The Virginia Marine Resources Commission awards Saltwater Expert Angler status to those who catch 6 trophy (citations) of different species in one year. Given the time restraint, it's a task that's considered quite difficult even for power boaters, but I wanted to prove that I can play that game strictly in my kayak and win. No motherships, no getting towed, no motors and no captain putting me on his fish. Just me, my kayak, my paddle and my decisions... making it truly mine.
But that's much easier said than done.
The pressure started building the day I admitted last year's failure and announced my intention to pursue it once more. Knowing what it would take, I actually asked my wife's permission to try again while promising not to try the following year if I failed. I needed her to understand the level of intensity that would be required over a long period of time and the high probability of failing, again. Living over 100 miles from the prime salt spots made the odds even worse and created logistical nightmares for her as well. With two young children, I was really asking a lot so I fully intended for this to be my last attempt.
Day One yielded my first citation.
25" Speckled Trout on a slow jigged paddletail.
I tried for tautog on the next trip and caught some nice fish, but after the sun went down it was the striped bass that I was able to check off the list next.
44" Striper caught on a free lined eel
It felt great knocking two off right from the get go, but it was a frustrating four and half months before getting my third. Several more attempts at tautog were fruitless and after a bluefish that came very close to citation, I came up short on chompers numerous times as well.
Spring proved to be a real mental challenge for me. Poor timing, faulty equipment, and various other excuses kept me from landing a citation red drum while others had all the luck. It took me 7 trips to the Eastern Shore to finally land number 3.
48" Red Drum on a 6" Swim Shad
Photo credit: Joe Underwood
My focus then turned to a few different species. Having seen several near-trophy cobia and possibly a hundred citation class black drum over a month and a half without a single hook up drove me to the brink of utter depression. Watching pier fishermen at the CBBT 1st island lift up the massive black drum and a good kayak buddy catch one by accident didn't help. After an 8 trip slump, my saving grace came from a specie I felt confident in.
24" Sheepshead on fresh mole crab.
Turning down invitations to places I really wanted to try, from people I really wanted to fish with, became the norm this year. Either the specie was already checked off, or not on the list
(freshwater). I couldn't afford to veer from my task so over the next month, I diligently chased cobia, black drum, and triggerfish. A few attempts at flounder were also unsuccessful. Next came an invitation I am glad I didn't turn down. The Tidewater Kayak Anglers Association needed a few more anglers for a club challenge and although I didn't want to take a break, I think I really needed it… at least just for that day. It ended up being quite a legendary weekend. I upgraded my sheepshead to a 26"er and our team beat out 7 other power boating organizations (by a lot) in an unprecedented kayak club win. The next morning I returned my focus to the main mission and with it being "shark week", I knew what I wanted to go for. I had caught 4' to 5' sharks before, but the trophy mark was 6'. Amazingly enough, my first hook up went 3" bigger.
75" Black Tip Shark caught on dead Spot.
Video here. Big thanks to Jay Brooks for serving as witness.
With number 5 checked off and 4 months left, I was feeling very optimistic. But the roller coaster took a nose dive once again. Throughout the year, I had issues fishing with good friends that I normally invited. It was a selfish dilemma because it wasn't that I disliked them or didn't want them to be around, but instead it was the fear that they would catch the fish I was looking for. And of course Murphy's law prevailed. I punched through the ocean surf several times in search of trophy cobia only to have my good friend hook up on his first time out there this year. I was very happy for him and even helped him land it since he lost his tools in the surf during the launch. After tail-looping it, I let him borrow my hammer to subdue the beastly fish. It was easily a release citation, but the text message confirming its weight was like a bowling ball to the gut. As happy as I was for him, my own jealousy made me sick.
I stayed persistent for a few more trips, but cobia will remain on the list until next year. As fall settled in, failed attempts toward the dwindling docket of available species became more and more frequent. Before long, tautog was the only viable specie left and sunset after sunset brought on a little more panic.
On my fifth trip to the CBBT this month, I was joined by two kayak anglers I always looked up to ever since I started fishing from a kayak. Kayak Kevin and Lee Williams have been an inspiration from the beginning and for whatever reason, I knew I wouldn't be upset if either of them got a trophy tog before me. However, we also had tog-virgin Alex Britland also tagging along. At this point, after so many loner trips, it was refreshing to have good company. I tried not to take it so seriously as we joked about having the magical power of 4 fish whistles to call the fish in.
Although, this was no joking matter.
After a few close calls with military hovercrafts we got to the target area and quickly got into a good number of togs. Something about watching Alex catch his first white chinner and the tog addiction catch him put me in a great mood. We shared many good laughs and I almost forgot what I was after. I was up to about 10 togs when I was quickly reminded. The hit didn't feel remarkable by any means. I set the hook and it went straight toward the piling I was next to. The line rubbed the structure for a second then the fish came back around. It was then that it put a serious bend in my rod and grabbed everyone's attention. Oddly, I don't remember much about the fight after that. I recall saying to myself, "please be the one, please be the one!". I do however vividly recollect getting it in the boat very quickly once I had it at the surface. By this time Kevin was at my side with cameras rolling and I was shaking. We both knew just from looking at it, it was going to be very close. I lowered my head and closed my eyes for a few seconds… trying to keep calm… hoping… and praying. When I opened my eyes, the broad side of the fish laying in my footwell made me frantic… "OH MY GOD, PLEASE!" Kevin calmed me down and I got myself situated. Just in case it flopped out, I made sure the hook was was in a good place and not loose. With nervous hands, I laid it on the hawg trough…
Kevin was the first to say it. "23"
Minimum release citation length is 23"
It was right on the money and I could hardly believe it. I lowered my head again and a flood of emotions took over. I screamed something (I don't remember what) and felt my eyes welling up. To make it all even sweeter, the only other person who really knew exactly how I felt was the first to congratulate me. Kevin had been the only kayaker to achieve VA Expert Angler status and he truly understood the level of pressure I released with every exhale as well as the pride that filled me with every inhale. He had not only been an inspiration, but one of my greatest supporters in my quest and that handshake will forever resonate with me.
I couldn't help but smile nearly the entire paddle back. The previous feelings of defeat that came with all the other return trips were replaced by a supreme sense of vindication. I look up at the sky and whispered "not this time… not this time!"
One more uncontrollable surge of emotion struck when I got to shore and called my wife. After nearly every trip she would ask, "Did you get it?" And so many times, I yearned to tell her that it was over. The sense of relief was overwhelming to finally tell my best friend that her sacrifices were all worthwhile and we can move on with other family plans.
It's fitting that I'm writing this on Thanksgiving Day because I have so much gratitude toward so many people. Obviously there is so much more to life and so much more to be thankful for than fishing, but since this goal consumed my life to such a degree I have to express my appreciation to those that have helped me throughout the years.
Jennie, Kevin, Lee, Forrest, Jay, Justin, Rags, Anderson, Skunk Ape and The Johnnie B, and everyone else who had advice or encouragement. So many of you had confidence in me when mine started fading.
From the bottom of my heart, thank you all so much.
My GoPros ran out of juice early, but Kev got it all on film, so we'll post up a video soon.