Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Finding the Right Kayak Fishing PFD - Astral Seawolf and Ronny Fisher

I have been fishing since before I can remember, and fishing from a canoe or kayak for a majority of that time.  Growing up in the 80’s, I wore your typical coast guard approved orange floatation device.  While it served its primary purpose, it lacked one thing… comfort.  If you are not comfortable on the water, you’ll either cut your trip short, or your PFD comes off.  For your typical fisherman, the PFD will leave your body before you leave the water.  This can lead to some very bad things.

As I got older, I started to realize that like many teenagers and 20 somethings, I was invincible.  I was very fit and lived a warrior’s lifestyle.  I never wore a PFD because they 1) were not functional for my style of paddling, and 2) I was in great shape.  If anything were to happen to me my physical abilities would have mitigated my need for a PFD.  Boy was I wrong! 
One day I paddled out for a surf session over a reef in the South China Sea, and experienced a commonality shared by many surf kayakers…  I flipped.  When I went over I got caught in the hydraulics of a breaking wave, while my body was tossed like a ragdoll over the coral below.  I couldn’t tell you how long I was pinned, but I can say that my paddling partner was surprised to see me surface under my own power, and not unconscious.  I got lucky, and this experience stayed in the front of my mind from that point on.

On that note, let me say that PFD not only stands for Personal Floatation Device.  It also stands for Personal Fu*%ing Decision for many folks.  While I understand both trains of thought within the kayak community, I do not want to start the debate on the use of PFD’s.  I have my personal feelings and experiences that drove me to the decision of wearing my PFD when I’m on the water.  Ill talk about what I have found to be my key factors when choosing the right PFD for my style.
NRS Chinook PFD
When I started kayak fishing a lot, I started off with an older Lotus Designs PFD, then NRS Chinook, as it was one of the best reviewed fishing PFD’s at the time.  I fished that PFD for a few years and liked a few things about it. 
  1. It is a high back PFD, making it more comfortable with SOT kayak seats. 
  2. It has large zippers don’t tend to get off track when fouled with sand or mud. 
  3. It is fairly adjustable.
  1. I was not a fan of the material it was made from.  While it was rip-stop, I found that it did rip easier than it should.
  2. It was not breathable at all.  There are no vents and I would find myself soaked with sweat to the point that I looked like I just went for a swim.
  3. The pockets are soft sided, and allow the contents to get wet way to easy.
  4. The Velcro on the front pockets loved to eat… eat my favorite fishing shirts.

The Chinook lasted me a few seasons, but I felt the need to upgrade.  So my next PFD was the Stohlquist Fisherman.  I again fished this PFD for a few years, loving some of its advantages over the NRS Chinook.  Coming in at a few dollars more, I was happy to spend the money for what I felt to be a superior jacket for my style.  The first thing I came to love was the fact that it was missing Velcro (which my shirts loved)!  Next it had hard sided pockets which afforded my gear greater protection on and off the water.  There were still some cons though, that made me continue to search for that perfect jacket.
The Stohlquist Fisherman
  1. It is a high back PFD, making it more comfortable with SOT kayak seats. 
  2. Hard sided pockets
  3. Lack of Velcro
  4. Padded shoulder straps
  5. Unique gear attachment options
  1. The zipper systems are dainty, and often I found myself conducting field repairs because the teeth were stuck or didn’t grab properly.
  2. Again, it was not breathable, and being soaking wet was a common theme
  3. Not as comfortable or easy to wear as the Chinook was when wearing lots of layers or waders.

