There’s never a loser at Paddlepalooza!

That is my friend Catch Cormier’s favorite line about the annual Spring kayak fishing tournament organized by BCKFC, now in it’s 11th year. After attending the event this past Saturday, he couldn’t be more right! Everyone involved put on one heck of a show for the 244 folks that signed up.

I missed out on the Friday night festivities and opted to leave super early Saturday morning. I didn’t make any scouting trips prior to the tournament so I decided to limit my tournament day options to places I’ve had success at in the past catching all three slam species; redfish, trout, and flounder. I was running a little late and wouldn’t make it on the water by 5:00am, but that gave me a chance to see just what LA 1 looks like during a tournament day. Every place you could toss a kayak in the water had a vehicle and the more popular options had vehicles lined up on the shoulder. It was pretty amazing to see just what kind of impact we kayak fishermen can have on a community come tournament time.

Lucky for me my spot was empty and I was on the water just before the sun came up. For the next 2-3 hours the winds were calm and the weather was perfect, the only downside to that was it meant the gnats and mosquitoes were out in force. The fishing though in that time was so good that the I wasn’t bothered by the bugs (being covered in clothing from head to toe helped as well). Fishing an oyster lined pond I had an incredible morning catching redfish and trout on topwater. When it was dark I threw a Spook Jr. in black/chartreuse and when the sun came up it was a Spook Jr. in bone. I couldn’t tell what the water clarity was upon launching but as the sun came up I could see that it was very nice. After landing about a dozen trout and maybe half a dozen reds the best of each were a 4 lb red and a nearly 2 lb trout. A good start, but I would definitely need to upgrade each.

I started working the spot for flounder focusing primarily on the places I had caught them in the past. Points and cuts in the marsh and anywhere the water moved were the areas I was targeting. At about lunch time I decided to pack it up and head up the road to try a different spot.

I didn’t realize just how windy it was after leaving the first spot, but I sure felt it upon arrival at the second spot. Conditions had deteriorated but I wasn’t deterred from trying to find a flounder. Water clarity here was very good as well – I guess I could thank that strong Southern wind for that. Bugs weren’t an issue any more either – thanks wind! Again I worked the flounder spots and again I was coming up empty. Knowing that I still needed to upgrade my trout and my red, I continued to throw topwater in likely looking spots. It wasn’ t long before I had a big fish on, only problem was it was a bull red! A fun fight, but not what I needed on tournament day.

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Catching that fish showed me that it was still effective to throw topwater even in terrible conditions, though it is harder to work the bait. Fishing the islands of a big bay I was getting hammered by wind, so I moved on to some marsh to seek shelter. Settling into a cut just to take a break I threw out some Gulp and watched as my cork immediately went under the water. On the other end of the line was a redfish upgrade at 5 lbs! Not a big upgrade, but better than nothing. On the next cast, this time out into the bay and back toward myself in the cut I watched as a red tried to take down the cork! Giving it a pop to take it from his mouth he luckily found the Gulp underneath. Another redfish in the boat, not an upgrade on weight but this one did have 13 spots! I didn’t want to get my hopes up on taking the leopard redfish category (I’ve made that mistake before), but I at least had a shot now.

It was getting close to weigh-in time so I decided to make my way back to the launch, which was of course into the wind across open water. Thank goodness for Jackson’s low seat position and the Aqua Bound Manta Ray blade size. I hardly ever use the low seat position, but this proved to be the perfect situation. I made good time considering I was plowing through building waves heading into the wind.

Back at Bobby Lynn’s standing in line to weigh fish, everyone began to recount the day’s events, which is one of my favorite parts of any tournament. It became increasingly apparent that there were a lack of unicorn, I mean, flounder brought to the scales. By the end of the day I believe only six were weighed. In a slam tournament that pays out to ten places this meant that the back half of the slam placings would be two fish slams (a three fish slam will always beat a two fish slam in a BCKFC tournament, no matter the weight). I knew I didn’t have a shot at a placing with my two fish slam, but it at least took some of those folks with two nice fish out of the individual species categories. The other thing that became apparent was that a lot of leopard reds were brought in. Not just any old leopards either, these were reds with more than a dozen spots – there were two 17 spot reds turned in! My little 13 spot wouldn’t hold up for first and barely hung on for 5th! At least I wouldn’t be going home empty handed though.

withplaquePhoto: Brendan Bayard

After weighing fish I was able to grab my captain’s bag (including the tee shirt Clayton is wearing in the pic) and shoot the breeze with a lot of the other competitors who have become friends over the years. Although the fishing was pretty tough for most (only 75 weighed fish) I didn’t see any disappointed faces, thus the real reason “there’s never a loser at Paddlepalooza!”. Between the captain’s bags, meals, tournament, raffles, and camaraderie among fellow like-minded individuals, you always come out ahead.

Speaking of raffles, the raffle items this year blew away what has been offered in years past. I should have bought more tickets than I did because there was a lot of good stuff on that table. The officers did a tremendous job with the raffle this year, I was impressed. It made me long for the days when placing in a category meant your pick of prizes from the raffle table.

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In closing, Paddlepalooza XI was a ton of fun, BCKFC knocked it out of the park on this one. I had a great morning catching fish and was lucky enough to take home 5th place leopard red that afternoon. The fried fish dinner was excellent as always – a lot of credit goes to the guys that volunteer to help cook and serve. I think it was a great move to hire fish cleaners this year to help take care of the one job no one really enjoys. Those guys were far more efficient than the average Joe, really cool to watch them work. The raffle went fairly quick considering what it had been in years past and the prizes were off the charts. Things just seem to get better and better with this organization and tournaments. Heck, even the shirt this year was one of the best I’ve seen. Super soft with another great Brendan Bayard design; these things are like collector’s items for kayak fishermen down here in Louisiana. It makes me proud to be a small part of BCKFC and I hope we continue to grow and put on outstanding events. We do a great job getting in state folks to attend, but it would be really cool to see more out of state folks down. The more people we can get registered for events like this, the more money that gets directed to charities like Heroes on the Water and the Palliative Care Foundation of Baton Rouge – the real winners at functions like this. Here’s hoping Paddlepalooza XII is just as successful as this year’s event!

