Fishing eskimo-style

Cory Routh was floating and fishing in a world practically devoid of clutter, and he liked it.

There was the reel's spool buzzing out line, the swishing of the rod cutting an arc in the air and the sloshing of miniature waves against the side of his kayak. Somewhere far off an outboard was running, far enough away to be a faint hum rather than a roar.

Routh, of Ruthless Fishing Inc., looked to the horizon as he fished. In the flat distance, quivering in and out of vision as they rode the heat waves, were the barrier islands of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore.

A few wheeling gulls and shorebirds, and all that water in Pamlico Sound, were in between. No thinking, no work, no problems for Routh on that summer day in 1996, the day he became sold on kayak fishing.

The 12-pound redfish that he caught helped convince him, too, and a few thousand fish since then have only reaffirmed his passion for a sport compelling because of its simple, no-hassle approach. Routh isn't the only angler who thinks kayaks are the best way to go.

Today most states have kayak-fishing associations, including the Tidewater Kayak Anglers Association that Routh founded, and an International Kayak Fishing Association was formed to promote the sport.

Coast-to-coast kayak tournaments, staged in coastal areas from as far north as Maine to as far south as the Florida Keys, attest to the growing popularity. The Columbia Sportswear Jacksonville Kayak Fishing Classic in May attracted 350 anglers who vied for more than $80,000 in cash and prizes.

Of course, most kayak anglers fish for the same reason that most other fishermen do: they simply enjoy it as a recreation. And kayaks offer a clean, trouble-free mode of transportation. They don't require much upkeep and don't leave any footprints behind in estuarine areas as boat propellers sometimes do.

"A kayak doesn't impact the environment negatively at all," says Routh, an environmental specialist with the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. "There are no nasty byproducts such as fuel exhaust and because a kayak is so quiet, you can approach to within casting distance of shallow fish without sending them racing away. You can launch a kayak just about anywhere, by yourself."

Eskimos are credited with fashioning the first kayaks of sealskins stretched over driftwood frames, and this most basic of watercraft went high-tech beginning toward the latter end of the last century. That's when anglers discovered kayaks offered a great way to fish water otherwise inaccessible to heavier, bigger boats.

Simultaneously, manufacturers found that molded polyethylene was the best material from which to fashion relatively inexpensive kayaks in all sorts of shapes and sizes.

The Ocean Kayak Scupper Pro TW, introduced in 1996, is considered to be the first model made expressly for saltwater fishermen. Its main features were rod racks and a tackle station situated behind the fisherman for easy access.

Today, there are at least 30 major manufacturers, including Coleman, Hobie Cat, Heritage, Pelican, Malibu and Native.

WaveWalk offers a fishing model that's a cross between a kayak and a catamaran. Stability is the result, and in normal seas it's possible to stand up in the W-Kayak, as it's called, and paddle or cast.

The Freedom Hawk Freedom 14 is equipped with a casting yoke and, once the angler paddles to his destination, the hinged aft section can be unfastened to release two wings or outriggers for added stability.

Kayak prices range from a few hundred dollars to well over $1,000, but, regardless of the price, there's no denying that kayaks are catching on among all angler groups. As an indication of just how seriously the fishing tackle industry takes this relatively new product category, the Hobie Cat Mirage Pro Angler won Overall Best of Show at the 2009 ICAST fishing tackle show.

Though kayaks come in various sizes and shapes. The sit-on-top and stand-up models made expressly for fishing are preferred. As the name suggests, a sit-on-top model isn't made for standing. It's usually lighter and sleeker than a standup version, and covers more water in a hurry. It's also self-baling, just the ticket for fishing open water that might become choppy when the wind picks up.

The wider standup kayak is the pick for anglers who are sight-fishing or who otherwise like to cast while standing, when environmental conditions accommodate it.

Depending on the weather and what's biting, Routh either loads a 14-foot Native Manta Ray or a 14 ½-foot Native Ultimate when he's fishing his home waters of Chesapeake Bay. He usually fishes standing up, and the Ultimate is the kayak for that. Standup or sit-on-top, no kayak is tip-proof, and Roush recommends that an angler wear a PFD any time he's going to be crossing water over his head.