I would have probably stayed with my Stohlquist had it not been for a series of unfortunate events in which my jacket and I parted ways (and states) for a few months.  So, instead of traveling out of state, I decided I would upgrade and that is when I went over to Astral.  If you remember I started out with a Lotus Designs PFD.  For the life of me, I cannot remember which model it was but I appreciated its comfort and simplicity. 
In searching for that jacket that model I had on the internet, I learned of a company called Astral Buoyancy, which had in all reality replaced Lotus designs in the PFD market place.  I found a company with some bomber jackets, amazing style, and based somewhat locally (in Asheville - the mountains of North Carolina).  They had just launched the Seawolf, and there was some buzz about how amazing this jacket was in the whitewater and touring community.  I looked at it and immediately knew this was a jacket I wanted to try.
Photo Credit: Werner Paddles
Upon trying it on I found some amazingly awesome features that I never thought about in a fishing jacket before. 
  1. The PFD is based to tectonics.  The waist is your anchor point, and the rest of the jacket moves based on your movement.  When paddling hard, fighting that big fish, or even reaching back to grab your gear, the tectonic body is super convenient (and comfortable).  There is also an added benefit of a fleece hand warmer at the torso.  Not a must have as much as a nice to have feature.
  2. There is no Velcro (again, my high dollar technical fishing shirts are thankful)!
  3. The clam shell pocket offers plenty of hard sided storage, without getting in the way of your paddle stroke.
  4. It is light weight, and more breathable than the NRS Chinook or the Stohlquist Fisherman.
  5. It is easy to wear over bulky clothing.
  6. The Denier material is super durable.  With a simple wash, you would be hard pressed to tell that it has been a primary PFD for 3 seasons.
  7. Side buckle closures lets you don the jacket quickly, and makes for easy adjustment depending on the clothing you are wearing.
  8. Super comfortable shoulder padding.
Photo Credit: Rob Choi
  1. The back has padding throughout, which is contradictory to what the market tells you for a SOT.  While not initially as comfortable as a high back PFD, I find that the movement the PFD has, coupled with a proper paddling posture and quality seat alleviates this concern for me.
This is by far my favorite PFD for 95% of my trips.  For those of you that wear your PFD, and paddle hard, this jacket should not be overlooked.
The Ronny Fisher and a 49" Redfish
I was fortunate enough to be invited to join the Astral fishing team in late 2013, at which time I was sent a Ronny Fisher to test out.  Being a hard headed individual, I resist change when I find a product I love.  Initially, I didn’t want to wear the Ronny Fisher because I loved my Seawolf so much.  As I took it out of the box, I gave it the once over and though, “this is kinda cool”, then it sat in the corner overnight.  When I woke up the next morning I found it staring at me, sucking me in with its intrigue.  That morning I found myself late for work because I was going through all of its features.  It is the SUV of fishing PFD’s that can go anywhere and do anything you ask it to do. 

Photo Credit: Rob Choi

Although it is not my go to PFD for my style of paddling, it has many features that are designed especially for the kayak angler.  For starters, it has an integrated hood.  At first, I was not a big fan of this feature, but one day I got caught in a pop up rain cell.  Putting the hood on helped keep my glasses relatively spot free, and while everything I would have used to clean my glasses was unusable, I was ok.  Its this type of thinking that makes me honestly believe that the Ronny Fisher is quite possibly the best fishing PFD for most kayak anglers out there today.
Photo Credit: Rob Choi
  1. It features and integrated hood that while it won’t replace your rain jacket, it will keep your head dry.
  2. 2 fold down hard sided zipper pockets that provide ample storage for tackle boxes, phones, and other amenities.  Both flaps fold down plat to provide you a solid surface to work off of if needed.
  3. A can/bottle holder that zips back into the jacket.  While I do find it cumbersome to paddle with a can of Monster in the holder, I do find it extremely useful for a VHF radio or even a camera on a retractor.
  4. A tool area that has elastic loops for your tools, and is secured with a Velcro strap that is out of the way.  The Velcro is located so it doesn’t eat up my fishing shirts like other PFD’s.
  5. 2 elastic loops on both sides of the jacket that allow for easy gear attachment.
  6. Solid zippers that seem impervious to sand and grit.
  7. A thin, vented back that helps cool you, while making the jacket extremely comfortable to wear on a SOT.
  8. Thick webbing on the shoulder straps that doesn’t dig in like thinner, flimsy webbing.
  1. It almost has too much storage, and I can quickly find myself bogged down by all I can put in the Jacket.
  2. I enjoy the side buckle closure that is found on the Seawolf more than the front zipper on the Ronny Fisher.
Photo Credit: Jack Daughtry
While I admit that I am on the Astral fishing team, and may have a little bias, that bias comes from wearing what I am comfortable putting my name and reputation on.  A company that has high standards of quality, listens to the paddler, and actually solicits input from the community when designing new products.  While brands like NRS, Stohlquist, and Kokatat make some amazing products, my search for the ultimate paddling and fishing specific PFD’s has ended with Astral.
Do yourself a favor and go to your local paddle sports shop.  Ask about the Seawolf, Ronny Fisher, or any other jacket in the Astral line.  Try them on, move around in them, and ask the sales reps for feedback they have received.  If you still have any questions, drop me or any of your local Astral fishing team members a line.  We are dedicated to helping you find the best product for your style!
Ronny Fisher - 29" Speckled Trout

