A Dangerous Day on Matagoda

Jim Gann
A Dangerous Day on Matagoda

We received this story from Jim Gann of Bay City, TX. Jim is a retired technical manager from Celanese Chemical Co. who fi shes 4-5 days per week on the bays near Matagorda. Jim and his fishing buddy, Buzzy Romine, endured a harrowing experience that nearly ended in tragedy. With Jim’s permission we are presenting it here as a service to our readers. While none of us are weather experts, doing the right thing during a dangerous storm could save your life. There are many excellent sources listed here in Jim’s story that we would encourage readers to explore. Good luck and good fishing… take appropriate caution and be safe out there. Many thanks to Jim and Buzzy for sharing this tale.

This story begins in the Denver International Airport on June 4, 2007. We had just spent a three day weekend with our daughter and family, especially our nine year old grandson. The whole weekend had been taken watching The Arvada West Wildcats compete in a baseball tournament. Now we sat waiting for our flight to Houston Hobby and my mind turned to Matagorda Bay where I spend a great deal of my time. I began wondering if my fishing buddies have been catching my share of the fish. Has the weather been cooperating? What will the weather be tomorrow?

I grabbed a window seat as I usually do for the two hour flight. Our captain mentioned that we would be flying at 39,000 feet to avoid storms. During the middle part of our flight over New Mexico and North Texas I saw nothing but clouds below. Upon arriving in Houston I noticed water standing on the runway. Our shuttle driver said they had a heavy shower that morning but the weather was clear now. After arriving at our ranch near Matagorda I noticed no indication of rain or other bad weather since we had left three days earlier.

About 4:00 PM fishing buddy and neighbor, Buzzy Romine, called to see if I could go the next morning. He said weather forecasts indicated it was going to be a good day. I told Buzzy I would like to go if everything checked out with the ranch operations, animals, etc. We agreed to talk again early evening. After watching the weather forecast I called Buzzy agreeing that tomorrow would be a good day. Each forecast indicated diminishing chance of rain the next three days.

Buzzy and I alternate trips in our respective Gulf Coast Boats. On this day we would be going in his boat which he keeps at the Matagorda Harbor. His boat is a 23-foot Gulf Coast Vari-side which he has equipped with large-screen color GPS and satellite weather radar. This feature served us well last fall when an approaching front almost caught us in the bay. It was a day I will never forget because I lacked only two trout of finishing out limits on trout, redfish and flounder. We knew the front was close, but I wanted to catch the trout for bragging rights with my fishing friends. We noticed the weather beginning to build back toward the nuclear plant to the north. Buzzy went back to the boat, turned on the electronics and became very alarmed. He quickly picked me up and we barely got back to the Diversion Canal before we ran into strong north winds.

On the morning of June 5 I went to my fishing camp to get
my gear. It was too early for weather on local TV. I met Buzzy at Russell’s Bait Camp at the harbor in Matagorda shortly after 5:00 AM. We had our cup of coffee and talked about the trip. Buzzy said he had seen the radar and we were in the clear except for a storm out near Del Rio, some 250-300 miles away. It was expected to proceed to South Texas. Our weather continued to look outstanding with very light wind. While at Russell’s we met and visited with Jessie Deshotels and his two future brothers-in-law, age 17 and 12. The 12 year old told me this was his first trip offshore. They were planning a trip about 65 miles into the Gulf of Mexico. I told him it looked like a good day and wished him well.

At the first crack of daylight, Buzzy and I started loading his boat. During the process we met Captain Tommy Countz, Ray Denson, Captain Bobby Gardner, Mary Covington and Don Carpenter who were boarding Tommy’s boat for a trip into West Bay. I later found out they were going after tripletail, which would take them further west than we planned on going.

Buzzy carefully picked his was through the swing bridge, river locks and Diversion Canal into West Bay. He wanted to know where I thought we should begin our day and I suggested a place near the first Cullen House where we had caught several nice trout in the previous two weeks. The place is referred to in our crowd as “Jim’s Hole” since they see me fishing there often. Buzzy agreed and maneuvered his boat into the spot as we have done on many occasions.

The wind was very light but, to my surprise, from the northwest. We began to fish using our modified Rebel jointed minnows, a lure that almost always works for us in this location. For the next two hours we were picking up nice eating size trout sporadically, but often enough to keep our interest. Once, when they started hitting almost constantly, we looked up to see a pod of dolphins invading our playpen. Needless to say this shut down our catching for awhile.

As things slowed down I noticed I was getting pretty warm and was appreciative of some low level clouds that formed along a line similar to the shoreline of the peninsula. Soon it began to rain in large scattered drops, not enough to really get us wet, just damp and cool. The wind stopped altogether and it was getting very hot. The light rain was obviously coming from the low clouds and would soon disappear.

