June 3, 2009

The great Gulf Stream kayak fishing adventure
...With Slide Show


On Sunday, May 31, Rob Alderman led a party of 14 on a kayak fishing trip.

And if you know anything about Rob, you know that this is not going to be your average fishing story.

Rob has become a fixture on the Hatteras Island fishing scene over the last several years and is a guy that everyone on the Outer Banks seems to know for one reason or another. He launched a small Web site that has turned into a leading forum for fishing reports. He became a political leader when the fight to preserve beach access heated up. And he started a little show on local cable called the “Outer Banks Angler,” which has been picked up nationally by the Sportsman Channel with new episodes starting Sept. 28. This achievement was due, in no small part, to his revolutionary work with an underwater camera.

Clearly, Rob has a habit of taking little projects and turning them into ambitious, larger-than-life events. And this year, he launched a kayak fishing guide service. He will be partnering with Kitty Hawk Kites to provide fishing trips on the ocean and sound from Rodanthe to Hatteras village.

Given this history, I should not have been surprised when our little kayak fishing trip that I was to go on for an Island Free Press article turned into a groundbreaking extravaganza that locals will be talking about at the Hatteras village fishing docks for weeks to come.

I am still reeling (pun not intended) from the events that followed a simple invitation to tag along for a day of fishing.

Rob had taken only 48 hours, including a total of about four hours of sleep, to plan the trip. At Teach’s Lair Marina, we started to trickle in about 5:30 a.m. Everyone was a bit groggy, but Rob, ever the showman, was alert and giving warm greetings and instructions to all the party members as they arrived.

Among the invited guests were two camera crews from Charter Communications; friends from the Outer Banks Angler Web site; Ric Burnley, kayak fishing expert, author, and contributor to a number of publications, as well as the regional editor of Saltwater Sportsman Magazine; Don Bowers, our Island Free Press photographer; Rob’s Outer Banks Angler team, and six lovely employees of the Kill Devil Hills Hooters Restaurant.

“Did we sweeten the deal by throwing in Hooters girls? Yes. Hey, I know my demographic,” says Rob.  “But by a filming standpoint, it was a full frontal assault. We basically said, ‘We’re going to do something different today.’”

Rob had commissioned two charter boats, The Big Tahuna with Captain Scott Warren and First Mate Kenny Koci and the Fish Hog with Captain Chuck Gregory and First Mate Justin Ringer, to take us all out, and both boats were already stocked with Gatorade, snacks, fruit, water, and everything else we could possibly need.

When asked how he got all of this together in two days, Rob shrugged and quickly said, “I’m kind of a multi-tasker,” before directing me to my boat. Truth is that he figured it all out by religiously watching the weather since the previous Wednesday.  Sunday, he determined, was going to be perfect for his planned adventure, so he started driving all over the Outer Banks, while making call after call, to get everything in place.

I was riding along with Ric, Charter Communications videographer Rob Nichols, three of the Hooters representatives, and Matt Adams, who for 2 1/2 years has owned a Nags head Based kayak fishing guide service, Custom Fishing Adventures.    

As it turned out, Matt was there to be my kayak paddler and guide because I was about to go kayak fishing in the Gulf Stream.
That’s right -- the Gulf Stream.

According to Ric, who is obviously an expert in the field, and Chuck and Justin, who have almost 30 years combined experience on a charter boat, this had never been done on the Outer Banks before, if not the entire East Coast.

“It’s safe to say that whether or not it’s been done or not on the East Coast is questionable, but it’s definitely never been documented in such a way, between the photos and high definition video,” says Rob.

“You may have had people in Florida who have attempted it, but if it’s been attempted and documented, I haven’t found it. And for Ric, with his kayak fishing expertise, to say that this type of stuff doesn’t exist on the East Coast, I believe him.”

Naturally, my first thoughts were about whether there’s some kind of an award or trophy for being the first East Coast female to fish from a kayak in the Gulf Stream. This was followed almost immediately by my second thoughts, “Holy crap! I am going to die.”

