by Suzanne M. Wood
photographs by Jill Knight
I’ve always admired fishing kayaks, with their canoe-style cargo capacity and high seats combined with the lighter-weight and kinder learning curve of a kayak. Their small draft also gives dedicated fishermen access to fish-friendly places other boats can’t reach, opening up the swampy, shallow, and rocky parts of lakes, ponds, rivers – and even sounds and oceans – in a way a jon boat can’t.
I’ve kayaked a lot and I’ve fished a lot, but I’d never combined the two, and I couldn’t wait to try. So on a sunny early summer day, I convinced my husband, Scott, and our 14-year-old son, Alex (a.k.a. “The Fish Whisperer”), to join me on a maiden fishing kayak adventure. Our destination: a 25-acre pond in Knightdale known for its fishing. Scott took one look and described the conditions as “optimal.”
The boat I borrowed from Raleigh’s Great Outdoor Provision Co. (my husband’s employer) was a paddle kayak. We put Alex in a Hobie model that came with foot pedals for hands-free fishing. It took him mere minutes to master the pedaling-and-rudder action. Scott opted to paddle his own trusty old canoe so that he could be free to help the two of us find and land the many fish we planned to catch.
Once I got used to the wider width and heavier weight of the fishing kayak – not to mention its lawnchair-like seat, which is mounted half-a-foot off the bottom of the boat for better leverage catching and landing fish – I quickly got the hang of paddling it around the lake. It was fun, but I was too busy keeping my boat straight and maneuvering into coves and against lily pads that I didn’t fully experience all the features that fishing kayaks are prized for, like a fish finder. Since I was familiar with the lake and had my own two human fish finders for assistance, I didn’t turn it on. I also chose not to take advantage of the built-in and clip-on rod holders, and instead stashed the rod between my feet after each cast.
Plenty of people use features like those to their best advantage, which is one of the reasons kayak fishing has become popular enough that North Carolina now boasts several organizations that provide information to and sponsor events for lovers of the sport. I know one father and preteen-aged son who live just west of the Triangle who spend three seasons a year in fishing kayaks – sometimes solo, sometimes paddling tandem – exercising the fish in North Carolina waterways as diverse as the Haw River, Lake Mackintosh in Alamance County, the sound off Sunset Beach, and the New River at West Jefferson.
They love the sport’s multi-dimensionality, which is what drew me in, too. But perhaps unsurprisingly, I found that fishing and kayaking all at once meant there was a lot to do. While kayaking’s meditative quality has always been its main attraction for me, fishing while kayaking is more of an exercise in concentrated multitasking, like learning to drive a car with a manual transmission. But just like a stick shift, kayak fishing becomes second nature once you get the hang of it.
I was just about there when I got my first and only bite of the day. The sun was sinking lower, the frogs were chorusing louder. I wasn’t even in a particularly fish-auspicious spot, floating more than 50 yards from the bank in a featureless area of the pond. And I was tired, so my distracted cast was sloppy. But the eruption from the foamy water came almost immediately. A bass flashed silver as it sank its jaws around my lure.
“Get him, get him,” Scott called from his canoe. He wasn’t close enough to see it, but he knew it was a big fish from the splash alone. I was so stunned I didn’t pull my rod to set the hook as hard as I should have, and had just started reeling, shakily, thrilling to the resistance against my line, when I was suddenly jerked back. My first and only fish of the day had broken free.
My fish-whisperer son hadn’t fared much better. Leave it to fly-rod-wielding Dad, the only non-kayak-fisher of the group, to land the day’s single catch – a pretty little bass attracted by a copperhead fly typically favored for red drum. Meanwhile, despite using a jointed, crankbait lure made that’s prized for its bass-catching prowess, I remained fishless.
It didn’t matter. We’d started something we want to continue. With a little more practice, we might even get hooked.
If you go
Although there are plenty of places to rent kayaks in the Triangle, it can be tough to locate a fishing kayak. As an alternative, sit-on-top models offer relatively comparable stability, but lack the storage capacity of models designed for fishermen. There are guide services that will provide you with the boats, water access, and expertise you need to experience the sport. Don’t forget that the state requires all fishermen over the age of 16 to have a license.
For more information
Visit getgoingnc.com; the North Carolina Kayak Fishing Association at nckfa.com; kayakfishingnc.com; and the Wake County Department of Parks and Recreation’s list of lake and boating facilities at wakegov.com