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July 24, 2003

Independence Days

Try fishing blue water from a kayak and discover a world you've been missing from the comfy confines of your big boat. Sitting at water level adds a whole new perspective to fighting game fish.

I'm sitting a few miles offshore on a slightly lumpy butmirror-calm Sea of Cortez. No - I mean on the Sea of Cortez, as inmy butt is right at water level. There's not a person within milesof me; a scan of the horizon reminds me I'm completely and totallyalone in my 11 1/2-foot kayak.

I had left shore just after daybreak, paddling at a comfortable,measured pace. An hour into the morning, the spinning rod behind mestarted to sing, but in the seconds it took me to grab the rod fromthe holder, whatever had taken a swat at my plug had vamoosed.

Now, far offshore, I'm in a slight but discernible current line.I swap the diving plug for a single short-shank hook to match thesmall sardinas still swimming in my bait bucket. I decide toslow-troll one of the chrome-bright baitfish, using a very lightrubber-core sinker to keep it down a bit, in hopes of findingdorado. Pausing between paddle strokes, I hear a swoosh in thedistance. Moments later, I hear it again, but very close. It makesme jump a bit. No more than 100 feet away, the back of a whaleslices the water. I'm reminded how small is the kayak thatseparates me from the sea. The whale surfaces again, farther to thenorth. I continue to troll.

Another unidentifiable creature swirls the water, producing anaudible boil, near me. I've often heard it said that we go fishingmostly for the experience - that the fish are secondary. For me thefish usually seemed pretty primary. But kayak-fishing isn't theusual experience. Hooking up becomes something of an afterthought.Fishing is suddenly an intensely sensory experience, which bearslittle resemblance to a day on the water in a "super cruiser" (asthe small convertible, diesel sport-fishers here are called) or anoutboard panga.

I hear every swish and see every splash - and there's far moreactivity out here than I'd ever realized. Even if I didn't catch afish, I wouldn't trade these moments. But when my line suddenlytightens and a 12-pound dorado goes airborne, I gain someadditional perspective. Even a fish of such modest size can offer abit of old-man-and-the-sea exhilaration. The fish's leaps top outat about the level of my head.

After several breathtaking, somersaulting jumps, the doradobegins to run. The kayak offers so little resistance that I findthis 12-pound fish actually towing me. For an angler standing inthe cockpit of a 4,000-pound boat, a 12-pound dorado fights onlythe reel's drag. But now, it's fighting rod/reel, kayak and me, allworking together. There's no deckhand standing by who'll take aquick swipe with a 6-foot gaff and drop it neatly into the fishbox. If it's to be landed on the kayak, I must do it.

I reach around behind me for the Lip-Gripper (like a BogaGripwithout the scale) sticking up from a rod-holder pocket in thekayak's seat. I drop the gripper in my lap when the dorado tells meshe isn't ready to come aboard. A few minutes later, I get a secondchance and, this time, make good. I lay the rod in the kayak infront of me and quickly grab a fish billy. For the dorado, the restis history: Unlike later fish which I'll release, thisfirst-of-the-day will be dinner. I unhook it and place it inside aburlap bag, laying it on the bow where I can occasionally pourwater over it to keep it from dessicating beneath the August Bajasun, now climbing the hazy sky.

It occurs to me that while I've caught countless dorado(dolphin) of this size in Atlantic and Pacific oceans, I feel likeI'm catching my first one, all over again. After all, I have nohelp - no outboard brought me out here; no skipper found the fish;no deckhand helped me boat it. Like Old Blue Eyes, I had to do itmy way.

Offshore Stability
That is the essence of kayak fishing, of course. You have to do ityour way since it's a one-person show. Of course, it's essential tosay up front that this fishing is not for everyone. Some, like me,wouldn't trade the experience for anything. Others wouldn't touchit with a 10-foot, double-bladed paddle. In a general sense, if youtend to be independent, a trail blazer and do-it- yourselfer, onewho'd rather hike up the mountain than hop on an ATV, then odds aregood you're kayak-fishing material.

Perhaps surprisingly, it's not as difficult or tricky as onemight think. You don't need to be in top athletic shape; if youavoid rough water, and fish from one of several fairly wide andamazingly stable sit-on-top kayaks, the demands and risks are bothminimal. They're so stable that most experienced kayak-anglersspend part of their fishing day sitting side-saddle amidships,their legs together, hanging over one side or the other. They're sostable that more than once, in a gentle sea, I've scooted my buttamidships to lie down, and using the seat back as a pillow andputting my feet up on the bow, taken a nap!

It's not likely that anyone anywhere has introduced more anglersto the joys of kayak-fishing than Dennis Spike. My opportunity tofish the Sea of Cortez came via one of his regular kayak trips lastAugust out of Rancho Leonero resort on the south side of the EastCape. It became quickly evident why Spike (who goes by his lastname as if it were his first) likes this area.

