Paddling from Ocean Cove on the Sonoma Coast north of Jenner, the kayak pulled a lure through the murky green water in hopes a Chinook salmon running to its natal stream would first latch onto the steel morsel.
Out of the cove, about a mile to the northwest, the treeless and windswept Salt Point State Park jutted out from the redwoods and mountains in the morning light. The hope was that a 35-pound Chinook, toned for the difficult swim inland to small creeks and steams after a few years gaining size in the North Pacific, would take the kayak for a ride.
In the fight between kayak-bound angler and fish, it’s the fish that dictates the movements of the small boat, either towing it out to sea or toward rocks. When the angler takes control — reeling in the fish little by little — the subdued, yet stubborn, fish can be brought onto the boat.
But on this day, as the swells increased to a few feet, no sign of a salmon.
At that point, guide Dennis Spike, an affable yet salty old fisherman with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, said it was time to change gear. There were no salmon that day, and it was best to drop the lines to the bottom and pull up rockfish and lingcod instead.
Kayak fishing has a strong following on the North Coast, with locals and people from all over the state testing their skill on the rugged coastline and often-tumultuous waters. There are a handful of guides and numerous tournaments for anglers to learn the craft and compete against each other for the biggest catch and to win a few prizes.
Nor Cal Kayak Anglers are arguably the largest group of kayak fishers on the North Coast and have an active discussion forum, norcalkayakanglers.com. Spike, who moved to Sonoma County in 2008 and began working as a guide on the North Coast in 2012, operates outside of the group, has kayakfishing.com for tips, information and guide services. Paddlesport and kayaking shops also offer equipment and classes for beginners and guides.
Depending on the species, kayak fishing in California typically runs from the mid-spring through the end of December and carries the same regulations for catch limits as those who fish from motorized boats.
Like any watersport, especially one where swell and strong current must be contended with, kayak fishing carries an inherent risk. But general physical fitness, experience and training, the proper gear and not going on the water when conditions are unsafe, can make the risks worth the rewards.
The typical setup includes a plastic open-top kayak, an oar, fishing poles and tackle, flotation vest, first-aid kit and a VHF radio in case of emergencies.
For people looking to get into kayak fishing, the low-end costs run just over a grand, often with a used kayak or an entry-level option available at most sporting goods stores.
For top-of-the-line equipment, kayaks can push $3,000. Sonar, GPS, fish finders and other electronics can exceed $1,000. The costs of rods, reels and tackle can also exceed a grand.
While the Inuit and Aleuts, native peoples of the north, have use kayaks for hunting and fishing over millennia, kayak fishing as a recreational sport didn’t take off until the mid-1990s. Now people use kayaks to fish all over the U.S., from the Great Lakes to the southern bayous and coastal California.
Back on the water, with equipment supplied by Spike, a hook baited with squid was dropped to the bottom of a ledge below the surface, about 100 yards off Salt Point. When the lead weight hit the bottom, it was reeled a few cranks up so it could bounce off the ocean floor where lingcod, cabezon and various species of rockfish and greenlings might be looking to for a snack.
As the swell bumped up against the ledge on the ocean floor off the point, the waves got steeper but the stable kayak easily handled the moving crests. Like charter boats, seasickness can also strike while on a kayak.
A white and gray osprey soared in the sky above and, like us, looked to snatch a fish from the water.
There’s a finesse that takes a while to develop, feeling the line bounce off the rocky bottom and knowing how best to blindly present the bait to fish swimming more than 100 feet below. Potential danger can strike when the tackle gets stuck on the rocky bottom, as it can feel like there’s a large fish at the other end of the line.
Reel in too quickly and it can easily become a fight between staying on the kayak and losing gear.
Spike shared fish stories about his earlier years in the waters off Malibu and Baja California but his advice helped coax stuck tackle out of the hidden rocks below: give slack if reeled in too tight and paddle away from the snag to get free. If that doesn’t work then the simplest answer is to row in another direction.
Off Salt Point, black and blue rockfish started coming up on the hooks. Spike hollered about the “thrill of a hookup.” It’s assumed he was talking about the fish on the end of his line. The rockfish that came in were only about a foot long and weighed a few pounds, but would make for a tasty dinner later.
The tide changed and the kayaks drifted into Gerstle Cove and lingcod started to bite. Bigger, fiercer with more muscle, lingcod put up a better fight than rockfish.
Spike talked about his younger days when he wanted to fish right off the beach in Malibu in the mid-1980s and needed to find an easy way to get beyond the breakers. Launching a Zodiac, an inflatable boat with an outboard motor, from the beach could land one a ticket, he said. So they started paddling out in kayaks.
A decade prior, people started paddling out on dive boards, which resembled a cross between a stand-up paddleboard and sea kayak that was used for scuba diving, to fish on coastal waters.
But it would take two decades for kayaks to be manufactured for the purpose of fishing, complete with rod holders. In 2003, Spike released “The Kayak Fishing Video,” an 80-minute DVD on the basics of kayak fishing, which can still be found on Amazon.
With the sun high in the sky after six hours on the water and a kayak full of fish, it was time to paddle back to Ocean Cove. On this day, a Chinook salmon never bit and pulled the kayak around for a prolonged fight, but most of fishing isn’t about the catch, but rather the process.
Kayak fishing reflects this more than sitting on a boat with a high-powered engine or drinking beer on a dock with a line in the water. It gives an angler a workout, while also allowing them to experience the silence of the sea.
You can reach Staff Writer Nick Rahaim at 707-521-5203 or firstname.lastname@example.org.