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).