BY JEFF LITTLE
It was an innocent collection of kayak fishing action clips on a Facebook thread. But the caption got under my skin: “Here’s something that should help with everyone’s cabin fever.” The video did not help. I had to respond. “I disagree,” I wrote. “Only fishing fixes cabin fever, I’m going.”
I doubt anyone figured that I meant it. Right then, in the dead of winter, after the sun had long set, with the water temps in the mid-30s. I read bedtime stories to my kids, tucked them in, then went down to the basement to layer up with fleece. Stepping into the bottom half of my drysuit, I heard from the top of the stairs, “Daddy, can I have a glass of water?!” I replied, “Be up in a minute buddy.”
Half an hour later, I’m on the Baltimore beltway en route to the Chesapeake Bay without a hint of traffic. Launching under the veiled light of a full moon behind a thin cloud layer, I can hear sirens in the distance. Though a familiar launch, paddling without daylight intensifies the senses: snow tires rumbling on a bridge’s steel grid turn to a deafening roar. I don’t even need to see my depth-finder’s red marks to know that the shad have pulled into my fishing spot; I can smell them.
Seeing only by moonlight does present a few issues, however. Putting out two lines on my trolling rod holders takes over five minutes. With the second trolled-hard jerkbait in the water, I can feel that the resistance from the diving bill isn’t coming from the tip of the rod. I bring in the mid-section of the rod, hand over hand. Cold fingertips can’t make sense of which way the line’s hooked around a guide.
Once both lines are successfully out, I realize just how much visual information I take in during daylight hours, the tip of the rod’s vibrations or hops letting me know what’s happening at the end of the line. I can only watch that rod tip dance intermittently by seeing the silhouette of the rod blank against the glimmer of a distant street light. The first positive cue is the kayak bogging down on one side. Had it been a striped bass, I would have heard drag, but it’s merely a more subtle shad snagged in the back. Nonetheless, it’s a valuable indicator; with abundant shad, there will be striper nearby.
Snagging shad becomes more of an annoyance as I continue to troll, so I switch over to a 1-ounce jighead and soft plastic. This garage-made lure compensates for the darkness with an internal glass rattle and glow additive that I charge up with a small LED flashlight, before giving the green, glowing profile a heave into distant, dark waters. Retrieving the 1-oz. jighead though schools of shad feels like I’m dragging it across a giant washboard: a series of thumps and bumps without any of them leading to singing drag.
THUMP. The bait stops in its tracks. No movement. I lean forward to hit ‘Record’ on my night-vision ready camcorder, just in case. Probably just another shad snag.
I am mistaken. The drag does indeed sing as the monstrosity of a striped bass realizes that it’s hooked. In the darkness, another minute goes by before I realize that I’m being towed—normally I’d see my hull wake, but tonight the speed gauge on my Raymarine Dragonfly clues me in. It shows me gliding southwest at 1.3 mph over a 6-foot-deep flat adjacent to the channel I’d been targeting.
The next 14 minutes fly by in same series of events: reel over to the striped submarine tugboat, get close, startle fish, repeat. Even with the frigid air, I’m sweating. By the time I shove my thumb into the beast’s mouth, I know it’s tired to exhaustion as well.
I have no intention of keeping the fish. It’s out of season. Besides, fillets from a fish of that size are pretty much toxic with all the mercury and PCBs it’s bioaccumulated. But should I turn it loose immediately, it won’t be able to propel itself forward long enough to recover. I fear it’ll sink and die. So with the lower jaw clamped securely in a fish gripper, tethered to my kayak, I slowly paddle to shore. The slow flow of water over its gills bring back its fight, shaking its head by the time I land my kayak. After snapping a quick photo, my 45.5-inch personal best striped bass is released so that it might produce more stripers in a few months.
I drive home in the early morning hours, take a hot shower and a short nap before getting up to head into work, the whole experience feeling strange, but in the best possible way. A coworker immediately comments on the bags under my bloodshot eyes. I check myself in the mirror, thinking, “Sure, I’ve got bags under my eyes, but this smile more than makes up for it!”
— Check out the night-vision video from Jeff Little’s largest catch from a kayak (and personal best striped bass).