During the week I was there, not a single day was blown out.Nearly every carbon-copy day offered flat water until mid- to latemorning, when a light offshore sea breeze produced a 1- tooccasional 2-foot chop - still fishable, and the beauty of it isthat it (a) cools you off and (b) pushes you back toward home.

Spike makes the logistics pretty simple. You bring your owntackle, safety equipment and most kayak-fishing necessities. Incooperation with Spike's Coastal Kayak Fishing, the resort supplieskayaks (Ocean Kayak Scrambler XTs - well worn but functional; theyhope to be able to offer Hobie's innovative Outback soon, also).Also provided: paddle, seat, bait bucket and personal flotationdevice.

Spike offers a review of kayaking fundamentals (he prefers atleast basic kayaking experience among those who book his trips) aswell as more advanced technique. In fact, though, it's really allpretty. In particular, Spike offers an ideal location for fishingkayaks nearshore and offshore, as well as panga "mothership"support at least some of the days you fish. That means plenty offresh live bait as long as you're out and a ride to and from thefishing grounds (which, especially for tuna, can be 10 or 20miles), with the kayaks daisy-chained in tow. You'll also have morethan enough water and cold drinks, and an opportunity to toss fishyou catch into a fish box. (Granted, none of those things arenecessary, but, particularly if you're far away from land, can bewelcome options.)

Even on days when kayakers are on their own (without a supportpanga), Spike's usually along - with his nifty collapsible nylonlivewell at the stern of his kayak acting as a mini bait barge forthe kayakeros (as the local panga skippers call the aficionados whopaddle out to fish the same waters that pangas fish).

Spike Releases a Sail
After just a couple of days spent off the East Cape, I could seehow kayak-fishing can get in one's blood. Several participants wererepeat customers, including Bob Clark of Huntington Beach,California. In fact, this was Clark's fifth visit in five years,and he has no plans to stop his annual pilgrimage - even thoughAugust 2002 proved to be a bust for one of his favorites,yellowfin.

"Three summers ago," he says, "there were 20- to 25-poundyellowfin all over! They were straight out about 2 1/2 miles, wherethe water drops sharply into the depths. Every kayak had tuna everyday - outfishing the pangas [which went out farther]. And we caughtdorado out there, as well."

The biggest kayak-caught yellowfin to date: a 70-pounder landedby Mike Allen, a Coastal Kayak Fishing guide and fly-rod expertfrom Huntington Beach. Spike had good reason from past seasons tofigure we'd find yellowfin, but this August didn't follow the norm:The chance to catch or even watch another kayaker catch a bigyellowfin remained elusive.

But about midmorning I did enjoy a chance to watch something atleast as exciting. We were concentrating on dorado, which we foundscattered about a current line and offering frequent if sporadichookups, along with occasional skipjack.

Spike's cousin, Howard Rose of Malibu, California, had justlanded a 25-pound bull, when Spike yelled, "I'm on!" I could seeright off that this was no dorado. At least 100 pounds of angrysailfish came hurtling from the Pacific, just in front of hiskayak, then leapt several more times. A sail hookup offersexcitement for any angler. But watching Spike in his kayak,whooping with delight as the sailfish took off, pulling the kayakquickly enough to throw up a little rooster tail, made this epicbattle one I won't soon forget.

It was a battle that the kayakero won, though it took a goodhalf-hour to do so, on his levelwind Calcutta filled with 20-poundline. (Spike insists the kayak becomes a real advantage in suchsituations, since the fish must not only fight the reel but dragthe hull around as well.) This fish couldn't be horsed, so when hedid finally get the sail to the side of the kayak, it proved tiredenough for Spike to take out the hook and resuscitate the fish fora couple of minutes - until it broke his grip and swam offstrongly.

I learned later that Spike had abandoned the use of smallsardinas after he dropped the little baitfish deep enough to pullup a small sea bass (a member of the grouper family). He quicklyput that on a larger hook, demonstrating one key to finding biggerfish from kayaks - bigger baits.

Kayaks do suffer the disadvantage of being unable to speed-trolllarge lures for billfish, tuna, wahoo and dorado. But they canperfectly slow-troll (at a very easy, comfortable paddling pace of2 or 3 knots) or drift live baits. At times, little bonito swarm;these make great live baits for all pelagic species. They're also ahot ticket for big dorado (versus smaller schoolies). Spike's bestkayak dolphin: a 42-pound bull.

Most anglers stick with mono leaders, as I did - until I wassnipped off neatly twice, once above the leader and once well upthe leader. With no sierra around at all, I felt this to be thecertain handiwork of wahoo. I switched to light wire midway throughmy trip - but of course hooked nothing toothy after that.

Nearshore Rods Bend
While the Sea of Cortez's usual tranquility makes for superconditions to paddle and fish miles offshore, plenty of action andvariety await kayakeros right along the coast. We found Africanpompano and pargo particularly cooperative last August, withAfricans of 5 to 10 pounds schooling in 100 to 200 feet ofwater.

