CHARLESTON, W.Va. — What started as a group of buddies getting together to go fishing has morphed into an exploding sport in West Virginia. The age of the fishing kayak has arrived and it has taken West Virginia by storm.
Ben and Jeremy Smith from Huntington organized a small group of kayak fishing enthusiasts and called it the Mountain State Kayak Anglers.
“Back in 2013 they saw the opportunity for this sport to grow in West Virginia,” said Chris Schafer Promotions Director for the organization. “Initially it was a group of friends who would meet every month with eight to ten guys and they would have a friendly competition and it’s grown. Last weekend we had our first competition of 2016 and we had 147 anglers.”
Kayaks have long been viewed as whitewater plaything, but over time anglers discovered they offered tremendous access to smaller waters and isolated fishing spots which couldn’t be reached otherwise. The evolution began with retrofitted kayaks and homemade gear adaptations. That too has now caught the attention of manufacturers.
“These are no longer a simple plastic boat,” Schaffer said. “These are all out fishing machines. They are fully stable to where you can stand up and fish. They’re equipped with rod holders, fish finders, anything you can imagine now has been put on a kayak.”
The Mountain State Kayak Anglers have also initiated a tournament trail which can vary from the state’s largest waters to some of the smallest. John Rapp is the tournament director and said there are adaptations from the conventional bass tournament and technology plays a huge role.
“We practice ‘Catch, photograph, and release,'” Rapp explained. “We have identifiers that have to be in each picture which aren’t handed out until the day of the tournament to make sure the fish was caught that day.”
Anglers purchase a measuring board which is a standard for kayak angling. Each fish caught has to be photographed on the measuring board with the fish length clearly visible and the identifier for the tournament visible. There are pitfalls to the system which is part of the challenge. The fish isn’t official until the picture is snapped and it isn’t uncommon for a lively fish to flip itself back into the drink before the shutter clicks.
“It happens all the time,” said Rapp. “It’s really frustrating.”
There is also the inherent danger of dropping your phone into the water. Beyond the normal aggrevation it might cause it also amounts to releasing an entire day’s catch back into the water.
“I’ve actually done that,” said Schafer. “On a tournament at Woodrum Lake I was on my way back and wanted to make that ‘one last cast.’ When I did something got hung up, I turned the boat over and my phone went to the bottom of the lake along with all of my fishing gear.”
Technology has advanced now to where anglers can isntantly post their catch to an on-line website and anybody can have access to how each participant is doing throughout a tournament day.
“In the past they would just show me their phone, but now we’ve gone to an online system where they upload it and it can be scored in real time,” Rapp said. “Folks anywhere can hit update and see who is winning the event up to about 1 p.m. We get online and shut off the system for the last two hours and it builds up the suspense going into the check in.”
But as many realize in West Virginia, some of the best places to fish are well away from cell service coverage. During those events, Rapp said there is a check in time and place where anglers can show up with their phone to show their day’s catch. The rules allow an angler to fish any part of a body of water and put in and take out anywhere they want, but the check in time and travel to get there is always a consideration.
“Strategy is the key,” said Rapp. “Because it could take you 45 minutes to get 15 miles.”
The events have been staged on every body of water from Cedar Lakes in Ripley to Summersville Lake. Schafer said the tournaments have exposed a lot of people to water they never thought would be good fishing. As an example, the group staged an event on the Coal River and did well.
“We caught a ton of fish and the person who won the event went all the way up to Whitesville where it almost turns into stream,” said Schafer. “We’re starting to get reports out of the Guyandotte River of great smallmouth caught there. The New River overshadows everything and you kind of lose focus on other bodies of water, but we have some really great fisheries and we’ve tried to focus our efforts in the club to expose people from out of state to what we have.”
Schafer said typically they’ll draw a number of out of state anglers at each event and the National Kayak Fishing Association has selected West Virginia to host one of their six national qualifying tournaments this year. More than 150 anglers will stage in Hinton on Labor Day weekend for the event which will allow for fishing on the New River, Greenbrier River, and Bluestone Lake. Incidentally, Matt Ball from West Virginia and a member of the MSKA was the 2015 National Kayak Fishing Champion.