April 15, 2010

Outer Banks Angling: A memorable day of
fishing in kayaks on the Diamond Shoals


Since I’ve started kayak fishing I’ve tried to do something new and different as often as possible. I constantly want to try and push my limits and the limits of the kayak. It has lead to me getting wet, flipping over, and even losing gear, but I think that it is all part of the process.

I’ve been taking my kayak into Diamond Shoals since I first got the thing. I am not the first to do it, and I will not be the last, but we who venture onto the shoals are few and far between. Each time the weather has allowed, I’ve gone deeper into the shoals. With each trip, I learn more about reading the water for danger and, most importantly, for fish.

The danger parts are a no brainer. You can be picked up by an 8-foot wave and smashed into 3 feet of water or have a 12-foot predator swing in on your catch to take away your prize. You have to worry about strong currents and unpredictable swells. This past week, the weather and fish have been building to perfection for kayaking into the shoals for a big red drum. After four days on the shoals watching red drum swimming by -- along with huge predators—I felt like the time to catch the first citation drum from the kayak for the 2010 season was getting near.

I just didn’t stop to think that it wouldn’t be me catching this citation fish, but the excitement of it all was just as good as if I had been the one.

On my fifth day straight of traveling to the shoals, I invited my friend Ruddy Rigsbee from Chesterfield, Va., to join me. Ruddy is 58 years old, has been in a kayak fewer than a dozen times, and had never made an ocean launch. Now, Ruddy is a Vietnam vet, a Woodstock ticket holder, and an all-round wide-open individual, whom I am proud to call a friend. I think there is little in life Ruddy hasn’t tried or been too scared to attempt.

Ruddy raised an eyebrow at the invitation to join me and was slightly apprehensive, but barely hesitated before he said, “I’ll go.”

I rigged Ruddy’s rods for the trip and we set out for the adventure. The water on the south side of Cape Point was slick calm and was like launching into a pond. The shoals were as calm as one could hope for, the tide was low, and we had a light southeast wind.

Now, low tide on the shoals is a double-edge sword. In the lower water, you can better read the break of the swells and there is also more visibility in the water. However, shallower water means you could get beat up badly if you flip over.

Nevertheless, Ruddy and I went straight to the shoals and started fishing. Ruddy found a nice spot to warm up on the west side of the shoals, while I went straight into a 100-foot wide cut in between the shoals. I had been fishing this area for a couple days and had seen a lot of life in there, though I had little luck thus far.

Whenever possible, it is actually better to drift around the shoals with the wind and current. I think you are safer being mobile and able to react to your surroundings than you are if you are anchored.

I‘ve anchored into the shoals from boat and kayak. The boat can do this with a little more confidence because of its size and weight. A kayak can get tipsy quickly when anchored in this environment.

I try to drift through an area once or twice before putting rods out so I can have a little feel for what’s going on with the wind, current, and breaking swell. But never think you are safe from the break or that you are outside of the break. There is no such thing in the shoals. Rogue waves can hit you from any direction, at any time, and you’ll never know they’re coming. It has happened to me several times every single time I’ve been out there, and the only reason I didn’t flip was 100 percent pure luck.

Once I got a feeling for things, it was time to deploy some bait. I was using a 7-foot, medium-action Ugly Sticks, and I like these rods for a few reasons. The Ugly Sticks are notorious for their strength, so if I flip in shallow water, the rods may have a chance of survival. The 7-foot length allows for plenty of rod to swing back and forth over the bow of the kayak when fighting an aggressive fish. Being able to sit back and maintain a good center of gravity is comforting in unpredictable swell. These rods are not very expensive, so if I do lose one, I won’t cry too hard. Also, they have foam grips that allow the rod to float if you drop them, though I have leashes attached from the kayak to the rods. And, finally, they are a two-piece rod that I can break down and shove inside the yak if things get real crazy.