By now the trout bite had slowed to an occasional strike
and I decided to move nearer the boat and an oyster reef to try for a flounder. Buzzy turned to fish in the gut that reaches back into the peninsula. It was at this moment that we experienced a bolt of lightning that streaked across the sky but did not reach the ground. It was however very near and very loud.

I immediately stepped onto the bank, unhooked my stringer of trout and laid my rod on the ground while calling for Buzzy to join me. He was about 200 feet away and several more lightning strikes occurred before he could get to the bank. He did the same with his stringer and rod and laid down about five feet from me. We were lying in the grass with a small knoll of sand, shell and driftwood that stood about 1-2 feet above our heads.

The lightning bolts were now frequent and loud, striking the ground nearby. It was also raining hard. With no tarp or rain gear we were uncomfortable and cold but mostly we were scared. I have been caught many times in similar storms that usually cease in a few minutes. This time the lightning bolts seemed to be continuous and striking very near.

I was remembering a story from angler friend, Tony Hamilton. Some years before he saw another angler and partner being struck by lightning very near to him. On that occasion the angler was killed and his partner was knocked unconscious and they had to remain with the two victims for almost two hours for the storm to let up. Buzzy and I remained there on the ground for about 30 minutes when suddenly lightning seemed to strike very near although I never actually saw it hit the ground. After a second or two Buzzy’s upper body sort of lurched toward me and I called out, “Buzzy, did it hit you?”

“I believe it did, Jim,” he replied cradling his head in his hands.

Buzzy was straining and taking deep breaths as we do when we are trying to ward off pain. I could see no obvious wound and turned him partly toward me and felt his back.

“Wow, I wouldn’t want to do that again,” Buzzy managed with a groan.

The lightning strikes increased and now were continuous. I was afraid Buzzy would try to stand up and I did not know if I could restrain him; luckily he stayed down. I began firing any question at him I could think of just to make conversation and hopefully keep him awake and coherent. Although he was sluggish he was responsive and kept cautioning me to not get up.

“I’ll be alright Jim, whatever happens don’t get up,” he said over and over.

It continued to storm and then we experienced what I believe was a tornado or water spout. Indeed, Ray Denson later told me they saw three water spouts right on top of us. He actually took a picture of them.

The winds blew very strong in a circular motion and the rain became ice cold. The lightning would just not let up. Buzzy began to breathe real hard and shake badly from the cold. I talked to him about rain gear or a tarp he might have in the boat. He could not remember.

I was pretty sure he had both in the nearby boat because on a previous trip in his boat he had loaned me a windbreaker. We had also discussed the possibility of just such an event happening. I told him it was routine for me to keep a small (10 x 10) plastic tarp in my boat and I frequently would get on the back and under the tarp to wait out storms.

Knowing Buzzy I was pretty sure he had both a tarp and rain gear in his boat, if I could just get to it. I mustered the courage a couple of times but the lightning would just not let up. Also, during the water spout the water level dropped at least a foot, maybe a foot-and-a-half. The boat was stuck in the mud and we’d left it in nearly three feet of water when we parked it.

Finally, about an hour after Buzzy had been struck, I was able to get to the boat and search for a tarp and rain gear. It was still very dark and while expecting a lightning bolt to strike the boat any second all I could find was a pair of waders and some towels which I carried hurriedly back to cover Buzzy.

That’s when the storm seemed to get it’s second wind and it started all over again. It was at this point that we experienced the second water spout/tornado and we were blue and freezing. I slid us both down into the water for the warmth. This helped for a while but when the water level came rushing back we had to move higher to keep our heads above the surface.

Buzzy seem to drift in and out of consciousness. After repeated questioning he believed the rain gear was stored under the leaning post and the plastic sheet was in a box under the console. After another 20-30 minutes the storm eased up again and I was able to get the gear to warm him up. One Houston TV station reported that there had been over 14,000 lightning strikes in West Matagorda Bay that morning.

As the storm moved on we were faced with the decision of
whether to start in or stay put for a while. It was improving where we were but it looked bad back toward Matagorda. Finally it was a go situation. Buzzy was able to transport himself to the boat while leaning on me. He seemed to be getting better as he warmed up.

I called Matagorda County Commissioner, George Deshotels, since his number was in my cell phone. He did not answer but the call was switched over to the JP’s office and I asked them to notify EMS to meet us at the swing bridge. Just as I got our boat on plane and came out of the bayou, coincidentally, we intercepted Tommy Countz and party who had taken refuge at two different houses further down the bay as they waited out the storm. After quickly explaining our dilemma, Captain Bobby Gardner jumped into our boat and drove us to the swing bridge while I sat in the back with Buzzy to make sure he didn’t fall out.

Both Matagorda and Bay City EMS met us at the bridge and took Buzzy into their care, transporting him to Matagorda General Hospital in Bay City. After informing his family, Bobby Gardner and I stored his boat in the harbor boathouse. For the first time in about three hours since the incident began, I felt a little relieved.

