SUMMER FORAGING: KAYAK FISHING

A day on the water hooks our writer

kayakFishDoc H and the author on the water near Del Monte Beach

PHOTOGRAPHY BY PATRICE WARD

The sun is just coming up over Monterey Bay as we launch our kayaks into the placid waters lapping Del Monte Beach. The air is already warm and the calm morning seems to promise a hot and clear-sky day.

My guides for the day are David Haan, a graduate student at UCSC, and his fishing partner, Kristof Tigyi, and they have agreed to initiate me into special rites, safety precautions and addictive pleasures of kayak fishing. Haan and Tigyi, to whom I will refer by their VHF radio names, Doc H and Kritter, respectively, are a committed duo who are out on the early morning waters whenever time and conditions allow for it. They both grew up fishing on lakes, ponds and rivers (Doc H is from Chicago and Kritter, Memphis). After transplanting themselves to the West Coast, they decided that kayak fishing was the most affordable way to experience their next fishing adventures.

Indeed, part of the beauty of a kayak is that it can take you far (sometimes for salmon fishing, six miles offshore), but you don’t have to deal with the storage and maintenance, much less the purchase cost, of a typical ocean-worthy boat: A basic sit-on-top kayak and a sonar/depth finder/GPS combo, a VHS radio and fishing gear can be had for about $1,500 (See Tips for Kayak Fishing below for more on getting outfitted.)

When I ask about their favorite places to go, Kritter reminds me that a fisherman doesn’t kiss and tell and that much information has to be guarded. Part of the experience is searching out spots and flagging them with their GPS for the future. Generally speaking, however, Monterey and Santa Cruz are good for rockfish and lingcod, while halibut can be found in Santa Cruz or Moss Landing, they say.

Doc H and Kritter usually know what they want to fish for, and that dictates their strategy. Rockfish and lingcod are the easiest to come by, so when they want to make sure they’re catching dinner that day, they head to Monterey’s relatively uncrowded waters and fish the rock outcrops, hoping to catch their limit. For halibut or salmon, they have to be more intentional, planning their day around fishing only for the one species (and often come up empty handed).

Today, we’re hoping for as many bites as possible, so we’re trolling for rockfish and lingcod using fresh anchovies and frozen squid for bait. Doc H and Kritter have places marked on their GPS that they like to go, like Halibut Hotel and Ling City (their names), but they’re happy to paddle around to see what else they can find. Looking out for rocks with the sonar, we move through the water, waiting for the first bite.

WHAT TO EXPECT

How the weight feels on your line can be an indication of what you are about to bring up. Rockfish will feel like a constant tugging— sometimes strong, but often just a hefty nibble, while cabezon are akin to picking up a rock from the bottom of the ocean. Lingcod are a different kind of fighter. They run a lot, pulling out your line, so it’s best to let them tire out. A snag of seaweed just feels lifeless.

One of the biggest challenges is properly securing your fish after it has surfaced. Your method will depend on size, weight and species. California halibut go crazy once pulled out of the water and need to immediately be knocked out by what Doc H and Kritter call their headache stick (not an official term). A larger fish might require a gaff— a pole with a sharp hook at the end of it. If the fish has some gnarly teeth, use a lip grip to hold the mouth open. It’s best to slit the gills and let the fish bleed out as you bag them up. This will improve the quality of the meat.

Truthfully, you can’t be certain about what you’re going to reel in. That’s half the fun. Just be prepared for anything.

CATCH OF THE DAY

About 45 minutes on the water, a mile offshore, and at a 40-foot depth, I feel my first strong tug. Doc H has something as well and we each reel in a rockfish. At the same time, Kritter, 500 yards away and at a depth of 65 feet, has something big pulling on his line. He calls for backup, and we hurry over to watch him haul in a beautiful, blue-mouthed cabezon (about 20 inches long and 5 pounds). Only a couple minutes later, Patrice, our photographer, who is trolling while he snaps some shots of proud Kritter and his catch, has clearly hooked something huge.

With a look of utter excitement, Patrice pulls in a 26-inch-long, 6-pound lingcod. There’s a brief pause, and then Kritter catches his second cabezon. Feeling amazed at our 5-minute bounty, Doc H points out that it sometimes depends more on the moment (or luck) than the location.

This point is made clear when we hit a lull, trolling for two hours and getting nothing but nibbles and seaweed snags. Of course, between the warm sunshine, the crash of the surf echoing in the bay, and sea otters and gray whales swimming all around us, this can be the most relished time on the water.

Full disclosure: Relaxing with the gentle rocking of the kayak is also a good time to succumb to your motion sickness. And it is in this moment of serenity that I start “chumming” the waters.

