By Sid Dobrin
There will be no inspirational words of wisdom here; no motivational memes, sound bites, or posters proclaiming the inextricable relationship between preparation and success. This ain’t no leadership seminar. Sure, the Scouts are right: “always be prepared.” We are anglers; we already get that. If you are one of the sub-breed of anglers that enlist in the plastic armada, you know that kayak anglers already get the need for preparation even more than other anglers. And for those of us mutants who are willing to paddle offshore to tangle with big game fish in some potentially hairy conditions, preparation has to be our liturgy.
I won’t presume to tell you how to prepare. We all have our methods, habits, and rituals. I don’t tell others how to parent, pray, vote, or fix their burgers because those sorts of things aren’t my business any more than mine are yours. But, I will share a few experiences that have helped me think more about how I prepare for offshore kayak fishing—especially in tournament scenarios, because whether we want to acknowledge it or not, tournaments add excitement, nerves, and a degree of stress, all of which can cloud judgement and actions. I won’t bore you with the countless stories of wilderness disaster that can easily be attributed to bad decisions by people under stress. Look, I get it. We all want to win; none of us want to lose that big fish. Nerves can kick in. I’ve certainly found my hands shaking trying to make a reasonable cast when that big cobia cruises by and gives me what may be the only chance of the day to make a reasonable cast to a potentially winning fish. I’ve blown that cast dozens of times, snagging other gear, grabbing the wrong rod, or not having a rigged rod ready to go—all results of lack of preparation and the chaotic thinking of the moment and all resulting in self-reprimand and extreme feelings of stupidity.
So, I offer here a few ways of thinking about the details of your preparation for offshore kayak fishing. I’m not going to bore you with the easy stuff like remembering sunglasses, sunscreen, and water. That’s Boy Scout stuff. We aren’t Boy Scouts. Get over it. If you’re forgetting drinking water when you’re headed offshore, you shouldn’t be out there. Go find a pond. But, to help those new recruits to the Tupperware party, I’ve included a list of the basics at the end of this discussion.
I tend not to be a fan of rules, so I’m not going to offer any. Think of these as suggestions, philosophies of preparation. Like all philosophies, there’s a good chance you’ll disagree with mine; that’s fine, because philosophies require that you think about them. As long as you’re thinking about these aspects of prep, then you’re several steps ahead of the game.
Stick to the plan—until the plan changes.
Most of us enter the water on tournament day with a plan in mind: where we’re headed, what rigs we’re running out, how long we’ll fish a certain area before moving to our next site. But, usually when we develop such strategies we do so in the imagined perfect-day scenario. We may even develop contingency plans in case things don’t pan out as we planned. I’m guessing all anglers have been in that situation when the fish just aren’t where we hoped they’d be, so we doubt our plan and question our options. Weigh-in times limit our opportunities and excite a sense of urgency. We scramble; we abandon the plan, hoping that the on-the-fly plan will get us to the fish.
Trust your plan; stick to it. Working within the plan can help reduce stress, and if you’ve planned well, increase productivity. The reason you made the plan in the first place is to stave off bad decisions. If you feel you absolutely must change the plan, then do so. But, take a moment to think through the revision. Rather than rush into a new approach, give yourself a minute to think about the what, where, when, how, and why of the new plan before you enact it. And, if your plan is to follow the anglers who look like they know what they’re doing, you need a better plan. You’re just as likely to be following someone who is less prepared than you. The buddy system isn’t a good idea if your buddy is a moron.
Count on bad weather.
“You think that squall is heading toward us or away from us?” I’ve heard the question a thousand times on the water, so I’ve developed a simple response: the squall is always heading toward us. That’s a basic philosophy I adhere to. The squall is always coming our way and we should always be prepared for it. Anyone who has spent any time on the water knows that you’re going to get hit with bad weather. Count on it. Therefore, you should always prepare for bad weather. For a yakker, more so than any other boat operator, bad weather doesn’t have to be that bad before it’s bad. An afternoon breeze or shower can make things more than difficult.
Anticipate rain. Anticipate wind. Anticipate swells. Anticipate lightning. Make sure rain gear is accessible and things that you don’t want to get wet are stowable. If you’re in a yak, chances are things are going to get wet—particularly for those of us riding sit-a-tops—but when the rain starts, it doesn’t matter what you’re paddling, your stuff is going to get wet. Ultimately, wet stuff is nothing more than an inconvenience—unless your phone or other non-waterproof gear is getting ruined—but large amounts of rain can fill a cockpit or hull, creating a dangerous situation. Make sure your gaskets and seals are tight and secured before heading out—particularly hatch gaskets that open into the hull. Check these several days before heading out, and them confirm their efficiency on the day of the tournament.
Lightening scares the hell out of most of us, and fortunately, it’s statistically unlikely that any one of us will ever get struck by lightning. In fact, in all of my years on the water, I’ve only known one person to get struck, and to be honest, that guy seriously deserved it, so I’m chalking it up to reasons other than his lack of preparation. But, to err on the side of caution, consider developing a lightning plan. This might include something as drastic as evacuation, knowing that when the lightning starts popping you’re heading in, or more cautionary actions. Consider, for instance, pulling rods from rod holders and having a place to stow them vertically in your boat. Reduce your profile; there’s not a hell of a lot of difference between a lightning rod and a fishing rod. For those of you who paddle with a graphite paddle, keep in mind that graphite will conduct electricity, so you might want to consider keeping the paddle low.
