One for the Campfires

One for the Campfires
There's no such thing as a bad fishing trip. Sometimes the numbers caught don't amount to much, but the experience of just being there makes up for it. You get to see something cool, explore a new place or maybe have the opportunity to watch nature play out before your eyes. Then there are days when the weather is miserable, but the fishing is at its peak. Sometimes it's as simple as letting the fish teach you something that helps you on future trips. Or perhaps you just get to spend a day on the water with a good fishing buddy. It really doesn't matter; I always manage something good from each and every trip.

Every once in a while it all comes together perfectly. You're out with a great friend, the weather is perfect, the fish are biting and nature treats you to a show. These are the days that are forever etched into your hard drive and become the stories told around campfires. Today was one of them and I'm sure I'll relive this experience for the remainder of my days.

Since I was a little kid I've always loved being offshore. There is just something magical about heading out onto an open horizon as the sun comes up, knowing there is no boundary ahead of you. The anticipation of the first sizzling run of a high-speed predator, the slight nervousness of being far from land, and knowing that you just might not be at the top of the food chain sparks the imagination. I've felt this every time our boat cleared the jetties and I hope to never lose it. Now throw in the wildcard of doing it in a kayak and the feelings rise exponentially.

My good buddy Jason and I have talked about chasing kings from our kayaks since my first trip a couple years ago. We even made plans a few times. Weather, obligations and other hurdles always seemed to abort the idea.

Yesterday the stars were finally aligned. We both had a hole in our schedules, the Gulf of Mexico was predicted to be as flat as a park pond and recent reports had the kings close to the beach. Plans were set in motion and a pile of gear grew on the garage floor.

The task of preparing for a trip far from shore in a kayak will really make you think hard about your gear. The fact that you can't just run back to the truck to get something tends to have you wanting two of everything. The thought of unhooking a toothy kingfish or shark after dropping your only set of pliers overboard seals the deal on packing a spare, maybe two. The pile grew higher.

With the truck loaded I tried my best to get some sleep knowing we had a long paddle ahead of us. As usual, I woke up staring at the clock before the alarm. Looking through the blinds I saw Jason already in the driveway. Guess he was ready to get going too. After reviewing the gear list one last time we pointed the truck south for Galveston.

On the sand in predawn darkness were several trucks with anglers readying for speckled trout. We went about loading the kayaks and paddled out through waves that weren't even knee high as the sun turned the horizon pink. Once outside the third bar it seemed only right to try our luck with the trout. All we could manage were a few half-hearted blow-ups on topwater and one pencil-thin skipjack on a soft plastic. The open water was beckoning and the sun was high enough to provide safe light. Time to go. I had to laugh at what must be going through those waders' minds as we disappeared from sight.

For a bay angler accustomed to keying on structure the featureless waters of the near-shore gulf are somewhat disconcerting. There is simply so much water that doubt creeps into your mind, particularly while you're paddling with no real destination. I've been out there many times and caught plenty of fish. Yet even with past success it still takes a real leap of faith. I could only imagine the doubt in Jason's mind, having never been out there, and felt the need to keep reassuring that we'd find some fish. Strangely, every time I looked in his direction all I could see was an ear-to-ear grin. We paddled on. The water changed from sandy-green to emerald and then blue-green.

An hour and a half out I finally saw what I'd been hoping for; a flock of terns were balled up and diving. As we neared the fray the unmistakable splashes made it clear we were about to get hooked up. All it took was a cast into the melee with a soft plastic to get the action started. On every cast a half dozen Spanish mackerel would crash the lure until one would find the hook. I was giggling like a little kid as the silver missiles shot back and forth swatting the bait all the way up to the kayak.

Then the school simply disappeared. Jason said, "Dude, look down." There were hundreds of smacks schooled up and headed away. Flocks of birds and feeding fish had materialized in every direction as far as I could see. The next two hours were spent paddling from school to school catching fish at will.

And then it was over; almost as if someone had flipped a switch. The birds scattered and began to head toward shore. Others took a break on a nearby radio tower structure. Jason and I rafted up to take in some much needed water and decide what to do next. The water simply felt dead. Nothing was happening at all and I was afraid the day was done. Even though we hadn't found the kings we both agreed that it had been worth the paddle just to experience the intensity of the past couple of hours. Without realizing it we'd moved several miles lateral to the beach while chasing the smacks. We decided to take our time and meander toward the truck while trolling and hoping to run across a king or two.