We saw no Pacific cubera or "dog" snapper taken (though Spike'scaught cubera to 36 pounds from his kayak here), but a number oftough barred pargo (Hoplopagrus guentherii) hit sardinas(especially with two or three threaded onto a hook) and iron (metaljigs or - Spike's preference - large chrome or green-mackerelKrocodile spoons).

His 17-pound barred pargo marked one of the better snapper thatcame in. We also caught plenty of a smaller but tasty species,which appeared to be rose snapper (Lutjanus guttatus). We enjoyedthe most consistent nearshore action over reefs a half-mile or sooff the beach where actor Scott Glenn has a vacation home - adistinct landmark requiring only a modest paddle of 2 or 3 milesfrom the ranch.

Much of the bottom of the Cortez in this area is relativelyfeatureless, so any sort of rocky areas can be productive. Manykayakeros bring their own small, portable depth sounders withsuction-cup mounts to facilitate spotting reefs as well as findingbait balls and even predators in middepths.

The situation changes somewhat seasonally, which is one reasonwhy Spike offers East Cape kayak trips in April, August andOctober. The weather varies by season. August is by far the hottesttime but also - barring any tropical storm systems moving throughor near - the calmest. Fishing varies seasonally as well.

For example, Valerie Pryor and Rod Bennett of Los Angeles, alsoon the trip with me as return participants, described virtuallynonstop action for sierra mackerel at times during a spring 2002visit, with tremendous schools waiting just off the shore. Some ofthese fish ran well into the double digits.

October's a prime month for big roosters along the shore, whenanglers find them smashing baitfish mercilessly up and down thecoast here. Spike has caught roosterfish from his kayak to 47pounds (that one right in front of Rancho Leonero on a Krocodile).Big pargo also make a good showing, as a rule. Of course, one neverreally knows what he - or she - might catch.

Ask Val Pryor, who battled a striped marlin from her kayak offthe East Cape in April until, after its sixth or seventh jump (allthe more breathtaking when the angler's at water level), it threwthe hook.

Tackle Up for Action
Having the right tackle is fundamental for any angler, andparticularly one who fishes seriously from a kayak. You can takeout just so much equipment - and you can't crank up the engine torun back a few miles for something you forgot.

For fishing the East Cape, 20-pound outfits represent an idealall-around size and, in fact, if one were to bring just a couple ofsetups of this size, he'd be all set. Still, I also found a lot ofuse for a 16-pound braid outfit and, as noted above, something muchlighter would have been perfect for big houndfish or schoolingsierra. Much heavier rigs are unnecessary and probably not a goodidea since a kayak doesn't provide the sort of leverage you'd wantfor 50-pound line, which is much less forgiving than 20. Keep rodsto a maximum of 8 feet.

High-speed conventional and level-wind reels seem to predominatein this fishery. A few anglers bring spinning outfits as well, andexperts with the fly rod can find plenty of use for one.

For a good idea of productive lures and terminal gear, I checkedout Spike's tackle box. He has been fishing the East Cape fromkayaks for eight years and has it down to just one plastic box (aPlano O-ring-sealed box with secure latches) filled with the barenecessities. These include his favorite Krocodile spoons - greenmackerel/chrome but also blue mackerel/chrome and straight chromewith prismatic tape in 3/4- to 3 1/2-ounce sizes.

Spike also carries a few Southern California-style iron jigs. Hemakes sure he has plenty of sinkers - sliding egg sinkers of 1/2 to2 ounces and a few torpedoes of 2 to 6 ounces. Hooks, whethercircle or J (angler preference), need to accommodate anything from"pinhead" sardines as small as a couple of inches to 1-pound livebonito or other baitfish. Of course, a good pliers and knife mustbe included and kept handy, along with a BogaGrip or Lip-Gripper orthe like, and a hand gaff.

While some anglers tie straight to their lure or hook, I wasglad I'd brought 50-pound mono leader. Ditto rubber-core sinkers,since they can be added to or subtracted from your line in a hurry- especially nice when trolling or drifting small baits. My surfaceplugs couldn't drum up much interest, but I'd sure bring 'em again;skyrocketing sierra offer great visual thrills. (Don't forget somelight wire for leader.) Also, a sabiki rig or two can beworthwhile.

And speaking of bait, pack a bunch of 5-dollar bills so you canhave one handy any morning you're headed out to do your own thingand want to fill your bait bucket with livies from a bait panga.(Bait buckets are the kind you tow, though unless you're trollingthey slow you down quite a bit; most put them on the kayak's deckwhile underway and refill with new water periodically. Fortunately,particularly for school dorado and yellowfin, fresh-dead whitebaits often do the job just fine.)

It's worth spending time beforehand making sure you haveeverything you'll need, since not everything is available locally.The preparation really pays on that first morning when, in the dimlight of predawn, you're eagerly outfitting your kayak, knowingyou'll be self-contained and self-assured. Then spend some longhalf-days doing it all yourself, having your own adventures (whichwill be among the many shared at dinner each night) - and you'llfly home with feelings of self-assurance hitting levelsnonkayakeros will never know.