Hooked on Kayaks
After a brief moment of strangeness, I noticed that the dude was sprinkling a red powder called Butt Rub on his steak. Ah, that Butt Rub! Thanks man, but I’ll stick to the salt and pepper.
So I’m having dinner with a bunch of folks I’d just met when this dude from Texas asks, “Okay, who wants a butt rub?” Awkward silence, to put it mildly.
After a brief moment of strangeness, I noticed that the dude was sprinkling a red powder called Butt Rub on his steak. Ah, that Butt Rub! Thanks man, but I’ll stick to the salt and pepper. The question was popped by Keeton Eoff, a marketing guy from Hobie Kayaks. Eoff is a homegrown Texan where everything is big, the food is spicy and, apparently, Butt Rub is a popular condiment. He was also one of the hosts of our gathering, so I just smiled and decided to write about it.
I realized I’d fallen into a quirky crowd—a mixed bag of media peeps who had converged on the tiny, coastal town of Port St. Joe, Florida, for a week of kayak fishing. The Hobie Writer’s Conference, as it was suspiciously called, brought together an eclectic (the nice word writers use for “weird”) group of personalities from all over the country to fish hard, yak it up, yuk it up, and commiserate about fishing, life, love and the truly amazing variety of meat sauces available to the general public.
Over the years, I’ve attended a bunch of these press trips where we underpaid writers get free food and lodging and the opportunity to bitch about freelance writers and magazine editors we really hate. That may sound boring to you, but to those of us in the media biz, it’s gripping stuff— especially when the booze starts flowing, voices get louder and, inevitably, some poor freelancer gets tossed into the blender (not literally).
Typically, you hear scathing comments like, “His articles change tense more than I change the channel.” Or, “He thinks a deadline is something that happens when his iPhone breaks.” And, “He used ‘it’s’ three times instead of ‘its.’ I mean, come on. It’s a simple contraction with an apostrophe. Figure it out, dude!”
A gaggle of laughter ensues. Yes, we are hopeless geeks. However, we are also geeks who fish hard. Then we write some stuff. Then we get paid for it. That’s a pretty sweet gig. Just consider that three days of my work-week consisted of staying in a luxury condo at the beach, fishing for six hours a day, and then consuming food and drink someone else bought. I love my life.
The irony of this particular press outing was that my very first kayak fishing experience was in Port St. Joe 15 years ago. I’d gotten this kayak, which was molded to hold a scuba tank in the back. I quickly discovered that scuba diving from a kayak makes about as much sense as eating soup with chopsticks, so I had the idea of using the plastic craft to sneak up on trout in shallow water. And Port St. Joe bay is stacked up with big, leery trout on miles and miles of grass flats. My best buddy liked the idea, too, so he bought a kayak. We strapped those suckers on my truck and packed the cooler for the trip. Two of our redneck friends laughed when they saw our rig.
“Hey man, y’all look like Lewis and Clark,” one said. “Ya got any beaver traps in there?”
They were towing a 17-ft. Aquasport with a 115-horsepower outboard and a trolling motor—an ideal setup for Port St. Joe. But after three days of fishing, ol’ Lewis and Clark had about twice as many fish in the cooler. The bubbas didn’t go out and buy kayaks. That was like voting Democrat to them. But they didn’t give us any more grief either. And I’m not saying I predicted the current kayak angling revolution, but I knew we were onto something big.
I’m not saying I predicted the current kayak angling revolution, but I knew we were onto something big.
Fast forward to the summer of 2011, Las Vegas, the ICAST fishing trade show. I stumbled onto the Hobie exhibit and locked eyes with the Pro Angler 12 for the first time. It was love at first sight. Mind you, I was still fishing from that old crappy scuba yak. The PA 12 is the fishing machine I had dreamed up in my mind and I stared at it for a full two minutes. I wanted one bad. Now fast forward again to April 2013, Port St. Joe, and I finally have the chance to road test the kayak I’ve coveted for almost two years.
I arrived on a Tuesday afternoon and met my roommates for the next three days: Ric Burnley and Paul Lebowitz. Ric is the editor of Kayak Angler magazine, and it turns out that Paul is the editor of Kayak Fish magazine.
“So,” I ask innocently, “they put the editor’s of two competing magazines in the same condo? Will there be a mud wrestling match later?”
Paul smiled and told me that he used to be the editor of Kayak Angler and Ric worked for him. Then Paul took a personal leave of absence, Ric got his job and now they compete against each other. They claimed to be friends still, but I know for a fact that fishing writers are exceptional liars. Plus—and I can’t prove this definitively—I think I saw Ric dipping Paul’s toothbrush in the toilet.