I would be embarrassed, except that the fishing gods clearly like my offering because shortly after, I reel in a double catch of rockfish. Everyone’s luck picks back up and in the next several minutes we catch about 10 more rockfish, tossing back a few of the smaller ones. The varieties of rockfish coming up include blue, black and China. All are roughly 14 inches in length.

The first round of big fish was the triumph of the day. But this last burst of action, as Kritter points out, this is dinner. Satisfied, we head back to shore.

kayakFish2Doc H and Kritter getting their kayaks ready
just after dawn at Del Monte Beach in Monterey

FEAST OF FISHES

What do you do with a cooler full of fish? Invite all your friends over for a barbecue! Out on the water, depending on their luck with the day, Doc H and Kritter start planning that evening’s festivities by sending out invites from their phones to as many people as they can reasonably feed, a practice they started from the beginning of their fishing days together, because they feel it’s important to share the love with their community. And because they’re out on the water almost every weekend, there tends to be a lot of love to go around.

Of course, there are a few steps between reeling in a rockfish and enjoying it battered and fried in a taco.

Back at home, Doc H and Kritter unload the car, rinse the saltwater off all their equipment and process that day’s bounty. Not quick or easy, cleaning and filleting a fish is an art that requires practice and patience. By the early evening, there are about 15 people at Doc H’s house that he shares with five other UCSC grad students (many of whom go spearfishing as their foraging sport of choice, if you’re in need of options). The scene is lively yet relaxed with friends scattered about—helping in the kitchen, lounging on sofas or enjoying beers outside.

The catch of the day dictates the menu.

Rockfish tend to be fried or grilled for tacos, served with homemade slaw and pico de gallo. Cabezon and lingcod—firm, flaky and mild—are great for poaching. On this occasion, Kritter turns the cabezon into ceviche, while a friend poaches the lingcod and serves it with a delicate beurre blanc sauce.

From daybreak to dusk, it’s been a long day. But to wake with the sun and paddle out to sea; to catch, clean and cook your own fish; to be able to feed your community—it’s a deeply gratifying experience. See you on the water.

TIPS FOR KAYAK FISHING

kayakFishTipsThe author with a rockfish

GET A FISHING LICENSE. One-day ($15.12), two-day ($23.50) and annual ($47.91) fishing licenses can be purchased at www.wildlife.ca.gov/licensing.

KNOW THE RULES AND REGULATIONS. There are size and number of catch regulations that must be followed as well as set dates for each species’ fishing season. Game wardens can and will check your haul. And remember: Don’t fish in protected waters! A complete list of the official Ocean Sport Fishing Regulations with up-to-date information can be found on the California Department of Fish and Wildlife site: www.wildlife.ca.gov/Fishing/Ocean/Regulations/Fishing-Map/Central.

CHECK THE WEATHER. Learn to read tide charts and swell and weather reports.

DO NOT go out on the ocean to fish in bad swells, big waves or winds over 15 mph. Check the radar all the way up until launch.

SAFETY FIRST. You are required to wear a life vest at all times. Bring a waterproof VHF radio to contact the Coast Guard in case of an emergency.

DRESS APPROPRIATELY. You might start at daybreak, but that sun gets strong while you’re out there. Bring a hat, sunglasses and sunscreen. Wear a wetsuit or other waterproof clothing. Surf booties are a must.

BE PREPARED. You can easily be on the water for five to six hours or longer should anything go wrong. The ocean will tire and dry you out. Bring plenty of water and snacks.

AVOID SEASICKNESS. If you are prone to motion sickness, then make sure to use a nausea patch or take some Dramamine 30 minutes before you get in the water. Just remember that anti-nausea medication can make you drowsy.

RESPECT THE MARINE MAMMALS. There is a hefty fine (up to $11,000) for touching or feeding any of the amazing marine mammals you see on the water. (And sea otters will bite.) Respect their space.

GO EARLY. Around sunrise is best for the biting, and since the winds tend to pick up in the afternoon, you have a better chance of calm seas in the morning.

CHOOSE YOUR BAIT. Buy frozen squid from the grocery store or catch live bait (anchovies, mackerel) while out on the water. Live bait is best, and the bigger the bait, the bigger the fish.

CONSULT THE EXPERTS. There are lots of great online resources and forums like www.norcalkayakanglers.com or www.centralcoastkayakfishing.com. If you prefer to talk with someone in person, visit your local fishing store where you can pick up a current list of rules and regulations and ask for tips and help. Once you’re out on the water, make friends with fellow kayak fishers. Channel 69 on the VHF is for kayakers.

BE PATIENT. It’s normal to come up empty handed. Fish are smart and a challenging opponent, especially when you’re on a kayak. Just remember that this is a pastime, not a hunt.

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