In December 2011, an epic run of sand eels drew millions of striped bass and thousands of anglers to Seaside Heights, New Jersey. In my neck of the woods, this scenario causes anglers to lose their mind. I am not immune.
Without a motorboat and unable to reach the fish from the sand, my buddy James and I decided we would assault the striper schools by launching our kayaks through the surf. Never mind neither of us had ever launched through the surf.
It crossed my mind that December was not the best time for my first attempt at launching from the beach, but I figured there were mitigating factors. To begin, James was an accomplished surfer. I figured he would know if we could launch or not.
On top of that, the forecast called for a cold morning followed by a warm afternoon. The conditions were too perfect to ignore.
But most intoxicating, I had spent days on my computer watching local surf cams showing clouds of birds working schools of bait.
James and I pulled up to the beach at 5:00 a.m. In the dark, we walked over the dunes to check out the surf. The tide was up, the beach short. A clean, low swell was rolling in over the sandbar.
“It’s not big, but it’s definitely ridable,” James said. “I almost wish I had my surfboard.”
We stood watching waves, waiting for the sun to come up. The swell was long and smooth, with predictable pauses between the sets. I figured the lull would be long enough to avoid the waist-high breakers tubing down the beach.
“What do you think?” I asked.
“It’s doable,” James shrugged. “As long as you time it right.”
“Let’s go.” I walked back to the truck and started unloading my kayak. I laughed nervously, “We didn’t haul these boats down here for nothing.”
I am easy prey for enthusiasm. James had his Hobie Revolution, a long, thin, quick boat perfect for open water and surf launches. I was anxious to try out my new Ocean Kayak Torque, one of the early attempts at motorized kayaks, powered by a full-size 12-volt marine battery.
Just looking at the sleek boat, I pictured myself zooming through the breakers, chasing schools of stripers, spray flying, wind in my hair. I didn’t give much thought to the 60-pound battery mounted under my legs.
The first thing I learned is going out is the easy part. I watched James time the sets then rush through the first lull in the waves. I was next, dragging the heavy boat through the shore break and jumping in, then I cranked the motor and sliced through the crest of the first big wave. Salty foam smashed me in the chest, but the boat barely slowed. The next wave passed gently under my bow before I made it outside the breakers.
We fished all morning, chasing schools of striper just outside casting distance from the beach. We threw Deadly Dicks into the back side of the rips and caught so many schoolies I lost count. By 10:30 the beach was lined with guys, most of whom were catching nothing while we landed fish after fish. “I think we made the right call!” I remember chuckling to James.
The second thing I learned about surf launching is never tempt fate. An hour later, the wind picked up, stiff and gusty from the southeast, cutting a chop on the water. By this time, the tide had drained out, turning the beach into a wide, shallow flat covered with whitewater. A messy swell thumped the outer bar.
Reality set in. My face grew dim. I twisted in my seat and looked over my shoulder for a break in the sets. We waited, waited, waited before James shouted “I’m going!” and started sprinting his Hobie to the beach.
James’ Revo was quick. My electric boat took a lot longer to pick up speed. By the time James had made it to safety, I was only halfway to the beach. The next wave caught me, lifting my stern into the air. I leaned back into the wave, but the battery was too heavy. As the boat slid forward, the bow plunged underwater. I bailed out to the side just before the bow thumped sand, pitchpoling the kayak in front of at least 50 surf anglers.
Two waves later, I finally dragged my mess onto the beach. I was out a hat, a nice pair of sunglasses, a tackle box and my brand-new lip gripper. One rod stood broken in its holder, the other somehow survived. Catching my breath with water dripping down my face, I tried to laugh off the cat whistles and applause from the surf anglers and beachcombers.
The third lesson to surf launching, I don’t start bragging until I am safe on the beach. “If you find my Boga Grip, it’s all yours,” I told the guy in a track suit who was clapping at my performance. “Call it the stupid tax.” Nate Matthews
Rule 1: Going out is the easy part. | Photo: Chris Castro