Weather lore

Photo by Jerome Canning

Weather lore in coastal Newfoundland, has always been a valuable part of everyday life for fishermen eking out a living on the ocean. A determining factor for safe voyages, understanding the various indicators of weather was crucial for sailing out to or heading home from the fishing grounds.

Although contemporary technologies have replaced weather lore for weather predicting, fishermen still rely on the beliefs that are deeply embedded in their practices, rooted in observation passed down through the generations. These sayings are inherited traditional lore, which can tell us much about a community, its culture, and its connection to nature. Documenting them provides a lens into understanding the importance of these beliefs and practices in the everyday life of fisher folk.

This intangible knowledge influenced not only fishermen but also individuals including woodsmen who often traveled deep into wooded areas cutting firewood. It was also essential knowledge when “making fish”. This type of traditional knowledge highlights a connection to nature, community and language that is unique to seafaring and rural occupations.

Although weather lore may be perceived as “an old way, a thing of the past”, in my experience speaking with individuals who relied on this information prior to contemporary technology, all believe the lore was an accurate, essential tool used in their occupational capacities. Most will say it doesn’t hurt to know this information in the event the technology fails.

Cliff George

A Visual Artist from Whiteway, Newfoundland, Cliff George has been observing weather lore for as long as he can remember. When he was 9 years old, he went fishing with his Grandfather Robert George and his Uncle Fred George, both from Whiteway, in a large trapskiff. He remarks that they pulled codtraps with the ebb and flow of the tide.

In the fall Cliff remembers cutting up bait at night to bait the trawls and then in the morning he and his dad would go out to trawl grounds to fish, or go squid jigging in the jigging hole. At 16, he bought his first boat for $150.00 and as Cliff says he can “set a trawl as good as anyone” and “knows the marks to all the fishing grounds around Whiteway”.

When it comes to weather lore Cliff remarks “from the beginning I listened, I heard and I observed”. If there was a whistling coming from the woodstove, Cliff would ask his Grandfather what the sound was. Much of Cliff’s weather lore reflects his love of animals as he describes goats and their behaviour when the rain comes.

Where are the goats?

Cliff George – Goats

Cliff is well known for his work protecting the Newfoundland Pony. Many of his art pieces pay tribute to this small but strong work horse, hence it is not surprising that he expresses weather lore that speaks to horses.

“White horses coming up the bay”

Cliff George – White Horses coming up the bay

Horses’ Hair

Cliff George_Horse’s Hair

A great admirer of nature and his environment, which is clearly depicted in much of his art pieces, Cliff also expresses weather lore he has observed from nature itself. Whether it is the tamarack’s color in July, the rocks sticking to his boots, or the scent of smoke close to the earth, and the smell of ice coming in the bay, there is no doubt Cliff’s observance of weather lore is a determining factor of what can be expected weather wise in the following days or seasons to come.

“I can tell it by the tamarack”

Cliff George – Tamarack

Sticky Rocks

Cliff George – Rocks sticking to boots 

Smoke close to the ground

Cliff George  – Smoke close to the ground

“The ice is coming”

Cliff George – The Ice is coming

John Mugford

John Mugford was born and grew up in Port de Grave, remembering there weren’t many cars around in his day. He recalls countless childhood days involving work, either on the flakes or plowing the fields. When John was thirteen years old, he went fishing with his father first in what he recalls was the “Old Knocker” two stroke Acadian, travelling to their cod traps located anywhere from an hour to 3 hours out on the bay. John remembers the radio but reveals there wasn’t much weather reporting broadcast, pointing out that his Dad always relied on his own weather lore to determine whether they would head out on the bay that day.

There were often individuals in the community who had the gift of weather forecasting and many people relied on this knowledge. In Port de Grave, the women working on the flakes would watch for a particular man to arrive accurately the same time every day.


John Mugford_Radio


“Not everyone can tell the weather”

John Mugford – Not everyone can tell the weather

For John, cloud cover not only determined a rainy day but also could be an indication of wind.

Gaff Topsails

John Mugford – Gaff Topsails

And then there was the color of the sky John remembers his dad remarking on.

“Evening grey and morning red…”

John Mugford – Evening grey 

Determining factors for fishermen prior to the age of technology, John recalls “you had no other way of finding out”. Then, he chuckles and states “it’s old foolishness I know, but you had to rely on something.”

Vernon Petten looks on while Barry Darby knits fishing net in WBMNL Heritage Skills Challenge in Harbour Grace, 2015

No stranger to life on the ocean, Vernon (Vern) Petten, a retired fisherman and boat builder from Port de Grave, started fishing when he was five and a half years old. At fourteen Vern began fishing full time with his father Henry and it was from his father he learned much of his weather lore, remembering there was a time when they didn’t have a radio to inform them of the day’s forecast. Vern says, “Father knew in the morning if we had a good day, he’d look at the sky in the morning when the sun is coming up he’d say ‘Red sky in the morning sailors take warning, all day storming’.” Aware of the changes that have occurred over time with regards to weather forecasting, Vern notes no one looks at the weather glasses (barometer) these days, commenting the navigation systems put on boats now is unbelievable. “Everything is modern,” Vern attests, people “hardly ever looks at a compass now.” Vern spent more than 70 years on the water prior to retiring the business over to his son, yet he still goes by many weather related signs he used when fishing. Vern remembers watching the colour of the clouds and recognizing what it meant for the day’s weather.

“You won’t always have smooth sailing”

Vernon Petton – “You won’t always have smooth sailing” 

Sounds also played an important role in weather predicting for Vern and he mentions the wind in the wires as a prediction of the expected wind for that day.

“Wind roaring in the Wires”

Vernon Petton – Wind roaring in the wires

Vern’s Weather Lore often reflected his environment and he utilized this knowledge not only for traveling to and from the fishing grounds, but also for locating fish stocks and bountiful fishing grounds. Often the Full Moon was a determining factor.

When the Moon is Full

Vernon Petton – When the moon is full

And then there is nature’s magnificent rainbow, a beautiful sight to behold. But if observed in the morning fishermen knew to stay close to shore.

Rainbow in the Morning

Vernon Petton – Rainbow in the morning

Vern believes that although technology’s advancements have replaced the lore, it is still important to know the old sayings in the event technology fails. In his career as boat builder Vern says he has built at least 10 boats. Now retired, he still helps out onshore, while his children and grandchildren carry on the family fishing legacy.

Is there a particular saying you use or remember used to help predict impending weather? Leave us a comment below!

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