Hardy Alaska kayak anglers trade power for paddles to soak in the beauty

Hannah Heimbuch | The Homer Tribune
Rudy Tsukada of Anchorage was one of three kayak anglers who took part in the Homer Winter King Tournament on March 22 in Homer. Courtesy Homer Winter King Salmon Tournament

For Sarah Lukin, landing a salmon from a kayak combines the best of two worlds.

“I love the beauty and calm of sea kayaking,” Lukin said. “And I love the excitement of bringing in a fish. Combining the two makes sea kayaking more fun and fishing more challenging.”

Lukin is one of several Alaska anglers who fished in Homer's annual Winter King Salmon Tournament from a kayak.

“I’ll get to fish with several highly experienced sea kayak fishers,” Lukin said said before the tournament. “So I’m planning to spend the day learning as much as I can from them.” Lukin said she’s been hooked on kayak fishing since she first tried it and loves the challenge. “You’re fighting not only the fish, but also trying to stay focused on maintaining your kayak’s stability and direction. It’s thrilling to know you’ve just brought in a fish all on your own in this tiny kayak in the middle of the ocean.”

Avid kayak angler Rudy Tsukada said that despite the challenges, fishing from a kayak is a safe and peaceful way to get out on the water if you have the right equipment. “The sit-on-top kayaks we use are very stable,” Tsukada said. “In fact, the kayak I use -- the Hobie Outback -- likely cannot be flipped in normal conditions. You will fall out of the kayak first.”

Wearing a dry suit for warmth and protection is also a must in Alaska, said Tsukada, an outspoken supporter of the sport. So is a personal flotation device and some form of communication -- like a VHF radio or water-protected cell phone.

“I am amazed how so many people fish here in Alaska and so many people kayak -- but very, very few people fish out of their kayaks,” Tsukada said. “It’s a great way to get exercise, and the price is right in terms of fuel use.” While he owns powerboats, Tsukada said kayak fishing offers major benefits. “I mainly fish out of a kayak because it allows me to get on the water by myself, on my own schedule, and still catch fish,” he said.

Many kayak anglers outfit their vessels with a lot of the same gear a power boat might have. Pamela Kelley is as equipped as most power boats, she said, but enjoys fishing from the peaceful seat in her pedal-powered kayak. “I’ve got sonar,” Kelley said. “I’ve got GPS. I’ve got mapping and charts. So you really do have the tools that you would need.”

The only limitations Kelley said she faces are her strength and stamina. But she’s found she doesn’t need to go far from shore to find good fishing, and the benefits easily outweigh the difficulties. “I can get out and fish a lot without having to tow a boat, and without having to invest in a lot of fuel,” she said. “It’s a pretty pristine way to fish.”

And the lack of power isn’t necessarily a disadvantage when it comes to getting a fish on board, Tsukada said. “My theory is that, since you cannot apply the same amount of pressure on a fish that you can while fishing on the bank or from a boat, the fish won’t fight back as hard,” he said. He believes this is why he has a better track record of landing fish from his kayak. “So I hook fewer fish because I cannot cover as much water, but I bring home nearly as many fish because I land a higher percentage.”

Kelley likes being able to easily fish on her own. Plus,  compared to the cost of power boats and gear, her investment is low. Tsukada estimates startup costs for the sport at around $3,000 for high-end gear and safety equipment, acknowledging that it can be done for $1,500.

That investment has paid off for Kelley. “I can throw my boat on top of my car and get to a launching place, and I can fish all day,” she said. “And I can fish in places that are amazingly beautiful.” She said it brings a new quality to the experience. “I didn’t realize how much I would enjoy the ocean kayaking just for its own sake,” Kelley said. “The fishing doesn’t have to be superlative for it to be a good day. I’ve never had a bad day on the water.”

Both Lukin and Kelley use a sit-on-top kayak, which frees up the hands to focus on fishing. “The logistics of bringing in a fish from a traditional sea kayak can be challenging,” Lukin said. She recently bought a Hobie Outback, which uses pedal power, and a miniature down rigger for trolling.

Lukin’s advice to other kayak fishing hopefuls -- gather information first. “Make sure you’re comfortable kayaking before you jump into kayak fishing,” she said. “Do your research before you go. Talk with folks who are experienced sea kayak fishers and check out online forums that focus on kayak fishing in Alaska.”

The great thing about the sport, Kelley said, is you don’t need to be an adrenaline seeker or very athletic to pursue the sport. “It’s a wonderful way to just be connected,” she said. “I would just like to see more folks attempt it. And I’d love to see more women do so. You don’t need to be a big brawny guy to have really good success in doing this. And it’s an awful lot of fun.”

Tsukada enjoys kayak fishing in Southcentral Alaska. “Homer is my go-to destination lately from September to November,” Tsukada said. “In 2013, I was fortunate enough to land a dozen kings during that period in about eight trips. The eating quality of these winter kings (is) exceptional.”

None of the three kayakers entered in Homer's Winter King Salmon Tournament landed a fish -- but the weather was good and there was plenty of company, a total of 906 anglers. Raymond Tepp of Kenai won the tournament with a 30.6-pound king that earned him more than $19,000. 

This story first appeared in the Homer Tribune and published here with permission.