Combine two of North America's oldest outdoor practices and you'll get one hell of a cool new sport: Kayak Fishing.
Spike is mindfully assessing his gear before launching into the swells. The swells are big today, especially on the west side of Santa Catalina Island where our 60-foot fishing charter, the Captain Hook, is anchored. Here, they come from far off in the blue of the Pacific Ocean, where spring storms have been raging for the last few days, rolling towards the southern California coast. They are bigger than the ones I'm used to in Montana.
"You know what, man?" Spike breaks from thought, "a kayak is nothing more than a fishing chair." This particular kayak, an Ocean Kayak Scupper Classic, looks it. It is complete with mounted tubes for rod holders, clips for storing the paddle, a low-profile for stability, an open deck for easy access to gear and freedom of movement.
It even has a Humminbird sonar.
"Except this chair moves," Spike says.
Dennis Spike is going fishing for calico bass, white sea bass, and hopefully, yellowtail. He mutters to himself, going through his system of gear one more time before sliding the boat out the wet entry of the stern. He fishes something like 150 days a year in the Pacific around Southern California, Baja, and Mexico, and in the Atlantic in the Gulf of Mexico and Florida Keys for a list of saltwater fish.
It's his lifestyle. And he's done what most outdoor bums only dream of doing, make the lifestyle a living. Eleven years ago, Spike was in the midst of preparing himself for his next career as an acupuncturist, leaving behind other careers as a tobacconist and a burn unit attendant. Living in Malibu, he and his cousin, Howie, purchased some cheap kayaks on a hunch that fishing might be the way to gain more out of the experience, more than just landings and crowded beaches. They discovered a new passion for an ancient way of fishing. "Man, we took them out the first day and caught calico bass, sand bass, perch, sargo, and the capper, a 25-pound halibut."
About the same time he began reading Pacific Fisherman, a regional sportfishing magazine that focuses on teaching enthusiasts how to be better anglers. "In five years of reading the magazine, I became an angler," Spike admits, even though he had been fishing his whole life. The only information source they had for kayak fishing, however, was trial and error. "It took us about six years before we figured out how to launch, how to land, how not to lose equipment, how to effectively catch and land and release fish. We paid a lot of dues and wiped out. A lot."
About this time he read an article on in-shore float tubing, a relatively new concept in sportfishing. Having tried it, he figured the magazine might find interest in another alternative way to fish with the same sort of intimacy with the water. After a few conversations with the editor, Spike wrote an instructive article about sea kayak fishing. Cousin Howie wound up on the cover holding an enviable halibut in front of his kayak on the beach. Shortly after, Spike was invited to some sportfishing trade shows and found a new world opening up to him. It was evident that the marriage between the paddling and fishing industries had yet to be consummated.
Numbers shed light on the kind of potential both Spike and others in the outdoor industry see. Jim Clark, president of Perception Kayaks, noted, "There are more people that fish than [participate in] any other industry. Just now we are realizing the growth potential for kayaking among them." According to the research group Leisure Trends of Boulder, Colorado, 40 percent of the population, or 81.2 million people, participated in fishing at least once in the past three years. The American Sportfishing Association narrows the field of enthusiasts those 16 years or older who went nine or more times in a year down to 35 million people. On the paddling side, Leisure Trends estimates there are 3.9 million participants who tried paddling (canoeing, kayaking, rafting) at least once in the last year, and 400,000 enthusiasts. While these numbers remain ambiguous to specifics like sea kayaking and saltwater fishing or river kayaking and trout fishing, they suggest an enormous gap exists between two things that should be a no-brainer. Spike saw his opportunity and seized it. What came of it was Coastal Kayak Fishing Schools the first school to teach the ancient art of kayak fishing.
Spike organized every last detail of his experience into an introductory course for anglers who had never paddled, and just the same, for sea kayakers who had never fished. Not to mention folks who had done neither. Then came the newsletter Yak Attack; then the most comprehensive website on kayak fishing, kayakfishing.com; along with alliances with companies like Ocean Kayak to create specialized kayak fishing gear; and branch schools elsewhere in California, Florida, New York, New Jersey, and South Carolina.