Routh's other basic equipment includes a VHF radio (no license required for recreational boaters), a cheap portable fish finder that will be replaced every couple of years due to corrosion, a small anchor or Stick It anchor pin that's stuck in the bottom, a Scotty rod holder mounted in front of him with two more behind him and a Yak Pak III tackle storage bag with a running light mounted to it. A double-bladed carbon-fiber paddle and arm muscles supply the power.

Any water with fish in it is available to kayak anglers. Routh prefers to launch his kayak from land, fish somewhere within reasonable paddling distance, and then return. Other anglers frequently carry a kayak on a "mother ship" that might be nothing larger than a flats boat, to reach water that can't be approached by wheeled vehicles.

In the Florida Keys, for example, guides sometimes use kayaks to take customers into the backwaters of the Everglades National Park, which is a long boat ride from the middle and lower Keys. Because of the park's pristine environment, boats powered by mechanical means aren't allowed in most areas and a kayak or a canoe is the only way to explore the waters.

An angler might fish in a kayak alone, or be paddled around by a guide in a tandem kayak. The angler likely will be outfitted with a single-passenger standup kayak if he's fly-fishing. The guide, in another kayak, stays within shouting distance.

"Kayak fishing isn't for everyone, but there are a few of my clients who are more adventuresome and want to fish where they know that few other people have ever fished," notes Paul Hunt, an Islamorada guide. "The fishing is really worth the effort in the [Everglades National] Park, though. It ranges from pretty good on an average day to off the charts on other days. Big snook to 36 inches, baby tarpon to about 30 pounds and other assorted fish that hang around mangroves are standard."

Anglers can fish the waters adjacent to the Keys any time of year and catch snapper, redfish and speckled trout, and maybe even jump off a tarpon or two. Arguably, because of the sheer numbers and variety of fish, the Keys are the best place to give kayak fishing a try.

Backcountry Cowboy Outfitters rents fishing kayaks to those who want to sample the experience first without becoming fully immersed.

Fishing farther afield in the mangrove canals and bays to the northwest mainly is a winter sport because summer rainwater runoff from the Everglades decreases salinity in the upper reaches of Florida Bay and correspondingly reduces the availability of some species. The hordes of biting flies, gnats and mosquitoes prevalent in the park's hinterlands during the warm months are enough in themselves to dissuade summer fishing.

Farther north along the mid-Atlantic, the worst thing that Routh has to worry about in the summer is a "Chesapeake sleigh ride," the term Virginia coastal anglers use to describe what usually happens when a jumbo striped bass or redfish is hooked.

"My personal best is a 48-inch striper and a 42-inch redfish. I'll have to say the redfish put up a better fight. It pulled like a horse and we went round and round the bay," says Routh.

In fact, the drum pulled Routh around for almost 40 minutes before he was able to get it up to the kayak, measure it and release it. His next kayak-fishing goal is to catch a pelagic species, preferably a wahoo, which, depending on its size, is apt to fight a lot harder and a lot longer than the fish Routh has become accustomed to in Chesapeake Bay.

"Mostly I fish inshore waters for stripers, trout, redfish and flounder," says Routh, 36. "But sometimes I've gone offshore Virginia Beach, my hometown. I've paddled as far out as 2 ½ or 3 miles fishing for cobia. The farther offshore you get, though, the greater the potential for danger. You've got to be aware of what the weather is doing and that you've taken every precaution to stay safe.

"Guys catch marlin and sailfish from kayaks, even sharks. Really, the sky's the limit as long as you can reach the fish and use common sense about the best days and best ways to go after them."

The boating industry is hurting, and the federal government is printing cash as fast as it can to give to people so they'll buy new automobiles, but don't look for kayak manufacturers to line up for stimulus cash.

Kayaks, especially the types that fishermen are apt to use, represent a glimmer of light in an otherwise dark and dreary landscape for all sorts of wheeled vehicles and watercraft.