2014 Paddlepalooza XI Results

Cajun Slam - Angler – Weight(lbs)

1st – Jeff Breaux – 10.19
2nd – Jason Austin – 8.15
3rd – Wayne Lobb – 6.45
4th – Elliot Stevens – 6.33
5th – Bill Crawford – 6.33
6th – Steve Lessard – 9.52 (2 fish)
7th – Chris Holmes – 9.26 (2 fish)
8th – Brendan Bayard – 8.81(2 fish)
9th – Tommy Eubanks – 8.45 (2 fish)
10th – Shane Curole – 8.29 (2 fish)

Heavy Slot Red – Angler – Weight(lbs)
1st – Justin Pisani – 7.27
2nd – Jonathan Craft – 6.96
3rd – Timothy Caldwell – 6.93
4th – Perry Watts – 6.85
5th – Craig Brown – 6.79

Mule Trout – Angler – Weight(lbs)
1st – Fred Trahan – 3.72
2nd – Toby Armand – 3.72
3rd – Jeff Suber – 3.56
4th – Sam Speer – 3.19
5th – Scott Harper – 2.94

Saddle Flounder – Angler – Weight(lbs)
1st – Douglas Menefee – 0.87

Leopard Red – Angler – Spots
1st – Jason Powers – 17
2nd – Dwayne Walley – 17
3rd – Jared Leroy – 15
4th – Matt Lehman – 15
5th – Ben Roussel – 13

Ladies – Angler – Weight(lbs)
1st – Barbara Johnson – 5.50

Kids - Angler – Weight(lbs)
1st – Rory Craft – 4.60

 

Pond hopping in the Cruise

I had to work in Simmesport, LA last week, but knew that I’d have time to sneak away and do a little fishing at some point during each day so the Cruise came with me. Having never been to this part of the state no matter what option I looked at would be a scouting trip. Nothing wrong with a good scouting trip, in fact they may be my favorite type of trip. I love the anticipation of fishing somewhere new; there is always that possibility of finding a hidden gem.

My first stop was in the Spring Bayou WMA where I found a nice public launch on the southern end of the WMA . I took a quick peek at the water before I launched and noted that the clarity wasn’t fantastic, but it wasn’t terrible either – definitely fishable. I launched and started working the cypress trees in the immediate area and soon enough I had my first bass.

It was definitely nice to get the skunk off so soon and it showed me that there were bass around. Unfortunately I didn’t catch anything the rest of my time on the water, which wasn’t such a bad thing because it was a beautiful place to paddle. I found some really big cypress trees on a slough off the main channel and sitting next to them in a 12 ft boat made you really thankful that they somehow avoided the heavy timber operations that occurred back in the day. Another plus to Spring Bayou was that it was super windy out that day, but it wasn’t a bother with the tall trees and the multiple directions one could head from the launch – there was always a lee shore from the wind.

The next day I headed the other way and tried out a pond in the Richard K. Yancey WMA (Three Rivers). I was super excited after doing the clarity check at this pond. It was looking good thanks to an abundance of submerged vegetation. The sub-veg hadn’t matted yet either so it seemed like I would be hitting this pond at a great time. I launched in record time and started pounding the water with various baits. Surprisingly I wasn’t getting any hits on fly rod popper/dropper rig which is usually money this time of year. I switched over to a spinnerbait and started working just over the grass. With the clarity of the water being so excellent I was able to watch a as a choupique(bowfin) picked off my bait.

I continued working my spinnerbait, encouraged after catching the choupique, but after awhile of no action, I had to stand up to survey the water. Sightfishing, I would at least be able to spook fish and see what was out there.  The pond was covered in grass from one bank to the other and the fish species I saw were numerous, however they weren’t the target species, bass or bream. I saw carp, buffalo, gar and choupique. I’m sure bass lived here, but I was convinced they didn’t live here in any great number. It was somewhat disappointing, but  I really didn’t mind making lemonade out of lemons and I stood up and tried to sightfish whatever I could. Although the water clarity was excellent, sightfishing was tough. The overcast skies and windy conditions weren’t helping at all. I was able to sightfish a choupique in a shallow cove, but I never got a solid hookset in him and couldn’t get him to the net.

Again I found a beautiful place to paddle (full of gators too BTW), but the fishing proved to be tough – kind of a bittersweet experience. It was really cool to be able to sightfish a choupique, like freshwater redfishing, I only wish they were here in more numbers. The carp and buffalo I mentioned that I saw were all hanging in deep water and really didn’t lend themselves to sightfishing.

The last pond I explored was up near the Old River Lock at a USACE recreation area. Upon arrival the water clarity and vegetation was consistent with the last pond, however, this one had more matted veg. out in the middle. Again I started trying to target bass and bream, but that proved unfruitful. Much like the last pond standing up showed me that there was no shortage of gar. However it also showed me that this pond held more choupique than the last and they could be sightfished. After pitching a texas rigged worm to a couple and getting eats but no solid hooksets I changed up my tactics. I decided that I was seeing enough to be able to justify tying on a redfish intruder fly pattern just to see if I could land one on the long rod. I had not done it before and now was as good a time as any.

