About a year ago, Kayak Kevin Whitley disappeared from his beloved Chesapeake Bay. Where did Drum Jesus go? Look west. Whitley had discovered a network of rivers around Richmond, Virginia, filled with smallmouth bass and guarded by a cauldron of whitewater. It wasn’t long before he talked me into joining him.

Whitley doesn’t go half-ass into anything. He showed up at the landing with two Ocean Kayak Trident 11 kayaks. “They’ve got some rocker for the rapids,” he pointed out. He added the Trident’s shallow cockpit and large scuppers drain water quickly.

How To Survive Whitewater For The Best Fishing Spots

The most important feature of the boat is a large centre hatch to store rods before hitting the rapids. “Rig to flip, you’re going into the water eventually,” he told me. The disadvantage to his fishing kayak is the pronounced keel. “It is grabby in the rapids,” he says.

A lesson I learned the first time I went into the water. Even the most compact, sporty fishing kayak is ill-suited for class II and III rapids. No avoiding it, chaos and calamity are part of the fun. Careful rigging makes it possible to survive unscathed.

To improve control and keep himself in the boat through the rough stuff, Whitley installed thigh straps. “Lean hard to turn the boat and keep it upright,” he instructed. I tightened the straps for a solid fit.

I asked about the airbag in the tankwell. “I flipped twice when the stern filled with water,” he said. After that, he rigged the boat with an air bladder to fill the well.

On top of the air bag, Whitley lashed a waterproof gear bag to hold tackle.

A gear track beside the tankwell secured a YakAttack Omega rod holder. Whitley had it angled almost parallel with the deck to hold the rod out of the reach of overhead trees.

He handed me a helmet and Kokatat Bahia Predator life jacket. Even gentle rolls and mild whitewater pose the risk of injury. “Better safe than scared,” Whitley reasoned.

One rod on the deck, a back-up in the center hatch, a small box of lures, two bottles of water, a five-liter dry bag for odds and ends and we were on the water. “Even if the fishing sucks, the rapids are fun,” Whitley hooted on the first drop.

After my first couple runs, I couldn’t wait to brag to longtime river rats. Kayak Angler contributor Juan Veruete was my first call. “I’m a river fisherman!” I chortled. Veruete laughed. After 10 years guiding clients on the Susquehanna, he knew I was hooked.

Veruete’s first whitewater experiences came as a kid running rapids in a row boat. “Don’t tell my mother we did this,” he laughs.

Today, Veruete gets a kick out of navigating the rapids. “I take time to surf the waves and practice ferrying across the current into an eddy.” Veruete says time in the rapids improves his boat handling skills.

Veruete also likes to paddle a 12-foot boat with some rocker.

“Wilderness Systems ATAK 120 is my choice,” he says. Veruete stresses the importance of weight when whitewater fishing. “A heavier kayak will be slower maneuvering through the rocks,” he says.

Hold On! Minimal rigging makes whitewater fishing possible. |Photo: Sonya Anthony
Hold On! Minimal rigging makes whitewater fishing possible. |Photo: Sonya Anthony

Both Veruete and Whitley leave rod leashes at home. “I learned that lesson the hard way,” Verutue recalls. Ten years ago he was leading a river class and a client insisted on tethering his rods to the boat. “This was before safety protocols had been established for kayak river fishing,” he points out. Long story short, the client went in the water, got tangled in leashes, broke two rods but made it through the rapids uninjured. “If the flow had been higher, he would have been in dire straits,” Verute says.

Unlike rigging for other pursuits, whitewater rigging is a matter of safety. Veruete carries a throw rope and sends the most experienced paddlers through the rapids first and last. He explains, “If there is any problem, someone is above and below.”

To best prepare for the benefits of whitewater fishing, Veruete encourages anglers to take an American Canoe Association class on river safety. Tackling rapids leads to unpressured fishing holes where the biggest smallmouth live.

The reformed coastal angler Whitley adds, “The wind doesn’t blow and the current always runs one direction.”


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