Salty Stories: Handline Fishing From a Kayak in Long Island Sound

by Owen James Burke

I grew up fishing in a small pond with my father who would back-paddle a two-seater kayak called “Keowee”, so that I could keep an anxious watch over the bobber above my fly, ready to drive the hook into sunfish and bass half the size of my hand. One time I caught a “large” perch of about two pounds, which we brought home and cooked on the grill for dinner, but I hadn’t yet experienced a true battle with a large fish at sea.

“What happened?” my mother screamed one afternoon as my father walked into the house after kayaking–she must have thought he’d been in a fight.

A fight of sorts. My father proceeded to explain to her that he had in fact gotten into a fight, with a bluefish. He had been on one of his routine paddles while trolling a hand line with a clouser (a medium-sized weighted fly that imitates a baitfish). As always, he had forgotten it was out when his kayak began to pull backwards and spin around–this is your strike indicator with a hand line in a kayak. After fighting the fish back and forth for some time, he managed to bring it to the forward deck, successfully “landing” the fish, he hadn’t the slightest clue what to do with the bloody thing.

Well, with the bluefish probably being somewhere around three feet long, and the beam of my father’s kayak only about two feet and a half, he must have had a hard time attempting to secure it because when he arrived at the back door of our house, he looked as if he had been in some sort of boxing match or a bar brawl. All I know is that the fish managed to escape, and I never found out from whom it was that the blood was really drawn, the fish or my father.

The point is that hand lines work. Maybe it’s because the fish below can sense our impatience through the large graphite rods, springs and gears we are accustomed to using, and that the handline works with natural finesse, while dangling behind the paddler it is more often than not forgotten, that is until a fish takes a fancy to it. Maybe it’s because handlines are just that much more convenient. My grandfather carried handlines in the trunk of his car at all times, and they came out at all times–once during a wedding. Who would have the audacity to bring a fishing rod and reel to a wedding? But then again, who would pass it up? A handline is discrete, making for the perfect solution when a stealth approach is the objective.

There really is no need for the bulk of a conventional fishing rod and reel, and certainly not in a kayak. People were fishing for a long time before Penn reels were invented, and many, if not most, large fish have been caught with nothing more than 20 or 30 pound test monofilament line attached to a small plate of wood or even a water bottle tied fast to one end and just a small clouser on the other, as my father has always done. He’ll be the first to say there’s no need for such expensive rods and reels (he’s also a sailor). I had always watched him tie flies in the winter, rigging them up in the spring for the early season striped bass run. But it wasn’t until the day that my father came home after kayaking, dressed in his whites and soaked in blood from head to toe, when I realized what was really waiting out there beyond that little pond, below the dam and out in the brine.

*photo via owenjburke*

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