The Educated River Kayak Angler's Edge

Contributed by Jeff Little of Tightline Junkie Journal

The Juniata River in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania was on the rise. Smallmouth moved from scattered positions mid river to tight clusters in shoreline eddies. Tributaries, swollen with the overnight rain were pumping in a stew of disoriented baitfish, stoneflies in varying stages of hatch and the occasional crustacean. So why would six tournament dominating river kayak anglers be sitting in a conference room at the Huntingdon Comfort Inn, instead of fishing that perfectly rising river a quarter mile away?

In that conference room, Jedediah Plunkert, Russell Johnson, Juan Veruete, J.J. Phillips, Bear Wenzel and myself listened as paddling instructor Ben Lawry explained learning comprehension theory. You might have expected bored expressions and longing stares out the window at a river in prime form. Instead of those expressions, there was intense attention, insightful questions and furious scribbling of notes as Confluence Outdoors National Technical Paddlesports Instructor demonstrated how to log a float plan on the American Canoe Association’s app. He then provided feedback on one of the candidates presentations on swift water rescue tactics. Half an hour later on that river, without any fishing gear, we were intentionally flipping kayaks and learning those rescue tactics.

This was the third day of a class designed to teach the American Canoe Association’s “River Kayak Fishing Instructor Endorsement”. It also served to certify several of these kayak anglers as ACA Instructors of “Essentials of River Kayaking”. Days one and two included paddling skills, whitewater maneuvers, self rescue tactics, float plan logistics, maintaining boat position skills and many other river kayak fishing specific skills.

You might expect a world renowned paddler to be teaching these topics to the kayak angling students. He wasn’t. The instructor candidates were. When we got it wrong, he would chime in and demonstrate proper form, then expect return demonstration in proper form. Part of this process is an analysis of the effectiveness of each instructor candidates teaching ability. Graduates of this course will be prepared to do what the co-author of ACA’s first kayak fishing based curriculum has done for years: teach paddling skills to river kayak anglers.

ACA River Kayak Angler Classes
Photo Courtesy of Jeff Little

Juan Veruete of Kayak Fish Pa, LLC collaborated with Ben Lawry to create the River Kayak Fishing Instructor lesson plan. Don’t confuse him with a “kayak fishing guide”. If you are fortunate enough to take his class, you’ll learn how to glide from one eddy to the next by leaning the kayak at the right angle instead of paddling furiously across the current. You’ll learn how to punch upstream through a rapid, using a series of forward, sweep, and draw strokes to perform an attainment.

By helping create this curriculum, Juan is effectively creating his own competition as a kayak fishing instructor. Juan explains his motivation, “I wanted to move the sport of kayak fishing forward. I can only teach so many people in a year. Getting others to teach the technical aspects of becoming a better river kayak angler is needed right now.”

“All of this relates to catching a fish how?”

Most river kayak anglers start out by just doing it. They can move the boat forward in current, turn the boat, stop it where they need to and make a cast while drifting downstream. Why would they pay for someone to show them how to do what they already know how to do?

I’ve been fishing rivers out of a kayak since 1998, and under Ben’s instruction last weekend, I learned how to do it better. Ben doesn’t know a backlash on a baitcaster from a wacky rigged senko. But what he does know is how to get paddlers, including kayak anglers to quickly put the boat where they need to with minimal effort. He taught us how to figure out if a future student of ours learns best by watching, listening, thinking through it, or just doing it. He taught us effective rescue tactics, and how to assist our future students how to reboard their kayak where they can’t reach the bottom.

So safety is a big part of what river kayak anglers need to know. But the biggest boost for the river tournament angler is in the boat handling skills. For instance, if you have a good “catch” (the first part of any paddle stroke, not what you do to fish), you’ll be able to move through the water more silently than a kayak angler who has a noisy paddle stroke. The educated kayak angler will be able to glide across the chute by edging the kayak instead of putting the rod down, and burning precious time and energy with powerful sweep strokes. That angler will also be able to make better time across flat water thanks to proper torso rotation, which means that he can stay on a hot bite late into the tournament, and not worry about missing weigh in.

I can think of two instances of my paddling skill making a difference in a tournament. One involved attaining (advancing upstream through a series of rapids). I found myself being crowded by other tournament participants in a shallow gravel flat. I was catching fish, but they weren’t the ones that would win the tournament. I left the crowd behind, putting several ledges between myself and that group of anglers. I didn’t win the tournament, but called a friend who I know could also attain up to the hot bite, and he did win it.

Another tournament featured high muddy water. While many in the tournament found themselves unable to hold on the tight shoreline and island eddies that held concentrations of fish, I plied a series of car sized eddies, surrounded by screaming fast water. There’s no way I could have caught four twenty plus inch smallmouth in a day without knowing how to effectively ferry, one hand paddle or edge the kayak to hold position. “Fishing” may be the primary sport in the blend of kayaking and fishing, but those who put all their eggs in that basket, and none in the “kayak” basket will be left behind in formal competition.

So when the individuals who have earned ACA certification and start teaching River Kayak Fishing classes, consider taking a class. It will pay dividends on how you place in river tournaments. Learning how to identify river hazards from hydraulics to hypothermia may save your life. Learning the angling specific skills such as forage assessment, pattern development and stealth approaches will certainly save you from being skunked. The boat handling skills you learn in an ACA class will make the difference between fishing marginal water and the best water.

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