I was thinking, Oh my God, I actually got a fish on this thing. I looked back and saw this monster mahi mahi. It was jumping like crazy, making a show. And I couldn’t believe it had taken my terrible bait. - Joe Hector
My craziest fishing story happened in a kayak. Things went from peaceful to jumping and thrashing in the blink of an eye.
The way it started was normal enough. It was a late afternoon, and I was itching to get offshore even though I was supposed to be working. My buddy Freddie York (who helps me with tournament series-related stuff) came out with me. He’s a good fisherman himself, and we’d heard that there were small tuna going through. These tuna were of the ten to fifteen pound variety, which make the best eating.
We brought our kayaks to Pompano beach, which is a long beach, and I remember dragging my boat through the sand to get to our launch. Pompano is a long beach, so it was a trek. It was also getting close to dusk. Anytime you fish around dusk, you need to keep an eye on the time and the weather and the light, because it can get dangerous offshore after dark.
We got into the water and started paddling and it was smooth. I had a cup of Starbucks in a cupholder in the kayak, and I was sipping on it to keep myself alert. There was an overcast sky with slowly fading light. We paddled out for an hour, which put us about three miles offshore. I’d been watching other people catch fish at my tournaments, which is a blast, but this was a welcome break. I looked forward to catching some fish for myself.
Freddie and I didn’t have any live bait. That’s usually what you use when you fish offshore, but we were in such a hurry to get out fishing that we’d said, Let’s just use jigs. And then just before leaving for the beach, I’d also pulled a bag of old, smelly sardines from my freezer, figuring this would be a chance to get rid of them; they were nasty.
We got to our spot. I started jigging, and Freddie was doing his thing. On a hunch, I took the biggest, stinkiest sardine I had in the bag and put it on my rig and started letting it out, and letting it out, and I kept it in free spool. And then I started jigging again.
I clicked the reel so it wasn’t in free spool and started drifting. And that’s when I felt something go boom on the back of my kayak.
I grew up in a fishing family in South Jersey. My grandfather fished, my great-grandfather, my father. I started fishing at a young age and learned so much so fast. One time, I remember learning how to tie a knot on the boat when I was five, and my grandfather saying, This kid is going to do something special.
My father and I started fishing in tournaments. Sometimes, we’d go a hundred miles offshore to the canyons to fish for the big tuna. A trip like that, it was a couple days of fishing and life on the boat and all the fun that went along with that.
At every fishing tournament I went to with my dad, he made sure we went to the weigh-ins and awards afterward, even if we didn’t place. He wanted us to cheer on the winners. So I did that. And then I remember watching and learning at the same time, seeing how people were running these events. I must have been around fifteen by that time.
The plan in my family had always been that I was going to work for my father. He owns an air conditioning and construction business in New Jersey. I worked for him all through high school, and that’s when I realized that it wasn’t for me. I felt it in my gut. My dad and I had a conversation one day, and I told him what I felt about working for him. He wasn’t happy.
So I talked to my father again. I’d always loved art and been good at drawing and painting, and there was a college called the Art Institute in Fort Lauderdale. I also loved Florida and palm trees. We flew down to Fort Lauderdale, and the moment we touched down I knew I was home.
Driving to the college, I told myself I wasn’t leaving. We walked through the college and got the tour and it was just awesome to me. I base a lot of decisions on gut feelings, and I had a strong one that this was the right move. Four or five months later, I went down to South Florida to start school, and I ended up learning magazine and graphic and web design. Those were all skills that I’d use later to make Extreme Kayak Fishing a reality.
In a weird way, I was on a similar path as my dad. He started his own thing, and I was on the cusp of doing the same for myself.
The nudge that got Extreme Kayak Fishing started came from a low mileage used car that I got from my grandmother.
After my grandfather passed, my grandmother needed to move to a home where people could take care of her. My family went to Palm Coast, Florida to help her move, and I was there too. While we were moving her things, she asked me if I wanted her car: It was a Honda with only 20,000 miles on it. She’d taken good care of it. My wife and I didn’t exactly need another car, but we ended up bringing it back down to South Florida. And then I knew a guy who knew a guy, and managed to sell it for some cash.
