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PAUL SMITH: Three winter supermoons in a row

Wow, the tide was so very high this morning. There was a new moon on Sunday, Jan. 6. All anglers of salty fish know that higher tides occur on new moons and full moons.

This can be good or sometimes bad for fishing, depending on a bunch of other circumstances, but for sure it is always important if you are fishing in the ocean or a tidal estuary.

We call moon phase generated high tides “springes”, at least here in Newfoundland. It’s our shortened dialect word for spring tides, and it doesn’t have anything to do with the spring season. Rather the context refers to spring forth, rise up, or burst forth. I’m sure you get it, the water rising up or springing up to the moon.

So what’s the skinny on the physics going on here? Why do higher tides occur on new and full moons? It’s got to do with gravity.

That’s the stuff that Isaac Newton wrote a book about in the 1600s and used the notion to explain why we can walk around the surface of a ball or sphere floating in space. After all, why don’t the crowd over in China fall off, because they are upside down compared to us.

This is a mighty high tide in Spaniard's Bay. — Paul Smith photo
This is a mighty high tide in Spaniard's Bay. — Paul Smith photo

How could you stand on the North Pole and also stand on the South Pole? Well, Newton explained that the Earth’s gravity attracts us all towards its centre. So, no matter where you are, the centre of the Earth is down, and you just don’t go floating off in space. Good news that is.

Ah, but there’s more. That magic gravity extends way beyond us earthbound creatures and critters. The Earth attracts the moon, and GPS satellites, space stations, and whatever else is out there. Not only that, but the moon attracts the Earth, and the sun and so on. Actually, everything attracts everything else in the whole universe. Things get complicated quickly. But it explains the ocean’s tides very nicely. Both the moon and the sun cause the oceans to bulge due to their gravitational attraction. When they line up, during either a full of new moon, their influence and strength is combined for maximum or spring tide. When the sun and moon are at right angles, during half moons, their gravitational strengths work against each other, and we get minimum or neap tides.

It could have been worse. It can always be worse. It was a lot worse a few years ago when our wharf got wiped out and destroyed by high seas during a spring tide in February. Never underestimate the power of the ocean. We did and we got burned. Actually this wharf has been damaged a few times and we are hoping that this iteration will survive. Easterly wind this morning would have been a robust trial.

Spring tides combined with onshore winds are a very dangerous mix for boaters and fishers with permanent infrastructure. This is very well understood here in Newfoundland and Labrador. We have been building wharves, stages, and breakwaters for centuries. There has been much trial and error, but no matter what you build, the ocean in the right set of circumstances is capable of destroying the fruits of your labour and investment.

The plot thickens. You could get a king tide in conjunction with high seas. That’s the super high sea level associated with a supermoon. That’s when the moon looks really big because it’s closer to the earth. The moon is nigh so its gravity pulls extra hard creating the absolute highest tides. And I thought the moon went around the Earth in a circle, so what gives here? It should be the same distance all the time. Not exactly, the moon’s orbit is an ellipse, more like an egg than an orange. At closest approach or perigee the moon is 225,088 miles from the Earth, as opposed to a most distant 252,623 apogee. That’s quite a hike, 27,535 miles, a good measure of extra gravity, and can make a difference between a wharf ending up elsewhere or not.

A big moon shines over my wharf. — Paul Smith photo
A big moon shines over my wharf. — Paul Smith photo

Moon perigees this winter are Jan. 21, Feb. 19, and March 19. Damn, Jan 21 is right on a full moon, so that’s a supermoon. I hope it’s a clear starry night so I can get out and photograph some craters. I pray to the gods that we don’t bloody get a strong east or southeast wind to kick up an ocean swell. That will be tough on our wharf. Its mettle will be measured for sure. We will see. Good Lord, Feb. 19 is another full moon. March 19 is 94.3 per cent full. We are going to have some whopping high tides this winter. Our wharves will be running the gauntlet. We are having three supermoons in a row at a time of year when the weather can be ferocious. Oh well.

Hey, there has to be a bright side, besides me loving to photograph supermoons. You know what? There’s not much better than a winter walk on snowshoes under a full moon, even better a supermoon. I know what I’ll do. I’ll hike to a high hill in the backcountry and capture a landscape shot of that supermoon rising over the woods and frozen lakes. That’s if we don’t get easterly wind and rain. My fingers and toes are crossed. Seriously though, get out there and celebrate, enjoy those big moons beaming over the glistening white winter landscape. It is truly a blessing. Send me moon photos if you get any.

Finally, and maybe most importantly for anglers, with the risk of losing a wharf tossed to the wind. Those big moons could be mighty good for winter sea trout angling. Trouting season opens Feb. 1, and I’ll be on the tidal water. Tide and moon has everything to do with fishing. You will be hearing more. And by the way, for you photographers, I believe the February moon will be the most spectacular.

Paul Smith, a native of Spaniard’s Bay, fishes and wanders the outdoors at every opportunity. He can be contacted at or follow him on twitter at @flyfishtherock

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