By Eric Jackson
Kayak fishing tournaments vary immensely in the way they are run and what that means to the participants. One tournament stands out, however, from the rest, and is a true “kayakers” tournament that puts a premium on being able to kayak, not just fish. That is the AKFWC run by renowned whitewater kayaker, John Grace out of Asheville, NC. The concept is this:
A field of competitors start the tournament with their kayaks ready, on shore at Sweetwater Marina in Delacroix, LA (the bayou and home of some of the best shallow flats “red” fishing in the world.) The start of the tournament begins at 7am with the opening of an envelope that contains only a printed map that shows the general area and has 5 stars on it. Each star is a checkpoint that requires lots of paddling to get to, and can include tricky navigation, dry areas, mud flats, portages, etc.. One of the check-points is a “double” and your fish caught at that check point is doubled in length, making it the most important checkpoint for a big fish. The winning team in the tournament has the 5 biggest fish in length, including the double checkpoints score.
What this tournament looks, feels like, depends on how you do it. My partner for the past two years has been Steve Fisher, known for his expedition kayaking, films, and whitewater antics. We were arch rivals and best friends as far back as the 90’s, competing in extreme races and freestyle events around the world. We are both enthusiastic kayak fishermen today on top of our whitewater kayaking. This tournament plays into our desire to paddle faster, longer, harder than anyone else. (both of our signature styles over the past 20 years of competing) Being a fast paddler really helps, but the reality is that if you can catch fish fast, and paddle at a good medium pace for long distances, you are better off, and that is the tact of most of the field. We try to do both, but catching big fish fast is the only skill that puts a winning score on the board.
Before I get ahead of myself- we trained, and practiced sailing our kayaks (for the bahamas mission), went to the French Quarter Festival for an evening out that we would always “remember?”.
Hobie getting some life coaching
Our last PBRs
Our second “Grenade”..
sail and fish at the same time? oh yea…
More on the competition: The rules of the competition include staying with your team mate throughout the competition, no separating. This is a safety and team work rule. I can tell you that anyone can flip over, fall out, or get stuck out there in the flats (I did just that!) and with alligators cruising everywhere, being out of your boat and not being able to get back in might just put a damper on the day if you were alone. (yes, I can get back in easily, but a certain level of fitness is required to get into a kayak if you are out of it in waist deep mud and no way to get to shore, because the “shore” is really miles away. Another cool thing about the competition is that you can go to the checkpoints on the map in any order you want as long as you get there during the time allotted. (7am take-off, 5pm check-in). One great tool for this event is the Raymarine Dragonfly. You can program in the ‘waypoints” in the charts for each checkpoint and it helps you navigate there and you can determine the time it will take to get there as well. Unfortunately both Steve and I “formatted” our Navionics cards by accident, losing our charts and didn’t get to use the charts for the competition. Steve and I opted for doing our portage first since our kayaks were already on carts and our portage was a 1 mile run down the road to get to the “pumphouse” where we could start on the backside of the course.
We were late to get our kayaks to the line-up in the morning and the take-off point was crowded with 50 or so kayaks. We were in the back row and “land locked”. Our strategy, however, was to “run for it” right at “go” and look at the map later. We were sure that there would be checkpoints in the back bay, where the best fishing is known to be and only kayaks can get to. To get there you have about 1 mile of either paddling or running down the road to get to the launch point. Apparently we weren’t the only team to decide to “go for it” and run for that spot first, getting virgin fishing waters out of pure effort. On “go” Steve and I drug our kayaks through the traffic jam, while everyone else was creating a strategy looking at the map and began running down the road. We were a good 1/10th of a mile behind another team who had the same idea and in the spirit of a race we went lactic trying to catch up and hit max heart rate, burning legs, and uncontrolled breathing. The best we could do was to catch them at the put-in, but technical difficulties in getting my cart off, due to a lure hooking the strap and then breaking off the line cost me at least three minutes and Steve had to wait for me to get in. He read the map in the process and we realized that the first checkpoint was where we were at, “check”!
I get a little excited and wanted to start catching fish right away. Steve had the “token” which must appear in the photo of the fish in order for the fish to count. I caught my first redfish quickly, while Steve was on the other side of the bay from me, within sight, but out of voice reach, and I quickly snapped a photo on the hogtrough, and released the fish. I was very excited and proud of myself and called Steve on the radio… “Breaker 1-3, We are on the board, repeat, we are on the board, over…” Steve called me back, “how do you figure, i have the token!”…. Darn it!! Made my first tactical error of the day on the water and Steve wasn’t impressed.
