2000-10-14 / Sports

A Kayak Fisherman’s Dream

By Johnny Gray

To most sports enthusiasts, October ushers in the excitement of America’s favorite pastime. Comfortable in their dens or local taverns, they can enjoy a cool drink while keeping a mindful eye on the screen in anticipation of a "Subway Series". But there is another sportsman who awaits the coming of the October moon. The surf-fisherman abandons the creature comforts enjoyed by his peers to patrol the beaches and rocky shorelines in pursuit of the striped bass. The fall migration of this species is underway by the time the division playoffs are decided. The bays and estuaries empty a thriving population of various baitfishes into the ocean currents. Huge "pods" of Menhaden, commonly referred to as Bunker, make their way along the shore to warmer waters. The striped bass use this annual event to gorge themselves as they to begin the migration up the Hudson River to wait out the winter in the calm brackish waters. The cool and crisp mornings and evenings bring out the surf fisherman, both novice and sharpie alike, in hopeful anticipation of capturing that "trophy bass."

As a lifelong resident of Rockaway Beach, I have endeavored in this pursuit until it has become an addiction. Ever since I was given permission to "cross the boulevard", I made my way down to the old jetties and tried my luck. The results have been rewarding in many ways. I had the pleasure of meeting some of the best surf fisherman on the East Coast. Some guys boast that they were in the stadium and personally witnessed Mantle, Yogi, or Joe D hit a homer. I can proudly state that I fished along side guys like Dick and Joe Miele, Joe Mac and Willie Haupt. I shared space on the rock jetty with the likes of McGordy, Judge, Nellon and Marquardt. I "mopped them up" with Richie Knott and Jimmy Hoyler in Jamaica Bay. I cherish fond memories of standing in the surf with yesterdays' sharpies, Bob Smart, Denny Walsh and Joey Nocerino.

As we all await the result of the game, let me share the fishing experience of my lifetime with some plain old fishin’ buddies.

Saturday’s weather was perfect for surf fishing. A light westerly breeze and some shore breaks were only momentary obstacles as I positioned myself in the cockpit of the fourteen-foot kayak. Aboard the craft, a seven- foot medium action conventional pole and Penn reel are my only weapons. Lack of available space and safety prevents even a gaff. A wet suit and life jacket complete my equipment. Rowing off the beach I immediately feel a sense of exhilaration and serenity. The closeness to the water leaves one with a feeling of being one with the sea. A few robust paddle strokes and I’m beyond the breaking waves. Checking out the terrain, my attention is directed to a massive pod of bunker heading from east to west, along the beach, about 200 yards off shore. The bait is right on top, so close together, a small wave is preceding their arrival. I rig up with a 3/0 weighted treble, in anticipation of snagging a bunker from the pod and live lining the bait. The kayak makes the job of sneaking up on the bunker a simple task. As I approach, I cast into the pod and the first attempt is successful. I can feel the resistance of the bunker now impaled on the hook.

The bait quickly falls away from the pod, as it descends, unable to keep up with the group. I free spool the Penn and engage the clicker to avoid a bird’s nest in case of a pick up. Suddenly, the reel sings the song that every bass fisherman considers music to his ears. A run off! The fish takes line for an eternity as I wait for the "pause". This pause has been described to me as the period of time it takes for the bass to stop and turn it’s prey around for a head first ingestion of the bait. Although I have never witnessed this feat under water, I am convinced that the sharpies have known this trick. Many dropped fish are a result of pulling the trigger too soon. When I felt the line taught again I stuck the fish with two somewhat feeble attempts at setting the hook. Standing firmly in a boat while setting the hook is easy. Don’t try it in a kayak.

As the fish felt the treble hook sink into his gut, the response was immediate. I watched as half a spool of line ran off the reel. The star drag worked it’s magic as the fish exploded in a burst of energy towards the south. I suddenly realized that I was on what our kayaking comrades in Cape Cod refer to as a "Nantucket Sleigh Ride". The fish towed me for 10 minutes. A combination of the weight of the boat and the technology of the Penn reel slowly took a toll on the fish. The bass came to the top for a face-to-face confrontation. About 50 feet from the bow it broke water in a huge swirl. Frankly, it wasn’t until that moment that I considered how to land this fish.

In an instant the fish sounded directly under the kayak, peeling line off in another attempt for freedom. I could only hold on to the rod, while balancing the oar on my lap, as the fish recaptured a good deal of the spool. At this point, the rigors and excitement were taking considerable toll on my physical ability to maintain composure. The wet suit was constricting a now pounding chest. The water bottle was within my grasp, but fear of capsizing overcame my desire for a swig of the bottle. Still concentrating on the fight I waited for the fish to stop. I began the now well-known task of pump and reel. Continuing this process, I glanced to the port side and was amazed to get my first site of my adversary. The bass glistened in the water, four feet from the kayak. The massive head, the fully extended dorsal fin and the tail, resembling a corn broom, was so close. Upon seeing the kayak, the fish sounded again, but the strong pull was past him now. A few more pump and reels and the fish came up and approached the port side. My only reaction was to touch the fish, merely as a gesture rather than an attempt to capture the adversary. As I reached out, the fish opened its gills my hand found it’s way up the gills to the lower jaw. I jerked the bass over the gunwale of the kayak into my cockpit. I applied a scissor lock on the bass in order to restrain his movements in the cockpit until I could square everything away for the trek to the beach. I covered his head with a mesh fish bag I keep tucked in my life preserver, in order to delay his lurch for freedom. As I rested the rod in the cockpit I discovered that the fish was tangled in the line securing the oar to the bow of the kayak. This prevented my using a deep stroke to paddle my way to shore. I was able to free up some of the line, but short oar strokes were engaged.

The ride back to the beach was a heart pounding experience. The fish made some effort to resist, but it consisted mostly of maintaining a steady cadence of drumbeats against the cockpit with his huge tail. Approaching the shore my concern was that a breaking wave would toss both of us out into the suds. I jumped out of the kayak and hugged the boat and the fish until I could safely navigate through the small breakers. Grabbing the bow chock I dragged the kayak until dry sand was evident beneath my feet.

A 40-pound striped bass is a surf fisherman’s dream. Taking the fish from a kayak illuminated the experience beyond any expectations. Don’t put those rods away. See you on the beach!

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