Back to School

Back to School
“Now do it like this,”... Dean demonstrates technique to students.

Going to school never was tops on my list of things to do. I was always looking out the window checking the wind direction and imagining what was happening out on the bay. Of course if they had offered up a class on fishing they might have held my attention a bit longer. When I wasn't tied to the school desk, the bays and salt marshes of Galveston taught me plenty about life and the ways of nature. I think many of today's kids could use a good dose of that kind of outdoor experience.

My good buddy Captain Dean Thomas offers a class that would've been a huge hit among my running buddies. He calls it The Texas Kayak Fishing School. The name is a bit misleading though. While it is geared toward the kayak fisherman, there is plenty of information for anyone who wants to learn the ins and outs of fishing the flats of the Texas coast.

The idea for the school was born a few years ago when Dean and his good buddy Dr. Bill Harvey were having one of their in-depth discussions on the front porch of the Kayak Shack. Dean is a student of the water and often puzzles over why the fish are acting the way they do under different conditions. Dr Bill is a fisheries biologist and tends have a lot of answers for those questions. They decided to combine Bill's knowledge of fish biology with Dean's knowledge of catching fish and share it with others.

The curriculum they developed is pretty amazing. I remember the first time I sat in on the school. I went in believing it would be geared more towards beginners and saltwater rookies. I ended up taking notes. The amount of quality information was simply too much to absorb. Dr Bill's theories on why fish eat, how they react to various stimuli, and how water chemistry affects them was just what I had been wanting to know for all these years. Perhaps I should've continued on with that school thing back when I was younger.

The school was a success among the growing kayak fishing community, but a couple years ago Dr Bill retired from his job with TPWD and found himself too busy to continue with the class. By this time Dean had sat through Dr Bill's talk enough times that he had a fisheries degree by proxy. Last year Dean asked me to join him and help out with teaching the class. I was honored and had a great time, but now I too have retired from my first career and become busier than ever in my second. Never fear, Dean is planning to soldier on without me this year.

The school consists of two half days in the classroom and two half days on the water. It is a full weekend of learning combined with the fun of kayak fishing. Starting Friday around noon the class of 10 to 12 students arrives at the Kayak shack in Aransas Pass where they are greeted by Dean's big grin and unmistakable Texas drawl. Total strangers and longtime friends are treated the same and within minutes everyone is laughing at (or was that with) him.

The classroom upstairs is fully stocked with note pads, pens, and aerial maps of Redfish Bay. After a brief introduction around the room the professor launches into the program. Dean's laid-back style and constant one-liners makes for a comfortable atmosphere where questions and comments are welcome. The first session covers general kayak fishing safety including basic equipment, what to stock in your first aid kit, and suggestions on keeping yourself out of harm's way. Dean guides kayak fishermen on a daily basis and has dealt with just about everything out on the water from bee stings to heart problems so he's full of good advice on what to have handy. One popular part of this section of the course deals with hook removal–and I'm not talking about unhooking a fish. It is taught with real-world experiences to back it up.

Next up is an in-depth discussion on reading the water and locating fish. As with every other section in the program, the talk is supplemented with photographs projected onto the wall that further illustrate the important points. Tailing reds are always a hot topic in the school. Everyone wants to see them. Dean has probably seen more waving tails from a kayak than anyone on the Texas coast and he shares his thoughts on where to locate them, why they tail, and how to approach them. Sometimes this part goes a little long. Okay, it always goes longer than intended. But it is interesting to get the perspective of someone who sees hundreds, if not thousands, of reds every season.

The remainder of the afternoon is devoted to kayak rigging. He can give you a pretty good idea of what works and what doesn't. Again, he's seen just about everything you can imagine strapped to, bolted on, and stuffed inside a kayak. Poking fun at the gear junkies is always entertaining.

The session wraps up with a discussion on paddle selection and instruction on proper paddling techniques. Most everyone who is just getting into kayaking could use some help with their paddling skills. Forward strokes, reverse strokes, turning sweeps, and braking are all covered. It's pretty tough to teach in a classroom setting, but you'll get enough of the basics to start working on it the next morning.

Saturday morning everyone meets up back at the shack before daylight and caravans down to the water. After the kayaks are rigged the armada launches out onto the flats for a morning of semi-guided fishing. I was a bit doubtful about this strategy at first. It didn't seem that we had equipped the students with enough information by this point for them to locate and catch fish, but it turns out to be a great teaching opportunity. Rookies are soaking it all in and those with some experience are trying to put their new-found knowledge into practice. After all, a few hours on the water are never a bad thing.

After lunch the group meets back in the classroom where everyone is invited to share their experiences from the morning on the water. This always opens up a good discussion on what went right or wrong with the fishing. And this leads perfectly into the next section of the school. It is at this point that the puzzle starts to come together as Dean goes into in-depth explanations of tide cycles, the terrain of the flats, and weather patterns. All of which combine to affect when and where the fish will feed on any given day.

Additional pieces of the puzzle come from an overview of general fish biology and behavior. This helps everyone to understand what makes these critters tick and why they do some of the puzzling things they do. But most importantly, it gives you the knowledge to make them strike your lure. Dean is very generous with his hard-earned knowledge of how to judge when and where to present a lure to sighted redfish. It sounds pretty simple, but there are definite right and wrong ways to go about it. Resisting the temptation to drop your lure right on a red's nose is hard to do the first time you see a big bronze fish cruising across the flats. And the ability to read a tailing red's attitude is often the difference between hooking up and watching the roostertail as he flees the flat.

Day two wraps up with a look at tackle selection. Dean's tackle box is surprisingly sparse in variety of both lure types and colors. A few topwaters, some DOA shrimp, and some weedless-rigged soft plastics are about all you'll find. He'll also give you his opinion on rod and reel selection. Most beginners come into the class relying heavily on having every lure on the tackle isle as a crutch. By the end of the class it becomes clear that understanding the fish and their environment is far more important than having all those latest and greatest lures to choose from. Keeping your gear simple allows you to concentrate more on what really counts.

Sunday morning you get to try your hand at putting it all together with another half day fishing under the watchful eye of the teacher. It was always rewarding for me to see the difference in confidence and attitude from the first afternoon on the porch to the last morning on the water. Guys who didn't have a clue walk away with a base of knowledge to build upon through their own experiences and I know they'll be successful. I'm going to miss that this year.

A schedule of this year's school dates can be found at or you can call the shop at 361-758-0463 for more information.