Nearly every water safety manual advises that you get off the water when lightning is in the area. In the summer (particularly in Florida) expect lightning in the area. If forecasts call for more than the occasional afternoon thunderstorm, consider not going out. The truth is, it’s just not worth it. If you are out, recognize that in a kayak offshore, getting off the water isn’t necessarily a pragmatic option. So have a lightning plan: stow and get low.
Keep in mind, too, that a sudden change in weather can also change wind and current speeds and directions. In the summer 2014 Summer Slam, I got caught in a heavy wind on my way in for weigh-in. I ended up north of the Deerfield Beach Pier along with a handful of other tournament participants. With the wind in my face as I paddled south, I was not mentally prepared for the effort getting back took. I arrived at the weigh in sight just as the thunderstorms were shutting down the celebrations. Mental preparation in the face of bad weather requires calm thinking.
Tie your knots the night before
One of my fishing mentors insists that we tie all knots the day before a tournament. His reasoning is simple: during the tournament we tend to rush. If you’re counting on a knot to hold when fighting a potentially winning fish, you can’t take chances with that knot. So, we tie knots the day before, making sure that leaders are secure to rigs and that knots are tied correctly. This also allows us to determine if lines need to be replaced before we hit the water.
Of course, you’ll inevitably need to tie some knots while on the water, but having as many prettied as possible is your best option. Keep in mind, too, that the sometimes rough conditions on a yak offshore can making tying a bit more difficult.
Put rigs where they are accessible
One of the great things about many of the newer model kayaks designed for offshore angling is the ease of accessibility to gear. Offshore, it’s important to be able to easily get to your rigs and to know where everything is.
I find it useful to label my tackle cases and to place them in an order that’s logical to my strategy. For example, no matter the tournament I fish (inshore or offshore) I have a tackle case labeled “Openers.” These are the rigs I plan to use first. This way when I am setting up the boat at the launch site, I know exactly where the rigs are I want to use first. I coordinate this box with my overall plan for the day. I have cases for terminal tackle and one for casting lures. As a side note, I find Plano’s Waterproof StowAway Utility Boxes particularly useful for offshore tournament fishing.
Lock it down
You’d think I’d learn. Paddling in to the beach after fishing off of St. Augustine one summer, I rolled the kayak in an afternoon shorebreak swell. I lost two rods, a tackle box, and most heartbreakingly, one of my favorite knives. I told myself then to always make sure everything is tied down, lanyards on rods. The next summer a nice king smacked the pogy I had out on a tag line from the rod holder behind me. When I reached behind me to pull the rod from the holder, the fish ran hard and the rod went with it. No lanyard. No fish and no more rod and reel. You’d think I’d learn.
It’s a simple concept: offshore, lock it down. When prepping for an offshore tournament, count the number of items that you’ll use, then make sure you have at least that many lanyards, clips, or other methods for securing the gear. From the moment you place rods in their holders, clip the reels to lanyards; check to be sure the lanyards are attached to the boat. Check, too, to make sure the lanyards do not restrict your use of the gear or cause tangle hazards.
Consider adding floats to your rods, as well. Using foam like pipe insulation or swimming “noodles,” or LunaSea’s Ultra Float devices can keep you gear at the surface should it end up overboard.
Stop. Think. Act.
Ultimately, the most important part of preparing for an offshore kayak tournament is mental preparation. But sometimes, no matter how prepared you are, the situation is going to demand on-the-spot problem solving. Knee-jerk reactions can be dangerous and can lead to even further problems. No matter the problem you face on the water, whether as simple as switching a lure or an on-the-fly decision about how to handle a big fish that’s too green to bring to boat, pause. Give yourself a moment to think through the situation before acting. A simple philosophy of stop, think, then act, can spawn better responses to the situation.
A final thought
Many years ago I completed my training as a scuba instructor. During the training sequence, one rescue diver course taught professional divers to become alert to problems before they emerged. That is, the course taught us to look for signs of potential problems before they became problems. The course instructors taught us that once we learned to be alert to problems, we’d be able to prevent them before they happened. They also taught us that we’d no longer dive as amateurs unaware of problems, that we’d always be alert to solving problems before they unfolded. I think this is one of the most important things I leaned not only as a scuba instructor but as a person who spends time on the water: anticipate the problems. Look for them before they unfold. A lot of this depends on experience, learning what to look for, what to anticipate, and how to prepare for the expected and unexpected. Ultimately, this degree of preparation should serve as an undercurrent to all we do on the water. The excitement, thrill, and fun of offshore kayak angling deserves our diligence, as well, even if we want to pretend that we’re tougher than all of the potential problems that offshore kayak angling might present. An ounce of preparation, as we tend to misquote Benjamin Franklin, is, indeed, worth a pound of cure. See more guide here.
As promised, the basics:
If you’re forgetting these, they either don’t matter because you’re tougher than that or you might want to stay on the beach. Safety first, ladies and gentlemen.
First aid kit
Check the plugs!
Sid Dobrin is Chair of the Department of English at the University of Florida. He is co-owner of Inventive Fishing, an online resource for recreational saltwater sportfishing (www.inventivefishing.com). He has been kayak fishing for more than 12 years.