After all, the Gulf Stream is literally a river in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. It is home to a number of species, such as whales and sharks, which are definitely bigger than kayaks and may enjoy the taste of the kayakers.

I made the mistake of asking Matt during the 90-minute trip 30 miles out into the Atlantic Ocean if kayaking in the Gulf Stream was at all dangerous.

“Well, you never know what you’re going to run into,” he said, “so…. well… probably not.”

Great. Glad I asked.

Ric was thrilled for this opportunity. He obviously had plenty of kayak fishing experience and was riding solo. Matt and I were in a tandem kayak, meaning that together we had to maneuver a paddle and the fishing pole. On the surface, this seemed like a challenging task, but, honestly, I was more than grateful to be riding along with someone who knew what he was doing.

The Big Tahuna veered off to find its own fishing grounds, and when the Fish Hog finally made its stop, it was pretty clear that Chuck had found a good spot. While on the kayaks, we were fishing for dolphin (aka mahi), which are large, tasty, and beautiful, with iridescent blue-green coloring that loses its luster out of the water. They are an impressive catch, but small enough not to drag the kayak with them too far as they fought the line.

Dolphin, Matt explained, are attracted to structure and to change, and a wide line of seaweed and debris in the Gulf Stream is a perfect location to find them. This line is a result of changing ocean conditions, like a single degree difference in water temperature, which causes various matter to form along the ridge of where the conditions change.

The strategy was to paddle the kayaks parallel to the seaweed line, trolling for dolphin, while the charter boat stayed close by in case we drifted too far, or in my mind, in case a kayak-connoisseur shark decided to eat us. Then the folks on the boat could at least take some amazing shark-attack pictures.

Ric and Matt required little assistance easing off the boat into the kayak, and Ric, who was smiling from the moment he got on board, was expertly paddling and dropping the line in no time.

I required a bit of help and cursing on my end to get in the kayak, and as Matt quickly paddled away from the Fish Hog, I like to think that he was surprised and impressed by the number of swear words I knew and the dexterity with which I could use them while terrified.

But then I started to look around, and I wish I was a better writer to fully convey how amazing it was.

The Gulf Stream, as always, had the clarity and temperature of swimming pool water and from my comfy seat in the kayak, I could dip my hand in at any time or splash some water on my forehead when it got a little hot.

Red and white jellyfish passed by on a regular basis, as did the occasional crab or school of silver sea lice. At once point, I spotted a few tiny, brown dragonflies hovering above the ocean for 30 seconds at a time, until Matt pointed out that they were, in fact, flying fish. All of these sea critters were never more than a few feet away from us.

At an easy 200 feet deep, when you moved your head slightly to the right or left and looked down, there was nothing but infinite clear water and the occasional large dark shadow 100 feet below, which I realized more often than not, was probably my imagination running at full speed. 

The charter boat was never out of sight as we drifted over small waves that weren’t difficult to navigate at all. It was like bobbing over the ocean past the breakers. Matt explained that the wind was blowing at 5 mph at the most, and if the conditions were ever right for this sort of adventure, it was now.

Of course, I had to spoil the tranquility by asking if there were ever any rogue waves, a la The Perfect Storm, in the Gulf Stream. (The answer is “yes.”) But it didn’t take long for me to relax, stop the sailor talk, and enjoy the ride inches over the world’s largest food chain. I offered to paddle the kayak, while Matt expertly jigged the ballyhoo bait dangling 10 feet behind us.

We had borrowed a fishing pole from Ric, a Shimano Tallus rod and a Shimano Torium reel, and I assured Matt that if anything happened to it, the Island Free Press would cover the cost. I’m pretty sure this was a lie.

Once I was comfortable, peaceful, and finally able to appreciate the awe of experiencing such an intimate and other-worldly view, the first dolphin hit.

Matt wrestled with that 10-plus pound dolphin for a good five minutes, making a deliberate effort to coax it out of the water, jumping and thrashing, so I could snap photos. Ric, who wasn’t far away from us in his kayak, was as excited as we were and took more pictures from his vantage point. My sailor slang acted up again. 