After several spooked fish (yeah, just like redfish you can spook choupique) and blown shots, I finally put it all together and got a nice one to eat. She ended up being around 23 inches and 4 lbs. It was a great fight, made tougher because you had to fight the fish in the salad. Pretty cool to catch a new species on the fly, but even cooler that I was able to do it sightfishing. This has huge potential in my mind. A little more challenging than redfish, but not as tough as carp – this could be a great option if the weather on the coast sucks.

I had a lot of fun stalking choupique with the long rod and the Cruise proved to be a great boat for the task. It’s stability and open deck made a great platform for sight fishing with the fly rod and it’s light weight made it quick and easy to load and unload from the truck to the pond. I look forward to the next time I’ve got work up that way because I know that wasn’t the biggest choupique in the pond – I saw bigger!

Rumble in da Parish

Last Saturday was BCKFC’s Redfish Rumble – the second tournament in their five tournament series. The event was held out of Sweetwater Marina in Delacroix but was open to all publicly accessible waters in St. Bernard and East Plaquemines parishes. The winner would be the person with the heaviest stringer of five slot redfish and one bass. In the past this event had always been held in West Plaquemines parish and never included a bass. I think the change was a good one; some of the prettiest water for redfishing is found in St. Bernard Parish and it is one of the few places I know of where you have the ability to catch bass and redfish on alternating casts. I love the fact that BCKFC now has a tournament that incorporates bass.

The tournament start time was 5:00am, which is a wee bit early when the sun doesn’t show itself until around 7:00am; so I started my trek down from Baton Rouge at 3:00am. I have not done a whole lot of fishing in St. Bernard or East Plaquemines so all of my scouting was done on Google Earth. Nothing new there, I do that for every trip whether it is somewhere new or not. I knew where a majority of folks would be launching and I wanted to fish somewhere different, somewhere without a big crowd, so I had a couple launch options in mind on the drive down. Option #1 didn’t work out. It was a pump station, but access to the pump station was gated so not wanting to trespass I headed to option #2. At option #2 there were a couple other guys launching, but that wouldn’t be a problem as there was plenty of water for the three of us – I was just looking to avoid the crowds. Water clarity at the launch was pretty good, even with the low tide, so I wasn’t looking to go anywhere else anyway.

I launched my Cuda 12 behind the two other guys and followed them down a canal, as they took the first cut I continued on, giving them ample room to fish. I made my way into the first pond and saw tails everywhere, for a second I thought, holy hell I’ve reached Valhalla! The horizon was just starting to light up as I began to fish so it was tough to see, but it didn’t take long to figure out that they were all gar. The pond was fairly shallow and covered in grass, the salinity couldn’t have been very high. I moved slowly through the area working weedless baits thinking maybe I’d get my bass. Then I saw a different tail and rather than move along the surface, it bobbed in place, I knew immediately it was a redfish, so I pitched a texas rigged Zoom super fluke jr. that way and it got hammered. I made a rookie mistake though, for some reason my drag was set super tight which made for a short fight and a green fish. I ended up reeling him too close to the tip top of the rod and as I got him in the net he flipped a few times and broke the tip section of my rod off. Not that big of deal since I had a few other rods, but still a bummer, at least I was on the board with a real deep copper colored 22.5″ red. I forgot how pretty the reds are when they come from the grass.

I kept at it in the same pond and soon saw another redfish tail dancing. This time I threw a 1/4oz gold spoon his way. The cast was way off, probably because I can’t think of the last time I threw a spoon, but it wasn’t too far off that I blew it. It was beyond him and way out in front, so I brought it back and dropped it dead in his path as he got close I gave it a twitch and started a slow reel, the redfish saw it and charged and soon after I had my second redfish in the boat. At 23.5″ it was a small improvement, but I was hoping for a little bigger.

I made my way out of the pond and into a bayou. There was no shortage of good water here, everything was covered in grass which made for pretty good clarity throughout. Blind casting I picked up a third redfish. Pretty fish too, he had 8 spots. At 20″ he went on the stringer, I was hoping to cull him later in the day. One word on stingers and redfish, if you run it through their lower lip and not through their gills they will stay alive.

Moving through the bayou I was almost at a big bay when I see an entire redfish back out the water. He looked to be a pretty good size, maybe upper slot, maybe too big, it didn’t matter anyway because after making what I thought to be a good cast he spooked on the retrieve.

I worked the grass beds in the bay and came upon a redfish working the shoreline. This time when I made a good cast I was rewarded with another eat. This fish had some size to him too. After peeling drag a few times I brought him in the boat. At 28.5″ he was too big for the tournament. A real nice redfish, lots of fun to catch, but not the size I was after.

After a short talking to we parted ways. The bay failed to produce any more fish and I had drifted quite a ways. Rather than backtrack I sought out the same type of area I had caught them earlier in the day. I was already past the half way point so I started circling back to the launch, hoping I could finish out a limit and pick up a bass along the way. After a good paddle back up the bay and into a different cut I made it to a sting of ponds that were promising. A cast into fleeing baitfish landed me my fourth redfish. He went 22″ and I started to think my 23.5″ might be the biggest I would turn in – which usually isn’t how to break into the top five.

I continued my route through ponds and bayous blind casting to every likely spot, just trying to finish out a limit. Thankfully that fifth redfish didn’t make me sweat it out too long. He was caught on a 1/4oz gold spoon, just like the previous three fish. It was the best bait I had tied on for the grassy water. I tried an inline spinner for awhile but it kept getting hung up on itself or tangling in weeds. Topwater failed to produce early on, so that got set aside the rest of the day.

