Saturday, October 12, 2013

A Memorable Day at Kiptopeke & The Kindness of More Strangers

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I had been longing for this day for the past month.  I had a severe case of tog fever, which included symptoms of sleepless nights, vivid dreams of tog-tabulous days, and twitching muscles in my arm whenever I felt a tap-tap on my work desk.  I even pumped myself up during last week's heavy rain storms by watching videos and reading old fishing reports of tautog at Kiptopeke State Park.  I was ready to catch some tautog!

These were the conditions we went out in.  Not bad at all!

It was 7:30AM Saturday morning when Ryan met Mike and me at the park's boat ramp to fish.  The winds were light, and the sky was overcast - it was nothing like what we were expecting based on the weather reports we had closely followed all week (thank goodness!).  Things couldn't be going any better for us, it was going to be a fabulous day of fishing!  We quickly rigged up our kayaks, split up the blue crabs and shrimp we brought, and got on the water.  Mike and I headed straight for the northern set of ships while Ryan made his way to the southern group.  Mike and I further split up with him fishing the bay-side of the ships and me fishing the shore-side.

Bait stealer!

He wouldn't puff up into a ball for me...

Our enthusiasm and excitement slowly faded away as we went from hole to hole without much action.  I had a bunch of bait stealers steal my bait, but never pulled up a tog.  Mike did slightly better than me on the other side of the ships, but his fish were still too short to keep.  I paddled down to see if Ryan was doing any better, and he reported that he only caught a handful of toadfish (blech!) and some short togs.  Well, at least the togs aren't entirely absent from the area...  I went on the shore-side of the southern set of ships and found a hole where I got at least a little bit of action - 2 black sea bass and a puffer fish.  Though they weren't what I was hoping for, it was still nice to catch something, and the puffer fish was a surprise because I had never caught one before.

Not sure what this is, but I caught it while trying to find some trout or drums.

It was around 11AM, and I was feeling a little less than optimistic about catching any keeper togs this day.  I joked with Mike and told him I wondered if maybe the speckled trout or red drum action might be better...I would go closer to shore to see if I might hook up with any.  I headed toward the beach area, casting some gulp mullet on a jig head along the way.  I saw several boats anchored up right up against the shore, so I headed toward them to see if they might be on to something...  By the time I reached them, they had moved on so I thought maybe it was nothing....but still I tried casting along the beach shoreline and jigging my gulp with nothing to show for it...

While jigging, I saw some movement on the looked like leaves blowing in the wind or something, but it also looked like a crab.  I couldn't tell from the water, and was interested in seeing them up close.  Maybe I could catch a crab and use it as tog bait?  I beached my kayak and chased after the funny looking crabs.  They are fast little buggars!  I never could catch one, but I did see glimpses of them inside the deep holes they dug in the sand.  As I was playing in the sand like a 4-year old, a family walked by with a bucket of spot.  They asked how I was doing and I told them that the fishing had been slow.  They told me they were going a little further down to try for some red drum with the spot that they had caught.  They invited me to join them, and offered to let me use some spot.  I politely declined the spot, but took their advice on where to fish.

This didn't look fishy to me at all...who would have thought?

I paddled over first and started jigging my gulp to no avail.  I stayed out a little further from shore to keep my distance from the shore anglers.  I then proceeded to watch the family on shore cast out their cut spot and then witnessed all 4 of them hook up with some nice-sized red drum almost immediately.  What in the world???  How did that happen?  I kept jigging in hopes that I might hook up with one too, but came up with nothing while the family on shore got into their 2nd set of fish.  What are they doing that I'm not doing?!?!  I overheard them asking each other for a measuring device to check the size of their fish.  No one in the group had one, so I paddled in and offered to let them use my hawg trough to measure their fish.  While they were busy measuring their fish I tried casting my gulp from shore and hooked up with my first red drum - a 20" keeper!  Then I caught another one, and another one.  In less than 10 minutes I had limited out on red drum.  I couldn't believe it!

Excuse my silly smile...I was too happy.

Mike paddled in from the ships out of curiosity because he saw that I had beached.  He soon saw all the action we were having on shore and tried casting some lures in our vicinity to see if he could join the action.  At first he wasn't getting much, so I invited him to beach next to me and pointed him in the general direction of where I was catching fish.  In no time he had a drag pulling fish on, and then another.  As we fought our separate fish, we just looked at each other and laughed like school girls because we couldn't believe how easy it was to catch these fish, and the fight they put up against our light gear was exhilarating.  After a while, we said to each other "you would be a lot of fun to catch these on our kayaks".  Oh yea!  I went back to the family and thanked them for letting me fish with them, and took back my hawg trough to get back on the water.

This one was on the larger end of the range of fish we were catching.  My largest was 26".

