A Fisherman’s Tale [24]

By Mark Pearson

In October 1990, after some very enjoyable years of land-based fishing, I felt I that it was time to open up my horizons by purchasing a boat. What I wanted was a craft that was inexpensive to run, easy to transport and fun to use. In my ignorance I thought I was going to end up with a Canadian canoe, but by chance rang the owner of Wild Country (now defunct) in Canberra, who did an excellent job in extolling the virtues of kayaks. He listed the advantages of kayak over canoe – lighter, easier to use in the wind, and faster – meaning that reasonable distances could be covered in a day. The only drawback I could see was stowage space, though this was a potential challenge rather than a drawback. I decided that this was the way to go. Little did I know at the time, but this conversation was to change my life somewhat.

Freshly caught Tailor

So I bought a a two seater Geoff Barker ‘Spree’ (my girlfriend was to be occasionally press-ganged into crewing the front seat), a beamy kayak of 18 feet and 32 kg. The Spree was designed for lakes and estuaries, so was fairly flat bottomed with excellent initial stability and ease of turning. She had fore and aft decks, a long skirtless cockpit area for the paddlers, and no bulkheads.

For fishing, I attached angled PVC tubing to the back of the front seat, thereby allowing two rods to troll lures simultaneously. Nastiest moment was at Lake Eucembene in September 1992 (a time of year when immersion and death are closely related), when steep waves threatened to swamp the kayak. I was forced to employ strategic leaning of the kayak to avoid this – my first ‘technical’ manoeuvre I think.

My most interesting catch in the Spree was a Hairtail in Coffs Harbour. Hairtail are eel-like, bright silver and over a metre long. They are also incredibly strong with a compliment of teeth that would be envied by the creature in ‘Alien’. As they are also great to eat and this one was much too long for my keep net, I decided that the only place for it was the rear hatch. What then took place was a titanic struggle, during which it was unclear who was predator and who was prey. A few minutes later I had the hatch cover on and was able to claim victory, but only after an anxious stocktake of my fingers.

I occasionally ventured out to sea, which I found exhilarating, but opportunities were limited by the craft’s inability (not to mention my inability!) to handle surf entries or landings, and by the general vulnerability of having no spray skirt.

So, in September 1993, my loyal crew member, worried about this growing attraction to open sea paddling in the Spree, urged me to invest in a real sea-going kayak. But what model? I didn’t know any sea-kayakers so I was at the mercy (so to speak) of the kayak shops. My first test paddle was in a Pittarak, which I rejected because of it’s tippiness (I now know it was the Expedition model) and cramped cockpit. I also suspected that it would be the type of boat that might attract the hoon element in the sea-kayaking fraternity (this, regretfully, has been confirmed during subsequent club outings).

Also paddled were a Seamaster (cheap but too short), and a Southern Aurora, which felt OK. My final choice was a Seafarer Plus. It offered stability, good tracking and a huge cockpit for storing fishing gear, plus it was $300 cheaper than the more ‘fashionable’ boats. Due to late delivery, the supplier was good enough to install, free of charge, a fishing rod holder behind the cockpit and a combination kneetube/mast step. This latter accessory provided more useful storage space, plus the potential for a second rod holder in the mast step (one day I might even get a sail!).

Now the Seafarer presented a whole new range of storage problems. Whereas the Spree allowed tackle to be stored in the area behind the front seat, the Seafarer only offered vulnerable areas on the front or rear decks. I decided that, where possible, smaller tackle items would have to be stored on the body. I considered a trout-fishing type jacket with lots of pockets but eventually decided on a much cheaper option – a money belt. The belt pouch holds small containers of lures, sinkers and swivels plus spare line, hook sharpener and mini-pliers (for unhooking fish). A sheathed knife also goes on the belt. This set up has proven an excellent storage method – the pouch is easily accessed, the gear is safe and my paddling style is not affected.

Larger items such as a keep net can be stored under the foredeck netting (Dave Winkworth’s state-of-the-art keep net clips to and overlays his foredeck netting ). A folding landing net (handy for hard to handle fish like flathead) can be stored under the shock cord on the rear deck. Set up as described I never have to risk opening the sprayskirt for equipment.