After that fish it was time to head back to the launch. Fighting wind and tide that paddle back was tough. I got loaded up and made it to the weigh-in with 15 minutes to spare. My limit of reds came in at just over 21lbs, so they averaged around 4lbs each, but without a bass I had no shot at the top five. I ended up placing 9th (21.89 lbs), which isn’t bad considering we had around 70 people fishing the tournament. After the first two series tournaments I’m still in the mix, sitting at third, but it’s going to be tough to beat out those usual suspects.

2014 Redfish Rumble results:

1. Steve Lessard – 26.24 lbs

2. Casey Brunning – 25.82 lbs

3. Clayton Shilling – 25.76 lbs

4. Johnny Bergeron – 24.85 lbs

5. Rick Dembrun – 24.64 lbs

A lot of familiar names in that top five, it always amazes me how these guys can consistently produce. There is no doubt about it, we’ve got some great fishermen in BCKFC. Steve took first thanks in part to a really nice bass, I think it was the biggest weighed in, a very fat marsh bass. At 6th place Eric Muhoberac’s stringer was also very impressive as it was only four redfish. Of course with a stringer like that he ended up being big fish winner as well with a 7+ lb red. Big congrats to the winners and a huge thanks to everyone in the club that made it happen and to all the sponsors that donated prizes.

After the tournament a group of us headed to Rocky & Carlo’s for supper. Health nuts be advised, here’s my meal:

Veal cutlet and baked mac with brown gravy on top and a side of fried green beans for the table – yes, all of it was very good. It was my first Rocky & Carlo’s experience and it won’t be my last. In case you were wondering, catching a limit of reds and then having a meal with friends makes for a really great day.

 

Kayak fishing the Lost Coast of Panama

 

An opportunity to join Jim Sammons and James McBeath on a trip to Panama to film an episode of The Kayak Fishing Show with Jim Sammons came up and it was a no-brainer to hop on board. Our outfitter/guide was Hennie Marais with Paddle Panama who had his brother Peter along to help run a smooth operation. As it turns out Peter is a world class grillmaster and proved to be an excellent addition to the expedition team.

Since everyone was flying in from different parts of North America (the 2 Canucks, Jim from San Diego and myself from New Orleans) the plan was to rendezvous in the Houston airport while en route to Panama City. Unfortunately I had a very short layover and was running behind. I ended up being the last person in line at the gate and with no seat assigned I was rewarded with the last seat available – 41F – the window seat on the last row of the plane. Normally I’d complain, but I was really just happy to have a seat, especially after the gate agent informed me that my passport was 13 days away from being unusable on a trip to Panama. Apparently your passport has to be valid for 90 days when traveling to Panama and mine is good for 103 days. Phew…

I made it to Panama City, got through customs, picked up my bags (which made it despite the short layover), and met everyone as our taxi was being loaded up. Jim, his producer Will and  I had only previously exchanged emails with while James I fished with in the Everglades, way back in 2011 when I first joined the Jackson team. We were hungry so naturally where does one go when in Panama City. Why T.G.I. Friday’s of course! Apparently the restaurant Hennie wanted to take us to was closed and this was close by. Take comfort in knowing that the T.G.I. Friday’s in Panama looks exactly like every single one in America. It wasn’t all bad, they still had local beer.

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(photo: Will Richardson)

Weary from travel we called it a night after Friday’s. We were taken to our hotel, a little B&B called the Canal Inn. A cold shower and a stiff bed never felt better. I slept as well as I could but I was very excited about getting to our final destination, Bahia Honda, and going fishing.

Day 1 was travel by air, day 2 was travel by land and sea. We were looking at a 4.5 hour drive from our hotel to Santa Catalina, where we would then board a panga that would take us another 1.5 hours up the coast to Bahia Honda. We did finally get to eat some local food for lunch when we stopped in Santiago. It was buffett style and I have no clue what I ordered, but it was pretty good (FYI Panamanian Fresca is more like American Fanta). We loaded up on supplies at a local grocery then continued on through the Azuero peninsula.

The drive through Panama was nice, everything looked so arid, but I guess that’s why it’s called the dry season. Sugarcane was the crop of note (in St. Lucia it was bananas), but the difference between Panamanian sugarcane and Louisiana sugarcane was the fact that theirs looked ready to harvest. Roads were surprisingly good, some rough spots here and there, but overall good, of course take my opinion with a grain of salt, Louisiana roads are terrible. We made it to Santa Catalina and drove right out onto the beach to load our gear on the panga. There we were greeted by our host for the week Edwin and through spanglish he and I discussed a little bit of fishing, enough to get me excited about the week to come. It was about this time that we realized we made a huge error. One of Jims bags was left back at the hotel. It had been left in our room during the commotion of loading the van in the morning. Important takeaway here is to always do a dummy check before you leave a hotel. We would get the bag back later in the trip, but it was a costly mistake for sure. Still, the Pacific Ocean was beautiful at this spot. Santa Catalina is a big surf destination in Panama, but it didn’t look like it here – which made it a great place to load a panga with gear.

The boat ride up the coast was awesome. The water was so blue and the elevation of the mainland provided a really nice backdrop when cruising up the coast. Not seeing a bunch of other boats on the water was really refreshing as well. Our destination was Edwins house, which was located on the mainland in a protected bay just off the Pacific. Their set up was incredible, with two thatch roof bohios that served as lodging and a plumbed bathroom, it would prove to be a perfect base camp for the week. While Hennie and Peter were busy getting everything set up we started rigging up our rods, reels and kayaks. We had brand new boats, two Cuda 14s and a new Big Rig to use while we there. James chose the Big Rig, having fallen in love with it in Florida, Jim went with the lime Cuda 14 while I chose orange.

