Seven Hours Until Dark E-mail
Written by Scott Pitney   
Thursday, 09 June 2011 09:29

Some gear to take along

“Seven Hours Until Dark” may sound like a horror film title, actually this is a kayak fishing story.  And at times, we both felt a little horrified on this particular fishing excursion.  “We” is me and my fishing partner and golfing buddy, Ed McArthur; two guys a tad bit over middle age, who recently took to the joy of kayak fishing.  On this trip, which began at 1 p.m. on Friday April 8th 2011, we both found how the “joy” can be taken out of a normal fishing excursion, from what in hindsight seemed to be a harmless decision.

The month of April on the Texas Gulf Coast, as local fishermen know, is the true beginning of the saltwater fishing season, particularly in the shallow bays.  The water warms to seventy plus degrees, and more bait fish move into to the bays, starting a feeding frenzy that lasts for weeks.  The spot we were heading to, located in the small town of Matagorda, has a large bay named after it, Matagorda Bay.  The bay is so large; it actually has two names, West Matagorda Bay and East Matagorda Bay.  Our target spot on this day was in East Matagorda Bay, a body of water very near the mouth of the Colorado River.  Ed pointed out on the way down, “I’ve never been skunked where we’re going,” a jinxing statement for sure, but it didn’t change my enthusiasm.

We did have high hopes on April 8th, for a big catch.  The day was unusually warm, about twelve degrees above normal.  I try to make it a point to watch the weather on fishing days, especially the wind, as wind can be crucial for fishing, especially kayakers.  The wind forecast for that Friday was southeast, about fifteen to twenty m.p.h., and as it turned out, it was more out of the east; about ten to fifteen m.p.h., even better.  Five miles per hour less wind can make a big difference in a kayak.  The normal high for that day was seventy eight.  It got to ninety, heating up the surface of the water, which is a good thing for spring saltwater fishing.  There was also an incoming tide which is favorable, because incoming tides bring in bait fish and shrimp that the predator fish, Spotted A.K.A. “Speckled” Trout and Red Fish feed upon.

For this particular spot, we needed a high tide for the kayaks as well, because the water going out to the bay was very “skinny,” a term used meaning shallow water.  Fishing kayaks typically weigh between sixty five and ninety five pounds and are designed to go through water as shallow as four inches.  Ed’s and my “yak,” as kayakers often refer to them, weigh about the same, ninety five pounds.  Though on the heavy side, our heavier yaks have specially designed hulls which allow them to go through the same shallow water that the lighter yaks can travel through with ease.

Paddling out through this skinny water to get to the bay was tough, because the water was only six to ten inches deep.  In water that shallow, only half of the paddle can submerge into the water, and much more human energy is required to keep the yak moving.  To make matters worse, we were paddling dead into the wind.  What we didn’t consider was that even though the water was shallow, it was the peak of high tide…we still had to get back and the water would be moving out soon.  But as it turned out, that oversight was small compared to what we would overlook in a few hours.

The bay was choppy and the water was a light chocolate color.  A closer look at the water showed it was fairly clear.  The fishing conditions weren’t perfect, but they were good.  Because the water had chop, we started off fishing with popping corks and plastic shrimp tails.  Ed and I philosophically agree on many things, including fishing tactics.  We believe in fishing with artificial lures, but when we’re with the kids, we fish with live bait to keep the kids (and fish) interested.  I was going against the grain a little by fishing with two poles, using dead mullet and artificial.  I tried this, because my business partner limited out on Reds just the week before using dead mullet.  It never hurts to try different fishing methods.  Ed took three poles; he normally takes two.  He stayed true, fishing only with artificial lures.  The reason he likes multiple polls is that it takes less time to change bait, and Ed likes trying a variety of baits especially different colors.

I received credit for the first fish, albeit a “hard head” the nickname for saltwater catfish, caught on the dead mullet.  Not a sexy fish, the hard head is what saltwater fishermen avoid.  They’re not particularly good eating, and because of their sharp, mildly poisonous dorsal fins, they are a pain to get off the hook.