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Adapt and Overcome

I would like to believe that I am a good fisherman, with well-rounded skills in both fresh and salt waters.  I also view myself as a minimalist in the aspect that I paddle a lightweight kayak that does not suit itself well to having all the bells and whistles that larger kayaks have.  I don't take 10 rods on the water with me or enough tackle to open up my own shop.  I have to ensure that I have the gear I need to effectively target what I may encounter and nothing more.  Here I will outline some of the lessons that I have learned, or ones that I have re-learned over the past few months, with the hope that it may help others out along the way.  Here we go!

  1. Know the water you are fishing, and the gear you are using - This may seem like a no brainer, but if you follow these rules your trips will be much more enjoyable and you will be nicely rewarded.  On a recent trip to one of my favorite bass spots, my buddy Ted and I were fishing an area right before, during, and after a cold front.  Prior to the front, we knew the areas that the bass were feeding on and what baits best mimicked the forage of the lake.  We were able to bust out some quality fish in the morning and the day was a success.  As the front passed, the fishing grinded to a halt.  This is where we decided to go fish some deeper water with the hope of finding fish stacked up.  We changed up our presentations to take advantage of the conditions and we were pleasantly rewarded.  Point being, be versatile and understand that just because a pattern worked during one part of the day, it will not always continue to produce throughout the remainder of the day.
  2. A nice pre-spawn bass caught using a Chatterbait in deeper water right after a strong cold front passed through

    Ted Crumb with a beastly sow after observing and establishing a pattern for post frontal fish.
  3. Don't be afraid to depart from the norm in order to catch fish - On another day when Square Bills and Jerkbaits would be the normal presentation for the given conditions, mix things up. We decided that with the jerkbait bite in deeper water being nonexistent, we would fish trees and vegetation with spinnerbaits. We knew our tactics were a departure from what we had established but decided to go with them anyways. This paid off with some quality Bass and a would be VA weight citation Bowfin.  When I asked the science behind spinnerbait fishing in these conditions, we could not come up with any other answer than "it has worked in the past". 
    Tommy establishing a spinnerbait pattern on a jerkbait day
    An angry Bowfin that slammed a Spinnerbait
  4. Realize that in order to catch fish, you may need to adjust your target, and techniques - There will be days when the conditions, the fish, or both will not allow you to chase after your target species, or you might not be able to get the exact presentation needed conventionally, and may need to switch to other methods. This occurred on more than one occasion where I wanted to chase bass, but knowing where they were located, the conditions would not allow me to get there. This is when I changed my target, and focused on catching citation pickerel. Another time, I wanted to chase pickerel, but the conditions were brutally cold and I realized that a very slow presentation was the best way to fool them into biting, so instead of fishing with gear, I decided to take the fly rod out and I was pleasantly rewarded. As long as there is open water, there will be something waiting to be caught. Tunnel vision can be the worst enemy an angler who just wants to get out and fish.
    Crappy conditions for a Crappie Day

    A Pickerel on the fly to pop the cherry on the 2015 kayak fishing season

    A VA release citation Chain Pickerel caught when the bass were unaccessable
  5. Be ready for what the conditions may throw at you - Sometimes you are just stuck fishing certain conditions. This may be low, dirty, grassy water, or quite the opposite. Have enough gear to tackle multiple presentations for your conditions, but still keep some that may be just the opposite. Recently, I encountered low and dirty water conditions. While I like to throw pinks and yellows in these conditions, I could visibly watch fish turn away and pay my baits no mind. It wasn’t until I switched up to the darkest colors that I had that I found the fish on the end of my line. Sometimes rules are just meant to be broken.
A nice redfish caught after switching color schemes

The most important thing to remember though is to go out and ENJOY yourself.  Take advantage to the vestle you are on and look around.  Enjoy the sights, and sounds.  Emerse yourself in not just the fishing, but also your environment!

