A maritime disaster

It went something like this ...
kayak painting
Photo: Chris Hunt (edited)

There was a barbecue somewhere in Port Isabel over the weekend, and the folks sitting around drinking Shiner had quite the story to tell while the pig finished up in the pit. It was the kind of barbecue I would have loved—sunshine, great weather, good people … some great food and beer.

Just good friends enjoying one of those patented South Texas winter days before the throngs of tourists and spring breakers show up and generally throw everything into chaos.

I'm guessing it went something like this:

Billy: We rented a bunch of kayaks over on South Padre yesterday, me and Sissy and Tommy and Bonnie. We paddled up past the first set of dunes and just had a helluva good time. Man, it was a nice day. Must have been damn near 80. I don't know how those folks up north deal with that cold.

Tommy: Well, it was a nice day for some of us. That one guy didn't have any fun. No, sir. No fun at all.

Billy: Oh, yeah! That poor bastard. What'd he expect, though? He must be 6-foot 6, and I bet he weighs about 300 pounds. That kayak never stood a chance.

(Intermittent laughter)

Tommy: That guy was doomed from the start. Did you see when his fishin' pole fell off the back of his kayak? He turned around and if I could've seen his face, I bet he was pissed! He had to go back and get it. Thankfully, for him, that fly-fishin' reel went right to the bottom and the tip poked up out of the water. Lucky sonofabitch.

Austin: How come you couldn't see his face?

Tommy: He was wearing one of those sissy, stretchy bandana things on his face. I don't know why. I was just wearing some cut-off Levis. I wasn't even wearing a shirt. You know that guy ain't from around here.

Sissy: I felt bad for him. He came out of that boat channel and cruised right by us like we were standing still. He got ahead of us by a good bit, but then that fishin' pole fell in the bay. After he turned around to get his pole, I noticed that little boat sinking deeper and deeper. And then, just as he was crossing the second boating channel, he just tipped right over!

(More laughs. Tommy actually snorts, and snot comes out of his nose. Billy slaps his knee, and realizes just how bad his sunburn is.)

Austin: He tipped a kayak? On the bay? In the boating channel? Where all the bull sharks hang out? Jeezus. Poor sonofabitch.

Bonnie: He wasn't happy about it, neither. He dropped the F-bomb a couple of times. Can't say I blame him. He was wearing those long fishing pants and a long-sleeved shirt and a hat. And he had some fancy fishin' pack on the back of that boat, and it went in, too! I bet he was mad.

Tommy: He wasn't too bright. I mean, for real? That guy thought a kayak was a good idea? He was like a … sasquatch. I mean, really… it had all the markings of a God-damned maritime disaster from the git-go!

(Sissy's turn to snort and spit beer.)

Austin: Then what happened?

Tommy: He swam the boat across to the shallow water and just stood there, lookin' all PO'd and shit. We paddled by and just waved at him—he waved back, but he was soaked to the bone, and he was mad. Good thing it was so nice out. If it was a chillier day, he'd have been sporting some serious glass-cutters!

(Bonnie laughs out loud, and the ash from her cigarette falls between her legs on her camp chair. She hops up quickly and wipes the ash off the seat. Billy spews Shiner Bock out of his nose.)

Bonnie: When we paddled back an hour or so later, he was still there. He'd stuck the paddle into the sand to keep his kayak from blowing away, and he was wading that shallow water and casting that fly pole. I think he was afraid to get back in the boat.

Austin: How did he get back?

Billy: Hell if I know. He might still be out there!

(More laughter.)

Tommy: Well, I think the pig's done. Sissy, bring me another beer, baby. This is gonna be good.

It's a true story. I saw that guy, too. But I know the, um, rest of the story. Not that it makes it any less funny—and it was funny. I felt horrible for the guy. Tommy was right. He was doomed from the start.

You see, when he went to pick up the boat, the outfit from which he'd acquired it explained that it was a fishing kayak, not just your run-of-the-mill, sit-on-top kayak that the casual paddlers get. It had a holder to secure the handle of a fishing rod, and, more importantly, it had a live well, just in case he wanted to bring his catch back to the dock to be filleted. And there was stretchy netting on the back of the boat meant for a fishing pack and the life jacket. He was told by the guy assigning him with the boat that, "As long as you're comfortable with your swimming, you don't need to wear the life jacket."

This was a specialized craft, see? For serious clientele.

Yeah. A fishing kayak. Meant for fishing.

Only, for this poor soul, it didn't quite work out that way, as you might have surmised from the barbecue conversation.

I was there when he left the boating channel. He sure looked like he knew what he was doing — like he'd been on a kayak before. Lots of times, actually. He cruised right by Billy, Tommy, Sissy and Bonnie and was off into the bay in no time.

But then, with his right elbow, he bumped the fly rod he'd secured in the rod holder, and the rod flipped into the drink. He didn't notice it right away, but after going another 20 yards or so, I saw him turn around, and kind of reach behind him. No fly rod.