The second fish caught was a cousin of the hard head, another saltwater catfish species known as a Gaftop.   Ed foul hooked this fish through the tail.  At first, Ed was thinking Red Fish, because it put up a pretty good fight and weighed six to seven pounds, but as he pulled it close to his yak, Ed saw the fish’s whiskers.  Though disappointed it was not a Red, pulling in anything that weighs as much as a bag of sugar, especially in a kayak, is always fun, no matter what the species.

We fished the first spot for about an hour.  Ed kept fishing the area, and I decided to paddle east, toward the shoreline to get out of the wind for awhile.  The water near this shoreline was clearer, greener, and much calmer.  In a kayak, even a little chop on the water gets old after awhile so it was nice to be in this protected body of water.  I fished for about thirty minutes with no bites.  I saw a few birds perched on an old wooden structure and decided to give that spot a try.  Birds and structure are two attractive features to fishermen.  Birds don’t necessarily have to be diving for bait fish, if they’re floating on the water or just in the area, as these birds were, it means that there’s a good chance the fish are in the area too.  But alas, after another thirty minutes, still no bites.  One thing missing from this calm spot was an oyster shell bottom, another key ingredient to a good saltwater fishing spot.

I kept Ed in my sight, across the bay about five hundred yards, hoping he’d be waiving me over to let me know fish were hitting.  He stayed in the original spot, but I wasn’t getting the excited signal I was hoping for, as another hour passed.  I was getting restless and the sun was lowering quickly in the slightly overcast sky.  I put my hand up to the horizon and counted one-and-a-half hands between the sun’s bottom edge and the horizon which meant we had about ninety minutes of sun.  One hand is equal to about one hour.  I hated to leave this peaceful spot, but it wasn’t producing fish.  I love kayak fishing, because even if one doesn’t catch fish, one can kayak and enjoy spots like I was in; quiet, peaceful, with spectacular natural sights and many times, like today, away from crowds.  Which is why I don’t take my cell phone; I consider kayak fishing time, the time that I turn myself off from the rest of the world.  This would be the last trip I leave the shore without a cell phone…lesson one.

I paddled back over to Ed to see what he wanted to do.  Ed scouted this area, and I knew he would want to try another spot, keeping in mind we needed to leave at our agreed time, seven o’clock.  If we left at seven, this would give up plenty of time to get back.  We estimated it would take twenty to twenty five minutes on the return trip, because it took forty five minutes to get to our spot against the wind.  Going back was downwind, a much faster and easier paddle…so we thought.

Sure enough Ed wanted to cross a small cut over to a separate part of the bay and keep fishing. It was fifteen minutes before seven.  He paddled over to this area, and I followed.  Ed crossed the cut.  I decided to stay at the cut, because the water was very “nervous,” a term used by anglers meaning the water was boiling with small bait fish, which usually means the predator fish are not far away, ready to feed.   After about fifteen minutes, and not getting any hits, I got the excited call from Ed I had been waiting for, “Scott, get your ass over here!”  It was on, finally!  There was just one slight problem; it was seven o’ clock, the time we agreed to start heading back home.

I pulled up next to Ed and naturally asked him what he was using.  He caught a nice Spec on a dark, root beer-colored shrimp tail with a red tail tip.  I got the darkest color I had; solid red and started throwing.  I was excited about the fish, at the same time, keeping an eye on the rapidly-falling sun.  It was also starting to get cool with the combination of wet skin being blown by a constant breeze.  Nothing was hitting for me, and it was now seven fifteen.  This just wasn’t my day in terms of catching fish.  Despite the fish, it wasn’t going to be Ed’s day either.

“I’m headin’ in,” I told Ed.

“I’m not far behind you, are you taking that canal?  I think it’s a straighter shot back,” Ed pointed to a waterway immediately in front of us.

“No, I better go back the exact same path, if that way’s not a straight shot, there may not be enough light.”