Once we were moved in and squared away it was time to hit the water. We would be able to get in a short afternoon fish before it got dark. I was dying to get on the water, you could tell from shore that bait was busting the surface all over the bay. The activity even picked up as we were on the water, but I was having trouble getting a bite. I was playing a cat-and-mouse game with the fish trying to get a lure to the surface activity while it was within casting range. On top of that all the lures I brought seemed too big for what these fish were feeding on. I had on the smallest lure I had, a 5″ soft plastic swimbait and did what I could. It was good enough and I was able to boat a nice little bonito. Catching fish on what I would consider a travel day was a great way to start the trip. Shortly after this fish we ran out of light and paddled back to camp. The short afternoon session was the perfect way to whet the appetite of this long traveled fisherman. I was looking forward to getting some rest and then hitting the big water bright and early in the morning. We had a long week ahead of us.

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(photo: Will Richardson)

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(photo: Will Richardson)

We woke up early the next morning to the crow of a rooster, followed by the howl of a howler monkey and then finally the smell of fresh coffee and breakfast, courtesy of Rosalind. This is how every morning was and it couldn’t have been any better. A typical breakfast consisited of these fantastic hojaldres, which kind of reminded me of the shell of a Taco Bell chalupa, but better, then the sweetest fruit you could imagine – nice variety too, and finally a pork product of some kind. A very hearty, filling breakfast, that was always delicious. Cereal was an option too if you were so inclined. We loaded up our kayaks once breakfast was done, daisy chained them behind the panga, then took a ride out to an island that we were told was the only place we needed to fish for the week – that’s how confident the locals were in this spot. We would focus on fishing around the island and especially in the channel in between the islands which served as a main choke spot for currents running along the “Lost Coast” of Panama. We fished around the entire island throwing poppers and swimbaits into the swells and breakers then working them back out. The poppers weren’t seeing much action but any time I ran a swimbait over some rocks it got attacked by these:

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(photo: Will Richardson)

Giant hawkfish – they were like the bream of the rocky, shallows we fished. Always happy to catch a new species so I was having a ball with these little guys, but that wasn’t what we were after. The island itself was very cool too, comprised of lava rock, it seemed to shoot right out of the water. There were even a few little caves to explore, though the waves had me hesitant to explore them further.

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(photo: Will Richardson)

At lunch we headed back to camp to grab something to eat and get a little rest before we would hit another spot in the afternoon. This spot was at the mouth of the bay we were staying on, like the first spot we hit it was an island with an adjacent channel that made a convenient place for predator fish to ambush prey. I put the swimbait to work and picked up more hawkfish and a couple more new species to me – a yellow(amarillo) snapper and an orangeside triggerfish. By the way, I had no idea what any of these fish were when I caught them, but this is what I’ve come up with through internet research. Let me know if I’m wrong.

No big fish for me our first full day out but a really productive day catching new species. Fishing the artificials in the shallows was fun, but it was obvious that live bait was needed if we wanted to get into some better fish. The tactics that have previously worked in Panama for Jim were not paying off like they had in the past so we had to change things up the next day out and that started with having more live bait available to use.

My first full day fishing in Panama was a lesson in diversity. It was very cool to see four different species come across my hull in 1.25 days of fishing. Our second full day started with another brilliant sunrise. Every morning we were greeted with an amazing sunrise. Not to be outdone, every evening we were treated with an equally impressive sunset. Life in the tropics is nice like that.

I wish I could say I killed it our second full day out, but the truth is I sort of took one on the chin. Jim found fish in the morning with a popper, catching a few small jacks near a rock pile. I tried to emulate his success and had one on too, but he soon threw the hook. We worked the area until lunch and the only thing I had to show for it were more hawkfish.

After I ate lunch I set out to try and catch us some bait. I managed to catch one little guy on a sabiki rig, but was unable to catch any of his friends, so after using a JK Nalgene as a bait tank, I let him swim free. I was really after the bonito since big bait catches big fish right? I was chasing them through the bay much like on our first half day fishing. I made it into a little shallow cove that had a mangrove covered shoreline – had this been on the Caribbean side I’m sure it would have been covered up in bonefish, but all I was seeing were parrotfish and I don’t think I had flies for parrotfish or any idea how to go about catching them. There was a rocket of a fish that would scoot his way through the cove, marauding bait fish then fleeing like he just robbed a bank. Hennie thought it might have been Pacific sierra mackerel. I had my fly rod with me but getting a fly in front of that fish was fruitless – he moved at warp speed! I did get a follow from a mangrove snapper and briefly had a pufferfish on but nothing brought to hand. The mangrove tunnel up a creek was the highlight. I wish I had more time to explore, but we were headed back out to the deep water.

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(photo: Will Richardson)

Jim’s bag had arrived during lunch and much rejoicing was done. It was a huge relief to all of us and I know that Jim getting all of his equipment back and set up the way he likes it on his kayak made him much more comfortable and thus a better fisherman for the rest of the trip. Fishing isn’t just a physical sport but a mental one too and getting that dropped from the back of all our minds was a good thing.

That afternoon’s fishing was still tough though and my struggles continued. In fact I’m still kicking myself about the what transpired that afternoon. I was working the rock pile in the picture below, casting a popper up to it and working it back out. I had made a lot of different casts around it hoping something would take notice. Normally I would make a few casts and move on, but I was also freelining a live bait behind me and wanted to keep this bait in the channel to my rear. Choke points like this are typically fish highways and it made sense that eventually something would hit it so I was working this one spot pretty thoroughly. I finally get hit on the popper and I know it is a good fish. I got a solid hook set in him and he took that popper and went straight down, my drag be damned. My popper ended up hung on the rocks and I couldn’t pull it out. I’ve never had that happen, lesson learned that my drag needs to be set to stop in Panama.