We lost the dolphin, which is not unusual because they are tricky fish to land and Matt was deliberately taking his time for my sake, but before we did, the fish had bumped alongside the boat, dove under the kayak, and put on a heck of a show.

Ric caught and landed the next dolphin, and as he held up the fish for pictures, it’s hard to imagine that anyone had ever grinned so hard before. At this point, Ric had caught the first Outer Banks fish out of a kayak in the Gulf Stream.

He shouted back to the charter boat, “It can be done!”

Even though Ric had a radio to call back to the charter boat when necessary, we had worked out a signal to raise our paddles up and wave at the charter boat when we caught something so the boat could come over to where we were, gaff the critter if necessary, and provide us with more bait. This system worked extremely well, and whenever we needed something, the Fish Hog was always close behind.

After these first two dolphins, adrenaline had kicked in, and all three of us kayakers were wildly hunting for more.

There were a number of hits, giving us an opportunity to work out a system of landing a dolphin in a kayak in the Gulf Stream.

Dolphin have little teeth, so in a two-person kayak, it’s tricky to get the dolphin into a boat without injuring yourself or your passenger, if you have one, in the process. Ric and Matt’s method for getting a large fish into the kayak was coined the “leg scoop.”  Basically, you hang your leg over the side of the kayak, and when you get the fish close enough to touch, you grab it by the mouth, or in our case the gills because of the teeth factor, or just pull the line in and start pulling the fish up your leg and the kayak, and finally scoop the fish into the boat with your leg. After a little trial and error, this method worked out pretty well.

When my arms were tired from paddling, we switched and Matt paddled while I held onto the pole. Inexperienced at jigging, I kept tangling my line in clumps of seaweed, when suddenly Chuck called out that there was a school of dolphin following the charter boat.

With Matt paddling, we made it back to the Fish Hog in record time, and somehow I hit one.

It wasn’t the biggest fish of the day by a long shot, but for a good 20 seconds it felt like the dolphin was going to take me and the kayak wherever it wanted to go. It helps to have another person steering the kayak in the direction of the line, so that the fish is ahead of you, and you don’t lose control of the kayak or the fishing pole, but I lost that sucker nonetheless.

The fact that I couldn’t land him didn’t even matter, really. It was still one of the few times I have ever been equally exhilarated, scared, and completely happy at the same time.

We kept paddling.

At one point, a cargo ship slowly passed by miles away, and it became remarkably clear just how tiny the kayak was in relation to everything else that traveled the Gulf Stream. We started discussing how difficult it would be to pirate a massive cargo ship via a kayak, (the answer is “very”), and eventually decided against it.

This was our routine -- following the seaweed until it spread out and became a “cabbage patch” that started to tangle up in the line no matter where we steered, and then finding another course. If we spotted something out of place, like a large shiny balloon floating towards the top of the water, the adrenaline would kick back in because this was the sort of unusual structure that dolphin seemed to love. We hit dolphin on a regular basis and watched the girls in the boat land a nice cobia and a dolphin too, until we decided to finally take a break.

Again, the guys had no trouble getting from one boat to another, while I felt like a beached and unusually uncoordinated whale trying to get myself from the kayak back onto the Fish Hog, but it was a successful landing nonetheless with no injuries.

We had been out for about 2 1/2 to 3 hours, and with the Gulf Stream current at 1.7 knots, we had drifted about 5 miles from where we started.

Matt and I had gotten five dolphin hits total.

Chuck drove the boat back to where we began so we could run the course again. But by this time, the wind had picked up to 5-10 mph and the water had gotten a little rough, and only Ric and Matt ventured out for a bit while I refueled on Doritos and granola bars. When they got back onto the boat, the Fish Hog took off again to meet up with the The Big Tahuna to see how they fared with their kayak fishing.

What ensued was an impromptu charter boat party in the middle of the Gulf Stream.

Several of the girls dove off the boat to go swimming and tested out the kayaks, even fishing out a coconut with a crab living on it from a patch of seaweed. Rob and his crew took turns fishing from the boat, and just kayaking around in between the two motherships. The film crews and Don climbed from the stern to the top of the boat, getting amazing footage.