Now many kayakers are more than happy to attach a lure to 50 lb breaking strain line, unwind a few feet of this from a handline and tow it around. This style of fishing does not appeal to me for three reasons:

  • there is little skill required after hooking a fish
  • my experience is that lighter tackle generally gets better results
  • a fishing rod is far more pleasing to operate

I therefore like to use a slender two-piece 6 foot rod and fixed spool reel fitted with 6lb line (sometimes 10lb if I am using a lure the size of which might attract a larger predator). I partially assemble the rod on land by threading the line through the eyes and then attaching a clip-swivel to the end. When launching/landing in the surf the rod is securely stored inside the cockpit alongside the seat. Once at sea the rod is easily set up and a lure attached to the clip-swivel. For security the rod can be clipped to a short length of elastic cord secured to the deck before it is placed in the holder.

Given that I have not yet developed an anchor (who wants to keep still anyway!), my standard technique is to tow diving lures at various depths as close as I can to headlands, behind bomboras and over shallow reefs. The running depth of the lure can be further varied by the length of line released from the rod. The motion of the lure transmits to the rod tip, which will quiver or twitch depending on the lures ‘action’ (a sensitive rod tip helps here). When this quiver is at it’s most noticeable you are at the optimum speed for the lure, so this is the speed you should paddle. If the rod’s action changes or it becomes still the lure is no longer moving unhindered and may have picked up some flotsam. A thick handline of course would not alert you to this problem.

A fish strike is normally not hard to miss – the rod jerks down and the reel emits a classical ‘scream’ as line is stripped off by a fast running fish. But this is not always so. On several occasions I have casually stopped paddling to reel in a supposed large piece of seaweed, only to have the ‘seaweed’ spring to life once it gets close enough to see the kayak. It is often the bigger fish that do this.

When playing a fish, the paddle can either rest across your sprayskirt or can be left trailing in the water where it will slow drift slightly. As two hands are required to hold the rod and work the reel, the kayak must be kept in balance entirely with the body. Surging swell, rebound and chop can make this very interesting, and it may become necessary to paddle fifty metres or so to a safer place to play the fish.

Dawn and dusk appear to be the optimum times for this kind of fishing, particularly for tailor, salmon and other surface predators. Cloudy days also seem to produce better results, but I have had good fishing in brilliant sunshine so dont let this put you off. If an attractive lure is presented at the right depth and speed in the vicinity of fish there will always be a good chance of a strike.

To maximise your chances look for any feature that might be attractive to fish. This might be a turbulent area of ‘white’ water that may be churning up crustaceans etc. or an area where large numbers of baitfish have gathered. Similarly, always keep an eye out for bird action – excited diving birds could mean bait fish are being attacked by larger fish. If you are lucky enough to get close to this activity, paddle around and drag your lure across the feeding zone – paddling straight through it is likely to spook the fish.

What species might be encountered? They include Salmon, Tailor, Bream, Trevally, Wrasse, Squire, Pike, Bonito and even Squid. And of course there is always the chance of latching on to something large and strong such as a Kingfish or Striped Tuna. The sheer variety makes the fishing all the more interesting. The seasons do play a part in what fish are around. For instance, Salmon and Tailor tend to follow a south/north migration which makes them more numerous around the Sydney area in Autumn, whereas species like Bream and Trevally, although also migratory, seem to be around all year. One thing is for sure, it’s hard to beat eating a fresh fish youve caught yourself.

Of course I am well aware of the mixed feelings that some purist kayakers have towards this activity. It is however possible to maintain a high ethical standard when fishing. So only keep enough fish to provide a fresh meal for family or friends (or trip companions). Release anything under legal size, treating the fish as gently as possible (filing down the barbs on hooks also assists here). And if a purist is paddling close by as you are catching a fish, respectfully warn them of the situation and ask them to look away to avoid distress. This will not be easy – purists tend to gather round excitedly when word gets round that a fish is on!

The sea-kayak can venture into territory that no other craft can – chaotic, surging, rock-strewn water which would give a motor-boat owner a heart attack. Fishing from one can therefore be as much a skill as rolling or surfing, in that It involves balance, dexterity and judgement. Add to this the underlying physical work out and you have a very satisfying all-round activity.

And as I have got more and more into sea-kayaking I find that fishing is but one avenue of interest in this wonderful sport. The best kayaking trips now involve camping somewhere remote and scenic, exploring sea-caves, playing in the surf, doing some ‘masked’ rolls to check out the underwater views – and maybe catching a fish at the end of the day for the ultimate seafood laksa.