I use cheap Daiwa reels for this because everything on this kayak is going to get soaked in saltwater and the reel may only last several trips in these conditions. So, expensive reels will die a horrible death that will leave the owner’s wallet hurting.

I’ve been using 20- to 25-feet of 40-pound shock leader attached to a12- to 14-pound main line. Some of my reels have a braided line, and some have monofilament as main lines. I like the strength of the braid but the forgiveness of the stretch in monofilament, so I use both.

I am attaching fresh-cut bait to a rig that has a 3-ounce egg sinker sliding in between two small barrel swivels and 18 inches of 100-pound test snelled directly into an 8/0 hook.

On this day, I entered the cut through, deployed my bait, and began my first drift. I have two rods out -- one in the deep ledge just behind the actual shoal and the other on top of the shallow shoal. The current pulled me from the west side of the shoal to the east side and I was just getting to an area that I figured would be a good spot to reel in and reposition for another pass.

But, that never happened because one of my rods doubled over and the reel was being smoked.

The bait drifting on top of the shoals had been bitten and was on the run. I grabbed the rod and was fairly confident that this was a red drum. I am no superhero angler, but I’ve put in my time and have caught my share of drum. And I have a good handle for what the drum feels like when it’s on the end of my line. However, you never know until you actually see it.

The fish was running hard and fast, until it just stopped and came straight to me. I reeled in rapidly and caught up to the fish, then it surfaced and I confirmed that it was a red drum.

 I saw that it was about 30 inches or more and had been eating regularly. The fish took one look at me and was like, “I think not!” It tore off right back into the shoals.

Once I confirmed the fish, I gave a few celebration hoots and hollers to raise Ruddy’s attention. Ruddy was on the other side of the shoal and I wanted him to move in my direction. I was thinking and hoping that where there was one fish, there might be more.

I was trying to battle this fish while constantly looking over my shoulder for rogue waves and while the fish was in his favorite environment—the shoals. The fish had the waves and current to his advantage and that adds about 20 pounds to its fighting ability.

 The fish would drag me into the shoals to the point that I would have to loosen the drag, put the rod in a holder, turn the yak around, and make a run for safer ground. I am trying to put as much heat to the fish as possible to turn its head around and get it out of the shoals, but this took four tries and 10 minutes to do.

I finally got the fish to the boat, and I was very happy to get a fish on my first pass. I got the fish in the boat and took a quick photo. I was thinking that Ruddy should be rolling up on me any second and he could take a shot from his boat of me holding my fish. I look up and around and say to myself, “Where is Ruddy?”

When I finally spotted Ruddy my heart sank, and I got into full “this is it” mode. Ruddy was dead smack in the middle of the shoals. There were 6- to 7-foot swells crashing all around and directly on him.
I tossed the fish over the boat and battened down my gear in record time. I got ready for the worst and to move to assist when it happened.

However, every time a wave would cover Ruddy up, I would still see his bow come charging through the other side. After a few minutes—Ruddy was sitting directly in front of me.

The 58-year-old newbie had just done something that would make a native Hatteras surfer close his eyes.

Ruddy was soaked and he looked at me and said, “I don’t think that was the way I was supposed to come.”

I was in complete awe and almost wet my pants with relief and laughter.

We sat and talked about both of our accomplishments for a few minutes, caught our breath, and got back to fishing.

We made several more drifts over about 45 minutes and had no more bites. I was starting to think that it was a rogue fish that I had caught and we needed to move. I had just finished a drift and had reeled in my rods, when I heard a hoot from Ruddy. I looked up and saw his rod doubled over and his kayak scooting right along against the current.

 I was wondering if Ruddy is hooked into a big fish or even bigger shark. I hollered to him to ask if he has seen what he was hooked into. His reply was that he had not.

I was paddling as hard and as fast as I could and was barely able to keep up much less catch Ruddy. So, I yelled out for him to slow down, but Ruddy only laughed, because he was only holding on, as the fish took him on a Nantucket sleigh ride through the middle of the cut. Luckily, the fish stayed away from the shoals and we never had to worry about flipping over.

