by Ed Zieralski
San Diego Union-Tribune/SignOnSanDiego.com - August 21 2004 - OUTDOORS

Lion's share
Pinniped steals the, uh, show on kayak-fishing trip off La Jolla Outdoors


La Jolla Kayak guide Jim Sammons starts an early morning fishing trip by dropping a line for some bait.

Even before Jim Sammons let me know about the rude visitor behind me, I could hear the big sea lion blowing air and splashing.

We were bobbing in kayaks and had just witnessed a majestic sight: a couple of huge Risso's dolphins swimming by us. As I looked up, I hooked into what we figured was a quality yellowtail.

But there was a potential problem. I also had a huge, knot-headed sea lion eyeballing me as if I were wearing a uniform at SeaWorld and carrying his sack lunch.

"Hurry up Big Fella and get that fish up before that dog sees you hooked up and comes over," Sammons said as I fought my first fish from a kayak. Sammons' fishing partner, Matt Moyer, hooked into a fish at the same time and was busy with his own battle.

The tug was great from my fish, accentuated by the fact that I was at the water's edge fighting it with rod and reel. The fish was strong enough to pull me (a great feat, to be sure) and the kayak. Sammons was watching me, but also monitoring the sea lion.

"Right now, he looks like he's ignoring you, but you better get that fish up fast," Sammons said. "Button down the drag and reel it or you're going to lose it to him."

I cranked and reeled and did everything I could to get the fish in when suddenly, the sea lion submerged from its spot about 30 yards away. He heard the dinner bell.

"Uh-oh," Sammons said.

Uh-oh was right. A moment later I felt the hooked fish make what felt like a desperate dive to swim away. That was one second before I felt an unbelievable pull on the line. And then nothing. No first fish from the kayak, no hook, no glory. The big dog left me with a broken line and a broken fisherman's spirit.

I cussed. It just wasn't fair, I thought, as I watched Moyer, the head chef at La Jolla Country Club, land his husky yellowtail on his kayak.

"Thanks for keeping that sea lion busy while I was fighting my fish," Moyer said.

No problem, Matt, I said. Here to please.

"When we first started kayak fishing, sea lions weren't a problem at all," Sammons told me later, after I calmed down enough to listen. "But after a few years, they figured it out. It's a pretty easy meal for them when they find us."

Still, Sammons said that in 10 years of ocean kayak fishing, he's only lost one fish to a sea lion.

"Now I've lost lots of bait," he said, "but only one fish."

It figures that I would feed the big dog his breakfast with the first fish I hooked from a kayak. To add insult to robbery, the prickly pinniped surfaced 30 to 40 yards away and played water polo with my prize fish as he ate it in front of us.

"What a pig," I said as Sammons and I sat there watching the display of bad manners.

Not to worry, though. I spent a morning Thursday in Sammons' world of ocean kayak fishing, and it was better than I imagined it would be.

We met at 5 a.m. at the La Jolla Shores launch ramp, and Sammons quickly gave me some basics for handling the kayak and fishing from it.

What impressed me most was Sammons' attention to safety and other details that later saved me from having problems launching, rowing and fighting the fish. It was already a better experience than my last kayak fishing attempt in East Cape, when, after a few adult beverages at Rancho Leonero Resort, I made a wet, embarrassing attempt at kayak fishing.

I also liked the fact that the kayak Sammons let me use could fit the entire U.S. Olympic kayak team on it. Even had a seat with a backrest.

Sammons' kayak, customized with all the extra gear he sells through his La Jolla Kayak Fishing guide business, had enough rods and reels and fishing gear to accessorize a six-passenger charter.

"I've been called a porcupine on the water," Sammons said, aptly describing how he looked with the rods sticking out of all of their holders.

Only one experience on the water came close to what I had Thursday and that was the time I paddled a surfboard out beyond the La Jolla kelp to fish with Scot Cherry and Bill Decker, La Jolla legends of surfboard fishing. Both exercises are prime examples of extreme fishing. The difference is, though I have huge respect for surfboard anglers, I never attempted the surfboard stuff again. But I will fish more from a kayak.

It's hard to believe there is anyone locally, maybe nationally, more passionate or more dialed in to kayak fishing than Sammons. He's running a successful guiding and kayak adventure business, but it's clearly not all about making money for him.

"It's more a lifestyle for me," Sammons said. "I'm never going to get rich doing this, but I love what I do. Fishing is just part of being out here. You've seen it, the Risso's dolphins today, the clear, blue water, the sunrise over La Jolla. The other day we saw killer whales out here. There's people who have lived here their whole lives and haven't experienced this."

The folks at Ocean Kayak like to call their crafts "human-powered thrill machines." After a morning of paddling a kayak off La Jolla, I see what they mean.

For information about exploring local waters by kayak or fishing from one, call Sammons at La Jolla Kayak Fishing at (619) 461-7172.

Ed Zieralski: (619) 293-1225; ed.zieralski@uniontrib.com