“O.k., I’ll do the same thing,” were the last words I remember Ed saying, which brings me to lesson number two: stay together.

As I paddled back into the sunset toward the entrance of the bay, I realize that I passed the entrance.  It’s confusing, because this saltwater marshland has so many cuts, and the high grass makes it difficult to navigate.  I also consider myself to have a keen sense of direction, but this area can make even the best navigators feel stupid.  I only had about fifty yards to back track.  I remembered that I should veer left slightly after I exited the bay and that’s exactly what the waterway I was on did; it turned slightly to the left.  Now I remembered there was one small cut, about twenty feet wide that I needed to find on the right.  It would be hard to see, but finding it, would take me home.

When I saw the cut, it seemed even smaller than I remember.  But, once I was in it, I knew I was on the right path.  I felt a sense of relief, because I was ready to get back, feeling hungry, thirsty, wet and cold.

After finding that small twenty-foot-wide cut, it was only a fifteen minute paddle to our vehicle.  Upon arriving, I quickly changed into dry clothes and woofed down my meal that was waiting for me in my cooler.  I kept my eye on the canal, expecting to see Ed at any time.  I finished eating and noticed it was five minutes before eight.  I just assumed Ed was having a late catch.  When the fish are biting, it’s very difficult to leave, especially when it’s been slow most of the day.

I was dryer and full, but with the sun down and the breeze blowing steady, it was chilly and it was still a bit uncomfortable standing outside, so I decided to sit in my SUV and wait for Ed.  I grabbed my phone to see if there were any calls.  I had two missed calls; they were from Ed.

This could not be good.  It was much too late for him to be calling to tell me to come back and fish.  When I checked my voice message my hunch was right, the stress in his voice said it all, “Scott, I can’t find my way back, and I’m out of energy, I don’t know what to do.”

I hit my callback button and Ed answered, sounding a little more calm than his message but still anxious.  He was breathing hard.

“I don’t know how to get back.  I keep paddling into bodies of water that are dead ends, and I’m out of energy.”

I thought to myself, stay positive and calm.   “You’re o.k., just rest a second and we’ll get you back.  There’s a small channel about twenty feet wide that you missed, and that’ll bring you home.”

“Scott, you don’t understand, I am completely exhausted.  Look man, I have a survival kit on this thing, I may have to use it and just stay out here tonight.”

“Bull#%*!!, you’re not going to stay out there!  We’re getting you here just rest for a few minutes.”

So much for staying calm; hearing those words, “stay out here tonight,” put my brain in high gear.  I couldn’t picture myself spending the night in a kayak even if I did have a survival kit…lesson three: get a survival or emergency kit for the kayak.  I was pretty uncomfortable in dry clothes; I could only imagine how Ed felt.  Plus what would I say to his wife?  “Yea that’s right Vicki, he wanted to stay out there with the gators and snakes and God knows what else, and I went and got a nice, cozy room in town.”

Ed got a second wind and tried again to make his way back to the vehicle.  I flashed the headlights, and he said he could see them.  He turned his flashlight on and off and I could see its somewhat faint, yellowish color.  That certainly provided some sense of relief and at the same time, frustration for both of us.  Ed knew where he needed to go, he just couldn’t get there.  I could see him, but I couldn’t get to him.  By my estimation, it looked like he was only a half mile away from me.  After several attempts to try and find his way out, Ed became too tired and had to rest again.

I suggested to Ed to call 911, that way they may be able to pick up his location with GPS.  Speaking of the phone, in reference to lesson 1: bring a cell phone; this situation could have been much worse.  I knew Ed was in a pickle, I also knew he was alive and coherent.  If there was no communication, I would have probably assumed the worse (which is my nature) and called the Coast Guard or someone that could find him and get him out of there.  As a matter of fact, Ed did inquire about a Coast Guard rescue when he made his 911 call, and Ed was told by the Matagorda Sherriff’s Department that the Coast Guard would charge $2500.00 for a rescue.  That option seemed expensive, but it wasn’t ruled out entirely.