Mike and I got back in the water, and we put a little bit of distance between us and the shore fishermen so that we wouldn't interfere with their catching fun.  The family was really nice about us fishing near them, and another boat even came by and joined in on the fun.  Mike had also called Ryan up to tell him to come join us if he hadn't been catching anything.  So there we were...a family of 4 on shore, 3 kayakers, and a boat with 3 anglers.  All of us were fishing in an area about the size of a football field, and we all were hooking up with fish left and right.  These fish were also not the shorter-than-legal red drum that I was used to catching - every single one of them was in the legal slot range.  The fight that these fish put on was a lot of fun on our light tackle.  Almost every cast yielded a fish, and every fish gave up drag pulling runs that pulled our kayaks in all directions.

It's nice to fish close to other boats without bad attitudes or feelings.

In the middle of our fishing fun, I saw an older angler on shore who could obviously see us catching fish, but was not catching anything himself.  I felt a bit of compassion for him, it must have been killing him to see us hook up every minute while he couldn't participate in the drum festival.  Since we had all limited out by this time, and were just catching and releasing, I took the opportunity to take the next fish I caught to offer it to the old man.  I paddled to shore and asked if he would like it, and he gladly accepted.  While I handed him the fish I gave him some pointers on what he could do differently, and also suggested he move down a bit closer to us, because it seemed like the drum were concentrated in a specific area.  I didn't stick around much after that so that I could get back to fishing.  After a while, another shore angler who saw our success moved in to join us.  I am glad he was able to join the fun, because he was kind enough to further assist the older angler.  I watched him convince the old man to move closer in toward us, and even cast out for him.  Eventually the old man got the hang of it and hooked up with a few nice red drum himself.  I couldn't help but smile as I watched that act of kindness from another angler, and also the old man hooking up with these strong fish.

Me boating my fish, Mike fighting a fish, and Ryan probably about to hook into a fish.
Caught this guy on a 6" BKD on a large bucktail.

In the meantime, Ryan, Mike and I proceeded to pull up fish after fish after fish.  That was great for Ryan, because he picked up over 300 points for his kayak wars tournament.  That's pretty awesome.  After a while we started changing things up to make things more interesting by trying different lures - ridiculous looking lures, lures that we love but have never caught anything on (you know you have some personal items you love, but have been useless to you...), ridiculously large lures, topwater lures....and the funny thing is that we caught fish on all of these (except when Mike tried fishing a whole blue crab on a hook).  We could not believe what we were experiencing... I think if it had been any other commonly schooling fish like bluefish or perch, it wouldn't have been such a big deal.  However, these were slot-sized, healthy, red drum...these fish fight harder than the average fish.  This was what any average middle bay angler would dream of!

My thumb at the end of the day from holding open the red drum mouths for unhooking.

After 2 hours and what was probably around 70-80 fish between the 3 of us, the bite stopped and the action was dead.  That was probably a good thing because my elbow was hurting from all the reeling, and I needed to head home soon to rest up for Sunday service the next morning.  We paddled back in to pack up and head home.  While packing up we continued to talk about what an amazing trip this turned out to be.  If we had played it safe and stayed home, we totally would have missed this unforgettable day of fishing.  The gamble I took the day before really paid off!  I caught my first light line striper and my first (30 or so) keeper red drum.  Oh, I did also catch my first speckled trout, but it was a dinky 12 incher that went back in the water to grow some more.

Those colors....beautiful.

The 4-hour ride home was a blur...I just daydreamed about and reflected on the past 2 days - the light line striper, the family that shared their fishing spot with me, the old man who I gave a fish to, the gentleman who helped the old man, the many drag-pulling redfish I caught, the two trusty guys who took the gamble with me and shared the reward, and my awesome wife who let me go out on an overnight fishing trip.  I am one lucky kayak angler.

Friday, October 11, 2013

The HRBT, The Gamble & The Kindness of Strangers

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About a month ago I got an invitation from some buddies on the MKF forum to go fishing in Virginia Beach this weekend.  I joked that he must have sent the advanced notice because I've had to decline the past several trips because my weekend had already been booked with family stuff.  It's tough getting out when you have a wife and two flounders...I mean kids.  Actually, we also have a third flounder on the'll come just in time for Spring Trophy season.  I have mixed feelings about that... haha.

Anyway, the plan was to fish for some tautog at Kiptopeke State Park, but since it is such a rarity for me to be down in Virginia Beach to fish, and since I was off work on Friday for some volunteer duties, I decided that I would head down Friday afternoon to try again for my first light line striper.  Leading up to Friday, things were not looking very good at all.  It had been raining with heavy winds all week at home, and the same was forecasted for Virginia Beach.  I have a coworker who's a meteorologist by training, and he also recommended staying home - suggesting there would be 25-30 mph winds.  That really bummed me out, because I was looking forward to this trip for a month!

I spent my evenings looking at the weather and wind forecasts for the weekend, and the forecasts kept going back and forth.  It looked manageable, then looked down right dangerous, and back to manageable.  Finally, early Friday afternoon I made my decision...I'm going.  Whenever I get scared away by wind, I miss out on great I'm going to tough this one out, and hopefully have an awesome trip.  It was a total gamble.  I texted my fishing pals, and told them I'm going down and that I would report the conditions to them.  That helped to finally push one of them, Mike, over the fence and join me.  We were to meet at HRBT that evening to fish the lightline.

