Small boat, Big Fish, Bigger Adventure
It was a good time to be alive. It was also a good place. Living on the south Georgia coast was more than a dream, it was a dreamland. For a young man in his early twenties, the multiple college campuses and the vast party scene on River Street in Savannah would be more than enough adventure and fun. At least, that would be what you expect.
However, I have always had an itch for the things that are on the edge of reason.
I lived alone. This may have been a tad bit dangerous. Then again it may have been a recipe for a good story.
Kayaking had always interested me. I had bought one more or less on a whim. A friend was supposed to buy one with me as a way to exercise and have fun. That had fallen through pretty quick. I was more or less on my own. It proved to be an immaterial fact; I had a blast even though I was by myself.
I tied my kayak to the roll bars on my jeep and drove it to the last boat launch on the inter-coastal waterway. Feeling a little silly next to the yachts, Boston Whalers, and the seemingly skeptical fisherman that looked at me laughingly, I slid my kayak into the brown murkiness of the inter-coastal that was destined to turn into the sparkling blue waters of the Atlantic.
It didn’t take too many trips to get the rhythm of the paddling down and the times of the day that the dolphins would come and go from the local waterways. In the beginning, I struggled to get close to the pod of dolphins. They are unbelievably fast in the water. I once thought I would never be able to catch them, though I desperately wanted to.
They were amazing to watch. Never before had I watched a group of animals with such personality that would play and horse around like children. They lived an ideal life. A close knit community, plentiful food, and an open schedule made for a near utopian society. Also, it seemed to make for Olympic level swimmers.
I wasn’t always that slow, on the contrary, I got fast; even as fast as a dolphin.
I knew I had reached the apex of my speed the day I chased down a pod of dolphins which culminated one of the larger individuals coming up next to me and rolling on its side so its eye could meet mine for a few short precious seconds that I still cherish in my dreams to this day. Few times in our lives do we get to reach out to another species and study each other so innocently and inquisitively. Its magnificent colors were glazed with a thin coat of seawater that made it shine in the afternoon sun. Its eye was dark, yet so very deep. I can’t explain it exactly, but there was a connection made there that I often wonder is still shared at the bottom of the sea.
As you can imagine, that was a hard experience to top. So my mind drifted like a lost paddle, and I began to ponder what other possibilities lay in between the bow and stern of my little kayak.
It came to me one lazy afternoon when I saw a video of a man reeling in large tuna in a kayak not too much different than mine. They fought for hours upon hours to harvest a great fish from deep below that often was much larger than what the kayak could feasibly carry.
Immediately, my mind drifted to Santiago in Hemmingway’s classic, The Old Man and the Sea. I had a tattered and torn copy of the book that I had acquired somewhere, somehow. There was no telling how many times that I had studied its subtle complexities and appreciated Santiago as he reminded me of my father and the old men I had grown up around with their large leathered hands and wrinkled skin.
I don’t think I ever actually hatched a plan; I simply put my fishing gear with the rest of my kayaking gear. This is an important time for you to know that I had never before fished the ocean. I had caught more fish than there was any sense keeping count of from mountain streams, backwater sloughs, swamps, and manmade lakes; not once from salt water. It made no difference.
The next opportunity presented itself as I paddled my way through the mini rapids produced by the underwater jetty interrupting the march of the tide and into the open ocean. It always took my breath away to look on the horizon to watch a ship disappear, perhaps destined for Africa or France; there was no way of knowing and the mystery was much more appealing. I often longed to make a hard turn to the east and join the ships on their journey, but today was about another conquest, the fish down below.
In retrospect I have no idea what I was thinking. Better yet, I’m not sure I was thinking at all. I had looked at a picture of how to fish in the ocean. I beheld a bottom fishing set up not unlike the way we had caught sand bass, catfish, and crappie in fresh water with minnows. This time I would be using fresh shrimp and the equipment would be much bigger. Save one, my rod and reel.
I am a minimalist at heart and have always felt almost greedy for having unused equipment in my possession. The closest people to me often berate me for using only one bar of soap and a razor. My approach to fishing equipment was no different. I had one rod I used for everything and that’s what I employed on my journey this day. It was too small and I knew it, but I wasn’t ready to go purchase an adequate rod on what may only turn out to be a whim; I needed to earn the right to buy seafaring equipment, or at least I that’s the way I felt.