The Sherriff’s Department put Ed and me on a three-way call.  They tried to help by talking us through the ordeal, and decided to send a Constable out to our location.  It would be about thirty minutes for the Constable to arrive so I went a few miles down the road to a gas station to fill up and get some water.

There were raucous, Friday night Matagorda locals at the store, filling up with beer and gas, getting ready to do whatever they do in Matagorda on a Friday night.  I was covered with mud, the bottom of my shirt was wet, and somehow, I didn’t feel that out of place.  Matagorda is a small town, a coastal Texas fishing town that optimizes the phrase, “laid back.”  They are probably used to seeing people muddy and wet, yet my feet were so muddy, I asked someone to hand the clerk my credit card so I wouldn’t track mud into their store.  While I was filling up with gas, two women were having a conversation next to me that went something like this;

“So what are you doin’ tonight?”

“Gettin’ f&%$#’d up that’s for sure.”

“I hear ya’ girl, me too!”

As much as I wanted to join into the conversation, I had to get back to Ed and help him get out of that swamp.  The store clerk was kind enough to bring my ticket to sign, along with my water outside to me.  I signed the ticket and was on my way, thinking to myself it was nice to have those few minutes in civilization to help me get my head around the situation we had at hand.

As I drove back, Ed called and had some encouraging news, “I think I may have found a way back.”  He also sounded much better, less stressed and as if he had recovered somewhat.

I told him, “Good, I just filled up the tank and I’m ready to get you out and get home.”  It was about ten thirty.  Ed and I had an eight o’clock t-time and I started thinking at that point that maybe we would make our golf game after all.

I returned to the launch site and about ten minutes after I returned, the Constable arrived.  The Constable immediately began to put my mind at ease.  He said he wasn’t leaving until Ed was out and back safely.  He also had a powerful Q-beam light that lit up the marsh and made it easier for Ed to see the spot he needed to get to, although that was never the issue, it was always how to get to us.  The Constable stayed on the phone with Ed, speaking very calmly, telling Ed to take his time and to save his strength.

The Constable told me he grew up in Matagorda and was very familiar with the bay, however he wasn’t familiar enough with this spot to just go out and get Ed.  He apologized that the two airboats they normally have available were not available on that night.  They certainly would have helped.  I mentioned that I knew the small channel Ed had to get to would bring him back, and seeing Ed’s ever-fading flashlight told me it appeared he wasn’t far from that twenty-foot- wide channel.

“Do you think if I held the beam on you, you could get to that cut?  Maybe he could see you.”

“Help me get that kayak down, would you?”

The thought had occurred to me before, to go back out, and I didn’t hesitate to try with the Constable now present.  I knew I could find my way back, having that Q-beam to see.  Going out before the Constable arrived was not an option.  It wouldn’t have done any good to have two lost kayakers.

About three hundred yards from the shoreline, the waterway made a veer to the right and I lost the light provided by the Q-beam.  It got dark quick, now the only light was provided courtesy of a very small crescent moon.  It also got very quiet except for the sound of my paddles hitting the water and the small bait fish that were dancing everywhere, like large rain drops hitting the water.

My eyes adjusted quickly and I could see the water, but not the shoreline until I got about ten feet away from it.  Occasionally I would yell Ed’s name and flash the small flashlight I brought with me, but no luck.  The Constable stayed on the phone with Ed, so Ed knew the game plan and I was sure he was watching for me too.  The plan was to go to the mouth of that small cut, signal with the light, if no response after about ten minutes, I would return.

I saw a small cut on the right and took it.  I paddled down about fifty yards and realized this wasn’t the right cut.  I turned around and got back out into the main waterway and paddled for another fifty yards or so when I found the cut I needed.  I got down to the end of this second, small cut where it entered the other main waterway.  I looked back to where the Q-beam was and it seemed like it was a half to three quarters of a mile from me.

