Watching the Southside fight a 6-foot shark yesterday was too much of a temptation. I just couldn’t resist trying my own luck out there today. I rigged a Rapalla diving plug on a heavy spinning reel, and headed out. The boat I have is a 2003 Cambridge recently traded in, which I just grabbed off the shelf on my way south. I didn’t have a chance to outfit her with any special gear, but I discovered the “v “of the wing rigger and the crossbar of the foot stretcher make a great pole holder.

The sea was again becalmed, a foot or so rollers and an occasional set of 2-3 foot ocean swells. I head straight out for the offshore reef, about 90 foot of depth, according to a conversation I had yesterday with a dive boat. Today there are no sport fish further out. Everyone seems to be trying his or her luck on the reef.

The Cambridge rides this so effortlessly. I can’t imagine a better open water boat. I’ve been out here in flat bottom designs. When the sea is abeam, they stick to the wave face, forcing the down sea rigger toward the water and the up sea rigger into the air. The catamaran designs have an even more pronounced “forced roll” problem. The semi-round bottom seems to best allow the oarsman to use his body English to keep the craft level in a beam sea.
Almost immediately I see some bait getting harassed. I quickly change course to intercept, but after several passes with no action, I head north towards the bulk of the fishing fleet.

Offshore rowing is not much different than near shore. Extra precaution should be taken in carrying safety gear, water, and a cell phone in a watertight bag. Be sure someone knows your intentions, a planned time for your return, and keep it. Most important, fill your craft with airbags. Stuff them everywhere you can. I’ve been in seas where the boat creaked like an old wooden staircase, the power of the waves twisting the bow one direction and the stern another. Respect the limits of your boat and your skills. Here is a good rule: never row to someplace where you couldn’t swim back. After all it only takes a small oarlock failure to disable you.

Solidly in the fishing fleet, I watch one boat bring up a small kingfish. This is what I was hoping for, as Kings and Barracuda are the species I most likely could coax into taking the Rapalla. The adrenaline is running high. Knowing I’m at sea in a 20-inch wide shell, with a rig that could hook a 30 or 40 pound fish, is heart pumping. Several miles of rowing feels like half a mile because of the thrill of not knowing what might crash my lure.
The rowing is tremendous, circling bait pods and floating debris just like a big boat on the troll. Gotta love it! There is a good bit of Sargasso and Eelgrass, but so far I’ve managed not to snag any at all. The surface weed is avoidable buy timing a good left or right pull just as the weed approaches the fishing line. Being that one rows backwards, my eyes are constantly on the rod tip and line. Occasionally the shell rises, then pounds the sea, but no water has entered the cockpit, protected by the oversized splashguard on the Cambridge. She likes it out here.

I don’t have a self-bailer installed on this boat, and don’t usually recommend one, except on a flat-deck boat like our Regatta. Once a friend and I rowed to the Gulf Stream and back, him in a Cambridge, me in a Regatta. I was waterlogged a third of the way out, yet he retuned bone dry. If you plan to row open water larger than a foot, I recommend the Cambridge. Or at least the optional splashguard on the Regatta.

What a good feeling. The anticipation of a strike, the surging speed as the boat surfs a swell, the muscle pump, the sights, sounds and smells?, all giving back much more than a workout. To quote a good friend, I’m feeling younger every year!

Twice more I locate pods of bait, but nothing happens. I’ve been at it a couple hours, and I’m running low on water. Time to head for the inshore reef and perhaps a chance at a Grouper.

On the long trip in, the steady unbroken cadence of the oars sets me psychically in a zone, and my mind drifts to loftier thoughts. To love God, enjoy His creation, to use the body and mind and spirit He gave us? It’s just natural to praise Him and give Him thanks for the incredible experiences life offers. On shore I have two beautiful children being cared for by an incredible loving wife. They are the greatest gifts a man could ask for. And at 48 years young, God has humbled me by giving me another child on the way. Another son, we learned last week. I pray for their health, and happiness, not because I feel a need for anything at this moment, but because in your word to us you ask us to. What Father wouldn’t want his children to ask him to care for them?

The water is bathtub clear as I pass over the inshore reef. I can clearly see boulders and fan coral. It is less deep than further south and the chance of snagging the bottom is pretty high. The swell is bigger here, and a lot of fun to surf.

Suddenly my cadence is broken by the sound of the reel singing. That’s the sound I’ve been waiting for, even though it is likely a snag on this shallow reef. Despite knowing better, I reach for the reel. In a 20-inch wide shell, letting go of the oars to fight a fish is not the plan. Let it run, you’ve got plenty of line, I remind myself. Get the foot strap loose to fasten tightly around both oar grips. That’s the plan.

I’ve fought Redfish from shells in the shallows. The Reds love to burry themselves in the grass, forcing you to row over while keeping the line taught. It’s a tremendous challenge. Part of the time the oars are locked between your knees and chest, with arms over top of that, hands free to reel. When the fish is close, one can stroke both oars in one hand, tiny strokes to make a bit of way. The real challenge is boating the fish. Once it sees your oars, it is as though the fish has used oars as a tool for dislodging hooks all its life. This is definitely a challenging way (some would say a ridiculous way) to catch a fish. If your goal is to actually catch fish, your odds are much better in a Heritage than is a shell.

Before I can get the foot strap set, the boat motion stops and the slack line tells me I’ve only snagged the bottom. Freeing the ten-dollar lure from the bottom turns out to be its own worthy challenge, which I’m determined to beat and eventually do.

Back at the beach, my daughter greets me, anxious to hear about the trip. Like many fisherman, all I have to show is a new bruise or two, and an excitement to try it again soon.

by B. Larson