It was now about noon. After storing our gear at my camp and getting some dry clothes I took off for the hospital. One of the first people I ran into was Dr. Andy Sher, another of our fishing buddies, who assured me that Buzzy would be OK. They had been and would be continuing to run tests to confirm this.

George Deshotels was there and I inquired about his son, Jessie, and his two young fishermen. George has not been able to talk to them since they were out of range for their telephone. He was plenty worried.

Finally Jesse and the two youngsters made it back to port with tales of terrible conditions for about three hours at sea. His two passengers were terrified in the 12 foot seas and constant lightning. Jessie was too but had to remain at the controls to fight the storm. His boat sustained substantial damage, but it brought them through. A little more than two months passed when Jessie and the two boys returned to the gulf for some excellent fishing.

They kept Buzzy in the hospital overnight. He experienced headaches and sore neck muscles for a few days. One of the tests they were running was to check for CPK in his blood. Normal level is around 200. The first test indicated this value was elevated to 280. Before leaving the hospital this value had risen to around 700, further blood test showed this value to be declining and was normal in about a week. In subsequent discussions with the attending physician I learned that CPK is createnine phosphor kinase, a muscle breakdown product. This constituent of the blood will increase after any trauma such as this or body injury from collisions or from extreme exercise. An excessive buildup would indicate major muscle damage called rhabdomyolysis. Normal response to minor damage is to return to normal after rest, as Buzzy did.

The end result is that Buzzy is fine and back to fishing as usual. He felt as I did that it was important to get back on the water as soon as possible to remove any feelings of “disconnect” we might have. We both felt that we should learn as much as possible from the experience so that we can continue to enjoy this great activity that adds so much quality to our lives.

Everyone I had conversations with immediately after the incident said we did exactly what they understood to be the best course of action when caught in a similar situation. Two mentioned that they had heard it was better to crouch down and stay on your feet instead of lying down. Another questioned our getting into the water, while another said he always just got into the water with only his head above the surface. So, figuring we had a strong warning call, I set about to gather as much information as possible.

First let me say I have been fishing the Texas coast for over seven decades now and I expect to continue as long as I can. That means the weather is always a factor and lightning storms are a part of it. So to that end I have sought information from every source I could find. We downloaded anything we could find on the internet, received some material from the Matagorda County Emergency Directory and the National Weather Service in Dickinson, Texas.

The internet is full of information from The National Lightning Safety Institute, NASA, National Ag Safety Database and The University of Florida. There is far too much to list it all here but I have summarized some key safety points for wade fishermen.

  1. Lightning can strike on what appears to be a clear day, traveling as much as 10 miles from a storm. If you can hear thunder you are somewhat at risk. Now everyone that fishes Texas bays knows that you will not get much fishing done if you run to port anytime you hear thunder, especially during the summer rainy season. Also, on this day, the first time we heard thunder it was directly overhead. Anytime you hear thunder, no matter how far away, it should put your weather sensory skills on high alert. Take notice of any movement and be prepared to seek shelter or move to a clear area. Our usual mistake is waiting too long, especially if we are in fish!
  2. Storms can move as fast as 60 miles per hour. The original storm may not proceed that fast but, as can be seen from radar scans, new storms can develop ahead of the main storm. In this case the storm literally crossed the state during a morning fi shing trip. Use all weather guidance you can gather; TV, internet, NOAA radio, National Weather Service, etc. Remember — I was less than 200 feet from our boat most of the morning and Buzzy has state-of-the-art electronics onboard. A simple mid-morning check could have alerted us to the storm’s presence. The storm we passed over on our return flight from Denver, the appearance of a storm near El Paso at bedtime, or the storm near Del Rio at 5:00 AM should have raised enough concern to at least check all sources we had available to us.
  3. Try to stay away from storms as much as possible. Take refuge in an automobile or closed building. Do not get under trees or open shelters. Do not stay in the boat; you would be the tallest object in the area.
  4. Always carry rain gear and a plastic tarp. Get on land, do not hold your fishing rod, and be sure to keep your profile as low as possible. The best recommendation is to crouch and remain on your feet, although I can’t crouch for two minutes and this storm lasted over two hours. I also believe the desire to lie down will trump the crouch theory when it seems like every bolt is very near.
  5. Stay out of the water, especially saltwater. I have on many occasions, including this one, gotten into the water for warmth. However, the information we have gathered indicates that water being a better conductor than land will transport the charge further. That being said, have a tarp or rain gear handy. I can not over-emphasize the extreme discomfort of being chilled to the bone which could lead to an irrational decision on what to do next.
These points are not for everybody. For instance, if you are a boat fisherman as opposed to a wader, you might want to consider a lightning arresting system for your boat. We found several references to this subject during our search for information. Apparently these are more common around Florida which is reputed to be the “lightning capital of the world.”

As I stated earlier, one’s tolerance for risk can reduce your fishing time but increase your safety factor. However, there are no completely safe days and people like us will still seek to maximize our fishing time.