I told my wife that we needed to buy a couple of kayaks with the car money. She questioned my decision, but I told her it was an investment. Really, all I wanted to do was get offshore and do some fishing. Maybe it was the Jersey boy in me, wanting to catch fish offshore instead of from the beach.
That’s how I got started with offshore kayak fishing. That’s also how Extreme Kayak fishing was born.
After the first boom from the back of my kayak, I thought, Maybe I just got whacked or something. I didn’t want to keep using the crappy sardine bait anyway. I went back to jigging again. And then the boom happened again, only my line started flying off the spool with a loud whirrr.
I was thinking, Oh my God, I actually got a fish on this thing. I looked back and saw this monster mahi mahi. It was jumping like crazy, making a show. And I couldn’t believe it had taken my terrible bait.
I pulled back on the rod to set the hook and the line went limp. I was thinking, This can’t be happening. Then the line went out again with another whirrr.
I was holding on, keeping the fish on, and then the line went limp again. I shook my head.
Freddie said, Look, look!
We both looked, and in the distance you could see the fish circling my bait on top of the water. Then the fish whacked it again and I pulled right back and set the hook.
I fought the fish for about a half hour. But when I got this monster fish to the side of my kayak, I realized I’d forgotten my gaff for pulling it in.
The thing about mahi mahi is that, when you pull them into a boat, they go crazy ballistic. And the rig I was using was a stinger rig, which had a j-hook and then a line with a whole bunch of hooks on the end in clusters. When you pull a fish like that into the boat, the stinger rig can come off or it can swing around like crazy and hook you.
I looked at the big fish, and I looked at Freddie, and I said, Dude, I need your help.
Freddie said, I’m not helping you dude. That’s a big fish.
I said, Yeah, it is a big fish. And I need your help.
He shook his head no.
I wasn’t going to let this one go. I looked at where the hooks were and stuck my fingers in a gill. Then I heaved that fish up and felt all forty pounds of it as I brought it into the kayak.
The fish started to thrash. I held it up in front of me. Hooks were swinging inches from my cheek. And I had only one option for dealing with it.
With Extreme Kayak Fishing, my wife Maria and I are a tight team. We’re both early risers, up before 6am. She does all the numbers, all our bookings, all the city work for each tournament event. She handles all the sponsorships.
I’m the guy who sells it. I do the traveling work: drive around, talk to the sponsors, ask them what we can do better; I have fun with them. Back at the office, I do our graphic design work, and Maria and I split the social media part.
We’re up to five kayak fishing tournaments a year, and we’re getting started in Texas now. It turns out that kayak fishing is popular in Louisiana and Texas. Our goal is to do six to seven Extreme Kayak Fishing tournaments a year, with a new series in Texas.
If you ask us when we get a break, right now it’s about a three month stretch in the winter when things slow down a little bit. But come January first, we’re back at it to prepare for the first winter tournament at the end of the month. With Extreme Kayak Fishing, we want it all to get bigger and better than it’s ever been.
The razor-sharp hooks were still inches from my face, the fish I was holding was going crazy, and I did the only thing I could think of: I started pounding on it with my fists. And the fish was hitting back, beating me with its body, hitting my chest.
Freddie was watching from his kayak, an incredulous look on his face, and said, What the heck is going on here?
I landed a solid punch on the head of the mahi mahi and knocked it out, and that was it. The fight was finally over. I cut the stomach of the fish open to bleed it out, and tiny worms came out of its stomach and poured into the boat.
I screamed and almost fell out of the kayak.
One more detail: Throughout the entire ordeal with the fish, the Starbucks coffee in my cupholder didn’t spill a drop.
This fish story was so incredible, pictures of the fish ended up on billboards on I-95. The story got on the local news. That one mahi mahi helped put Extreme Kayak Fishing on the map. For that, I’m grateful.
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[Story as told to Jesse Bastide. Content edited, arranged, and condensed for clarity and effect, Ed.]