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.