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Thursday, 28 March 2013 00:00

User Spotlight Abe Mathews

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Growing up alongside a lake in northern Minnesota with a father and brother who love to fish, many people would assume Abe Mathews III has always been a fisherman. In this month’s spotlight interview, we find out how Abe went from a kid who would rather hold a book than a fishing rod to an adult obsessed with kayak fly fishing.

Why little plastic boats? When did you start kayak fishing?

I started kayak fishing a year ago, but I've been thinking about it for three or four years; going to demo days, reading up on it. I guess my first awareness of it was some fly fishermen talking about using kayaks in the Florida Keys on Zach Matthews' The Itinerant Angler forum. I'd booked a trip to Key West, and was planning to fish the whole time. I had a day with a guide to learn the water a bit, then four days to fish on my own. What I found was that the Keys are very hard to fish without a boat. There are very few beaches/flats that a tourist can get to on foot. However, there are places to launch kayaks, and flats that are a short paddle across deeper water. On that trip I actually went to rent a kayak - but it was too windy, and all the kayaks were sit-insides that would not have worked with a 9' fly rod.

Abe Mathews with his Jackson Cuda

Later that year, I was in Pensacola visiting my in-laws. I'd been fishing from shore for a good bit of time, and it seemed that all the fish were moving right outside my casting range. I watched a guy in a kayak about 100 yards out absolutely hammering the sea trout. So I started researching kayaks and going to a couple demo days. I didn't buy then - I held off for another two years. I took my boat to Florida for a week and was pretty successful chasing pompano, redfish, and sea trout. But I found places that I could see fish I couldn't get to from a boat or by walking, so I rented a kayak (a Jackson Kayak “Cuda”) for a day. That day was one of the five best days of my life, pushing into an area I never could have gotten back into with my boat, surrounded by popping shrimp and cruising redfish. I felt like I'd figured out a secret.

Now I kayak fish for a lot of reasons. The quiet - I can push through a busting bait ball without putting the fish down. You learn the water better at 4 mph than you do at 40 mph. And when you're floating in a little plastic boat, you really feel a sense of accomplishment - you got there yourself, under your own power, in a boat you've rigged yourself for the purpose. It's you against the wind, the waves, and the elements. It's a heady feeling.

You have fly fishing in your blood, but do you ever throw conventional tackle?

Don't tell anyone, but I own three spinning rods. I grew up casting spinning rods, and bought two of them before I started fly fishing. I've taken them in the kayak before, but after a couple casts I always seem to go back to the fly rod. There's just something about fly fishing that appeals to me. I'd rather go fishless casting a fly rod than catch a personal best with conventional tackle. I guess I'm odd that way. I have a goal to catch game fish on a fly rod in every state in the union. I've not marked that many off the list, but I have caught rainbow trout on a fly rod within the city limits of Las Vegas.

What is your biggest pet peeve while on the water?

Folks who don't treat the outdoors with the respect it deserves. I get really tired of picking up someone else's Styrofoam worm containers, beer cans, monofilament line, or salmon egg jars when I'm out fishing. It bothers me when I see someone taking more fish on a stringer than the limit allows, and telling a friend "I didn't get any last trip." In the United States, we're blessed that we can still fish in lots of places. There are countries where most of the water is private, and you have to pay (or know someone) to fish - much like is being pushed for out west by folks like Ted Turner. One of the arguments is that the public is too hard on fragile fisheries, and privatizing the water protects it from us. That's messed up, but when I see how much trash is thrown out in public areas, I'm afraid that we as the public don't deserve to be allowed there.

First Cuda trips-6

Who or what was your biggest influence in kayak fishing?

Chip Gibson. I listen to podcasts on long road trips. I've spent a lot of time behind the wheel on various trips over the past couple years. I'd download all of the Kayak Fishing Radio shows and listen to them. Nothing against any of the other hosts, but Chip was kind of a driving force behind me getting a kayak. I've never met the man (although we only live a few hours apart), but he really kept me thinking about kayaks, listening to KFR while on the road.

Engineers look at their surroundings differently. Have you envisioned any solutions to issues kayak fishermen face with their equipment?

Not really. Engineering is just part of who I am. I use it every time I'm looking at a problem. For example, when I was setting up my anchor trolley, I drew diagrams of how a port or starboard trolley would react to the wind with a drag chute or anchor, and how I'd use the wind to help my cast with the trolley in different positions. I looked at how my cast direction would be affected by a stakeout pole astern at port or starboard. Ultimately, I decided on a port anchor trolley as the best compromise. I'm happy with that choice.

I do research the heck out of everything before I buy. Before I ordered my Cuda, I demoed about four other boats. I researched websites, drove around looking at different models, and made pro/con lists. I did the same before I bought a paddle. I want to be sure I'm making an informed decision.

If money were no object what would your ultimate kayak fishing trip would be.

The Florida Keys, trying for a Grand Slam by kayak. I'd have to find the right guide who was able to get us to the right location, and I think it would be a really, really long day. But I'd like to catch bonefish, permit, and tarpon using a kayak in one day.

