Kayak Fishing Safety Learned from Experience E-mail
Friday, 23 October 2009 15:25

striper

In reflecting back on my past 11 years of kayak fishing I can easily fire off a bunch of stories of great fishing days on the water. In that memory collage I can also remember some times when things didn’t go so well and I found myself in a situation that could have gone very bad. Reflecting back now I can sort of laugh about it and reassure myself that things worked out because of quick thinking and experience – not really sure it that is true but it sounds good – to me anyway.

I guess when it comes to safety, I find myself somewhere in the middle; I am not the person to over analyze every possible way that something can go wrong but I am also not the person to totally disregard the potential for a problem. That being said my hope here it share some situations that happened to me while kayak fishing and maybe these experiences will be tangible enough to relate to and not just based on speculation and theory – the way most safety material is written. I have been lucky enough to have kayak fished in many different environments; in many parts of the U.S. and quite a few different countries. Some of these places are spots where nobody has really taken a kayak and these are situations that can foster a potential disaster. However problems can arise anywhere and even in a place close to home that you fish all the time.

Weather changes – that’s what it does: You wouldn’t think that Florida in July could be the backdrop for hypothermia but that’s exactly what almost happened to a fellow Jon and myself. After launching in temperatures in the mid-90 we headed to find some redfish on the flats in the Cedar Key area of West Florida. We got to the first set of islands and as we were leaving it for the next set, our destination, it started raining and it was apparent it was going to get much worse. No sooner than we decided to seek refuge on the island it started to produce lightning - the likes I have never seen before. We ducked into the jungle on that small island to wait it out. After a couple hours in the pouring cool rain we were both shivering with our teeth chattering. We were losing core temperature. Jon suggested we grab the PFDs and put them on to gain some insulation. This slowed down our heat loss but wasn’t enough. There was a lull in the storms and we made a choice to brave the lightning and made a dash back to the launch. We made it back fine but it was a learning experience. A rain jacket and a couple other items would have made waiting this storm easy and fairly comfortable. Now, I always carry a packable rain jacket all the time and even in the hot summer.

This is not my only run in with unexpected weather and if you spend enough time on the water you will also have Mother Nature throw you a few curves. We need to do our best to prepare and use all the technology available to gain an edge. Now, before a trip I make sure I check out the weather, wind forecast and radar. Many cell phones have the ability to get weather and even satellite radar sent real time. This can prove very valuable information while on the water. Even a 20-minute warning can keep you out of harms way. Weather and water conditions are the most likely culprit of most kayaking fatalities so it deserves a lot attention and preparation.

Close encounters of the bird kind: when I first started kayak fishing, I fished mostly nights, I would head out at sunset and fish into the wee hours in the morning and I would do this alone. I know there is a contingent of people who believe that you should always kayak fish with a buddy but if that were the case I wouldn’t get on the water when I had the time and wanted to go. One particular calm night I was fishing in the Long Island Sound when a bird flew into my head, it almost knocked me off my kayak and put me into the drink. I was a bit dazed and confused as to what had just happened but I was fine. I know it might not seem likely that a bird can fly into you but anything can happen on the water. I guess there was actually a chance that I could have been knocked out by that bird – so wearing your PFD would be the only thing that could save you.

Know your limitations: Sometime during my first couple months of kayak fishing I headed down to the ocean to looks for birds working over schools of stripers, I found exactly what I was looking for, the only problem was that the surf was lot a bigger than I expected to see and given that I had never made a surf launch I should have got right back in my car and headed home. That’s hard to do when you know all you have to do to get into hot action is get out there. I heard a little voice in my head saying “what would John Wayne do if he was a kayak fisherman”. It got the best of me and I was ready to go. Sure, I had read a little about how to launch through the surf but that hardly counts for experience. I think you know how this one ends; it ends with me getting tossed around in the surf and a yard sale with my gear on the beach. Sometimes the allure of potential great fishing might cloud your judgment but there will always be other days on the water. Take a minute to truly think about what you intend on doing before you make a snap decision.

Alaska halibut

You are your brother’s keeper: Safety in numbers is certainly true while on the water but the flip side of this is that you need to be responsible for others you are on the water with. If a person is going kayak fishing with you without protective clothing and water temps are 50 degrees and he/she ends up in the water – his/her problem will now be your problem. A few years back we did a trip to Block Island for some fall fishing. We were trolling the island in medium sized swell when I noticed one of the guys from our group trolling right in the breakers; I remember thinking that this guy must really know what he is doing because he is right in the surf line. Well within 10 minutes he was getting tossed like a sock in a washing machine. The problem was he was separated from his kayak and there was no place to get out of the water as the island is just bluffs up against the rocky surf. I went in to help him out and got him back on his kayak and into a safe area but I ended up hurting my back and being laid up for a couple days and missing some of the best fishing of the trip. The lesson here is to make sure the people going kayak fishing with you have the right gear and also have the ability to safely enjoy the level of fishing you are going to pursue.