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Adventure Fishing World Championship (AFWC) #3 - Delacroix, LA


"It’s all about what you know in good ole Delacroix"

This quote became unbelievably apparent when 53 teams of two got the go ahead to open up their maps, and plan their day at the 3rd annual AFWC in Delacroix LA. The AFWC is a tournament that I have tried to fish for the past two years, but have not been able to find the right teammate... until now. Its format is extremely unique in the fact that it test your ability to navigate, paddle and portage, fish, and reading water. You have to be a complete kayak angler in order to even qualify in this event. The next few paragraphs will outline the experiences of Team All Out Kayak Fishing, and bring more insight as to what goes into this event.

First, let’s talk a bit about Delacroix. It sits 3 ft above sea level, with a labyrinth of canals and levees that make you really understand how susceptible to the elements you really are. While driving into town, you drive through what we coined to be the "Wall of Death", which is a super long cement wall on an a elevated levy designed to minimize the flooding during storms. The levy that we went through failed in 2005 during Hurricane Katrina, and left the "island" submerged in over 30 foot of water. Driving through the wall at midnight seemed like it belonged in the series the Walking Dead.

This wall went on for miles

Kayak Kevin standing next to the wall for reference.  This thing was DOMINATING!

Once we made it through the wall, we really got into the terrain that we would have to navigate. Seeing it at night was the wrong time to see it for the first time. It was dark, muggy, and a complete departure from our expectations. Once we got unloaded, our excitement overtook our nerves, and instead of sleeping, we took a walk to acclimatize ourselves to the island. It was really cool to see gar feeding on shrimp in the dock lights, and see just how much damage Katrina caused.

Day two started with chilling with the Virginia collation of anglers that came down to compete, seeing old friends from throughout the south east, and pumping ourselves up for the unexpected. My partner Joe and I finished loading our gear and were off. The first thing that we noticed was how skinny the water truly was. Most of the areas we pre-fished were less than two feet, and to add even more complexity, these areas were full of sea grass and hydrilla. For the angler, Delacroix is a Top water and Sight casting paradise. We started the day with some bass in the grass, and casting to reds that didn’t want our offerings. As we progressed, we found areas that held a higher concentration of reds, and some clearer water than what we had been fishing. The first red of the trip came on an in-line buzz bait that it absolutely demolished.

A Dinnerbell JP Hmmershad fooled this red!

As we paddled further down this one flat, we saw reds cruising and tailing, but got no interest in our baits until we switched to darker colors. The darker the baits, the more interest they generated, and subsequently, our hookups increased.

A fat lil Delacroix pumpkin
Our only day of prefishing yielded Bass and Reds on the same baits, and in the same areas.  It also gave us a good reference for the conditions we would be fishing in, and more importantly, patterns that we felt would be successful the following day.

Team Adventure on the Water (Kayak Kevin and Jean McElroy) on their way in to end the first day.

Tournament Morning

After loading all of our gear in the staging area and ensuring that we had what we needed for the following day, our team was called up at 0630 to get our map, measuring device, and scorecard.  The tension mounted until 0700, at which time we were able to open our map, and plan our fish.

Photo - AFWC

Checkpoint 5

Once we opened up our map, we found which the double length checkpoints were and decided to fish CP5, CP2, CP3, CP4, and CP1 in a loop. After we hit all but CP 3 we realized the flaw in our plan. This course was designed to be fished in a circle, with deep water entry points starting from 4, going to 3, 2, 5, and 1. Nonetheless, we proceeded to paddle to CP5 first and hit the water at 0715. We breezed past the field, aided by a stout north wind that was 20-30 mph. As we hit CP5, we were one of the first teams to reach our area, and fished our way through, catching our first red about an hour into the CP and scoring 50.5 points for the area. As we paddled back to the east across the flat we just left, I noticed there was still some water left on the flat and we had a straight shot to reach CP 2. We scored our fish, turned in our token, and paddled east. Unfortunately, as we approached our cut through, the water drained out and we participated in the great mud run of Delacroix for the better part of an hour and a half. Dragging through 3+ feet of mud against a strong headwind took the life out of both of us. It got to the point that I though our day had ended. Thankfully, we got some air back in our lungs and wind beneath our sails... On to CP2.

