Tackling the Chesapeake Bridge in a Kayak

Chesapeake Bay rockfish, aka striped bass, are a great reason for kayakers to test their skills around the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. William Ragulsky photo.
Chesapeake Bay rockfish, aka striped bass, are a great reason for kayakers to test their skills around the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. William Ragulsky photo.

 

Demanding Angling: Staying safe at night and in traffic

By Katie McKy

As a jarhead stationed in Okinawa, William Ragulsky watched the waves breaking on offshore coral reefs and thought, "Oh, yes!" So he and his buddies rented kayaks and surfed a mile or more offshore. A tumble meant plucking coral out of their skin for days.

Today Ragulsky, 33, lives in Portsmouth, Virginia and still has a bent for potentially problematic kayaking. He often fishes at night four miles or more offshore and often beneath the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, the natural narrowing of Chesapeake Bay where tidal currents are amplified. He's no longer that seemingly immortal 19-year old, so how does he safely fish in current, adjacent to container ships, and at night? Also, why doesn't he simply fish in safer situations?

Like many anglers, Ragulsky simply wants to boat big fish and he's located in a prime location. Chesapeake Bay is the largest striped bass (also known as rockfish by Chesapeake locals) nursery area on the Atlantic coast and breeding grounds for many other species. Furthermore, many fish collect in current beneath the Chesapeake Bay Bridge to feed. So, Ragulsky fishes where the bigger fish are. Unfortunately, it's also where bigger fishing boats are.

"Some bigger boats possibly feel that we don't belong out there," says Ragulsky.

So, how does Ragulsky stay safe in their company?

Ragulsky likes to keep equipment to a minumum when possible, but doesn't skimp on gear when the situation calls for it. William Ragulsky photo.
Ragulsky likes to keep equipment to a minumum when possible, but doesn’t skimp on gear when the situation calls for it. William Ragulsky photo.

"Keep your head on a swivel. Utilize all your senses as there is a risk of being hit by boats” he says. “That risk increases if you're anywhere near a blind spot and a boat comes motoring through and doesn't see you. When we do the bridge and we're fishing on the backside of manmade islands or behind a piling, the light on y0ur kayak might be obstructed. In that case it would be very easy for a boat to hit me. So, be aware of what's happening around you. Don't be fully focused on just fishing. I actually enjoy relying on all my senses."

Ragulsky assumes that some boaters are distracted.

“The vast majority of boaters are smart and know what they're doing, but there's always that 5% making poor decisions” he says. “They might be drinking or preoccupied with a cell phone. If I feel they're too close or not going to change course, I stop fishing and pick up the paddle."

There are also really big boats beneath the bridge.

"There are container ships, too” he notes “Even during the day, we are very, very aware of the channels that the container ships use. We don't go out in the shipping channels at night. They kick up a lot of wake. A lot of times you can hear them, but if you've hooked a fish and you've switched to tunnel vision, you might not. You have to heighten your senses and pay attention to everything around you. Water washing up against a piling might be nothing needing a reaction, but it might be something."

At night, Ragulsky's light is always up and beaming.

"I always bring out a 360 degree LED light. It's mounted on a collapsible pole so I can get it above my head. It's really to be seen. It's white. I don't have a red light because I'm not under power. I'll bring a headlight too so I can see what I'm doing when I land a fish, retie, or fiddle with equipment."

Ragulsky is buffered by other technology.

"I carry flares in my dry hatch. Most of my gear is waterproof. If I'm by myself, I have a submersible VHF Marine radio. I carry my waterproof cell phone too. I have GPS when I'm alone and there's a scenario where I could not navigate back to shore."

However, there are times he fished with less technology for safety's sake.

"If I have a constant line of sight, I don't carry the GPS. I like the bare minimum of what I need. The more clutter you have on your boat, the more potential for things to get hung up on. If I were to get knocked out, I want my PFD to bring me back to surface. If my boat is cluttered, the likelihood of me popping up is less."

And he assumes that he might become tangled in a spill.

"I do carry a dive knife every time I go out if I need to cut away from something. If I'm in the water and a large fish is tangling me or tangling me with the boat, I can cut away from it."

Ragulsky also always wears that most basic buffer between a fisher and peril.

"I always wear my PFD. I can swim, but there are so many scenarios that can happen where my ability to swim would be diminished or taken away from me. PFDs are a personal decision, but if you're not willing to wear one, you better have reasonable expectations of rescue."

However, technology only buffers so far.

"If it's foggy or we don't have that visibility, we don't belong out there, so we stay ashore,” he says.

And Ragulsky recognizes the risk, whatever his precautions.

"I like the solitude, so I might be comfortable in conditions where others might not be. There are other added dangers at night. A lot of it is decreased visibility. If something catastrophic were to happen, with fewer people out at night and decreased chance of seeing you, you're in greater peril. We go out to be on our own. It's an added benefit, but it's also a downfall. You might not see something just under the water. It might put you in the water."

Ragulsky follows two big rules when undertaking demanding angling.
"Remaining safe and not going in the water is rule number one. Rule number two is landing the fish."