It’s been a windy December, so rough lately that it’s been hard to get out and fish. After yet another strong nor’easter blew through this week, the wind finally came down. Hoping for some cold weather catch & release action, my son Daniel and I broke the ice Wednesday and launched Thunder Road at the Shipping Creek ramp on Kent Island to do some Mid-Bay exploring. We didn’t find many fish – one twenty-four-inch striper to be exact – but we enjoyed our time on the water.  The Chesapeake was as flat as I’ve ever seen it. We could see for miles across the glass. In places where we could get an unobstructed view of the horizon, we couldn’t tell where the water ended and the blue sky began. I’ve noticed that the waters of the Bay seem calmer and bluer on cold winter days.  Sometimes I think I can see farther this time of year.  It turns out there’s an interesting scientific explanation.

On a particularly clear morning last week I made an offhand remark on an internet discussion list about how far I could see. This prompted an interesting response and subsequent conversation about visibility with my friend Leland, who doubles as an environmental scientist when he isn’t out fishing. I mentioned that from my vantage point as a passenger in a car at the top of the Bay Bridge I could see as far south as Cove Point and up the Bay all the way past the mouth of the Bush River.  Leland responded that I was correct in my observation because it had been one of the top ten clearest days of the year.  He told me that the approximate maximum visibility for this area is 74 miles, but that it’s hardly ever possible to see that far.

Since visibility is often best on the days immediately following a strong winter weather system, Daniel and I caught perfect conditions Wednesday to see the Chesapeake in all its winter splendor. As we rounded the southern tip of Kent Point and cruised across the hard bottoms surrounding Poplar Island we started seeing hundreds of sea ducks. Buffleheads, scoters, canvasbacks, and a few old squaws left long trails behind them as took flight ahead of my 27 Judge center console.

As we cut cleanly across the glass with birds flying off in every direction, Daniel asked me if I thought the cold temperatures had anything to do with the dramatic appearance of the wakes the ducks make as they take flight across the water. The ripples linger for so long it looks like they’re taking off across a bowl of blue jello. I told Daniel I thought it probably had more to do with the lack of wind and the fact that there was very little boat traffic on the Bay. Later, I got to thinking about that.  The more I considered it, the more I wondered if winter conditions might change the appearance of the surface of the Bay on still, cold days.  With some time to kill this weekend, I hit the books in search of an answer.

Surface water temperatures were approximately 35 degrees Fahrenheit when Daniel and I were out fishing.  In my reading, I discovered that fresh water is at its maximum density at around 39 degrees.  It takes even lower temperatures to get to maximum density in salty water.  Since the water in the Mid-Bay is somewhat salty, we saw it about as dense as it ever gets. Not as dense as jello, but you get the picture. Okay, so maybe we’re on to something.

I then took a look at something called refractive index. In a nutshell, it’s the measurement of the speed of light through a given substance.  For science geeks, the formula is n = velocity of light in a vacuum/velocity of light in a medium. Now, get this – as the density of a liquid increases, so does its refractive index.  In other words, the molecules in dense water are more reluctant to absorb light and more likely to bend it.

Reflection is another consideration.  Everyone knows that still water reflects more light than water that is disturbed by wind, rain, etc.  When the increased light of a clear winter day reflects off water that is denser (with higher refractive index), it undergoes a polarity inversion so that we are more likely to see more reds and violets.  Camera lenses are especially sensitive to the preferential reflection of these two colors.  Have you noticed that your winter fishing photos have more of a purplish tinge?  Throw in the fact that sunlight hits the water at a steeper angle in the winter reflecting even more light, and you have the perfect recipe for a multi-dimensional cold-weather Chesapeake kaleidoscope.

So, yes, indeed, there’s more to it than just a lack of boat traffic on a calm day. Winter conditions make the Bay look different. On cold, clear, calm days colors are more vivid, the water reflects more spectacularly, and we can see things farther away. (Click the photos in this report to see them in high resolution.) The view alone is reason enough to get out there.  Of course, a better reason would be if the rockfish were biting.  When that happens I’ll be spending a lot less time reading science books and a lot more fishing. Hopefully, it will be soon!

Posted Friday, December 31st, 2010 at 9:18 pm
Filed Under Category: Fishing Reports
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Responses to “Across the Glass”

  1. Zink says:

    Thanks for another great article! We were out in the Solomons area this past Thursday where it was incredibly flat, cold, and uneventful! A beautiful day on the water anyway and worth it to see all the ducks on the water.

  2. Jake Winstead says:

    I love seeing the water that smooth. I noticed a difference in the winter too but didn’t know why. Thanks for this.

  3. Rivercat says:

    Absolutely gorgeous pictures Shawn! Good work!


  4. Daniel says:

    I been sayin’ I was a genius for years…

  5. Mike says:

    Wow! Pictures are awesome. thanks

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