After awhile, the party moved, and both boats headed to the Diamond Shoals Light Tower about 10 miles in the distance.

Truthfully, I was tired, happy, and had more than enough experiences to last me for a few years. But this was a Rob Alderman venture, and we had just gotten started.

We stopped briefly to land a few sea bass, and then proceeded on course to the tower.

The Diamond Shoals Light Tower is fascinating up close, because you can clearly see the rusty circular stairs that lead up to the massive tower itself, and the air-conditioning units still hanging out of the windows. Just a couple decades ago, members of the U.S. Coast Guard occupied the tower, and it’s hard to comprehend living comfortably 20 miles out to sea. Though I imagine Rob, Ric, Matt, and the crews of both boats would have managed just fine.

We hovered around the tower, while the The Big Tahuna picked up a few sea bass, three at a time on a wreck rig with three hooks, and our party landed a number of amberjack. The women had all done an incredible job of reeling in something, whether it was an amberjack, cobia, or dolphin, so when the next one hit, they generously shouted for me to come reel it in.

I’d like to say that when that amberjack, or reef donkey hit, I hauled it in like an expert in record time and held it up for a world class photo before tossing it back overboard.

I’d like to say that, but I can’t.

Truthfully, I lost it, and also the next one, and First Mate Justin was kind enough to say that it wasn’t because of me -- it was the amberjack brushing against the rusty pilings of the tower that caused them to break free and take with them a $20 rig.

By the third one, Chuck had figured out my limited abilities, and slowly moved the boat while I wrestled with the pole and my aching arms for a good two hours -- or five minutes in actual time. Ric was nearby, and I caved in and sheepishly asked for a hand.

“Oh, it’s the drag,” he kindly said, and he reeled it in 30 seconds later. I posed next to Justin who held the fish for Rob the videographer, and the amberjack was set loose, free to torment another weak-armed vegetarian like me.

We all kept fishing, both boats side by side, for quite awhile, reeling in more sea bass and amberjack until the afternoon wound down.

I think that at this point even Rob was tired, and we decided to call it a day and head back. It was a choppy, bumpy ride, rougher than on the way out, but half of us still fell asleep during the trip.

The Hooter girls posed with their fish at the docks, attracting their fair share of attention, while I concentrated on staying awake long enough to make it home to Avon.

On the way back, though, I spotted Rob Alderman by the docks in the middle of a small crowd, talking and laughing and using arm gestures to accentuate the stories of the day. Ever the showman!

So now that the inaugural Outer Banks Gulf Stream kayak fishing trip – with a heap of charter fishing thrown in -- has taken place, is the old system of commissioning a charter boat to troll for fish in a certain location with the passengers onboard dead in the water?

“It’s not to replace traditional charter fishing at all. Like anything else, this is something amassing more and more curiosity, and there are people who would more or less be experienced kayakers who would want to do this sort of thing,” says Rob.

“These kayaking trips or spear fishing trips are a great way to supplement income, especially in this economy. There are spear fishermen all over the world who would be glad to come here if they could take these trips.”

So if given the opportunity and a bit of good weather, would I do it again? Hey, who wouldn’t?

But until that day arrives when I can venture out to my slightly intimidating, but utterly peaceful kayak utopia, I’ll sit around and wait for someone to send me my trophy and accompanying “I survived kayak fishing in the Gulf Stream” T-shirt, and live a happy existence with my memories and my new arsenal of larger than life fish stories.

Click Here To View Slide Show

To book a Gulf Stream kayak fishing trip, or an ocean or sound kayak fishing trip, you can contact the Outer Banks Angler store in Buxton at 252-995-6915 or online at the Outer Banks Angler (www.OuterBanksAngler.com) or Kitty Hawks Kites Web sites. (www.kittyhawk.com) The Big Tahuna and Fish Hog will both be working with Rob Alderman on Gulf Stream or “mothership” fishing trips, and like any ocean fishing trip, the day is completely dependent on the weather.


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