And I noticed that the boat he was in was sitting pretty low in the water. Lower than it had when he launched the kayak back at the dock. Something was wrong, but I just couldn't put my finger on it. But he managed to get back to retrieve the rod. Tommy was right—the fly reel sank to the bottom in about five feet of water near the boating channel, but the tip poked up out of the bay.

I'm pretty sure it was a Sage IGNITER–those sucker's aren't cheap, you know.

Anyway, just like Sissy said, after he retrieved the fly rod, the kayak just sank deeper and deeper into the bay. As he leaned into paddle on the left (port?) side of the kayak, the boat just tipped. And he had just gotten into the boating channel, so he went all the way in.

I really felt bad for the guy, watching him swim across the channel to a sand flat about 40 feet away. Thankfully, he'd secured the fly rod and his fishing pack under that netting, so, while they got wet, they didn't end up on the bottom. Lucky guy.

He waded up onto the flat and just stood there, soaked to the bone. I could tell he was exasperated. And confused. I mean, it looked to me like he'd kayaked quite a bit before. In fact, it looked like he had spent a lot of time in kayaks, like maybe he'd even kayaked in the Okefenokee Swamp with alligators and snakes. Or like he'd spent some time in the mangrove creeks off of Matlache in Florida chasing snook, or on Sanibel Island's Tarpon Bay, where I'm guessing he caught spanish mackerel like they were going out of style.

Just guessing, of course.

And then Bobby, Sissy, Tommy and Bonnie all paddled by. They waved at him, but you could tell they were holding in the laughs. From my perspective … yeah, it was funny. But I felt for the guy.

Then I watched him as he started inspecting the boat. He lifted off the "sealed" cover in the bow, took a look inside, and then just stood up and glared back toward the boating channel, where he'd picked up the kayak. He replaced the cover, and unsnapped the "sealed" cover to the live well.

"Damn thing is full of water!" I heard him shout across the bay. Well, that makes sense, right? I mean, if the boat is full of water, when the paddler leans one way or the other to paddle, the water inside the boat leans, too—no wonder it tipped over with him on it.

It would appear that the seal on the live well was leaky. Really leaky. He's a big guy—Tommy's sasquatch comparison isn't far off (he's hairy, but he's not that hairy—as far as I know). And the kayak allows for water to come through a few vents in the bottom of the boat to keep it stable (these vents allow water that gets in the boat from incidental accumulation to leak harmlessly out of the boat)—but the live well isn't supposed to take on water unless you put water into it. At least that's what I surmised from my, um, somewhat distant ... vantage point.

I watched as he reached into his soaked fishing pack and pulled out a liter of water. He drank about half of it, and then poured the rest into the bay. Then, he sunk the water bottle into the hollow center of the kayak—or, the live well— and filled it with uber-salty water from the Lower Laguna Madre. It took him a while, but he got most of the water out.

Rather than just give up and head back to the dock, the guy grabbed his salvaged fly rod and started casting what looked to me to be a size 4 white and yellow Clouser—just guessing, of course—around the edges of the boating channel and along the flat where he'd become inadvertently marooned. Right away, he started pulling in some decent speckled trout, and you could tell that his sour mood had mostly gone away.

He secured the leaky boat to the bottom of the flat by sinking one end of his paddle into the sand and connecting the paddle to the kayak via the fabric handle on the side. Boat secure, he started wading out into the bay, casting that Clouser over deeper potholes. He caught quite a few trout and one small-ish redfish—not bad for a guy who just a bit earlier had been up to his neck in bay water.

A while later, Tommy, Bonnie, Billy and Sissy all paddled back to the dock. They passed the fisherman on their way in, and waved again. He just kept on casting. It turned out to be a pretty good day … at least as far as I could tell.

But he did have to get the boat back to the dock, and I could tell he was a little tenuous when it came time to get back in the boat. He tightened down the live well seal as best he could, but he had to get out and bail twice before he hit the boating channel again. Good thing he brought that bottle of water.

And when he finally did get back to the dock—he paddled the last couple hundred yards straddling the kayak with both feet in the water just trying like hell not to tip the boat—he pulled it up the ramp and unloaded his gear.

As he walked back to his rental car, clothes still soaked, he looked at the attendant at the dock.

"You might want to check the seal on that live well," I said … I mean, he said. "Just a thought."

Chris Hunt is the national digital director for Trout Unlimited. He lives and works in Idaho Falls, where he doesn't need a kayak. He has no idea who the poor soul is who dumped his kayak in the Lower Laguna Madre. At least as far as he can tell.


This must be a made up story, for I've been down along the Lower Laguna Madre perhaps 15 trips in my life, and met dozens of local guides and fishermen and women and believe -no local fishermen, would leave someone in this amount of trouble, alone on the water without offering assistance in such a case.

As a Outdoor Writer, it would be unethical for any writer to be close enough, to see the type of fly fisherman/kyaker in trouble and not have the “decency to at least offer help” in seeing someone in trouble.