Somebody ate my breadcrumb trail: Cape Cod is a great kayak fishing destination, lots of marshes and creeks to explore – most loaded with big stripers. We formulated an excursion where would launch around sunset and fish into the night. Getting back in the dark would be no problem as we were planning to just follow the track we laid down with my spanking new GPS. Most of the areas we fish in the Cape have a 10’ tidal difference, since we launched at high tide and now were returning at low, the marsh now had drastically changed – in fact there was now a body of land right in the middle of our return track. We had to find another way back in and because I was so reliant on the GPS I hadn’t even noticed any land marks on the way out. We ended up finding our way back but it took us a couple extra hours to get back and after a long night of fishing it was not fun. Technology is great but it can sometimes malfunction so having a backup plan is always a good idea.

Look at the crazy tourist: I went to Costa Rica back in 2002 and found a guy who had a couple kayaks to rent, he recommended I go out to shrimp boats and fish behind the fleet. The fishing was incredible with big jacks and mackerel hanging behind the boats. I hooked up with something big that proceeded to drag me right into the path of one of the boats, the captain seemed less than amused with my hook up and kept a course right for me. I had an outfit with 50 pound braided line so breaking the fish off was not going to happen, I had to take my knife and cut the line, I got out of the way of the boat just in time. A good knife is a must on the kayak and can do more than just protect your last peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

Stupid kayak tricks: During one outing I decided to paddle up this narrow little creek to see where it led. About half way I decided that it didn’t look that promising so I decided to head back. It was very narrow and in my maneuvering to get turned around I got stuck with the nose and tail of my kayak wedged into each side this creek. So here I am sitting alone in my kayak and I’m stuck. I jump into the water and walk in this knee deep muck to free my kayak. This was more YouTube worthy than anything else but it does underscore that problems that can never be imagined do happen and you must deal with it.

Anchors away: I hate to admit it but I almost lost my kayak a couple times, one time when I didn’t toss the anchor out while fishing a marsh bank. I watched my yak float away from me. I was lucky enough to fire off a cast and hook the seat and reel her back in. Another time I anchored up on a sandy flat that I was going to wade fish with the fly rod. The problem is the anchor worked fine during slack tide but when the tide started to rip more it was more that the anchor could handle and it was dragging the anchor and the kayak away. I was able to chase it down before it got into the deeper water. When anchoring your kayak to wade fish consider winds and currents and their effect. Remember, you will never regret carrying a larger anchor. Never anchor your kayak mid kayak, always to the bow or the stern.

Too close for comfort: One fall day I was chasing schools of breaking fish around, tossing top waters to exploding stripers and blues. In my haste to get a 10-pound bluefish released so I could catch another I horsed him in much too quickly and he made a leap right into my lap with popper in his mouth slapping around my crotch - It gets worse, the front treble catches a strap on my PFD and I am attached this toothy critter and he is going crazy. According to my buddy I am letting out some less than masculine screeches. I make it a point to carry a pair of cutters and I was able to clip the hook and get freed. It is very important to have a good pair of needle nose pliers and also something that can cut a hook in case you hook yourself or need to get the hook out of a fish.

Don’t forget you’re just in a hunk of plastic: If you kayak fish long enough you will witness some amazing acts of stupidity and total disregard of your safety by power boaters. One time a bunch of us was kayak fishing when commercial fishing boat starting to troll right through us. It was nuts as we were in the middle of dozens of moored boats. Bluefish were on the bunker amongst the boats. It was not a smart plan to catch these fish. He proceeded to cut our lines with the wire line was using. I started to argue with him and it got very ugly – very fast. At one point he sped right by me and tried to swamp me. As it turned out we were fishing with about a dozen power boats and one of them witnessed this and called the authorities. Harbor Patrol responded very quickly. They boarded his boat and wrote a bunch of violations for him. Unfortunately his antics put the fish down and ruined the great fishing we and the boats were having. The dumbest thing is if this guy had been nice to us and the boats we would have given him all the bluefish he’d ever wanted. I have heard of many other stories like this and you are going to have to be prepared with life on the water with irresponsible powerboats. On the water showdowns are not going to turn out well. The worst you will do is to make a scratch on their gel coat when they run you over. Aside from road rage on the water if there is one other thing I cannot emphasize enough is that you have to always assume that you are not being seen on the water. Boaters are sometimes totally focused on looking for other boats and a kayak’s lower profile can make it harder to see. On a few occasions I have had boaters tell me that they didn’t see me until they were right on me.

Obviously, some of these encounters were not life-threatening but still could have laid the groundwork for a much more serious outcome. My hope here is that maybe at some point one of my stories could pop up in your head and you might revaluate a certain path or decision. For the most part kayak fishing is a very safe sport that provides exercise, relaxation and enjoyment. I do think it is valuable to learn from others mistakes so that the only stories you will be sharing will be about big fish you caught from a kayak.

 

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