the storm is 10 miles away. 

The CDC says that the beginning and end of a storm are the most dangerous times and that there may still be the lightning danger even when you see blue sky. The National Weather Service says that more than 50 percent of lightning deaths occur after the storm has passed.

For good information about the causes of, and preparedness for, thunderstorms, lightning, and tornadoes, read the pdf at this NOAA site.