by Marty LeGrand
We should all have as good a season as Kevin Whitley had in 2007. That was when the free-spirited fisherman from Norfolk recorded citation catches for six different species. And that made him one of only 43 anglers, out of many thousands competing, to earn the title Expert Angler in the year-long 2007 Virginia Saltwater Fishing Tournament. It started in May, when Whitley hooked a massive 48-inch red drum. In July he caught another 48-incher, this time a black drum, as well as a 27-inch sheepshead. In October it was a 27-inch speckled trout and a 19-inch croaker. And finally, in December, he capped it all off with a jumbo rockfish--49 inches long. Here's the thing: At just over 52 pounds, that giant striper weighed only four pounds less than Whitley's boat.
Yes, he's a kayak man. Indeed, among fish chasers he's known as "Kayak Kevin," and his is the grinning, earring-wearing, fuzzy-bearded face of a quietly burgeoning movement in Chesapeake Bay angling: kayak fishing.
Doubtless some kayakers have been stowing a rod onboard ever since the first gobsmacked paddler-angler peered overboard and thought, Whoa, there's a mess of big, oblivious fish down there! Why didn't I bring my gear? Back then, the likely answer to that question was that there was almost nowhere to put said fishing gear. But that is no longer the case; kayakers can now accessorize with the best of their motorized brethren, outfitting specialized sit-on-top 'yaks with just about any gadget you'd find on a powerboat--from flush-mounted rod holders to hi-tech fishfinders and self-circulating livewells. And all this, of course, without the big, noisy engine. In lean economic times like these, the kayak has one obvious advantage: it's cheap. Basic angler-oriented models cost as little as $500--and only a couple thousand more for the tricked-out models. And of course you don't have to worry about fuel, engine maintenance or slip fees.
So it's no wonder that the fishing-ready kayak is a more common sight than ever on the Bay--even if there still are plenty of boaters who regard them as they might a two-headed mallard: an oddity with dubious practical value. On the other hand, big-boat folks who carry kayaks aboard ('yakkers call this "mothershipping") know that these stealthy little skimmers boldly go where larger craft dare not: into shallows, tight to bridge pilings and rocks, and through otherwise impossible or hair-raising passages like the flats surrounding Goodwin Island at the mouth of the York River and the towering alleys between the protruding hulls of Kiptopeke's sunken concrete ships.
They know, too, that when you're almost at fish level battling a lunker that can tow your boat, the action doesn't get any thicker. Just ask Kayak Kevin. "I've had a striper pull me away from the [concrete ship] walls," Whitley says, "then turn and run full speed at the ships, slamming me bow-first into the wall. I hit hard enough to slide forward into my foot wells." Then there was the time he was fishing the Atlantic shoals off Virginia's Eastern Shore and a big red drum pulled so hard that it undid his anchor knot. "I held on to the rope with one hand and the rod with the other and waited for the fish to come out of the breakers." On another occasion he clutched a rod in one hand and paddled with the other while pursuing a spadefish swimming figure eights around the pilings of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel. Clearly it's a sport that occasionally calls for ambidexterity . . . but it's woo-hoo moments like this that a dedicated kayak angler lives for.
And, at least in some places, the sport is beginning to emerge as a genuine subset of the fishing charter business. Along the coasts of Florida, the Carolinas, Southern California and elsewhere, large charterboats outfitted with racks of kayaks enable anglers to jump ship and fish rocky islands, kelp beds, sounds, and other gamefish hideouts the mothership can't safely reach. The sport hasn't reached that level of commercialization here on the Bay, though it's likely to get here eventually. Meanwhile Chesapeake kayak fishing remains an affable yet rabid cult whose followers have formed clubs and launched websites where they chat, blog and share pictures and videos of their paddle-fishing adventures.
Those new to kayak fishing should consider testing their chops in shallow water or a lake. I've fished freshwater lakes from canoes, but never paddled a kayak before, let alone tossed a line from one. So last fall I asked Whitley, a two-time Virginia Expert Angler, and kayak fishing pioneer Chad Hoover, then president of the Tidewater Kayak Anglers Association, to introduce me to their incredibly addictive sport. Virginia Beach boasts a wealth of shallow water suitable for an afternoon of paddle-fishing practice. We arranged to rendezvous and search for redfish (the feisty young red drum known as puppy drum) along the Lynnhaven River.
"Wear rain pants, or something you can get wet," Hoover instructed. Fishing kayaks don't have spray skirts and with precious little freeboard any combination of rough water, splashing paddles and flailing fish mean the yak's open cockpit--and therefore your derriere--won't stay dry. (No worries, though; scupper holes drain the cockpit so you'll neither sink nor feel like you're fishing from a half-filled bathtub.)