Checkpoint 2

We reached Checkpoint 2 around 1100. The only thoughts in my mind were to 1) get away from all the teams and find an unmolested location, and 2) catch a fish FAST! As we paddle to the SE corner of the lake on CP2, I find a small little lake that has reds in it and has one tiny, shallow entrance. I call my partner over and proceed to get stuck at the entrance. I have no way to get to these fish, and after our mud run, I am unwilling to get to them. As I struggle to get back out, joe alerts me to the presence of fish right behind me. I make a cast, and get love taps on my spoon. Finally, as I get tapped I decide to stop my retrieve completely. As I watch my line continue to move across the bow of my yak, I slam the hook home. FISH ON!!! We land, measure and score a solid 23.5" red and make our way back to the CP. We score the fish and it is 1205. Our total points are now 74 with one remaining point to qualify. With the plan to move onto CP3 nixed due to unknown conditions, we went from trying to hit all 5 to just qualifying.

Checkpoint 1

We paddle to CP1 via the canal that took us north east. We are stoked for an easy paddle, fairly restricted by the wind, and only a mile and a half. What can go wrong? Well, shortly after we leave 2, we see a large rock wall. As we get closer, we realize that a portage is a must in order to move on this route. We portage Joe's Tarpon first, he beaches it, and we move on to the Skimmer. As Joe is in the water helping me with my yak, we notice a nice sized gator looking at my partner. All I heard was "Don’t leave me Wild Bill". I love wildlife, so I take out my camera and start shooting away, while my partner is slamming against the rocks and my boat, scared shitless cause the gator has hungry eyes for him.

Hungry Eyed Gator looking towards good ole Delacroix Joe

Checkpoint 4

Joe convinces me to hit CP4, even with another pending portage and the unknown, we wanted the double points. We pull up the ramp at Sweetwater Marina, and get our wheels out for a long portage. As we go through our stuff, we notice that a piece for a set of wheels was missing. Now things just got reel. We had a couple hundred yard drag to the next piece of water. We timed it out and from start to reaching CP4, it took us 30 minutes. Great, this will give us an hour and fifteen minutes to fish prior to check in. As we paddle down a canal to the CP, Joe spots some nice reds. There is no point in casting since we did not have an identifier, so we moved on. We got our identifier, and had a decision to make. Do we leave reds we know are here? or Do we fish the unknown on the other side of the berm? Well the unknown was so damn sexy, we proceed to move on. We are hearing guys sporadically hook up and come undone. If CP4 was good for one thing, it was a bunch of expletives. We move our way, and Joe hooks up on the buzzbait. I hear an explosion, see him set the hook twice and bring a stud red to the surface. This bad boy was over 25 without a doubt. Unfortunately he gets off and nothing comes to hand. Joe tells me that "I just lost the winning fish". I tell him to shrug it off, and we still had time. Unfortunately, time ran out on us with nothing left to show for. The paddle back to the start was somber at first, then we remembered that we had 99.5" and minimum checkpoints. This was our day!


First off, I must say that I am super proud of all the teams that competed. This was by far the toughest kayak fishing event I have participated in. Just to participate makes you a winner.

At weigh in, the scuttlebutt was anything over 95" would put you in the top 10. Knowing we had a fish at the end come off that would have given us at least 50 points really started to set in. We were however able to get over that knowing that we went all out and gave it 100% on the day.

On to the results... All Virginia teams qualified and broke the top 30. Angler Management (Amy and Andy) came in 29th, Double L (Mark and Kris Lozier) came in 18th, All Out Kayak Fishing (Joe and Myself) came in 16th, and Adventure on the Water (Kevin and Jean) came in 8th. In the end 1st and 16th were separated by less than 50 points.

Photo - AFWC

 In the end, would I do it all over again, Hell Yes!  My partner was amazing, we had a great time, and felt accomplished at ending the day with 3 beautiful fish and paddling and portaging over 17.5 miles.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Fly Fishing Inshore Waters with William Ragulsky

I thought I would share for those who are unable to attend tonights talk, and all of you not in the Hampton Roads VA area.  Thank you Kayak Kevin for use of your lightline pic.