I moved away from the area to let it settle and fish a different rock pile across the channel. In that time the camera boat sees something in the water. Wouldn’t you know it but my popper had floated back up. It must have still been in the fish’s mouth when I broke it off and he worked it free. I should have played him longer, free spooling, hoping he would swim out the rocks, but I was impatient. After a little time I came back, this time with a bigger popper and a stronger drag setting. It didn’t take but a few casts for a fish to come clear out of the water to attack my popper. The reddish/brown body was a dead giveaway that I was dealing with a big cubera snapper. This time I set the hook on the fish, fought him for a good 15-20 seconds and then the line went limp and my popper floated up. He must have been barely hooked, I was heartbroken – again. That was the how my second full day fishing in Panama ended, the big cuberas played me for a fool.

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(photo: Will Richardson)

Having little experience fishing for big ocean fish, losing fish is all part of the learning process. It was a tough lesson to learn too because it would have been the biggest fish we had caught thus far and would have been a great part of the episode. You travel so far, you want everything to go right and try to eliminate these kinds of mistakes, but they still happen.

The next morning we moved to an entirely different location. This spot was probably the most scenic we had fished on the trip. A small archipelago of islands in the middle of the ocean surrounded by swells and currents, even some that dissected the islands, and created chaos that looked difficult to navigate. A beautiful, potentially treacherous spot. I couldn’t help but think of that final scene from “the Goonies” when One-Eyed Willies pirate ship goes sailing off into the horizon – it looked like that, except more tropical and less like the Pacific NW. Boiler rocks are pretty intimidating to someone who has never paddled around them. We don’t have rocks in south Louisiana and the depth of the water I fish is nowhere near what it was in Panama. So initially I was hesitant to get too close to them but as the week progressed I became more comfortable around them. Your awareness and your paddle strokes have to be spot on because the last thing you want is to get carried into the rocks.

We fished hard around these islands and I don’t think we had anything to show for it by lunch except for some nice pictures. Besides the pictures the best thing to come from this spot was that we had a whale shark encounter. I say we, more specifically, James’ boat got bumped by a whale shark, he stuck his GoPro in the water and got the back end of it swimming off. Unfortunately the rest of us didn’t see it but he does have video to prove it. At about the same time Will on the camera boat said they saw a humpback whale surface then go under for awhile and come up a good distance away.

Since fish were proving to be hard to come by we headed elsewhere, back to where the locals said we needed to be from the get go and finally our luck turned around. With his Raymarine Dragonfly Jim was able to find some underwater peaks that had fish holding around them and he started getting hits vertical jigging. I was able to get in on the action when a jack hit my live bait.

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(photo: Will Richardson)

Finally a fish that pulled some drag and what I believe is another new species for me on this trip – a bigeye trevally. The depth finder proved to be a very valuable tool for this trip and I didn’t really realize it until this fish was caught. I’ve never used one in the past and even though I didn’t have one on my kayak it was helpful that someone in the group had one – and knew how to use it. This would prove to be a kind of turning point for us. The nearshore areas we worked so hard just weren’t producing so we shifted our focus to deep water spots, working those areas with live bait and by vertical jigging. This was key because the next two days of fishing were the best we had the entire trip.

Our efforts were focused on deep water features our fourth full day out. Jim and James both had Raymarine Dragonfly set-ups on their yaks and when they found fish or structure they would sit on a spot and start vertical jigging. Without a depth finder I was just trying to follow their lead. The good thing was even when we weren’t jigging we still had freelined live bait in the water. Jim was a master at vertical speed jigging and he was constantly able to put himself on top of fish and get hits.  It was really fun to watch him work. He caught a few nice almaco jack and had a few other fish break him off that most likely would have been studs. Vertical speed jigging to me felt extremely awkward in a kayak, but Jim made it look easy, his rhythm was perfect. Luckily for me my live bait rod took off and I landed another nice bigeye trevally.

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(photo: Will Richardson)

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(photo: Will Richardson)

As the bite waned at the first spot we spread out to try and locate another productive area. Jim again had found it near a rock pile across the channel and continued to jig up more jacks. I moved in line with where he was positioned and was able to jig up an almaco of my own on the first drop. Not a new species to me as I’ve caught them in the Gulf, but another new species on this trip. The bite here tapered off as well and again we spread. It didn’t take long for Jim to hook up, only this time it was unintended. While vertical jigging a school of manta ray swam under him and he caught one almost in the corner of the lip. James got some good under water shots with his GoPro and we slipped the jig out and let it swim off to join his friends. It was just a little guy but still pretty cool to see a manta up close.

After that I ventured into some shallow reef throwing a popper and dragging a once-live-now-dead bait behind me. I made a long cast toward some rocks and immediately got swirled on when it hit the water, no hook up though. I popped back in and made another long cast but this time started reeling in with a little pace and an aggressive pop. With the water being as shallow and clear as it was I got to watch a fish follow my bait the entire way back to the boat. I let the bait pause right at the boat and gave it that last twitch and the fish explodes on my bait, splashing me in the process! Not one of the bigger fish I caught on the trip but definitely one of the cooler moments as I pulled that yellow snapper in.

I began to make my way back to the support boat to change my dead bait for something fresh and not long into my paddle the bait takes off. Still being close to the shallow reef I wasn’t really sure what I had on because I haven’t seen any sizable fish come from that area, but the fight didn’t last long and soon enough I could see why. I had caught a dinosaur. A big, skinny needlefish that looked like the gar we catch back in Louisiana, except this thing was bright blue.

