Lessons from Big Game School – Top anglers show how to paddle among the sharks for that golden chance at big tuna

Top anglers show how to paddle among the sharks for that golden chance at big tuna

Jordan Ellis, Jim Sammons and what the Shark left them. Photo: Jeffrey Pierce Jordan Ellis, Jim Sammons and what the Shark left them. Photo: Jeffrey Pierce

By Paul Lebowitz

Most kayak anglers ease into the sport. They dip a toe in to test the water. But if Jeffrey Pierce, Capt. Kevin Beach, or his deckie Jordan Ellis had dangled any digits in the shark-infested ocean of the trio's debut kayak outing in 2012, they might have come back a foot or two shorter.

Sixty miles off Venice, Louisiana, they hopped off a mothership onto kayaks in 4,000 feet of water—the literal deep end—to fish in the wakes of slow-moving shrimp trawlers. In the shrimpers' chum parade, they danced with frenzied hundred-plus-pound yellowfin and dueled 10-foot-long hammerheads eager for an easy tuna meal.

This was no ordinary fishing trip. Cameras were rolling for The Kayak Fishing Show with Jim Sammons. And they weren't typical novices. Beach and Ellis operate the offshore charter cruiser The Pale Horse for the Mexican Gulf Fishing Company. Pierce is a sales manager for hook giant Mustad. They were no strangers to the powerful tail beat of muscular pelagics, or even to the toothy grin of the seven seas' ancient apex predator. Don't take that to mean there were no nerves, or lessons learned.

"I honestly didn't know what to expect," Ellis says. "I wasn't very confident in landing a fish over 100 pounds in a kayak. Sharks? We're used to them; we don't think about it too much."

On a kayak, it's just you and the fish. At one time, all three first-time kayakers were hooked up. Minutes later, Pierce looked around to discover he was on his own nearly two miles from the others. "There's no passing the rod, there's no putting the rod in the holder, you have to judge how green the fish is on your own, and there's no guy to gaff it," says Pierce.

As long as the rod is pointed within a few inches of the bow, a kayak angler can put the wood to a fish. It took the hard-pulling Pierce only 28 minutes to hoist a 140-pound yellowfin onto his lap. "I was amazed how much heat you can put on a fish," he says.

Kayaks don't come with brakes. The crew of The Pale Horse clocked the sleigh-riding Ellis at 5.5 mph. "I was sailing! I had to back off the drag, it was going so fast. Jim couldn't catch up," he says. "It's a humbling feeling when it's just you and a large fish."

There's a trick to landing big fish on a kayak. Stick your leg over the side, grab the leader and the lower jaw, lean back, and flop the fish onto the boat. "Luckily I'd whipped it," Pierce says of his 140-pounder. It scarcely quivered after he draped a towel over its eyes.

Sharks have the right of way. There's little you can do about it. The curious predators came uncomfortably close many times. A dusky grabbed the stern of Pierce's kayak hard enough that his pliers fell into the drink. "It left teeth marks in the plastic," Pierce says. Ellis had a big tuna nearly to color and then something suddenly felt wrong. "Two minutes later, I pulled up a very large tuna head. I was shocked. I guess the shark got what he wanted," Ellis says.

Self-rescue is easy when there's blood in the water. Pierce went over when trying to pass his fish to the mothership. The cameraman didn't get more than a few words of advice out of his mouth before Pierce was back in the saddle. "He didn't have time. It's called incentive," Pierce says. And he saved his tuna.

Nothing beats the primal joy of besting big game from a kayak. Pierce has caught a 1,200-pound bluefin, battled a swordfish for four and a half hours, and outlasted 600-pound grouper. All second best. "That fish that I dragged into the boat, it's my proudest. I'll remember that fish forever," he says.

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Jeffrey Pierce stamps his big-game kayak fishing ticket. Photo: Jordan Ellis
Jeffrey Pierce stamps his big-game kayak fishing ticket. Photo: Jordan Ellis