A Lesson Learned


By Michael J. Tougias

Excerpted from the latest book by Michael J. Tougias, The Power of Positive Fishing: A Story of Friendship and a Quest for Happiness, co-authored with his fishing friend Adam Gamble.


On our hunt for striped bass my fishing partner Adam and I usually took his boat, but every now and then I’d insist we take the kayaks out instead. I liked the stealth a kayak provided for approaching fish, the exercise from paddling, and the lack of engine noise. But there was one outing where I wished we’d taken the boat.

We used Adam’s kayaks, and he gave me the bigger one that was more suitable for the ocean and he used a smaller one more suitable for a bathtub. No matter, he was the more experienced ocean kayaker, and seemed to handle the shorty just fine. When we first launched we were in the marginally protected confines of a harbor, and the brisk wind did little to deter us from paddling out toward the a sandbar a quarter mile away. But the fish didn’t cooperate, and not wanting to go home empty handed we ventured toward the distant mouth of the harbor. That’s when Adam spotted the terns hovering above the water far out in the distance. He pointed them out to me and hollered, “What do you say?”

I replied, “Let’s do it!”

“Ok, but let’s stick together. It’s going to be choppy. And let’s turn back if those birds are too far out.”

And so off we went, paddling full steam, plowing our way through one-foot seas. The ocean looked different than earlier kayak outings; gone was the touch of light blue replaced by a steely gray, as if the sea’s mood had soured. But the sight of birds working over fish does something to me, something that happens to impulsive anglers, something that causes what little common sense we possess to go out the window and be replaced by a single thought – there are probably big fish under those birds and I gotta get there quick. I was a modern day Icarus, drawn to the birds like he was to the sun, oblivious to the risk that should have been obvious.

I went racing ahead of Adam, and was surprised by the speed with which I reached the wheeling terns and gulls. Tiny bait fish leapt from the water and the little patch of ocean boiled with big fish breaking the surface. Here was predator and prey in action, and I felt an intimate connection to nature, awed by the deadly dance of birds and what I hoped were keeper stripers intent on capturing every little fish they had corralled and trapped near the surface. Being in a kayak smack in the middle of the feeding frenzy is about as close as you can get to this violent side of the natural world—without actually being a fish. I cast a top water plug into the fray thinking I’d be into a fish within seconds. Three times I cast through the churning water without so much as a fish taking a swipe at it. Maybe it’s too big I thought, and replaced the plug with a small gray soft plastic lure about five inches long that looks like a worm, eel, or snake.

The fish, which I now knew were stripers, were likely feasting on sand eels and the small lure did the trick. I was soon hooked up with a striped bass, similar to the size I caught with Adam on our very first trip.

It took a while to work the striper to the kayak and release it. I had drifted far from the birds, and when I tried to paddle back toward them I realized the combination of the wind and outgoing tide was formidable. Now it would be a long slog back into the harbor, but maybe I could squeeze in one more cast.

I could see Adam in his “toy” kayak still coming out of the harbor, and after a few minutes we were side by side. “I lost sight of you for a few seconds,” Adam shouted. “The wind is picking up and I don’t like the look of these clouds, so let’s head in.”

He didn’t need to tell me twice. I felt badly that I had bolted ahead of him and caught a fish, simply because he had given me the faster vessel. But my kayak didn’t feel so fast now, fighting the wind and current. I really had to dig the paddle in deep to make headway. The rain that Adam feared soon materialized. It decreased visibility, making it look more like twilight than 10 a.m.

Adam was quite a ways behind me and I shouted, “Let’s head to the nearest land!” He hollered back in agreement, “straight ahead!”

I fought the chop toward shore, thankful for my lifejacket, but wished I had some drinking water to sustain my energy. The waves were not even big enough for a small craft advisory, but a one-and-a-half foot wave looks plenty large from a kayak, and occasionally one slapped the side of my vessel hard enough to send water into the cockpit. Thank God the coast was still discernible, and I simply focused on paddling as hard as I could, worried that conditions would deteriorate. When I was almost at the welcoming sand of the shoreline I twisted in my seat to see how Adam was progressing in his little kayak. He was nowhere in sight. The gloom from the rain seemed to have swallowed him up.

Do I go back and look for him? Could he be ahead of me?

My arms felt as heavy as cement and I decided to first get myself off the water, and catch my breath. The beach I pulled out at was bordered by a salt marsh behind it, and I had no idea where I was. Even worse, there wasn’t a house in sight. I thought perhaps Adam had landed on the same beach either to my right or left, and first I jogged one way and then the other. He was nowhere in sight, and I could feel the panic rising, and fought it back by considering my next move. If I could find a house, I’d be able to use their phone and dial 911. Then I’d relaunch my kayak and do my best to look for him.

Crazy thoughts go through your mind when you’re scared, and I was already having the conversation with Adam’s wife that he was missing. Then I’d have to explain why I didn’t stay with him.

I forced that imaginary conversation from my head and turned toward the marsh, running along its edge behind the beach, hoping for a path through it. That marsh seemed to stretch out endlessly, and I gave up the idea and instead retraced my steps back to my kayak. I’ve got to get back out there, and start shouting for him.

Something on the ocean caught my eye, but I couldn’t make out what it was. I took my rain- and salt-splattered glasses off and wiped them off, and looked again.

It might be Adam, but something is wrong.

Either his kayak got a lot smaller or I was looking at a little log bobbing on the waves. Whatever it was, it was coming my way.

Then it all made sense. It was Adam alright, but he was facing away from me, paddling in backwards.

When he was in shallow water I waded out to him, and of course my first question was not about his welfare but instead wanting to know what the hell he was doing paddling backward.

