The second-largest kayak fishing tournament in the United States takes place in New York City. For three days in the middle of May, the Kayak Fishing Classic at Jamaica Bay draws hundreds of anglers from across the country to the southern inshore waters of Brooklyn and Queens. Their target is striped bass, plus bluefish, weakfish, and fluke, four migrant saltwater gamefish that follow bait into the bay as the water warms each spring.
Photos by Tim Romano
Anyone can enter this tournament, so I registered to compete last year, together with photographer and Field & Streamer blogger Tim Romano. We were looking to learn what it’s like to fish in one of these events, to see why they’ve become so popular, and to better understand why the sport of kayak fishing has grown so quickly in recent years.
Rules and Regulations
Legal waters for the Kayak Fishing Classic are any within the boundaries of Jamaica Bay, a 25,000-acre coastal lagoon surrounded by New York’s southernmost outer-borough neighborhoods. Tournament headquarters is an RV and two large banquet tents set up a hundred yards from the water at Floyd Bennet Field, an old, mostly abandoned airport in Brooklyn on the southwest corner of the bay.
Fishing starts at noon on Friday, so Tim and I pull in and park among the trucks drawn up around the headquarters at about 11:00 am. There are roughly 100 vehicles there already, surrounded by kayaks, fishing gear, and tents, which is where anglers sleep during the three day event.
We find a patch of grass along one runway and set up our tent, then walk across the tarmac to the Captain’s Meeting, an orientation session and opening ceremony directed by a retired FDNY lieutenant who now owns a kayak shop out on Long Island.
“Gentlemen, ladies, this is a catch, photograph, and release tournament!” Jerry Collins is standing in front of the RV. His Long Island accent booms out across the crowd. “Fish you can’t release don’t count.” He lifts a long sticker from a box at his feet. “This is your measuring tape. You put it on your paddle.” To enter a catch, he says, you have to take its picture against the sticker, then turn your camera in by the deadline at the end of the day. A judging committee reviews these photos, assigns your fish an official length, then posts the leaders on a big whiteboard pegged up beneath one of the tents. Tournament hours are 5 AM to 7 PM. “Make sure you keep an eye on your watch,” he says. “Guys, I’ll be really sorry for you, but if we don’t see you pulling in by 7, well,” he shrugs, “I don’t care if you’ve got a 50-inch bass on there. You’re out of luck.”
Yak Modders and Mad Yakkers
There’s no starting gun, but by the time Jerry’s done talking there are already a couple of guys heading to the water. It’s a beautiful day, 70 degrees and sunny with a manageable southwest wind. Everyone drifts off to finish rigging their boats, pair up if they’re not with a buddy, then wheel their kayaks down to the water. Balloon-tired beach carts stack up on the edge of the launch ramp.
The kayaks are a mix of mostly high-end, paddle- and pedal-powered outfits. Hulls are studded with RAM mounts and GPS units. Rods, nets, and flag poles thrust from milk crates stuffed with tackle boxes. Since it’s so easy to modify a kayak, everything is rigged a little differently. One guy shows us a rod-holding system he built out of PVC, then painted the exact same shade of yellow as his boat. You can tell what these anglers think about all winter.
Most people carry both conventional and spinning gear, set up to switch quickly between trolling tubes, snatch hooks, bucktails, and plugs. Some guys keep livewells on their boats. A few carry homemade bunker tubes, big plastic pipes drilled full of holes that they tether near their seats and fill as they snag bait. I ask if the tubes don’t add drag to a boat. “Nah,” says one odd duck with a thick Boston accent. “Put enough pogies in there and it’ll swim faster than you can pedal. Looks like a mini sub.” He laughs. “I’ve always wanted to put a flag on one and turn it loose in Boston Harbor. Freak out Homeland Security.”
A Great Place to Start
The PVC rod rack belongs to Dennis Glynn, an autobody specialist for a Nissan dealer in Smithtown. He tells me he got into the sport three years ago, after he sold his power boat because it was too expensive to maintain. His brother, Bill, is standing next to him and says he bought his own kayak at the same time. I ask them how they first got turned on to the idea. “YouTube!” says Bill.
Both Dennis and Bill are members of a local group called the Kayak Fishing Association of New York. Many of the anglers in this tournament are members of one club or another. For some guys that’s the whole draw. For them, the tournament is weekend-long campout and barbecue, a chance to swap stories with people who love to fish.
For others, clubs and tournaments meet a more civic need. A lot of the momentum behind efforts to reduce habitat loss, clean up beaches, lobby for public access and recruit kids and women into the sport comes directly from guys like these. Clubs help focus that power, and tournaments help direct it toward specific causes. This one’s raising money for three of them: Heroes on the Water, a sportfishing education facility, and a take-a-kid fishing program operated by The Fisherman, a popular local magazine.
But the reason most people join clubs, or even attend tournaments, is to find veteran anglers to show them the ropes. “Everybody’s willing to talk to each other,” says Dennis. “You go to Montauk, to one of those surfcasters things and most guys won’t give you the time of day. Here, everybody wants to help you out.”