On the appointed warm October afternoon, I met Hoover at the Lynnhaven Boat and Beach Facility, a ramp and put-in site on Crab Creek near the western end of Lynnhaven Inlet. In his khaki shirt, amphi-pants and a floppy military-style hat, he looked very much like the active-duty naval officer he is. (Whitley, still at work, would catch up with us later.) Before getting seated in the kayak Hoover had chosen for me, I got a quick lesson in how to grasp and use my paddle, a special model with an ergonomic bent shaft.
Making sure my knuckles aligned with the top edge of each blade, Hoover instructed me to grip the paddle loosely and showed me the proper stroke. In a sit-on-top kayak you lean farther forward when paddling than you do in a conventional sit-in kayak, he said. I dripped water onto my lower pants legs with each stroke, but slowly got the hang of it as we paddled down-creek toward the river. The kayak's foot-controlled rudder kept me from drifting crabwise in the current.
Hoover's kayak was narrower and faster than my broader beamed Wilderness Systems model, which had a stable pontoon-style hull, so called because of the molded runners along the edges. Both were specifically designed for fishing and included aft tank wells, where plastic milk crates (the kayak angler's customary low-tech tackle box) were held in place with bungee cords. Three rocket launcher rod holders affixed to the front of the crate allowed me to pull a rigged rod from its upright sleeve handily. (Hoover, I noticed, could do this without even taking his eye off the fish, as if he were plucking an arrow from a quiver.)
Avoiding the river's main channel, we followed the southwest shoreline toward a labyrinth of marshy islands and glided into a tranquil shallow inlet rimmed with spartina grass and remarkably undeveloped woods. Although high-rises loomed in the distance, the cove neither looked nor sounded like busy Virginia Beach.
Quiet as cat's feet we'd crept up on the drum, which left telltale swirls on the surface or flashed a quickly vanishing fin in the knee-deep water. Before I'd even secured my paddle, Hoover was flipping Gulp baits at the swirls. Quietly stalking fish, surrounded by the thick green grasses, I got a sense of what the commercial duck hunters of yore must have seen and heard as they prowled the marshes in their "sneakboxes." Our latter-day sneakboxes provided the same silent, low-profile skulking capability, but in featherlight polyethylene--and of course with none of the firepower.
After a series of fruitless casts from the kayak, I paddled over to a marshy island where Hoover had pulled his boat onto a sandbar and joined him in wade-fishing. These sit-on-top kayaks have it all over canoes when you want to get in or out of one. (While fishing, in fact, some 'yak anglers will dangle one or both legs in the water for extra drag and ease of handling hooked fish.)
It was hot and the redfish weren't especially hungry for a mid-afternoon meal. Hoover had already caught and released maybe five or six of the more peckish ones. Finally a fish took a solid bite of my bait and, after a spirited tugging match, I reeled in a satisfying 13-incher. Small for a "puppy," true, and technically not bagged from a kayak, but it was worth a pre-release "grip and grin" photo.
We returned to our kayaks and Hoover switched to a top-water plug when he spotted fish breaking the surface. "Oh, oh!" he'd say every time they sampled the plug teasingly. Then the tide went slack and even the nibbles stopped, giving me an opportunity to learn
more about Hoover. An Indiana native who fishes fresh and salt water, he also owns an 18-foot flats boat, on which he often motherships a kayak. An aeronautical engineer for the Navy, he's a bass fisherman at heart and the author of a soon-to-be published book on kayak bass-fishing techniques, tactics and tales. ("It's a little bit of everything," he said, characterizing it as "Professor Bass meets Larry the Cable Guy.")
What Hoover enjoys most about the sport is being almost one with the water, silent as the tides. "In a kayak you see things you just don't see anywhere else," he said as we scanned the horizon for Whitley, who would be joining us soon. "Watching deer wade across the flats not even knowing I'm there. Seeing big bass chase little goslings." He's hooked and battled tarpon and sharks; felt manatees bump his hull; and had a scary face-to-snout encounter with a 17-foot alligator on a South Carolina lake. ("He made a deep, guttural sound," Hoover recalls. "He was telling me to go away." After briefly considering grabbing his camera and snapping a photo, he came to his senses and left.)
Rush hour had begun in Hampton Roads, but the only traffic we saw or heard was Whitley sliding up in his yellow Ocean Kayak Drifter. With his shades, goatee and "dude, how ya doin'?" demeanor, Whitley seems born for the beach. He started as a touring kayaker and in 2001 became an avid angler--and a familiar one to listeners of a local radio station's call-in fishing show. That's where the moniker "Kayak Kevin" started.