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(photo: Will Richardson)

I think it is actually a houndfish, in the same family as the needlefish. Very cool looking fish and pretty too. The blue on it was electric and even the teeth and jaws were blue. Hennie told me the bones were blue too – our boat captain was quick to tell me to keep it. I don’t know if they are good to eat or if they just eat anything that comes out of the water in Panama, but if I could provide a meal for a local family I was more than happy to oblige.

After that fish we got separated from each other – Jim fishing one side of the island and James and I on the other trying to jig up jacks like we did in the morning. Eventually we get the “Fish On!” call from Jim on the VHF and all I can hear in the background is a reel screaming! There weren’t many moments when we weren’t all within sight of each other but this was one of them. James and I start making our way toward Jim and by the time we get there he had the biggest fish of the trip caught and released.

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(photo: Will Richardson)

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(photo: Will Richardson)

It was a 70lb roosterfish – the first and only rooster landed on the trip and, Jim’s personal best. I’m bummed that I didn’t get to see it in person but very happy that Jim was able to corral that beast. It is pretty cool just being on the trip where Jim landed his PB rooster. The man has seen and done it all in a kayak, he deserved that fish with the amount of work he put in on the trip. Yeah it’s just fishing, but as I found out over the course of the week, fishing for fun and fishing for TV are two totally different things. 12 hour days in a kayak are tough on the body, no matter what shape you’re in. It amazed me the amount of work that goes in to make a 30 minute show. I know having this rooster on film made it all worth it. You would think that would be a good time to call it a day. Go out on a high note. Jim wasn’t done though because as we begin to work the area again, this time together, he hooks up for a second time. He lands the first African pompano of the trip. With that fish we knew we would be eating good that night.

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(photo: Will Richardson)

It was awesome to have a day where everything came together. It felt like we had made it over the hump and finally figured this place out. Or it could have been that the fish finally cooperated for us. Whatever the case may be this day was much needed. We headed back to camp to eat some of Peter’s delicious grilled chicken(and pompano) and down some cold beers and rest up for the next day.

On our last full day to fish in Panama we looked to repeat the success we had the day before. We set out our bait lines and went to work jigging. James got in on the action early with a nice almaco jack. It wasn’t long before we were all catching fish.

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(photo: Will Richardson)

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(photo: Will Richardson)

As the bite eased off in that area we made our way toward the other side of the island, splitting up to fish different spots. I really wanted to catch a rooster so I headed straight for the area where Jim caught his. It didn’t take long before I was hooked up and I got another chance to yell “Fish on!” on the VHF, which has got to be one of the greatest feelings in the world when you’re on the water.

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(photo: Will Richardson)

Not a rooster, but still very cool to add another new species on the trip – African pompano. We continued to work the jigs and troll our live bait and fish continued to hit. Jim got into a few different species on the day and I caught a houndfish that made my last one look like a baby.

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(photo: Will Richardson)

Jim had a very cool moment as he jigged up an almaco jack, brought it to the boat and was showing it off to the camera and at that moment his live bait rod goes taught. He hurries up, unhooks the jack, tosses it in the water and goes to work on the other rod and ends up catching a really nice pargo that gave him a good fight.

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(photo: Will Richardson)

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(photo: Will Richardson)

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(photo: Will Richardson)

When the bite wore off we got the itch to paddle out into the blue and see if anything was lurking offshore. We got into formation, 3 kayaks wide and formed the “Wall of Death” as dubbed by WIll, trolling our live baits behind us, hoping that someones reel would start singing. It was a slow paddle as we ended up heading upcurrent chasing surface activity in the distance. After awhile with no action we called it off and headed back toward the island. It gave us a chance to just enjoy a nice leisurely paddle in a beautiful place. We had worked so hard to catch fish that week that it was nice to sit back and take it all in.

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(photo: Will Richardson)

Our time at Bahia Honda was winding down with only another half day to fish. It was bittersweet as I was sad to see it come to an end, but happy I would be home soon and see my little girl. Thankfully I wasn’t completely out of touch with home while away. Jim and Will had a DeLorme inReach unit that allowed us to text or email our loved ones whenever we needed to. I believe they were even able to update the shows Facebook page while we were there and anyone following along could keep track of where we were at by viewing this website. I know my wife was thrilled to death that we had one of these with us. It really provided that extra piece of mind knowing we were okay while we were off the grid. That night we were treated with another fantastic sunset which proved to be the cherry on top of what was another day in paradise.

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(photo: Will Richardson)

We spent our last day in Bahia Honda fishing until lunch and then shooting some other bits for the show in the afternoon. James and Jim got into fish that morning with Jim pulling in the only grouper of the trip, but I actually got skunked. I was a little disappointed to end the fishing trip on that note, but nothing was happening for me that morning.

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(photo: Will Richardson)

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(photo: Will Richardson)

There was a little section of the island James and I explored where the rocks created a narrow chute you could paddle through. If you timed it right a swell would come through and propel you through the chute without even paddling. Couldn’t help but think that Panama might be a great place to test out the new Karma RG.

At lunch we did some other pieces for the show and began the packing process. Edwin’s daughter, Daisy, brought out some of their pet birds and Abuelo came around with some hand carved wooden bowls he had made. They were beautifully crafted and looked as if he took a lathe to them, but he assured us they were all made by hand. I think we all went home with multiple pieces.

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(photo: Will Richardson)

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(photo: Will Richardson)

Once James and I were finished with what we needed to do we headed for a last little fish in the bay with fly rods in hand. We headed for the mangroves and started working the edges. I had a few follows from some small mangrove snapper and James thought he missed a snook, but we failed to bring anything to hand. Coming from an inshore background I think it would have been really fun to devote a whole day to fishing the bay, especially the area around the mangroves. It has great potential for the light tackle fisherman. The bay is completely protected and was a great place to fly fish. I blame not catching anything on the fly rod because I didn’t have my whole arsenal of flies. It wasn’t for lack of fish, that’s for sure.