It was only a 16” redfish and not big enough to use if we wanted to win anyhow, so we kept fishing. In good FLW Tour form, I started catching largemouth bass in rapid succession. My biggest, a 16” 3 pounder, caught on a Strike King Sexy Dawg, was super fun, but again, we weren’t going to win anything if we didn’t get onto some big Red-fish. Steve and I gave up on the area and moved around towards the second check point when he finally hooked up with a 27” redfish and landed it. I was there to help him with the net and we put that on the board, added to our 16” bass, 16” trout, 14” trout, and 13” bass. We were already 2 hours in and clearly not winning. We saw the other team pull in two redfish in the first 1/2 hour, but not sure how big they were.
Off to the other checkpoints we go, using team-work we “drafted” each other, meaning one person paddled fast and created a good bow wave while the other rode the bow wave and was able to save energy. This is the long distance kayaker’s version of drafting like you see road bikers doing in the tour-de-france. once we got to the second and third checkpoints, we had fish, but still no more red-fish and Steve and I were getting worried. Our tournament wasn’t looking good and we were doing our best to sight fish, but we were finding fish that just weren’t interested in being caught after we saw them, usually scaring them because the water was too deep to see their tails, so we only saw them when getting over top of them.
If you are getting bored reading… take a break and watch this video!
We did our next long paddle to checkpoint 4 and we couldn’t find anything good to fish around it, so we moved towards check point 5, the double. We knew of a good place about a 30 minute paddle from the double checkpoint, where James McBeath and Ken Hovie (Team JK) found fish in practice. That was going to be our plan. Steve and I picked up the Double Checkpoint token and I got the sinking feeling that with only 2 hours left that we couldn’t win if we went off 30 minutes one way. We only had 1 redfish and it was 3pm. So, I started sprinting up into a very shallow bay and worked my way back until we found a deep channel surrounded by grass and shells. I scared up the biggest redfish I have ever seen and chased it for 20 minutes hoping it would settle down and be ready to eat again. In the meantime, Steve caught his second redfish- a 25” one and we got the photo. I really didn’t want to use a 25” fish as our double but our time was short and we needed three more big fish fast. Neither of us was eating or drinking, and it we were getting hungry and simply carrying the 1 gallon of required water around with us. Catching fish seemed more important. We got our normal token back from the double checkpoint and while our plan was to go to the “james” spot 30 minutes away, I talked Steve into going back to where i saw the big fish and he just caught his. We each had our own little spot. I pulled up just past where I saw the big one and saw something that put a big smile on my face. In about 3” of water there were 3 redfish tailing around with their entire backs out of the water. I was far enough away for them to not see me . I could actually choose the biggest fish to go after and stalked it carefully as it was milling around in the shell rich area. I cast my Strike King Sexy Dawg past it, but it turned and didn’t see it. A second cast with my spoon and it charged like a torpedo going to blow up a ship, creating a massive wake and nailed my spoon. I was standing up in my Kraken, Power-Pole down, and holding on to this crazy fish trying to break away. I radioed Steve “Fish on!” but in less than a minute he got off the line…. Looking around there were no more tailing fish to be seen. I moved down the grass line 100 yards and found one and he nailed the spoon right away and I landed this one, Steve coming around with a redfish on his lap, we had two more for our score board. Steve got a 28.5” fish and I got a 28” fish. Cool! We were getting close! Three fish, two more needed and 1 hour to go! Steve and I decided that we would spend a few more minutes in that spot, but needed to get back to the finish line if we didn’t want to be disqualified for being late. We circled the island and I found more tailing fish and had another big one on but lost it. I never lost a fish in practice but this was my third time having a big redfish shake off. Steve threw his Strike King swim bait to another fish he was stalking and “Bam!” fish on! He landed it, giving him three fish on the board and I had 2 (one redfish and one bass). I knew I could get the final fish, but the time was almost over and we didn’t know how long it would take us to get back from where we were (far away!). I started sprinting away from Steve who was letting his fish back in the water and he started calling me on the radio… “We have to go, there is no time!” I ignored him, other than to radio back- “we need one more fish!” and then ignored the constant ringing of my radio. I knew where there was at least one more tailing fish that might still be there. I got to my spot but it wasn’t there. I looked as far as I could see in both directions, feeling a little panicked as this was the final chance and it will either go my way or not. Way down the left side I saw something shimmer in the sun out of the corner of my eye and I sprinted towards it hoping it was a redfish. Sure enough there were two fish, backs out of the water, one big one and one little one. I had just enough time for one try at it as Steve was sprinting towards me and not likely to say “How is it going EJ”. I threw my spoon past it, but a little to far in front of it. I ripped the spoon on top of the water until I was 10 feet in front of the big fish and the fish went for it like another torpedo and rolled on the spoon driving it into the ground in a massive explosion of water. I waited until it picked it up and took off sideways to me before setting the hook, “Fish on and it is a big one!”. Steve was paddling towards me but I had my work cut out for me to land this one. It ran past a stake in the ground and wrapped around it and swam back towards me. I was using 30 pound Tuf-Line Braid and this fish was bound and determined to break it. I gave it some slack and it turned around (luckily) and went back the way it came. I double tapped my power-pole remote and went power pole up to get out in the deeper water and hopefully get this “bull” into the boat. Finally, after the fish pulled me past the grass line it tired enough for me to keep it from turning on me and I got it to the boat and in my lap. Steve pulled up with a huge smile on his face saying, “Now we are in the running!”. We snapped photo, double checked it and then began our “run” for the finish line. It was a long run about 30 minutes and we came around the final bend into the deep canal when we saw the team we raced to the first checkpoint 10 hours ago. We exchanged a quick hello, and they looked at us like “what are you doing?” when we continued our full sprint drafting. We were behind a team in their peddle drive boats who were way off in the distance and chased them down and passed them right at the boat ramp. Steve and I drug our boats to the finish line and high fived and checked-in. James and Hobie were sipping beers and relaxing as they were the first to check in a long time ago. Out of breath and tired, thirsty, we rewarded our 4th quarter efforts with a cold PBR out of our Orion Cooler and it was time to wait for results.