It didn’t take long. My first cast came and went with little notice. I was more concerned about drifting too far out I think. I could see the shore, but only the hint of it. I didn’t feel like I would have tested myself or done the image of Santiago justice by staying close to shore. I needed the adventure of pushing the limits of how far I could go in pursuit of a truly great catch. I may have bitten off more than I could chew with the second cast.
No, I did, there was no “may have” to it.
I have no idea what it was, but it was big. I have often talked to people that have caught large sharks, manta rays, and mackerel in the area I was in. It could have been any or all of those; I never laid eyes on it.
The bite was not too dissimilar than the bite of other fish. (Except a pike, those are an experience unto themselves.) It took my bait and went to my left and my excitement grew. It had been surprisingly easy and I was experienced enough to know whatever it was, it was the biggest thing I had ever faced.
I reeled down the way I had been taught by my father catching bass off cypress trees in the south and set the hook with everything I had. What I didn’t anticipate is the reciprocated jerk from the other end.
It was ferocious.
This did little to dissuade me; rather it excited me in my soul. The fish ran straight out to my left at first, but then made a sudden turn back to the right and slightly away from my kayak. I took in line as fast as I could, I didn’t want to give him any slack; this was sure to be a hell of a fight. It slowed as it crossed the front of my kayak and I was lured into thinking that he may be coming to the surface and didn’t have the fortitude for the fight I had anticipated and given the creature credit for.
That was wrong.
The fish immediately turned to the kayak and picked up speed. I took in as much line as I could but there was no catching up with it. Once it got within a few yards of me and my trusty vessel, it did the unthinkable and turned.
Never before had it crossed my mind how the men I watched on the internet managed to stay in their kayak when fighting these extremely large fish. Never before had it crossed my mind that I was going to be faced with that very challenge, but when the fish turned and got to the end of my slack line, I was jerked from the kayak with extreme ferocity.
In a lifesaving flash of a thought, I glanced back at my kayak as it turned over with me and saw the carry handle just within reach.
I grabbed it.
The next discernible thing I can remember is realizing I was holding a kayak in one hand and a monster by way of a reel with a screaming drag in the other. My eyes opened as I watched in slow motion the line disappearing from the reel and glancing back I realized there was a small wake behind the silhouette of the kayak.
The monster was diving and running away from me.
The drag screaming was intense and it forced several thoughts to the forefront of my mind. I couldn’t lose the kayak because my life depended on it. I was too far out for anyone to spot me and there was no way I would be able to swim back while fighting the waves. Most importantly, I couldn’t lose whatever was on the other end of my quickly dwindling line.
Like a flash of lightning the solution came. I simply ‘clicked’ my reel and let it spin freely.
I instantly surfaced. Not realizing I had instinctively been holding my breath for who knows how long I took an incredible gasp of air. Somehow I managed to flip the kayak right side up and never lose control of the rod and reel. Once back on board, I began to reel once more, though this time there was the all too dreaded slack in my line. The monster had vanished.
Not without a trace though. Whatever had taken my bait that day had straitened the hook out and managed to throw it close to the ocean floor. This meant my almost completely strait hook drug across the seabed as I reeled it in. To a humorous conclusion, it had managed to snag a sand dollar on its way back to the world thus implying the sand dollar was what had caused such a commotion.
I leaned back and erupted in laughter. Few times in my life have I ever felt so alive. Moments earlier I was being taken to the depths of the Atlantic by some fabled creature from the deep and now I was clutching a sand dollar drifting along the Gulf Stream in a tiny boat.
It was a good day.
I washed up on the shore later and took inventory of what I had left. Thank God I had the forethought to lash my paddle to the kayak or else I would still be adrift somewhere on the open ocean. I managed to keep one flip flop and my rod. My shirt, tackle box, bait, and other flip flop had been committed to the deep on account of the battle with the monster.
I did however, have a dry bag with some money in it stowed in a compartment inside the kayak. I walked shirtless with one shoe up to a small beach shop to replenish what I had lost and to acquire something to drink.
The girl at the shop looked at me with an astounding gaze as I am sure I was a sight to behold.
“Are you ok?!?” she asked.
I could only laugh. I was more than ok, I was the happiest I had ever been.