Years ago, I was guiding some ladies from Georgia. We put in at Warm Springs access, along the lower Madison, and began our drift. I was working with the mother and daughter in law while my guide buddy took the dad and son. They quickly headed north, down the river.
The sun was out, the fishing was fine, and all was well until… This section of the river narrows through a canyon. You can’t see great distances to see what weather is on the way. The sun was shining but a dark black thunderstorm landed on us out of nowhere.
I quickly beached the drifty boat and grabbed a small tarp. Just up the bank was a clump of sturdy cedar trees. I tied the tarp between the trees for shelter. I also gave each lady a boat cushion. The tarp was small, so I stayed in the boat as the storm whipped up.
The rain was filling my boat and the wind was furious. Now came the hail. I have never seen so much hail. In moments, the river and ground were covered in hail. I grabbed my seat cushion and put it on my head. I held the straps like an old lady’s bonnet. My clients were excited but dry and out of danger. I grabbed a couple small cups and put some hail balls into them. I was carrying some Wild Turkey whiskey along, for medicinal reasons, and poured some into their Big Sky Cocktails.
The girls were in chest waders and comfortable snuggled amongst the cedars. They used the seat cushions to sit on and sang some songs. The weirdest part of this story was that the fish began rising like crazy once the waters were free of hailstones. The temperature change stimulated a baetis hatch! Fishing was amazing. It took me awhile to drain the boat and regroup but all was well. The dad and son quit fishing and took cover in my truck, at the takeout.
Hail begins as sleet or graupel. Strong wind updrafts blow the hail upward where the air is freezing. Hail balls form as the hail falls back to earth. South Dakota has the record for the largest hail ball at 7.6 inches in diameter. The heaviest hail stone fell in Bangladesh and weighed 2.2 lbs. Either one of these hailstones could certainly do some damage or kill someone.
The most hail falls in Nebraska, Colorado, and Wyoming. These states get maybe 7-9 hail storms a year. Ironically the most hailstorms happen in Kenya! 50 hailstorms a year are common.
If you are driving when a hail event happens, pull off the road. Avoid taking shelter near trees since lightning and winds can make them dangerous. Stay in the vehicle and lean away from the glass. If you have coats or blankets, cover up in case glass gets broken and flies around. Watch for flooding. Flash floods can happen when drains and gutters get clogged with hail.
The good news is that hail shows up on the back ends of thunderstorms. This means that they don’t last long. If you are outdoors, look for shelter in clumps of bushes and cedars. A slanted tarp will direct the hail away from you. Protect your head with clothes or your pack.
To Hail with it!