We were nearly the last ones to check in and made it from our final fish catch to the check in faster than we thought we could, giving us about 11 minutes of margin.
When the awards began, and our stash of PBR was getting low, the went from last to first. They brought the top 6 teams to the stage and called off one team at a time…. Three teams left and Steve and i were still in the game. “We have a tie” exclaimed John Grace. The tie is broken by which team checked in first. The “Jackson Fisher-Men” (steve and I) tied with the “Cajun Yankee” Team of Craig Dye (Team Jackson Kayak) and Mike Ernst. It just so happens that this was the team that we passed on the way to the finish line. They were confident in getting to the finish line at the pace they were paddling, while we were racing there. Nobody knew we tied on either team, nor did we know how they broke the tie (at least Steve and I didn’t). We also figured our 5 fish were quite large for that area and we knew we had to be in good shape. The winning team had 137.25” for 5 fish compared to our 137” and with the double checkpoint it totaled 166.75” to our 162.25” giving them a solid win.
Last year Steve and I got 7th place here, so the 2nd place finish was a welcome improvement and our down to the wire final fish catching experience was quite exciting for both of us.
The party after the awards was relatively tame, but there were some “flare throwing competitions”- closest to the Orion Cooler wins, telephone pole climbing competitions (hmm.. splinters and why was I the only one who ended up doing that?) and other antics that, in a deserted parking lot, with little to destroy, was all in good fun.
The next morning I spent cleaning up, which included two bottles that I forgot about, and my RV which took sometime to get organized, my bass boat loaded, Steve, Alexa, Mike McCay all had tons of stuff in the RV that took some time to get out. Finally, I managed to roll out and head to Northwest Arkansas where my next FLW Event would take place. Unlike the Adventure Kayak Fishing World Championships, I didn’t get any training time in. I finished the Beaver Lake FLW Tour #3 event with a Dead Last finish (166th out of 166). OK, so I might have been trying to do too much at once. But I don’t know how else to do it. I didn’t want to miss either event.
A few other cool things that happened during the AKFWC in Delacroix, LA.
I got to run around in my Ranger Z521c with my 250hp Evinrude G2 and check out how the power boats do it out there. Other than getting stuck in the mud for 2 hours after a poor choice in running up a bay for a mile thinking my boat would float there, it was an awesome experience. I caught some good fish and used my Orion Cooler as a platform to sight fish from. I also gave Hobie and James some “joy rides” and they were impressed, but a little scared flying 70+ mph around the shallows and in tight turns.
Hobie (Ken Hovie’s nick name), Steve, and I also began our training for our planned expedition which includes and open ocean crossing from Florida to the Bahamas. We assembled our Krakens with a “kayaksailor” sail on it and began trying out our sailing skills. This was a pre-test and in mild winds. We will do our next test in high winds and waves and see how we do under less ideal conditions. I did manage to sail and fish at the same time, pretty cool. I also managed to flip my kayak over while standing, trying to land a redfish, with my sail all at the same time! Sometimes you have to push the limits to see what is doable! I did lose my phone, 3 GoPro cameras and it took me some time to land my fish, while waist deep in mud, and then find my power pole stake, three fishing rods, tackle boxes, etc. etc.. whew! To add insult to injury- I was called out in public at the competitor’s meeting to chug a “bootie beer” something I am likely to have been the first person in kayak fishing history to do. Whitewater kayakers invented it, but I brought it to fishing, whether I wanted to or not.
I am turning my attention to the rest of the FLW Walmart Tour events, as well as the final BASS Southern Open which is on Douglas Lake in TN. I will be prepared for these and don’t have a weird schedule. I do fly to Australia for the GoPro Team Summit the day of the Finals for the FLW event at Pickwick. I intend to get top 10 at Pickwick and have to change my ticket, but it is easier to move my ticket back a day than up a day.
See you on the water… meanwhile, my whitewater boat is loaded on my Mini and ready for some action today!