This summer when the weather is nice, drive along Mustang or Padre Island, south of Port Aransas, and there’s a good chance you’ll spot a new breed of angler. Paddling in a variety of kayaks, sometimes beyond sight of land, adventurous men and women are catching all sorts of fish, with red snapper a favorite target.
Watching them return through breaking surf each evening, perhaps with limits of snapper, has been a rare sight in Texas until recent years. Paddling on a blue Gulf with big sharks and other critters is not a sport for the faint-hearted or out-of-shape, ranging right up there as an “extreme sport.” With the sport of kayaking growing fast, it was only a matter of time before these Texas paddlers would begin to push the envelope. After exploring fairly easy coastal marshes and bay waters, it was inevitable that some brave soul and then another would venture further out where the big ones bite.
When I first tried offshore kayak fishing, the difference was startling, after having fished in countless loud boats over the decades. The quiet and solitude was an entirely new experience. The only sound was distant seabirds and an occasional clunk of the paddle. Passing waves were silent.
While liberating, it does have its challenges. Each spot is thoroughly fished because moving the boat takes energy, either by paddling, peddling or small sail. One must also be flexible enough to twist around to grab equipment or rods. As well as Ooffshore paddlers are frequently wet after launching through head-on breaking surf. Running the surf back to dry land is often the most hazardous part of the day; the timing must be right and the kayak not allowed to swerve sideways, or the boat can easily flip. Once in shallow water, it’s jump out fast on the offshore side of the hull, so the next wave, only seconds away, won’t slam the boat into your leg. And then there’s the final heave-ho;, dragging the faithful little boat from the water’s grasp. After a long paddle, collapsing on dry sand and staring at the sky is optional and but I suspect fairly common, if you’re older than 40..
There is far more to this sport than meets the eye, so I recently talked with two bluewater kayakers, Todd Johnson from Corpus Christi and Victor Cisneros from Pearland. With similar kayak experience, both are quite fond of catching snapper from small boats. In doing so they’ve encountered all sorts of different fish, with a few storms and adventures thrown in.
Johnson works with the Texas Bluewater Classic, the big kayak tourney held each August at Packery Channel south of Port Aransas. As a former law enforcement officer, he’s all about safety, and paddles a 17-foot fiberglass Stealth Profisha 525, a lean and quick boat designed to handle South African surf, a seriously tough environment. In Texas he has paddled much of the coast from Beaumont to South Padre, and also in Florida.
“Kayakers are the only people allowed to launch from Padre Island National Seashore, which is great,” says Johnson. “From the beach we can reach areas where the big, expensive boats go. We’re prepared with VHF radio, cell phone, flares, GPS and wear protective clothing to avoid sunburn, getting a chill or jellyfish. Some of the guys wear chest waders cinched tight around the waist. Gloves are a must for handling fish and paddling. Shoes protect our feet from sharp teeth and fish hooks.”
The learning curve can be steep in such a harsh environment. He cautioned that one kayaker wearing shorts (in summer) had a Portugese man-of-war jellyfish sloshed into his lap, which was terribly painful, and could have been fatal.
Has Johnson ever flipped?
“Oh yeah, I borrowed a boat and turtled it four miles offshore in almost four-foot waves,” he said. “It put me upside down. Fishing hooks were stuck in my shirt and I was pinned underwater. Got my first breath in a trapped air bubble. My buddy paddled close and used wire cutters to cut me loose. We righted the boat and I climbed back in. So, it’s definitely a challenge out there. Today I only go solo occasionally, and seasonally. My wife has the day’s float plan and we use GPS. I usually tag-team with Glenn Madden [an offshore kayaking veteran locally called Professor Salt, who teaches at the local college].”
Bluewater kayakers stress that experience and good equipment are crucial. Rookies who got fired up by forum reports, and then paddled offshore in sketchy craft, have gotten into trouble. Determined to reach fish-attracting steel platforms that look enticingly close to the beach, some have used kayaks that leaked badly. One duo even tied two ‘yaks together with plywood that disintegrated miles from land. Fortunately they climbed a Gulf platform and called for assistance with their one working cell phone.
Learning the basics before heading offshore is key: practice in bay waters, learn balance, stamina and paddling efficiently. Practice flipping in deep water and climbing back in. Launch repeatedly in moderate surf, and return without mishap.
When Johnson first started offshore, he always fished steel platforms. “After I got better at the sport, I started looking around for my own fishing spots. Marking bottom with a depth finder, and saving the GPS numbers. I’ve found old wellheads, sunken boats, and something down there that marks like school buses. Maybe they’re prehistoric rock piles.”
“It’s been hit or miss the past couple of years, and state water snappers have dropped in size from fishing pressure,” Johnson says. “When closures were imposed in federal waters, people hammered state waters for snapper. That’s the downside to federal closures. There are big snappers out there, but it’s all about finding structure, whether natural or man-made. Natural rock ledges parallel the Padre Island, and then there are natural reefs like sunken shrimp-boat wrecks, starting only 200 yards off the beach.”
One bit of good news for Texas kayakers, is that five new artificial reefs are under construction in state waters. Most are 160 acres each, but the massive project off South Padre island, managed by Rio Grande Valley (RGV) Reef, is ten times as large. Massive amounts of concrete have been laid down at all five sites. Millions of dollars have been donated for these projects. Texas Parks and Wildlife and Coastal Conservation Association have been key players.
Cisneros, a friend of Johnson’s has been a pro staff member for Hobie for five years. He fishes with Hobie’s Adventure Island craft, which has twin stabilizers like a small trimaran, and a weight capacity of 800 pounds.
“With a sail and peddle/propeller, we’ve run 12 to 18 miles offshore,” he says.”The sail utilizes a favorable morning breeze during summer. When the breeze shifts later in the day, it often carries us right back to the beach. We’re fond of camping at Padre Island for several days, catching our four-fish daily bag limits of snapper. We can even anchor offshore, because of the boat’s stability. I also carry a PVC rig hook to grab and hold onto oil rigs.
“I can show people the ropes offshore, using a tandem boat with sail,” he says. “I do the navigation, find the structure and fish. I’ve had a lot of people call me, asking what kind of kayak to buy. They want to head offshore the first day, skipping any bay kayaking. I carry backup safety gear, even flare guns. You never know if you’ll have to spend the night offshore. We carry a lot of gear and ice. We’ve been offshore from dawn to dusk, got too busy catching fish, and returned through the surf at night.”
It’s the adventure with a healthy workout and great fishing that makes offshore kayaking so rewarding off Texas coasts. And once in the water, these craft get very good gas mileage.