Where is everyone?

Five hours later, I arrived at the HRBT.  I held my breath as I crossed the bridge, hoping to see calm waters...  I was pleasantly surprised to see that the waves weren't bad at all, and the wind was pretty light - maybe I made the right decision!  But then, I arrived at Willoughby public boat ramp to an empty parking lot.  I actually drove past it at first because I didn't recognize it without all the trucks and trailers!  I thought to myself "Where is everyone?  Do they know something that I don't know?  What am I doing here...?"  It's a good thing Mike was going to join me, because the empty parking lot would have sent me home if I were alone.  Mike joined me soon after with his awesome dog, Mojo.  We unpacked and at around 8PM we headed out in a slight breeze to the light line with high hopes for an epic night of fishing.

For this trip, I wanted to focus most of my efforts on catching a light line striper...which meant that I have to find these guys first.  Early in the evening, there was a bit of current, so it should have been prime time for hungry fish to be prowling the surface.  I paddled along the light line in the shadow of the bridge looking for dark shadows under the water.  It actually didn't take long to spot my first striper.  At first I thought I was just imagining it, but it actually wasn't very shy and I was able to get pretty close to it to see it clearly.  I tried pitching a mirrolure, some unweighted soft plastics, and some floating crankbaits...and while it did swim in the direction of the baits I tossed, it wasn't interested and eventually disappeared.  I thought light lining was supposed to be easy!  At least anyone who's successfully fished the light line makes it seem that way...

It's kind of hard to get a good picture of the light line...

For the rest of the tide change, I patrolled the light line and saw some fish here and there, but didn't catch anything.  Then the slack tide came, and Mike and I just jigged the bottom to see what we might find.  Mike actually did pretty well by catching some flounder, grey trout, and a small speckled trout.  Me...I caught absolutely nothing.  The whole slack tide, I was skunked.

The current started up again around 1AM, and I went back to patrolling the light line to find my first keeper striper of the year (that's right, I haven't caught a keeper yet this year).  Though you could tell the current was there, it wasn't really ripping.  I had read that you want to find the stripers where the current is strong.  I paddled around to find some areas where the water ran stronger, but didn't travel far before I gave up.  It was getting late, and I wasn't seeing any more fish on the light line so I was about to give up when....another kayaker paddled by on his way back to the ramp and told Mike that he had caught some fish further out toward the bridge tunnel.  What?! Really??  I paddled off toward where he came from with renewed hope.  I came to catch my first light line striper...I must catch one!

As I got closer to the tunnel, I noticed that the current was much stronger.  I paddled a little toward the light line facing the current and was surprised to see the water churning so much.  Maybe this is what I should have been looking for all along.  So as not to spook any fish, I paddled in and out between the rows of pilings to inspect the light line for any signs of fish...and finally, I saw them.  There was a pair of stripers sitting by the edge of the shadow, waiting for some food.  I pitched a pink and yellow Mirrorlure toward them but overshot them to the left a good ways, and didn't get any interest.  I reeled it back in and tried again, and watched as the two fish swam toward my lure this time.  They disappeared under the water, but seconds later my rod bent over and my drag was singing.  Fish on!

My first HRBT striper!

This fish was strong and it did not want to come up.  It went around the pilings a couple of times which had me a little worried that my braid would rip as it rubbed against the pilings.  It was also kind of difficult to paddle in the current to follow the fish and unwrap the line.  However, I finally pulled the sucker away from the structure, and he pulled me over to the other span of the bridge where I finally got him to the surface.  I pulled the fish aboard, and happily had my first light line striper.  A healthy 24" fat beauty.  This fish was shorter than the 28" striper I caught earlier this year during C&R at the Susquehanna Flats, but it was much fatter and stronger.  That was a fun fight.

Look how high the tide was.

I tried for a little while longer to find some more stripers, but there was another boat nearby and I didn't want to encroach on his area.  It also was around 2AM by this point, and I was pretty tired, so Mike and I headed back to the ramp.  Back at the ramp, we were surprised to see that the water came up really high.  That was kind of interesting to see the piers next to the ramps submerged in water.  The water also came right up to the point where the ramp starts.

So Mike and I finished packing up and rested up for part 2 of our trip.  I only got one fish the entire night, but it was a doozy (enough of a doozy to write a whole blog post about a single fish)!  I have to thank the kind stranger who tipped us off about the stripers for my fish.  I would have felt so defeated if I had to paddle back with my second skunk at the HRBT...

So at the end of the night, I thought that my gamble of coming down to Virginia Beach had paid off.  The Kiptopeke trip will just be icing on the cake...but little did I know that the fishing at Kiptopeke the next day would be the highlight of the be detailed in the next post.