The ocean deserves respect. She beckons with her beauty and mystique, but she is moody and powerful. I love being on the ocean but especially in my kayak — to feel her movement and strength just inches below are invigorating. Riding her swells up and down are a gentle reminder that I am small and vulnerable. It is wildly exciting and a little bit scary.
Recently I met up with some friends to kayak fish for striped bass in Kennebunkport. My alarm went off at 3:15 a.m., and I was launching my ’yak at around 5 a.m., in the dark. There were four of us: Dennis and his wife, Jenn, were in motorized Old Town kayaks with built-in trolling motors. My friend Dan and I were in foot-pedal kayaks. All were designed for fishing, leaving your hands free to cast.
As we motored and pedaled out of the Kennebunk River toward the open sea, I let some line off my fly rod and dragged it behind me. Might as well troll while heading to our fishing spot.
We took a left out of the mouth of the river and hugged the rocky coast. The seas were mostly flat, with an occasional gradual roll. The sun peeked above the horizon and a cormorant flew overhead, its wings flapping frantically, its neck outstretched.
I reeled in my fly rod and cast the chartreuse and white clouser minnow fly toward some rocks. Waves crashed, leaving a whitewash over the rocks with each retreat. It was exactly low tide, slack tide 0, the short period at exactly high or low tide, when the tide is still before it turns. It is not the best tide for fishing, but we were giving it a go anyway.
Large homes lined the coast, their inhabitants still tucked in inside. The diesel engine of a lobster boat roared on and off in the distance. It cut when the fishermen arrived at his trap, then started again as he moved to his next trap. A dog barked on a beach nearby. In a couple hours the beach would be teeming with tourists but, for now, the coast was for the early risers — the anglers.
I heard a hoot and looked over to see Dennis’ rod bent and a striper splashing near his kayak. A tern dove hard headfirst in the water behind him, probably catching sand eels. We all pedaled toward Dennis and the tern.
I cast toward where the tern had dove and let my line sink for a few seconds before retrieving it. Suddenly, I felt a hit, a jolt of resistance, and then nothing. I cast again. Nothing.
Two female eider ducks with a creche of ducklings from their broods bobbed nearby, unbothered by us and the surf. Eventually the fish moved on and so did we. We decided to return to the river, now that it wasn’t slack tide anymore.
Dan entered the river first and almost immediately caught a striper.
“Lots of sand eels here in the shallows,” he hollered back to us.
We drifted toward him with the now incoming tide, and I soon saw a large school of sand eels in the water. They ignored my quiet kayak and continued swimming around in the shallow water. I cast toward the middle of the river, where the channel was deepest and stood up. As I striped my line in, I watched a striper follow my fly without committing. He turned around and returned to the depths.
I continued floating up river with the tide, steering around moored lobster boats when necessary. I had a few more follows and it was fun to watch the fish come so close to me from the vantage of standing on my kayak, but I was getting frustrated that they weren’t biting.
I thought about swapping out my fly rod for a spinning rod but decided to stick with the fly. Another cast and I felt a fish hit. Finally. The fish fought hard, but I got it to my kayak quickly. I stared at the fish; it was the size of a small striper but didn’t have stripes. My next thought was a pogie but it didn’t have the telltale black dot behind its gill.
“A shad?” Dan suggested as he pedaled toward me.
Mystery solved. It had been years since I caught a shad. His scales covered the deck of my kayak as he trashed around aggressively. I quickly released him, and he swam away with gusto, like his smaller cousins, the herring and alewife. I pedaled upstream back to the same spot and cast again, another shad. This must be a shad hole.
I eventually caught a couple stripers, and the morning flew by. I was solely focused on each cast and retrieve, completely in the moment. My stomach reminded me of other things as it whined for breakfast. It was 8 a.m. and the day was quickly warming up.
We pedaled and motored back to the boat launch. Over breakfast of black coffee and blueberry pancakes, we did what anglers do, we lamented over the ones that got away that morning and added inches to the ones we landed.