Our condo was decked out to the max, but the Hobie crew had the “mac daddy” crib—a five-bedroom house with a hot tub, pool, Viking grill and a turbocharged coffee maker…something all writers desperately need. The condo and house are part of the WindMark development, an architecturally stunning village that was completed at the exact moment the real estate bubble burst in 2008. There’s a mostly vacant town center, a restaurant that’s closed (after three different owners) and some lonely homes scattered about. It’s built along a gorgeous stretch of beach, and the place is meticulously maintained. But if you ever want to film an Armageddon movie where all human life has disappeared, this is the place. Fortunately, the rental market is strong and folks are discovering WindMark as a high-end, practically private getaway. Or, for our crowd, a perfect spot for a corporate press junket.
The big house became our central headquarters for telling outlandish stories, imbibing and home cooking. We even sampled Southern staples like hushpuppies and cheese grits. Ingrid “Hot Mama” Neihaus, who I’d first met in Vegas in 2011, kept pumping out meals and keeping finicky writers happy. And that’s a full-time job. I also met Mike Conner, editor of Fly & Light Tackle Angler, which is an attractive iPad-only magazine, and Polly Dean, who I’m convinced is Paula Dean’s thinner and prettier sister. Polly writes for Fishing Tackle Retailer magazine, among others.
I ended up hanging out and fishing with Mike a good bit, and the more I hung around with him, the more he resembled a fictional character. He seemed to be hyped up on multiple five-hour energy drinks all the time, and he’s like one of those brilliant physicists who solves quantum mysteries but forgets his own birthday. Mike puts out a really slick little digital pub almost single-handedly, but he kept forgetting the key code to the condo (Mike, it’s 524870). I gave it to him five times, he wrote it down twice and promptly lost the scrap of paper both times. He was a helluva fisherman, though, and caught many more trout than I did, so I obviously don’t like him anymore.
In fact, everyone there could hook some fish. From my observations, Morgan Promnitz, Hobie’s fishing product manager and Jerry McBride, a longtime fishing writer, were the most adept fishing aficionados. I can fish pretty damn well, but these two guys were Zen masters. I told Morgan that any job title with the word “fishing” in it is a good thing. He agreed.
Our eccentric group was rounded out by Cheryl Little and Nate Chennaux, two super-friendly water activists with a ton of local knowledge. Cheryl runs a website called Bay County Outdoors (http://www.baycountyoutdoors.com) and hosts a local TV show called Outdoors with Capt. Roy and Cheryl. Nate was a much-needed twist of lime to our squeaky-clean crowd of granola crunchers. With his Al-Queda-esque beard and ever-present Newport menthol cigarette, he added some, shall I say, spicy Butt Rub to our group. Plus, he had the bead on the monster bull reds, which we caught every night, right on cue, under the East Bay Bridge. Catching a 25-lb. bull red…on light tackle…from a kayak…at midnight…is one of those fishing rushes that reappear in your dreams from time to time. Nate had never really done much kayaking, but you’d never have known it. Before the trip was over, he was Hobie-fied and ready to join the team.
Oh yeah, Hobie. Crap, I was supposed to write a story about how great Hobie kayaks are, but what the hell, I got off track. So, yeah, uh, the Hobie Pro Angler 12 and Pro Angler 14 are amazing. Here we go…They have this really wide beam, so I stood up and fly fished most of the time. The chair has an adjustable back and seat and is super comfy, especially for an old fart with bad knees like me. Plus, it’s removable and doubles as a beach or bonfire chair. No kidding.
During three days of angling, I caught some nice trout while only almost falling out once. And, yes, the kayaks were everything I expected and more. The pedal drive system (as opposed to a paddle) is perfect for fishing because you stow the paddle away and rarely, if ever, use it. This gives you two hands to fish with, which I have found is at least twice as good as one hand. The rudder and conveniently located steering lever make pinpoint maneuvering possible. Actually, the steering on the kayaks is freakishly accurate, to the point that I talked about it so much that everyone rolled their eyes and tuned me out. It’s okay, I have a teenage daughter so I’m used to being ignored. The anchor system is equally well thought out and functions great. They have accessories from live wells to bottom machines to electric trolling motors. Plus, these dream machines are made in the good ol’ U.S.A. What more do you want? I mean, they’re Hobies—a company that perfected small catamaran sailboats in the 1960s and has been making stellar boats ever since. The sailboats are still considered the top in class and Hobie’s line of kayaks is following in the family footsteps.
So, after the fishing experience, do I still covet these kayaks? More than ever. Did the nice folks at Hobie let me take one home to try out for four or five years? Not yet, but I’m still working on ‘em.
One final thing, just to clarify: As far as I know, no one ever got a real butt rub.
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