I was starting to catch up with Ruddy, when I heard him yell joyously that it was a big drum on his line. The fish had slowed its roll and was circling the boat. I watched with great amusement as Ruddy spun his seat in all directions to keep up with the fish. I was taking a few pictures and laughing uncontrollably.

The fish finally had enough. Ruddy got the fish to the side of the kayak and was looking at it and commenting on how he could into the kayak. He tried to lift the fish by the 100-pound test, and I freaked out. I trust my rigs and knots, but I highly doubted that the line could have handled this size fish.

I screamed to Ruddy to not do that. I instructed him to stick his leg into the water, slide the fish in between his leg and the kayak, then use his leg to flip the fish into the kayak. Remember, BIG sharks are in the area and on the prowl. Ruddy frantically looked at me yelled an expletive. Finally, he did as he was told and the fish was lying nice and pretty across his lap.

We are now both absolutely freaking out. My man has just pulled off a heck of a feat for a newbie kayaker who has never been in the ocean, and I am just happy my rigging held together. But, everything came together and Ruddy had a 42 inch citation fish, so I fired a bunch of pictures and the fish was released to fight another angler, on another day.

We revisited the moment during a 10-minute break and started to maneuver back into position for another drift. I was ahead of Ruddy by about 150 feet as I paddled back into position. I looked down in five feet of water and I saw nothing but bluefish and silverside minnows.

There were thousands of 2-pound-plus bluefish absolutely annihilating everything that moved. Now, I am not sure if it was the kayak or whatever that set them off, but no sooner had I dialed into what was going on and that the fish went off.

I was now dead smack in the center of the fish exploding all around me for a 50-foot radius. In a matter of 30 seconds, I was soaked from tails flipping out of the water. I reached behind me, grabbed my lure rod, and fired 15 feet in front of me. I was instantly hooked up.

Ruddy was paddling in from behind me with a bewildered look on his face and asking what was going on.

“Bluefish blitz!” I exclaimed.

Ruddy started taking pictures, as he watched me in the middle of this slaughter house.

I was pulling bluefish after bluefish into the kayak, and every one of them was spitting silverside minnows all over me, along with blood and everything else. It was no place for a weak stomach, but for a true fish hunter, it was absolutely awesome.

Ruddy and I were hooting and hollering uncontrollably. Neither of us had seen a bluefish all day, but now they were here they took over. No bait, rig, or lure was safe from the chomping. So, drum fishing was out of the question because our rigging was being cut off as fast as it hit the water.

So we just proceeded to bust the bluefish until we were out of lures.

Finally, when we couldn’t reel any longer, we decided to go home and celebrate this remarkable day.

There were plenty of people on the beach who stopped by our trucks to investigate our exploits after hearing us hollering. We both gladly shared our story.

Sitting at home an hour afterwards, I was rapidly posting some pictures on my Web site when I was reminded that I had spent a day in the shoals. I was swaying in my seat like I had just spent the day offshore in 10-foot swells, and I've got to admit that I love that feeling.

I’ll never forget what Ruddy’s response was to my question about what he thought of that adventure.

He said, “I used to sit on the beach and look out into the shoals and I would wish I was fishing out there. Today, I sat in the shoals, caught fish, and looked at the beach.”

I hope you will do pursue whatever adventure you think will fulfill your dreams, whether that is kayaking in the shoals or skydiving. Just be sure to be aware of and respect the dangers that are involved.

The kayaks we used are not your average rentals. So don’t call the local rental store thinking this is what you are going to do on vacation. If this is up your alley and you consider doing this, then make sure to do your homework and have the proper gear.

And, don’t even think of going by yourself.

(Rob Alderman is the host and producer of the” The Outer Banks Angler” fishing program and the owner of The Outer Banks Angler store located in Buxton. You can find out more on his adventures at www.OuterBanksAngler.com.)

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