By Jeff Little
On a windy day on the upper Potomac River, I reached my breaking point. I couldn't hold position for more than a few moments to make a cast. When I did launch one out there, a gust would send my spinnerbait into the tree branches instead of the foamy eddy I aimed for. My 17 foot aluminum canoe caught the wind like a kite, sending me crashing upstream through riffles and into jagged ledge rocks. Sometimes great things come out of very frustrating circumstances. That maddening day on the river sparked a thought that started a kayak fishing career: "There's got to be a better way to do this. Maybe I'll be blown around less in a kayak."
The following spring I was fishing out of my first kayak, and came to love the boats wind-shedding properties. But on the windiest days, I still struggled to feel jig bites, hold position in open water and have my casts hit their mark. Stepping up from ¼ oz to ½ or ¾ oz jigs helped me feel the jig bite better. Holding position was a bigger challenge. It's been over 17 years since I first struggled to keep a kayak in position on a windy day. I've learned a few good ways to cope.
Getting an accurate wind forecast goes a long way to giving you the best choice of destination. Take into account the wind speed, direction and near by topography. On big open water, waves generated by local winds might make conditions unsafe for kayak fishing. On the Chesapeake Bay, my wind speed cut off is somewhere in excess of 14 miles per hour. Everyone has a different threshold of how comfortable they are in big wind-driven waves. Just know that if you find yourself fighting both the tide and a strong and endless supply of wind waves, you might not be able to paddle back to your put in.
If you are going to fish despite the strong wind forecast, find a stretch of water that has a higher ridge that blocks wind in the direction that it's coming from. On a recent trip to the Susquehanna River, I chose a series of pools that were blocked from the prevailing northwest wind by a single long island and a high bank on the opposite shore. The opposite side of the river featured a much wider section that allowed the northwest wind to channel straight down the river, making it nearly impossible to hold position. Add in a wind bottlenecking mountain gap, and the 23 mile per hour sustained wind with gusts to 37 becomes a sustained wind in the low 40's with gusts over 50. No thanks. Take land topography into consideration with wind speed and find wind protected water if you can.
Even after you find protected water, you'll need to find ways to get your kayak stationary so you can feel the bite. My kayak has a self-retracting mushroom anchor off the bow and a River Stick off the stern. With two methods of stopping the boat, it will not swing on a single anchor point. This may not seem like a big deal, but on days when the bite is subtle, having your kayak constantly swing on a single anchor makes those crisp jig bites turn mushy under the variable slack thrown into your line by a swinging kayak. Other ways to get stopped include wedging your kayak on a gravel bar or other shallow object, or by simply getting out and wading.
Feel the Bite, or Not
Feeling the bite is a challenge, yet is central to successful jig fishing. Timing a hookset within a split second of feeling that distinct tap means that you need to focus on vibrations coming up the line to your rod. Why not take that timing of hook set out of the equation? Fine wire hooks on jigs penetrate the inside of a fish's mouth without a hook set. So do hooks that are constantly moving, like on a spinnerbait or constantly retrieved crankbait. If feeling the bite isn't going well for you, change up the type of lure you're using to one that will hook the fish without your setting the hook at precisely the right moment before a fish spits the lure.
Know When Not to Go
The same blustery conditions that make fishing such a difficult task can also make the biggest fish go on the hunt. Windblown shorelines often turn turbid in a mix of muddy water, disoriented minnows and terrestrial morsels dislodged by the wave action on shore. It's an ideal situation for predatory fish to find a meal. It's also ideal for them to not see a kayaker’s approach. The ambient noise level of heavy wave action drowns out any less than stealthy approach we may make. The same bumping your paddle on the kayaks hull that would have spooked fish in calm water won't even register when it's windy. Also the broken and constantly moving surface visually masks our approach to the fish.
One of my best trips reservoir smallmouth fishing came on a day when the local airport registered a gust of 68 miles per hour. The fish were smashing deep diving crankbaits on wind blown points. I landed two over 5 pounds and had dozens in the upper 3- to mid-4-pound range. The wind intensified as the day went on, and by early evening, I started to worry about getting back to the launch before sunset.
Despite the nearly constant action from big fish, I knew that I needed to get out of there. On one of the last points before the cove with the launch, I made a sprint against a blinding wind. My peripheral vision told me that the land to my left was moving in the wrong direction. I was losing ground while paddling full speed against the wind. I backed off, pulled to shore and waited while catching my breath. Walking the shoreline with my kayak pounding against rocks was the only way I rounded that point.
Upon making the turn into the cove, in open water I saw what looked like snow drifting quickly across the surface. It was October, and there was no snow falling. The massive half acre size patch of all white in the middle of the reservoir was likely a downburst. Think of what it looks like when a helicopter gets close to water, except much larger. I shouldn't have still been out there.
Every year, we lose kayak anglers to hypothermia. Wind is certainly part of the equation of how quickly we become hypothermic. Proper gear is essential, and being able to get home at the end of a day of fishing requires sound judgement. Know when to not go at all. Know when to get out when things get too rough. You'll have that little voice in your head telling you to get out. It may not be as loud as the one that says, "But the fish are still biting!" Listen to it anyway. There will be other days when the bite is just as good.