Growing up in the Midwest, I spent much of my first 10 years in, on and around the water on Snow Lake, which is part of a chain of lakes in northeast Indiana. By age three I was a strong swimmer and by age five I was teaching my male teenage cousins who were visiting from out of state how to bait a hook.
My family fished in nearly every mode: from boats (motorized Jon boat, little Sunfish sailboat, speed boat and canoe), the dock, the shoreline…even ice fishing with tip-ups in the winter. Our catches ranged from perch, blue gills and bass to catfish and crappie. One of my fondest memories was nighttime spearfishing, which was legal at the time. We quietly motored along the shoreline shining a big light a few feet in front of the boat. When a big fish would wander into the glow of the light, one of my brothers would throw a spear with a rope attached to it through the fish. On more than one occasion, we landed huge 3- to 5-foot long gar.
Fast forward about 35 years (yikes!), and I now live on the beautiful Central Coast of California. Though I’ve been here for five years, until recently, I still had not yet gone ocean kayaking, let alone ocean fishing. Last Friday that all changed. My friend, Tom Reilly, took me out about three-quarters of a mile to try my hand at catching lingcod. Tom is an ACA-certified kayak instructor who owns a kayak touring and rental business, Momentum Paddle Sports. Not only does he know his way around a kayak, he knows a thing or two about ocean angling.
After some quick safety tips and a paddling technique tutorial, Tom and I were off. It was a foggy morning, and the Pacific was calm and glassy. One of the first things that caught my attention was what I thought were small plastic lid-like pieces of garbage floating about. It turns out the debris was actually a form of blue, mostly harmless, jellyfish, called velellas. Large numbers are washing up on Central Coast beaches this year.
I learned that lingcod like to hang out near the bottom of kelp forests, where they can hide from other predators while keeping an eye out for their own prey. Our goal was to stay along the edge of the kelp beds, always keeping the line on the upwind side of the kayak so the kayak would drift away from the line rather than over it.
But here’s the thing about ocean fishing, the currents and the tide mean you don’t stay in one place very long. The answer wasn't to keep re-positioning the kayak. No, it was something much more ingenious: throw some kelp strands over the bow of the kayak and hold them down with your leg. You can see how it works in this posted photo. I coined this technique using “nature’s anchor." (I might not be the first to use the term, but I've never heard it before!)
Tom supplied the rods, and we decked them out with a simple curved hook and gumball-sized oblong sinker. He baited it with a 6-inch squid and instructed me not to cast, but rather to use a jigging motion to entice the fish. We estimated the depth to be about 20 feet, surprisingly shallow to me considering how far offshore we were.
I have to admit, before I opened the bale and dropped that first line, I had a sizable pang of fear. There’s something about being on the ocean, with its deep, dark vastness, that makes you wonder what the heck you’re going to pull up if you do get a bite. I don’t know if I was more scared about catching a shark or some never-before-seen sea creature!
Tom assured me that the only time sharks would come around a kayak is if the angler used a gaff to bring in a fish and kept it on the bow with the blood dripping through the scupper holes. That made sense to me (but I still wasn't willing to let my fingers dangle in the water).
We moved around from kelp bed to kelp bed for about two hours, but unfortunately, neither of us caught a thing. I thought I had something at one point, but it turned out to be some snagged kelp. (I told Tom that in fresh water fishing, we called those “grass bass.” He said they call them “kelp fish” on the ocean!) It didn't really matter; the experience was still very gratifying. At one point a sea otter frolicked on its back near us, and two dolphins swam just 50 feet away.
As we were paddling back to shore, it happened….the moment I really “got” why someone would choose to fish from a kayak as opposed to a larger craft. A flock of about 20 pelicans flew by us, right at eye level and about 8 feet away. They glided by silently, seeming to float on air, and in that instant time stood still. It was one of those moments where you feel your oneness with the Universe and the awe that only nature can inspire.
I learned so much about ocean kayaking and angling in such a short amount of time. I can’t wait to get out there again and learn even more. (I wouldn’t be opposed to catching an actual fish this time, either!)