Kayak Warriors In Paradise

Andy and his wahoo catch.
Photos courtesy of Discovery Channel

The following story appears in the November edition of California Sportsman:

By Chris Cocoles

Imagine pushing a kayak into a pristine mountain lake. You paddle into a secluded cove and leisurely cast flies in calm waters waiting for a fat trout to bite the nymph on the other end. It’s the kind of Norman Rockwell moment anglers everywhere dream of.

In Hawaii, commercial fishing out of a kayak is a whole different world. As Discovery Channel’s new series, Pacific Warriors, explains, this is serious business – fresh tuna, mahi-mahi and marlin are worth big bucks to restaurants – and a dangerous occupation. Sharks, strong currents and weather are all hazards that make this quite a challenge for only the most fearless and hearty combatants.

Pacific Warriors chronicles Hawaii kayak anglers all over the state, including the Big Island’s Andy Cho and Rob Wong Yuen, Maui’s Jon Jon, Oahu’s Boogie-D and his protégé Jason Valle, plus free-diving savant Kimi Werner, the show’s only woman but as tough and defiant as anyone else.

“Kayak fishing is the most extreme kind of fishing,” Cho, known among the Big Island’s fishing poobahs as “The Godfather,” said on the show’s premiere episode in late October. “You’re the captain, crew, angler and the motor – all in one. I’m not doing this for fun; I’m trying to make money.”

On Kauai, California native Jason Schmidt and his fishing partner, Adam King, are less experienced than many of the grizzled local professionals. But they’ll take on the rugged N?pali Coast in search of prized catches that can deliver big bucks.

Schmidt, who grew up fishing the chilly waters of the Northern California coast around Eureka, chatted with us about the warmer yet treacherous waters he takes on in Hawaii.

Jason Schmidt about to impale his catch with his kage.
Jason Schmidt about to impale his catch with his kage.

Chris Cocoles What was it like living in Humboldt County, where fishing in the Pacific is such a big part of the communities?

Jason Schmidt I moved to Humboldt County in my early 20s. I lived in Trinidad, which is a tight-knit fishing town. Commercial and recreational fishing definitely shapes the communities up there. Generations of fishermen really helped refine it.

CC Did you do a lot of salmon and steelhead fishing in the great rivers like the Klamath, Trinity, Eel, etc.?

JS Yeah, I spent countless days pitching flies for steelhead all through the Six Rivers Wilderness Area.

CC Can you share a memory or two from fishing in California?

JS I have lots of great memories from up there. I once spent a whole summer living on my friend’s ranch in Maple Creek. I would walk down to the upper Mad River and rock hop for miles and find dozens of little honey holes catching beautiful little steelies. I would never see another person out there for days on end. Lots of peaceful moments on that river.

CC What prompted you to move to Hawaii?

JS I moved to Kauai in 2000 pretty much chasing the dream. As an avid waterman, living in Hawaii is the ultimate proving grounds. Pursuing big-wave surfing and warm water is what drove me there.

Hawaii legend Kimi Werner trailing a shark underwater.
Hawaii legend Kimi Werner trailing a shark underwater.

CC What was your career experience fishing in a kayak? Was that developed in California?

JS I have been fishing since I was a kid. I grew up with all sorts of small boats. At an early age, my brother got a used touring kayak, which I would use to go dig clams with. Eventually I strapped a piece of PVC to make a rod holder and the rest began to fall in place. Northern California is really where I decided to dedicate my lifestyle to being a waterman. Fishing and surfing on that wild coastline really humbles you quickly. It helped me understand what power is in the North Pacific.

CC You started as a kayak tour guide, but meeting Adam King convinced you guys to get into the fishing business. How did that come about?

JS Soon after moving to Kauai, I started guiding the N?pali Coast on kayaks, which was how I met Adam. We became good friends right off and began our journey into kayak fishing. In the early years we targeted more near-shore fish, which eventually evolved into hunting for pelagic fish. We found a niche market for our sustainably caught fish in local restaurants.

CC Clearly, there are advantages to fishing out of a kayak, such as being able to get the boat into places where bigger boats might not be able to get to. What are some of the others,  and are there some disadvantages as well?

Isaac Brumaghim holds a fish in a kayak.
Isaac Brumaghim holds a fish in a kayak.

JS Because of the small footprint and low overhead costs to fish off the kayak, we are able to keep the prices of our catches affordable for the local community. It’s a very sustainable way to fish and advocates stewardship for this valued resource. Because the kayak is easy to transport, it gives us more options to quickly access prime fishing grounds.

CC Fighting a trophy fish from a kayak in the Pacific Ocean current sounds like part thrilling rush and part terrifying insanity. What is that experience like?

JS Fighting a trophy fish from the kayak is an incredible feeling. It really helps give respect to the beasts we are hunting. The one-on-one battle is very humbling to feel the strength of the animal and power of the ocean it swims in. It’s a very primal feeling.

CC Is there a sense of freedom when it’s just you, the kayak and this big open water you’re fishing from?

JS Yes, it’s that feeling of freedom that drives me the most. I think that’s my biggest draw to kayak fishing. That separation and self-reliance on the ocean wilderness. I find a lot of time to clear my head out there and focus on a task. I now relay it to keep balance in my life.

CC Without giving much away, what can we expect from Pacific Warriors?

JS Pacific Warriors is a collection of extreme kayak anglers with diverse backgrounds and lifestyles, but all share the passion for hunting big fish from their kayaks. I think it will paint a colorful picture of our lifestyles in this beautiful place.

Jason Schmidt.
Jason Schmidt.

CC I have some friends who lived on the Big Island and they tell me about how competitive the fishermen are there. Do you have to have an edge to make it there in the industry?

JS Yes, fishermen tend to be very protective of their honey holes, but again, the ocean is vast and offers opportunity to those who put the time in. The kayak really hones your fishing skills – the simplicity and quietness of the craft is the edge. It really keeps you connected; things out there really begin to become instinctual. People’s desire to eat sustainable-caught fish has opened up a unique niche market for us here.

CC It seems absurd to think otherwise living in beautiful Hawaii, but do you miss the Northern California coast?

JS Northern California will always be deeply rooted for me. I grew up a lot there and it is where I found my place as an extreme waterman. It has so much to offer between the great fisheries, abundant natural areas and open space. The rugged empty coastline is very close to my heart.

CC If I’m traveling to Hawaii, what kind of fishing plan should I have?

JS I recommend folks visiting Hawaii and want to fish should look to find a local angler to help direct them. There are great shoreline fishing places, but conditions can be quite dangerous if you’re not familiar with the spots. There are also many charter boats that offer opportunities to hunt for the trophy fish. Kayak fishing here can be very dangerous for even an experienced angler and I would highly recommend going with an experienced guide. It would also be the best way with the help of local knowledge.

CC How many shark encounters have you faced from your kayak?

JS I pretty much deal with shark encounters every time I’m fishing on my kayak. Sharks like to take advantage of hooked fish; it’s an easy meal. It’s usually a race to get the fish boated before it gets taxed. There’s a mutual respect, though we are very similar as apex predators. CS

Editor’s note: New Discovery Channel episodes of Pacific Warriors (discovery.com/tv-shows/pacific-warriors) can be watched on Friday nights (check your local listing). For more information on Jason Schmidt and kayak fishing on Kauai, check outfacebook.com/Sea-Soljahs-Kauai-Kayak-Fishing-Alliance-214099145346832.