About the time we got going I noticed a patch of disturbed water a hundred or so yards away. Pogies, menhaden, shadwhatever you want to call them, they're the candy bars of the gulf for predators. The sight of them tells you it's about to get good. Before we could paddle to them I saw the first kingfish rocket out of the water. Too cool!
We arrived at the edge of an acre of nervous bait and started casting. I was locked in on the bait and looking for a target when I heard a huge crashing splash. Funny, I hadn't noticed any 300 pound guys doing cannonballs off a high dive. But that's what it sounded like and it came from Jason's direction. I glanced over and saw a huge boil right off of his stern; the look on his face was priceless.
"What the hell was that?" he exclaimed.

"I don't know, but it was right behind you and it was BIG!" I yelled back.

Jason made a somewhat timid cast behind his kayak and just about got the rod ripped out of his hands.
"I'm hooked up!"

No kidding. Hell, I could hear the drag singing from thirty yards away. After some give and take Jason was holding his first ever kingfish. Not many folks can say their first king was caught throwing a lure from a kayak.

The day could have ended right there and I would have been completely satisfied, but it was just getting fired up. With the requisite photos snapped and the baitfish moving, we trolled our lures and paddled hard to catch up. Before reaching the school Jason's reel started signing again and I paddled closer to get some action shots.
I was busy snapping away when Jason popped up with, "Uh-oh, there's a shark over here and he's trying to eat my king."

I looked around and said, "Well don't look over here 'cause there's two more on your left. Oh, and a couple more the other side of me."

The dudes in the grey suits were everywhere and they weren't ankle-biters either. Jason's king made a hard run that ended with a thump. The rod relaxed for a second and then bowed deeper than ever. I was paddling full-out and losing ground as Jason's yak took off. Somehow the shark had managed to hook himself and took Jason for a ride. A couple minutes later the split ring failed.

We got back to trolling, headed towards the bait school. It was like an instant replay, only this time it was my turn. First there was the sizzling run of a kingfish, then a hard thump, followed by a powerful steady pull. My rod was bent to the max and line was pouring off the reel at an alarming rate. I cranked the drag and let him start pulling the kayak.

Jason caught up and snapped a few pictures while laughing at my yak leaving a wake. Then the shark turned and yanked me straight towards him. He was still staring at the screen on the back of the camera and probably trying to figure out why I wouldn't fit in the frame.
"Uh J, I'm coming at ya and there ain't nuthin' I can do about it. Dude, seriously he's going under you."

He put the camera down just in time to get broadsided by a Tarpon 160. I bounced off without incident and kept right on truckin'. After what seemed like forever he started circling under the kayak and I got a good look. My lure was lodged firmly in the tip of a six or seven foot bull shark's pectoral fin. I decided right then that a kayak wasn't near big enough for me and a foul-hooked bull shark. I managed to get him reeled up to the leader and cut the line.

Then it really turned on. Huge schools of bait started showing in every direction. Kings were shooting through the schools and some pretty impressive spinner sharks started doing their thing. It was simply awesome watching these massive sharks clear the water and pirouette before crashing back to the surface.

For a while I just sat back and watched the show. I don't really know how long all of this lasted, but by the time it was over we had caught a good many kings and some rather large Spanish mackerel. It seemed as though the sharks spread out some during the height of the action because we were able to land our fish with only a few close calls.

There were so many cool moments. At one point I was taking pictures of Jason when I looked down to see a huge shark cruising next to me. I like to consider myself pretty levelheaded, but this guy got my attention. He was easily as wide as my kayak, but thankfully not as long. The shark rolled up under my paddle and stared at me a moment before disappearing. I don't know if he was sizing me up or trying to figure out what the hell this crazy fella was doing out there on his turf.

Once things slowed down the sharks seemed to key on our yaks looking for a free meal. We were paddling along and trolling when I noticed two of them following Jason only a couple feet off his stern. That got me to checking my six o'clock and sure enough there they were; five good-sized sharks following me single file. I've never seen anything like it and I have to admit it was a little unnerving.

The sun was high overhead, the cooling breeze was gone, and we were both worn out from fighting fish. It seemed like a good time to start the long paddle to the beach. On the ride home Jason commented, "I want to do that again." We will my friend, just not tomorrow. This old man needs some rest.