"Our job is to make people confident, proficient kayak fishers," Spike told me when I called to inquire about his school. The sport requires confidence. Any number of things can go wrong, and the list is plenty long. When I started counting all possible scenarios, the more I realized that landlubbers like me might just kill themselves. Generally interested in such hare-brained schemes, I called Spike, "I'm in."
It is a no-brainer that sea kayaks are perhaps the most versatile light craft in coastal waters. It should also be a no-brainer that they are perfect for fishing. After all, Inuit and Aluet Indians in the northern reaches of North America and Greenland developed them for such purpose. But, most paddlers and anglers have committed themselves either to kayaking or fishing one or the other, never both at the same time.
Kayak fishing is the most natural cross-over sport yet to be realized by the majority of water oriented enthusiasts. The boat's open access to a wide variety of coastal and fresh waters that otherwise may be limited by boat type. They are the happy medium; an all-purpose water craft that travels efficiently and is manageable for one person to lift out of the water, drag, and load.
If mobility is the ultimate utility of kayaks, then the ultimate reward for fishing out of them is the free ride found in hooking large gamefish. Big ones tarpon, thresher sharks, tuna, billfish can fight for hours, towing your vessel in any direction: across glassy coves and flats, over hovering kelp forests and foam, against the current, into the swells and crackling white breaks. The Old Man and the Sea.
This is only the best case scenario one that takes anglers time to experience. On rewarding days catches can run a gamut of species, depending on season and fishery, big and small, in any number of scenes. And then there are the days you don't catch anything but a buzz from paddling in big water, observing unknown coastline or riding alongside seals, whales, or dolphins as they communicate, sky hop, spew air and mist.
"The sport opens up the fishery and the oceans and the lakes and all the waterways to experience intimately. There is no better communication than on a kayak. You use senses on the kayak you wouldn't be paying attention to on a motorboat. You listen to things, you see things."
Spike is now disappearing into the same rising and falling swells that have had their way with my inner ear, making a drunk of me walking on the deck. I lunge and land, grabbing tight to the railing of the stairway leading to the cockpit, feeling the push and pull of the waves' gravity. Others walk freely. I puke. The Captain Hook crew cringes and try to ignore the heaving.
School is off for me, at least for the morning, but I find interest in watching Spike work structure for holding fish. Structure is essentially all the features that make up the physical environment. It is the terrain, vegetation, current, depth, and layers of water temperatures that provide diversity in habitat. Finding fish near something like a kelp forest, rocks, changes in the floor, or those milky-green lines off shore, is what Spike considers the first given in fishing. Cast everywhere in and around structure and you're either going to catch fish or move on.
The second given is that there is going to be a morning bite. Fish gotta eat. Unfortunately, spring storms stirred up the swell and lowered water temperatures to around 55 degrees F this week. This put fish down, where they will be inactive until warmer water kindles their energy. Spike still catches a mackerel, a relatively small fish. His drift varies with the waves and current. Occasionally he sets his rod in the holder, unclips his paddle and adjusts his position. He dispatches a drift anchor, which looks like nothing more than a canvas shopping bag on a leash, to slow his movements. He works different structure along this stretch of shore, changes lures, tries trolling. Despite my hopes to see Spike get into a gnarly situation, maybe into fighting a fish of such size and strength that it requires he prove how it's done, my imagination comes to terms with the reality of a slow day of fishing. He returns to the boat.
Catalina is a desert island, and suitably, looks from a distance to be vacant of much life. It lacks the sort of jungle one might imagine a Pacific island to have. Instead, it resembles the curiously dry coast of Southern California. There are no real forests to speak of on its steep hills and mountains. The ground cover is a scant weave of trees, bushes, shrubs, and grass fighting through the beige, orange, and red scalp of the island. The shore is mostly the bottom of cliffs, rising in a mess of earthen debris. The ocean never relents its pounding against these shores, and just the same, the properties of gravity, erosion, and tremors never stop changing its features.