I waived the light back and forth, yelling Ed’s name looking east, toward the bay.  There was no response.  I couldn’t believe it.  I was on point with the same line I had seen his light from our parking spot.  “Where in the hell is he?”  I was frustrated and a little more worried.  He should have responded by now I kept thinking.  I stuck with the plan though, and after about ten minutes of yelling and signaling, reluctantly headed back to our vehicle.  Later, I would learn that if I had looked west, I would have probably seen Ed.  Because of the wind velocity and direction, he couldn’t hear me yelling and I never assumed he was actually closer to our vehicle than I thought he was…much closer.

The Constable was surprised when I came around the bend and it was just me.  He told me that he could see my light and Ed’s light.  “It looked like ya’ll were right on top of each other.”

During the time I was gone, Ed had pulled his heavy kayak inch by inch across the mud and marsh, getting ever so slightly closer to us.  The Constable told Ed he could probably hike in the rest of the way and get the kayak in the morning.

“No, no gators or snakes, we just have mosquitoes, and with this wind, they’re not even out tonight,” he told Ed.  Ed asked the Constable what I was wondering about in my mind that whole evening; what about the snakes and gators?

The Constable was holding his binoculars on Ed’s very dim flashlight when he said, “I can see him.”

“What do you mean?”

“I can see him, I can physically see him.”

Ed’s survival kit had a thermal parka in it that was very shiny, and shortly after the Constable could see Ed with binoculars; I could see Ed as well with the naked eye.  We quickly walked out to meet him.  It was now midnight, and Ed was out of the marsh.

I’ll never forget what was said next.

“Well, when you told me there were no snakes or gators, I did what you suggested and dropped that kayak and just started walking,” Ed said, still with slightly heavy breath.

“Oh we have snakes and gators, but you didn’t need to know that,” the Constable responded with a grin.

We had a good laugh over the exchange.  The Constable was right though, why worry Ed even more?  From the very beginning this Constable did a great job of keeping a tense situation under control.

The last thing the Constable told us was that when we come back in the morning and see this area in daylight, we’ll be amazed how close Ed was to our launch site.  He was right; Ed’s kayak was about four hundred yards from the vehicles when he started his final walk toward us.  Even more amazing, he was only about seventy five yards from the canal that would have allowed him to paddle back to us.  But there was no way he could see it in the dark.

We stayed in Bay City that night and after getting Ed’s kayak loaded the next morning, headed home.  We returned at 1 p.m., twenty four hours after our departure time.  We were relieved, and even though it was never life threatening, the feeling of being lost and helpless even for a short time will make one think.  The lessons I learned from Ed is to be prepared; have a cell phone in a dry box, have a survival kit, and stay together.

Now for the fishermen reading this, I know what the question is… what did ya’ll catch?  It was all Ed, once again he would not be skunked; two keeper specs, one seventeen inches, one nineteen inches.  It was unfortunate they didn’t make it to the frying pan, being they were perfect eating size.  But no worries, we’ll be back for them, perhaps a little wiser and a little more prepared.

Scott concluded there were certain items he’d have along next time. A cell phone in a dry box, a survival kit and he wouldn’t separate from his partner. There are several things I’d like to add to this discussion. As Scott pointed out it’s a very good idea to set up a survival/dry bag with some essential items. Just toss it in the hatch and if you need any of the items they’ll be there. In my kit I have a set of small flares (4) along with a space blanket, mirror and noise making devices. I carry a few lights, especially at least one that’s an LED, so it’ll run a long time on one set of batteries. Scott mentioned being thirsty. Always carry water no matter where or when you’re fishing (at least a quart). Unless fishing in freshwater, and then carry a filter. Wind dehydrates you quickly and Ed’s exhaustion was most likely partly due to dehydration. A few energy bars or trail mix with dried fruit and nuts in the kit don’t take up much room either. The obvious item they didn’t have that would have avoided everything is a GPS. If each angler had one along with them neither would have lost their way. KFM

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