Today this former heavy metal rocker is something of a kayak angling rock star. He writes a fishing journal for his website (kayakkevin.com), stars in weekly YouTube videos and this year is shooting "Kayak Fishing the Chesapeake Bay," an adventure DVD focusing on the "places and fish the crew and I target from kayaks."
He's gung-ho, no doubt. Not long after he joined us I glanced over and saw him standing in the kayak, using his paddle as a pushpole while he scanned the shallows for fish. Was that a steady enough platform for casting, I wondered? "These boats are really stable!" he said, rocking the yak wildly from side to side by shifting his weight from one leg to the other. "Stable" is a relative term, I thought, choosing not to tempt fate quite as aggressively as he had.
Whitley likes fishing manmade structure, so before calling it a day we headed to the other side of the river to try our luck beside some dock pilings and bulkhead. Here I could see what Whitley meant about getting so close to the pilings of the bridge-tunnel that it was wise to keep at least one foot available to fend off. The scrapes I saw on the Drifter's bow were indeed inflicted by the bridge-tunnel, he said. I wasn't ready to try the foot technique, but I could relate just the same. Using my paddle instead, I spent as much time fending off as Whitley spent fishing. (I had a partial excuse, it turned out. We later discovered an undetected leak had flooded my kayak belowdecks with almost 100 pounds of the Lynnhaven.)
As we paddled for home, a peaceful gloaming enveloped Lynnhaven Inlet. I drank in the scenery as my paddle blades traced little swirls of their own in the darkening river. When we scrunched ashore I lifted myself from the kayak, damp, arm-weary and absolutely ready to go again.
Virginia remains the stronghold of Chesapeake kayak fishing, but the sport is beginning to spread northward. "It's just too much fun to keep to our-selves," Whitley says.
"A lot of our knowledge came from YouTube," says Mike Rosa of Olney, Md., whose friend Dail Lourenco introduced him to the sport and who now loves to fish near the Chesapeake Bay Bridge in his kayak. Like many people, he was skeptical and laughed off the idea when Lourenco first suggested it. "I made fun of him for it, 'cause I'd never heard of kayak fishing before," Rosa says. Then he tried it, first on a lake near his home, in pursuit of bass. That's all it took; before you could say
"fish on!" Rosa had gone out and bought a 13-foot Hobie Revolution, rigged it with a chartplotter/fishfinder, and soon he was trolling and live-lining the Bay Bridge for rockfish. "Last year we started getting really serious about it, going every day we could," Rosa says.
This year he and Lourenco, who's from Rockville, launched a pair of websites--paddlesandfins.com and snaggedline.com--to promote the sport in Maryland. Both began as surf, pier and powerboat fishermen, but they find kayak fishing much more appealing, more visceral. "You're part of the environment," Rosa says. "You're fighting the fish. He's pulling line. You're wobbling back and forth."
Unlike Whitley, who's still a touring kayaker and prefers paddle power, Rosa and Lourenco "pedal" to their fishing spots from launch sites at either end of the Bay Bridge. The Hobies' foot-powered propulsion system manipulates a pair of underwater wings that sweep from side to side (picture a giant flapping cicada strapped to the keel and you get the idea). They can vary their speed as circumstance dictates for distance travel, trolling and maintaining position while fishing.
Some kayaks can carry 500 pounds or more, though of course they can't handle the giant cooler you might use to store your catch on a larger boat. But that doesn't matter to Whitley and Hoover, who are catch-and-release anglers for the most part. "The picture will last longer than the one meal," Whitley says. Rosa and Lourenco, by contrast, don't see the point if you can't take a few fish home with you. "We're both Portuguese!" Rosa explains with a grin. "We like to come back with something!"
As kayak karma spreads, the sport is likely to flourish all around the Chesapeake. "It's the biggest and fastest-growing segment of the [fishing] market," says Matt Smith, merchandising manager for the Bass Pro Shops store in Hampton, Va. When gas prices took off like a reel in free-spool last summer so did demand for fishable kayaks, he reports. "It really exploded last year."
Cory Routh, a kayak fishing guide and author from Virginia Beach, will host what's believed to be the country's first cable TV show dedicated to the sport. "Ruthless Kayak Fishing" begins in January on the Sportsman Channel. "We'll do everything from shad on the James River to blue-water fish like wahoo, dolphin and tuna in Hawaii," he says. He's not ready to quit his day job, but Routh thinks kayak fishing will just keep winning more converts.
Whitley--who, by the way, spurns onboard electronics, except for an emergency radio and his iPod--even turns down offers to fish aboard powerboats these days. "I work at a marina and get invited all the time," he says. "My response is always, 'Only if I can take my kayak!' "