I ask Jerry later why he thinks this is. “It’s hard to just jump into it on your own,” he says. “Most people need guidance.” And a tournament, he says, is a great place to find it. “You have the advantage of coming and seeing 300 rigged kayaks, most owned by people who are so friendly they’re willing to take you along with them just to show you the ropes.”
A Fish On The Board
All this happy sharing gives you lots of warm and fuzzies, but there’s also a healthy spirit of competition, particularly among the anglers who fish these waters often. As a registered contestant, I am not immune. J-Bay is the first place I fished after moving to New York City; my buddies and I used to rent old wooden skiffs out of Broad Channel, throwing topwater plugs wherever we could find diving birds. Nine years later I am in no way a local, but I figure I’ve learned enough to get lucky.
“So, yeah, I’m not going to point my telephoto lens at the guy with the gun anymore.” Tim Romano pedals away from the shoreline, his digital camera cradled in front of his chest. He’s been photographing a group of guys lined up along the rocks across the water from JFK airport, some of them with surf rods and says he just saw a drug deal go down.
Some of the best places to fish in the bay front up on some rough neighborhoods. One night late in April I was out on the water at this same spot when a full-scale manhunt blew up, three choppers running a grid overhead and at least four police boats cruising the banks, all shining spotlights into the woods along the shoreline. The spring before, I met three cops on the ramp as I was pulling the kayak out of the water at about 2 AM. The first question they asked was, “did you guys see the body out there?”
We’re fishing on the northeast corner of the bay, a long way from Floyd Bennet park. It’s an excellent spot, but it’s as far from tournament headquarters as you can go, too far to paddle, so you have to drive there and drop in. At 5 AM on a Saturday this only takes you 15 minutes. But at 6:30 in the evening the streets are packed. Catch a nice fish too late in the day and you’ll miss the 7 PM cutoff.
We’re starting to run up against that deadline, so I turn my attention back to the pod of nervous bunker that’s stacked up in front of my kayak. I cast a weighted treble hook out past the tail end of the school, then haul back and snag one for bait. Bunker are big fish, 12 to 16 inches long, and this one tows my kayak as it tries to keep pace with its buddies. My rod thumps in time to beat of its tail. Suddenly the cadence changes, from a steady pulse to a panicked dash, then a sudden stillness that tells me it’s time to set the hook.
It’s a nice striper, 36 and a half inches long, not huge, but the biggest I’ve caught all day. I lip the fish after a 10-minute fight, we snap a couple of photos, then pull in our lines and boogie to the put in. I don’t have much hope that this bass will be a winner, but it’s bigger than anything I saw on the board the night before and I’m gripped by the need to make it back before Jerry shuts things down.
The ride back to headquarters is urban combat driving at its finest. By the time we’ve got the kayaks up on top of the truck it’s already 6:30, making the trip across town a mad dash to the finish line. We time all the lights and cut lanes like a cab driver, arriving just as the clock on our dashboard ticks to 6:58. Jerry gives us a look, but we’ve made it. My fish joins a three-way tie for third. I’m nearly as proud of crossing town so quickly as I am of catching one for the board.
Sunday opens to a cold front, with low clouds, higher winds, and a 10-degree drop in the thermometer. A lot of the anglers stay off the water, but the hardcore go out, and I join them. It’s all for the story, I tell myself, but really I’m just burning to win.
Soon after we start fishing the rain begins to fall. It’s clear that the bite has slowed. We can’t find much action on the bunker pods, so we troll tubes around the points for a while for a few small bluefish before calling it quits and heading back to headquarters, cold, tired, and hungry. The tournament ends at noon, and almost everyone is already packed beneath the banquet tents when we get back, waiting for lunch and picking over tables of gear that a few clubs are raffling off.
One of them is called The Wolfpack, based out of Jersey. “We have no rules, no dues, no meetings, just a mailing list and a small forum,” says founder Frank Healy. Guys from all over the mid-Atlantic attend their events. “We post something and see who comes. Sometimes as many as 25 guys show up. Everybody’s a member. All you have to do is come out with us once.” One of his buddies chimes in. “It’s like following the Grateful Dead,” he says. “Just without the drugs.”
By this time a crowd has gathered around the computers where the judges are reviewing photos of the leading fish, assigning final lengths to decide the winners. My biggest ends up tied for 6th place with three or four others. The guy who wins it all is Elias Vaisberg, a 26-year-old Madison Avenue espresso-machine salesman who fishes the bay at least three days a week. He’s a Hobie guy, a pedal-yakker, who’s competing for the third time. I ask him how he got into the sport. “I was a frustrated surf fisherman,” he says. “I watched too many blitzes from shore.” His 46-inch striper is the biggest fish of the tournament.
I ask Jerry if anybody ever kicks up a fuss about the numbers. He shrugs. Rarely. Most people are pretty relaxed. “It’s not about winning here,” he says, “it’s about fishing.”
Editor’s Note: Registration for the 2014 Kayak Fishing Classic on Jamaica Bay is now open. Check out CaptainKayak.com for details, rules, and prizes.