For Jim Sammons it’s Game On for would-be record kayak yellowfin

BY PAUL LEBOWITZ/WON Staff WriterPublished: Jun 22, 2009

 HANNIBAL BANK, Panama – It was after noon when the center console fishing boat carrying Jim Sammons and the rest of the Kayak Fishing Game On movie crew joined the rest of the Pesca Panama fleet on the Hannibal Bank. Three kayaks carrying Sammons, former whitewater kayak world champion Ken Whiting, and WON’s kayak editor had just splashed into the water from the agile mothership when the other boats sped off. The trailing skipper waved and shrugged his shoulders in resignation of a long, wasted morning. The bank was dead; nothing was doing.

“Good. Now that its quiet this place will pick up,” kayak big game expert Sammons said as he baited a live cabaito and smiled for the camera filming the sequel to the sport’s first professionally produced action sports feature. It was the second day of a week-long trip based out of Pesca Panama’s floating lodge, and already the rich tropical waters of the Pacific were living up to their glorious reputation. Dodging crashing waves that suddenly loomed out of the blue, arms already ached from pulling hard-charging roosterfish and shimmery blue trevally out of the ever-present inshore rocks.

The first modern kayak anglers ever to come this way had been greeted with skepticism by their more traditional fellow anglers and the lodge staff, who took glee in teases such as “the sharks and crocs are going to get you!” and “have fun with your pool toys!” That attitude was soon to change to acceptance and mutual respect as people came to realize the benefits of the stealthy little craft.

Now taking a shot at the blue water of the bank, Sammons had barely taken ten strokes when a spot of tuna popped a few hundred yards away, sending pulse rates climbing. These were not the 30 to 40-pound schoolies kayakers sometimes tangle with at Mexico’s East Cape, but much larger 100-pound plus fish possibly too big for our humble craft.

“I think we’re under-gunned,” I radioed doubtfully to Sammons as he raced off after a flutter of diving birds. Whiting and I chased another. It had just vanished when Sammons, gassed from an all-out miles long sprint breathlessly huffed “I’m bit. It’s huge.”

For Sammons, those words were the start of a three and a half hour tour of pain, perseverance, and as the hot sun hissed into the sea, the eventual fulfillment of a dream.

“I’ve tangled with marlin and sharks, but always hoped for a shot at a big tuna,” the La Jolla Kayak Fishing guide service owner said about an hour into the fight as he nervously readied a gaff. His eyes widened as the heavy beast circled just beneath his kayak, and all was peaceful for a moment as he paused and the suspense built. Then he reached out and struck.

The water exploded, obliterating any view of Sammons for several seconds. The geyser finally subsided and there he was, drenched and grimly hanging on two-handed to his pole as the fish stripped off hundreds of feet of line straight down. And the gaff? Fortunately a floater, it was bobbing along several feet distant.

“The gaff was ripped right out of my hand. Incredible power,” Sammons said as he shook his head ruefully, then settled back in to resume the struggle in the 100 degree heat. Little did we know at the time we wouldn’t see that fish again for more than two long hours.

“I think its PO’d,” Sammons said as he repeatedly battled for the same 6 inches of line, straight up and down, and for the first time we could see the doubt creep into his face as the pain and fatigue built. Completely stalemated, he couldn’t pull any harder. Even with a winch such as a Shimano Tiagra 12 two-speed and a stiff Tallus rod, there just isn’t much leverage on a kayak. The fight is all in the arms and back, and the legs little more than a place to prop the rod tip. For a kayaker, there may be no more difficult achievement than outlasting the untiring motor that powers a big yellowfin.

In many years of chronicling the sport, I know of dozens of successful conquests of marlin and sharks well over the century mark, and even a few massive halibut (a signature feat!) but only one other 100-pound tuna. That fish succumbed to fellow San Diego county resident Jon Schwartz off Kona, Hawaii in 2005. Hooked from a cruiser on the troll to maximize limited time, Schwartz hopped on a kayak to fight and land the 111-pound ahi. The experience was captured in the self-produced movie Bluewater Jon and the Giant Tuna. 

With lightning streaked black clouds looming to windward and the sun slanting toward the sea, and fueled by shouted encouragement and cutting jokes, the salt-stained Sammons gave it one final effort. Grudgingly at first the fish gave ground, and then line was steadily flowing onto the spool. Finally back at color, Sammons reeled the fish to leader but with no time to spare agreed to accept help with the landing.

Skipper Tommy Bernal and deckhand Luciano Bernal each put a gaff in the fat fish, then hauled it onboard the support boat for a good eye-balling. With no scale on hand and more than 50 miles to run in the dark, Sammons had to settle for a ballpark estimate of 110 to 120 pounds – a worthwhile feat accomplished in front of the unblinking eye of a movie camera.

Back at the Pesca Panama barge and hours late, Sammons and friends cracked celebratory beers and told and retold the story of his epic battle with the tuna that might have been the largest ever hooked, fought and leadered from a kayak. It was to be just one of many Panama adventures for the Game On crew, who encountered a flying crocodile, dodged deadly yellow sea snakes, out dueled jacks on bass gear, muscled the odd cubera snapper out of the stones, and survived rains so elemental the word deluge doesn’t come close. Those stories will have to wait.

Follow the Kayak Fishing Game On crew as they film their way across North and Central America for their second adventure sports movie at gameon2.wordpress.com.   

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