“I was taking on water,” he said, shaking his head. “This piece of crap isn’t made for the ocean. The waves were rising up under me so the kayak was kind of surfing them. But with the smooth surface and no keel, I was going to tip over. Facing the waves and letting them push me backward allowed me to have some control. I figured it out on the fly. It was either that or swim.”

I think I was more relieved than he was to have him safely onshore.

“Geez, we did everything wrong,” I said. “We should have never gone racing after those birds. We should have a compass, cell phone in a waterproof pouch, flares, the works.”

“I know,” was all Adam said, “We’ll make some changes before our next trip.”

“So where are we?”

Adam explained that we were north of where we parked the car, but not more than a mile and half. We dragged the kayaks through the shallows for the first part of our journey to the car, and then in more protected water were able to paddle them. Once at his car we were cold, wet to the bone, and thirsty as hell. We each drank two bottles of water, then loaded the kayaks onto the roof.

“Don’t tell my wife about what happened,” Adam said.

Then we decided that since we aborted the trip ahead of schedule we had time to go get coffee and a mid-day breakfast at a restaurant near his house.

Over coffee I told him this wasn’t the first time a kayak got me in trouble. I explained that the incident in question happened on the Connecticut River, about 30 miles from its source on the Canadian border. My friends, Boomer and Cogs – who I have fished with since elementary school – had joined me in a combo kayak/fly-fishing trip. There was plenty of white water, with large boulders scattered across the river, and the occasional sharp bend where the current flowed under fallen trees on the outside edge of the curve. Cogs and I were ahead of Boomer, and we had gotten out of our kayaks to cast into a fishy looking pool. I had just mentioned to Cogs that Boomer must have stopped up river to fish, when his wooden paddle came floating by us.

Not a good sign.

We expected him to come drifting down the river paddle-less in his kayak like a fallen leaf, so we continued casting. But when he didn’t appear after a few minutes, we decided we’d better go looking for him, so we jogged upstream along the river bank. We found him all right. His kayak had him pinned against a fallen tree which crossed part of the river just above the water’s surface. Some people call them “strainers” because the tree separates you from your canoe or kayak, but in Boomer’s case he was still in the kayak, holding himself upright with the tree across his lap as the current held the vessel in this perfect trap.

We helped extricate him, and he told us that he thought he would surely have drowned if we hadn’t come, as he couldn’t hold on much longer. He may have been right, because his kayak was half filled with water, and behind the fallen tree were more branches and logs submerged in the river. Boomer asked us what took us so long, and before I could answer Cogs did:

“We saw your paddle, but Toug wanted to take a few more casts. He was convinced a lunker brown trout was in that pool.”

Adam interrupted my story. “And you probably wouldn’t have helped me today if you found fish along the shore. Well, at least you have your priorities straight.”

We had a good laugh, discussed how we would be more safety conscious, and counted our blessings that in the case of Adam’s kayak misadventure there was a safe outcome.

I said, “that close call we just had is making me really think about the fear that crews must experience in boats during truly big storms. I’m currently writing a book about an incredible story of bravery and sacrifice that took place during the Blizzard of 1978.” I then explained that the incident occurred during the blizzard when a Coast Guard 44-foot motor lifeboat went to the aid of a foundering oil tanker off Salem, Massachusetts and the Coast Guard vessel’s radar went out, making them unsure of their position. A private boat, a pilot boat named the Can Do with five men on board went out to try and assist both the motor life boat and possibly offer help to the men on the tanker. But they left just as the storm was really exploding and the seas were an enormous forty-feet.

I told Adam I had already started the research for this new story, and that’s how I was learning about seamanship, storms, and even superstitions. He could see my excitement and told me this potential book had a chance to really put me on the map because it had national appeal, and that I should get an agent and go for a big New York publisher. We talked about the project and he gave invaluable feedback and advice.

“Think big,” Adam said. “It’s a great story, so shoot for the stars.”

“Exactly, I’m manifesting a block-buster.”

He asked me how I manifest, and I explained how I first state aloud exactly what I want to happen, then I try to imagine the good feelings that will come my way when it happens, and finally try to believe the wheels of the universe or God or whatever is out there are setting this dream in motion.

“Well, it’s not a dream,” Adam remarked. “You have already started the research, and you’ve found the story you’ve been looking for. It’s going to happen.”

That was exactly the encouragement I needed to hear. Other people I told about this potential project said kind things, like “sounds good,” but then moved on to another subject. Adam wanted to hear the details, offered specific advice, and more importantly he intuitively understood that through manifesting – and hard work – it was going to work. He explained the manifesting was not unlike his Buddhism, and that he had big thoughts for his business but wasn’t quite sure about the next steps to take. I listened closely to his ideas for his business and gave him brutally honest feedback.

“Let’s keep bouncing ideas off each other every time we go fishing,” I said. “That way we have something more than a fish or a near drowning to show for our day.”

And so our fishing, kayaking and boating trips combined brainstorming with the activity at hand. The book I was researching became Ten Hours Until Dawn, my first bestseller, and Adam’s business later grew by leaps and bounds. That day on the water forged a tight friendship, and more importantly we learned a lesson: when on the ocean pay attention to any change in the wind and waves. ■

Michael J. Tougias writes about maritime, travel, and adventure topics. He is a New York Times bestselling author of thirty books for adults and eight for young readers in his “True Rescue” series. His books include A Storm Too Soon, Extreme Survival, and The Finest Hours (the inspiration for a 2016 Disney movie of the same name). A frequent guest on NPR programs, the Weather Channel, Fox & Friends, 20/20, and national talk shows, he lives in Massachusetts and Florida. You’ll find more at michaeltougias.com.