I’m going to start by taking you back to the beginning of kayak fishing for me. I had just taken 412 Bait Company live as a business and that winter I received a message from a kayak angler named Noah Heck. He went on to tell me about his passion for kayak fishing and how he had planned to start a tournament trail called Kayak Anglers of Western PA. This whole kayak fishing thing sounded like a lot of fun and a good way for 412 to get out more to the public so I quickly agreed to support the club. I joined their forum and started studying as I do with anything new I get involved in. I had been fishing my entire life from shore and boats but never a kayak. My first thoughts of kayaking brought me to picturing long slender touring kayaks and wondering how anyone fishes out of these. I had a lot to learn to say the least.
On a cold early morning in PA, I went to a lake to meet up for the first time with guys from the club. They had prepared me via multiple emails as to how I needed to dress and what I needed to be safe on the water. Aside from myself and the clothing on my back, I had nothing as far as kayak fishing was concerned. As I’m sure many can relate this quickly turned into my first experience with grassroots kayak fishing hospitality. I pulled up and next to the water was a kayak waiting for me with paddle, PFD, and everything else I needed to get on the water brought by people I had never even met. My first thought was how amazed I was that people I have never met before in my life would go out of their way to get me out on the water. I would quickly learn that this is just normal for a kayak angler. We love what we do so much that bringing someone new to the sport is pretty much as good of a feeling as catching a new personal best. Lucky for me I had a great guy and H.O.W. guide named James Evans there to get me ready to get on the water. The one thing he said to me that has stuck in my head now for years was “keep your chin over your belly button and you’ll be just fine”. The lake was still half frozen at the time and I didn’t catch a single fish, but knew I had tried something new that I was about to absolutely fall in love with.
I quickly went on to purchase my first kayak and prepare for my first tournament. The level of excitement leading up to that event was something I hadn’t felt in a long time and it was almost intoxicating. My thoughts of tournament fishing previously were of intimidation and secrets, but once again I would end up amazed. Eight to ten people showed up at a small private lake and the amount of fellowship and overall friendly attitude was something that I feel taught me how kayak angling was and should be in the future. I was lucky enough to win our little event and that brought on another feeling that I couldn’t explain as anything less than awesome. I was hooked, plain and simple. 412 began to grow through all these great new people I had met and something took hold that would change my life forever.
My next local tournament experience aside from larger events I had recently tried was a River Bassin event in Leechburg PA hosted by Rivers Edge Canoe and Kayak. At this point, I had already met Drew Gregory so I knew his down to earth demeanor, but wasn’t quite sure if River Bassin would fall into what I considered grassroots or if I would see it as a large type of event that I had experienced already at this point. Well, between camping out with good friends and driving around trying to find moving water that wasn’t muddy and or flooded out, it was starting to have a grassroots feel and pretty funny time that I’ll never forget. My buddy Randy Bergin and I finally found water that was safe and fished it all day without a single bite. We laughed and ate lunch on the water that Randy’s girlfriend, Kristen, had made us.
We made fun of ourselves and the fact that the river was flooded into the woods and we couldn’t catch a thing. As these stories carry on, you’ll quickly realize the toughest days of fishing for me are often the best memories. Well Randy and I got back to my truck to find that somehow my battery had died. We finally found a reluctant stranger willing to give us a jump within about an hour and we were on our way. We got back to check in late but it didn’t really matter much because neither of us had caught a fish. We come to find out that due to safety and river conditions Drew had allowed people who didn’t feel comfortable out on the river to fish from shore. This solidified what I was already thinking as far as this trail being grassroots as well. The safety of the anglers and the hope that they could still have a good time was put before the event. This is the sort of thing that I would continue to experience throughout my kayak fishing career and would turn into something I truly cherish.
Through that first year of growth for 412, I quickly realized I wanted to support this kayak fishing thing in any way I could and that there was no reason I couldn’t build these types of relationships with other small grassroots tournament trails. Next thing I know I was involved with trails in West Virginia (MSKA) and Ohio (KFO) and everything as far as camaraderie still held true. I was now convinced that kayak angling was just simply something special and the hospitality and willingness to help others was pretty much a kayak angler requirement
That following year I decided to travel more and fish with some of the trails I support. I drove down to West Virginia to fish the Elk River tournament with some friends from PA and this turned into yet another day I won’t soon forget! In the middle of the tournament I hooked into the biggest Musky I have every caught. Three of my friends stopped fishing and helped me land the beast in the middle of a tournament! A friend’s big catch was more important than the tournament we were fishing and that is yet again Kayak Fishing! I went on to get second place and shortly thereafter was given West Virginian nickname by John Rapp “The Yankee”. Everyone that drove down from PA felt welcome like we were just some of the normal local crew and all had a great time.
My recent experience at the Elk Fork Lakewith MSKA reminded me that grassroots kayak tournaments are, in my opinion, the life blood of this sport. They bring new people to what we love with a welcoming feeling that is almost impossible to explain. You pretty much just have to come out and see for yourself. Without these events,I don’t think kayak angling would be what it is today or what it can potentially be in the future.This weekend I saw over 60 people show up from 3 or 4 states and take over all the hotels in a small West Virginia town for a $35 dollar tournament. I watched a 13 year old young man take big bass and 3rd place with a total winnings of $550 dollars. As I sat there fishing in extremely muddy cold water without a single fish all day I smiled and thought of where kayak fishing has taken me. I support small events like these across the whole eastern half of the United States and I can honestly say that this all began with that little eight-man get together on a small private lake in Western Pennsylvania.
No matter where life takes me I’m fairly certain I will always be a participant in these small (not so small anymore) local events. When I titled this “Home is where the heart is” I hope now after reading this you know that my heart and my home will always be in grassroots kayak fishing tournaments. They made my life and this sport what it is today.