I got to say James paddled the Big Rig the whole trip and he kept up remarkably well. It may be more at home in shallow water and around the mangroves, but I was surprised at how well it handled the open water paddling and swells. It was definitely impressive and it comes with more bells and whistles than a stealth bomber.

The next morning we loaded up the panga with our stuff, said our goodbyes to everyone, then headed back down the coast to Santa Catalina. Staying in Bahia Honda with Edwin and Rosalind was a real treat. Their hospitality is unmatched and they have an incredible set-up to host kayak fishing parties. The fishery they live on is amazing, we barely scratched the surface during our visit, so many species, so many different opportunities. I know the big fish potential is there because we saw that with Jims rooster. If you want to check it out for yourself get with Hennie at Paddle Panama. He was an excellent guide during the trip, very knowledgeable on Panamanian fishing. He took care of everything while we were there and runs a real top notch operation. The only thing we were left to worry about was catching fish.

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(photo: Will Richardson)

After the long taxi ride back to Panama City, we had enough time to get dinner at a restaurant that was around the corner from our hotel. It was a much more authentic experience than T.G.I. Friday’s and the food was pretty darn good too. Glad we got to experience that while we were in Panama City. The next day our flights weren’t until that afternoon, so we put on our tourist hats in the morning and went to tour one of the Panama Canal locks. The size of the ships and the amount of elevation they have to rise in order to cross the country is impressive. As well as the fact that the canal was completed 100 years ago – quite the engineering feat. To think that the Post-Panamax ships that will come through once expansion is complete will dwarf those that are going through the locks now is mind boggling.

After the locks we had one last meal in Panama City – dim sum, on Hennies recommendation. A Sunday tradition for he and his family and I got to admit that was pretty darn good as well. I can’t say enough good things about what Hennie has to offer here in Panama. Besides the trip we went on I think he has three or four other options available that showcase what the country has to offer for the kayak fisherman. We said our goodbyes to Hennie as he dropped us off at the airport. I hope it’s not the last time I see him because it was a blast spending time with him and I’d love to get down there again. Like I said we barely scratched the surface.

There was enough time at the airport for one more beer with the guys before we parted ways. I had never met Jim or Will before the trip and getting to know them was a lot of fun. I thought the dynamic of the group was great, which made for some really entertaining conversations. I hope to fish and work with all of them again in the future. This was loads of fun and proved to be a great learning experience. I have a lot to be thankful for to have had this opportunity. Now it’s back to the real world of dirty diapers and Mickey Mouse Clubhouse for this guy.

For more pictures from the trip and a little backstory as to how it all came together check out http://mountainstomarsh.com/

Searching for Bulls

Blake and I set out Sunday morning in search of bull redfish. Conditions were very favorable as well, with temperatures somewhat mild for winter and partly cloudy skies, tide and winds low, and water clarity very good. If we could even have a taste of how this same day went down last year for me it would be a very good day.

We fished an area of marsh I’ve been dying to check out for some time now. I initially wanted to hit it for the IFA championship, but weather kept me close to the car that weekend. This would be new territory for both of us and I hoped this exploratory trip would pay off. As I said earlier conditions on Sunday were very good, the only thing that would have been better is if water temps weren’t so cold. We were fishing in between polar vortexes so beggars can’t be choosers.

After a short paddle we made to an oyster lined bayou and began to sight fish. Clouds were thick early on so it was pretty slow going. We spooked a few reds and Blake even had an eat, but he threw the hook during the fight. The size of the fish we were seeing was very promising though, these were above slot reds, junior bulls.

We made our way to another oyster lined bayou and soon saw what every redfisherman loves to see, a tail out of the water. Blake made a good cast, but the fish spooked and took off, just like all the others before him. As my drift carried me past the commotion I realized that I was about to run over a pair of reds suspended over oysters. I stuck my paddle down in the mud to stop my kayak and picked up the fly rod, hoping they wouldn’t run off on the little flip cast. Sure enough one took off, but the other inhaled the fly and the skunk was off. At 31″, it wasn’t a bad start to the day.

I tagged this red, took a CPR tourney picture and set him back on his way. After a bit of re-organizing/re-situating I took off in pursuit of Blake, sightfishing along the way. Blake was some distance ahead of me and called to tell me the bayou became narrow and featureless and that he was turning around. I decided to wait for him at a wide bend and investigate the area a little further. Sure enough, hanging behind some oysters and tucked up under some mangrove was a nice redfish. I laid out a good cast that managed to lure him out of hiding. He followed the bait and ate it on the swim. A nice upgrade from the earlier redfish at 33.5″.

I tagged this fish as well, took the terrible CPR picture you see above and set him on his way. Things were going pretty good, we had seen a fair amount of fish and I just boated two in a short period of time, but as was the case for the past two weekends, things just sorta stopped. The tide came in and the number of fish sighted dropped off sharply. We still had good clarity and now we had water over the exposed oysters, but that didn’t translate into success.

We were hoping for an aggressive redfish bite, but it never happened. I thought they might warm up when the sun was at its peak and things were warmest, but they remained laid up, usually around oysters, tucked out of the current – almost like trout in a river. Fishing the winter of 2014, the coldest I can recall for South Louisiana, continues to perplex and leaves me wanting for the warmer days of Spring.

Two redfish is still better than no redfish and I was very happy to have boated a couple of junior bulls on the fly. Plus it really was an incredible day to be outside, the weather was gorgeous. And knowing that another cold front is about to sweep across the state I’m glad I was able to get out. We had icy conditions two days last week and right now we are forecast to potentially have 6″ of snow – unbelievable.