Nevertheless, Catalina is a bit of paradise. The diving and snorkeling are known worldwide, camping and hiking introduce the steepness and rough beauty of the mountains and valleys, and fishing and kayaking get you around its rocky shores and beaches. Eighty-six percent of Catalina Island's 76 square miles is protected and managed by the Santa Catalina Island Conservancy, a non-profit organization. Buffalos left from a 1924 movie join a dozen other mammals and more than 100 species of birds.
In order to access such a place by sea kayak, without actually paddling there, Spike and I hired a third party from Dana Point to bring us, Hook Sportfishing Charters a hip fishing charter, without trying to be. Reggae thumps from a kickin' stereo while a large screen TV silently plays a classic, black-and-white fishing documentary of Zane Grey and the halcyon days of sportfishing.
If there ever is a boat that combines a seasoned crew, the personality of fishing bums, and the exact luxuries you'd expect from a yacht catered foods, freshly grilled steaks, drinks of every gender, and floatability the Captain Hook is it. Captain Todd Mansur is a 16-year skipper. Amid his world of experience, is that his whole life has centered on the sea. He is a third-generation captain, and in his eyes there is a salty look. Even so, growing up in the 70s and 80s has made him cool in his way. He likes reggae, what else is there to say?
Even though kayaks largely remove the need for charter boats, they have their place in kayak fishing, too. First and foremost this charter is staffed by seasoned fishermen, most of whom have spent a considerable amount of time commercial fishing as well as guiding, and can teach you an immense amount about saltwater fishing. They also serve as a great ferry to off-shore spots that are nothing short of an expedition in a kayak. And if conditions get bad, it's nice to have big brother right there.
We take refuge that evening on the east side of the island. The water is much calmer and I feel human again. Eventually, Spike, and Rob from the Captain Hook, return from Rob's first lesson. He caught a calico bass. I climb into the kayak. We paddle along a kelp forest and then along a line of milky-green and dark blue water. Structure.
Spike runs through a fairly quick summary for me. He talks about a few techniques for taking on waves and navigation. He talks about gear and where to put it. He talks about making bait and targeting fish. He punches buttons on his sonar.
What he didn't tell me was how to cast a baitcaster reel. It's all about thumb pressure on the spool, controlling the release of line after casting. If you let the spool go, it will spin faster than the line can exit. This creates a ball of line sticking out of all openings in the reel. It took me exactly one second to realize this.
I took my mind off the nice structure I had positioned myself before, and put to task the job of line on my lap. I sat sideways with my legs dangling out, enjoying the cold, green water. Shadows pass beneath. It was then that the most obvious question worked its way into my mind.
"What about sharks?"
"I never talk about sharks too much," Spike says. Interesting. "Once you start fishing on a kayak . . . the more they become a non-issue." Even more interesting, is that he went straight into a story about a shark sighting he had, a half-yard under his dangling feet. He popped a can of sardines and his boat left a slick a mile long. "It was the last time I did this, by the way," I remember him saying mid-story. "There is only one shark we are concerned with in southern California," he continued. "That's the landlord, the white shark. This one came up looking for the beef. It was a blue shark." A non-aggressor.
The real dangers, he explained, are found in other, heavy fish that you are actually trying to catch. "The added risk and rush with big game like billfish, thresher sharks, and tarpon, is their potential to ruin your day, or kill, when they come crashing through the air." Nobody has been killed, fortunately.
Just then, a dimpling of baitfish happened by. There is a soothing cacophony to the raining noise they make. The ocean is as smooth as it had been in a week, Spike commented. Dark clouds hung low, dramatic and shape shifting. It was peaceful. "My life is an on-going vacation," Spike says, placing a Spanish accent on 'vacation.' He wears a Bohemian brimless cap, hand woven somewhere south of the border. He gets a bite, the rod tap-taps. His back straightens up, slightly rolling his hips. He swings his rod to the opposite side of his body, setting the hook. "Muchas gracias," he says.