By Nick Simonson
The last time I was fishing in a kayak, I was lazily rolling down the canal which connected the back of our VRBO south of Ft. Meyers, Florida to the intercoastal waterway, where flounder, sailcats and the seatrout that I hoped most of all to connect with waited along the drop off at the juncture. Soaking in the warmth of the spring day I gazed out to the transition from brown sand to deeper blue water and lost myself in the moment. Suddenly, a paddle length to my right, the water exploded as if someone dropped a wrecking ball into the shallows. Ahead of it another eruption of water rose, and the wake of both disturbances rocked my kayak so hard it skidded across the surface, teetering on the edge of tipping me and my gear into the canal. In a panicked rush I jammed the oar into the soft sands below and watched the two explosions transition into large wakes out in front of me, and my heart raced.
“Tiger Sharks?!” “Gators?!” “Bull Sharks?!”
When you come from a place where nothing in the water can kill you, it’s easy for your mind to assume that the thing that just moved your paddle craft 20 feet is out for an easy lunch in the salty brine of a world 2,000 miles away from the waters where the toothiest critter is a northern pike. Of all the highly evolved, ocean-based creatures attempting to flip the kayak and split me in half in a bloody mess reminiscent of 1980s ocean-based horror flicks, the one that it ended up being was far more anticlimactic. As I caught my balance, my breath, and my bearings after burning water away from the site of impact, I followed the wakes moving off into the canal. Two hundred yards down the flow, gray cow-shaped heads surfaced, snorted, and disappeared. They were manatees.
The endangered gentle giants which had been the butt of so many Jim Gaffigan jokes for their laziness were the cause of my hyperventilation. It turned out, however, that these so-called sea cows, were just as powerful as the land cows back home, and their ability to kick things up and sprint away was similar too. Nevertheless, the experience was my last in a kayak with a rod in tow.
That is until this weekend. An end of season sale placed a 10-foot kayak at a ridiculous price point, and my lack of boat for the upcoming stretch in northeastern Minnesota at my in-laws meant that heading back to their house without the green and black camouflaged craft wedged in the box of the pickup was an unacceptable end to the shopping trip. With only the display model left, a deepened discount made the purchase even easier, and the paddle was basically free. I wasted little time, save for waiting for the moderate rain to end, cleaning the craft up and getting it ready to hit the water. About an hour later, I slid into the seat and scraped across the gravelly shallows of the boat launch.
Exploring favorite stretches of bass territory, now well-developed in the back half of summer, I plied the reeds and the deeper areas nearby, figuring the recent cold front had pushed the largemouth out from their seasonal haunts. I worked along a few adjacent rocky islands and eyed up the far side of the lake, all the while getting my balance in the small boat and finding the maneuverability into the shallows and reed-covered bars an exciting aspect of the low-riding craft. A couple of small largemouth came to hand, before a few casts along a deep rocky point produced a matching eight-inch bronzeback. With the dinner bell approaching and the predicted squall line starting to appear, I made the call to head to the far side of the lake and the reedy point which had historically provided fast fishing for largemouth bass in past summers.
I slid across the surface, and in the dark water my polarized glasses lost sight of the brown, rocky shallows as the blue-gray depths took their place along the lake’s main channel. As the green line of pencil reeds grew larger, I back pedaled with the double-ended paddle and set up to fire a cast with my watermelon-and-red-flake tube toward a curl of reeds that ended in a small point. As the kayak turned, I zipped the plastic off, and it landed on the edge of the point with a plop. Tipping the blue bag of sunflower seeds into my mouth and adjusting my position in the small craft, I reeled up on the line.
It went tight with a hard tug on the other end, and I thought finally the first real test of the low-angle fishing craft was on with a solid largemouth inhaling my offering. I swung back from right to left over my shoulder, and the rod bent like I hooked a semi-truck headed down the interstate.
Charging back in my direction, the bass bulldogged into the weeds in front of the boat and turned the bow of the craft 90 degrees. It came up to the surface and its massive, rounded head breached the water. All I could think was “that largemouth bass is really, really dark…almost brown…and it’s really, really big!”
My heart jumped as with the next surfacing, I realized that the largemouth below wasn’t what I thought it was, coming from a spot where I had caught nothing but green bass in all my previous fishing outings. While I was certain the fish couldn’t tip the boat, I began to realize that it didn’t share that opinion as it pulled on my rod, which in turn towed the craft where the beast willed. As the bass turned and pointed its snout up, it rocketed out of the water and I knew it was no longer a largemouth at the end of the line, but one of the biggest smallmouth bass I had ever seen.
Its proportions were freakish. The head was rounded, as if it was a common carp, the thick body shook with muscle I had never seen in a smallie, as the still waters of the lake had allowed its bulk to become even larger without the threat of current requiring additional effort. Only at the tail, which splashed water in my face as the smallmouth neared the craft and plowed away, did it look remotely like the bronzebacks I had grown up with on the small river running through my hometown.
Having spun the kayak in a full circle, I was finally able to land the fish, and laying it at my leg, it eclipsed all eighteen one-inch-long markings on the molded plastic below me and the tail curled up the formed seat base. If I had more time for a squeeze of the tail and an accurate measuring, it may have officially taped at twenty inches, but I was content to call it a nineteen-plus as it kicked the surface with one final splash and disappeared into the weed filled waters below. It was a suitable start for the small craft that had proved the spur-of-the-moment investment more than worth its while, and was a memory to match my last adrenaline fueled kayak outing a decade ago and more than 2,000 miles away…in our outdoors.
Featured Photo: Yak Attack. The author hooked this massive smallmouth bass on his first outing in his kayak, making for a memorable trip long after an unforgettable encounter many years ago in saltier climes. Simonson Photo.