If you had to recommend a rod and reel for someone new to kayak fly fishing, what would that combo be?

Wow - tough question. The default choices are a 5 weight for panfish, small bass, and trout, and an 8 weight for largemouth bass, redfish, sea trout, bonefish, and smaller snook. But it depends. If you're a die-hard smallmouth fisherman, you may opt for a 6 or 7 weight. If you're after large snook or bull reds, a 9 weight is a better choice. If you only want to catch panfish on poppers, you'd do well with a 3 or a 4 weight.

Could I pick two? If I could, I'd say a 5 weight for freshwater, and an 8 weight for big bass or saltwater. A 5 will be a bit of overkill for panfish, a bit light for the largest bass. But it's a good compromise. With an 8 weight, you're covered for most inshore species and larger freshwater species. You'll be overmatched for permit, tarpon or something like a musky, but will be able to pitch up to a size 1/0 hook.

Truly, the easiest choice of manufacturer for a first rod is Temple Fork Outfitters. Something like a BVK or Professional series is somewhat inexpensive at $150 - $300 for the rod (understand that "premium" fly rods are now over $750!). Other companies also offer great rods in the $150 - $300 range. For a reel, something saltwater safe is necessary for that environment, but there are serviceable reels for about $150, such as those by TFO, Orvis, and Redington. For freshwater, reels can be even cheaper.

The most important part of the rig is the fly line. The right fly line can make or break your fishing experience. The $100 fly lines are probably overkill for a new caster, but a $75 line will help you learn to cast much more quickly.

So we're at about $500 for one rod, reel, and line. Too much? A very simple budget answer is to buy one of the Scientific Anglers combos for about $100 - $150 (Trout, Bass, or Saltwater). They'll work for a while and at least let you know if you want to go further. The components aren't the best, but they're good enough to learn to cast. A new higher end line will help a lot. But you'll be able to catch a lot of fish with that outfit.

Tell us about the biggest or toughest fish to land in your kayak so far.

The toughest was the first one. I rented that Cuda and wasn't sure I could get it off my roof rack alone. I had misgivings about paddling distance with my shredded shoulders, about crossing a mile of boat traffic, about casting from sitting down. That first rat redfish fought hard, turned the bow of the kayak, and looked fantastic laid across the center hatch. I had to have a kayak at that point.

first day in a jackson cuda

The majority of fly fishermen tie their own flies. Do you have an original design you like to tie?

Even when you tie a "standard" pattern, you put a little twist on it. Lots of tiers spend hours going through craft stores like JoAnn’s looking for different materials to make their patterns stand out. I had two materials that I'd bought and not really used. The first were some "Toho" seed beads - small, squared off beads with a silvered lining under colored glass. I had never really used them. The second was a multi-roll package of stretchy plastic beading cord - bright, transparent colors that were about 0.5mm in diameter. I'd bought that bead cord at Hobby Lobby, and couldn't find a use for it. I actually kept the stuff on my tying bench to remind me not to buy materials I couldn't think of a use for.

One slow trout fishing day, I started looking at the midge larva floating by, emerging on the surface. I noticed that the eyes were pronounced, and had a bit of a square edge. I also noticed that the bodies were somewhat translucent, like a halo around the abdomen. So I went home, found those squared off beads (they were rootbeer colored), red thread, and hot orange bead cord. I tied what I called The HL (Hobby Lobby) Midge (I later found out other tiers have come up with similar designs, like Craven's JuJuBe Midge). The next trip, I hooked a monster trout in an unlikely location on that fly. I'd only tied one and lost it. I've since tied many dozen more, and it's the first fly I tie on when I'm fishing that water. I've included a picture of that fly below, which is tied on a size 20 hook. It's small.

fly tying

Are you a “lean and mean” or “everything including the kitchen sink” angler? What do you typically bring with you out on the water?

I'm a "lean and mean" type. I started fly fishing with a ton of gear, a heavy vest with four or five fly boxes and every device I could think of. My wading rig is now a small chest pack with a single fly box and a few spools of tippet. In the kayak, I'm very much the same. I don't have a crate, other than to carry the rest of my gear to the water. I take two rods (floating and sinking fly lines), two Plano 3700 boxes of flies (depending on species), some food and water, leaders and tippet, and a few tools.

What, in your eyes, is the ultimate game fish? What species will you target over all others?

So far, I love redfish. Chasing copper on the grass flats is fantastic. They're not quite as hard to see as permit or bonefish. They willingly take a fly, and they're not overly sensitive to pattern. They're not so big that you're in way over your head in a kayak. If they jumped, they'd be the ultimate.

My favorite fish to catch on a fly is a brook trout - preferably a native. One of my favorite John Gierach novels has the line, "Brook trout are God's way of letting us know it's going to be all right." Brookies are so beautiful; they just attack a fly, and then fight as much out of the water as in it. I've hiked miles before just to catch 6" native brook trout in the Smoky Mountains.

Tell us something most people would NOT know about you.

I grew up fishing, living on a lake in northern Minnesota. My birthday falls on the Minnesota opener for walleye. I can't tell you how many birthdays I spent in a Lund “Fisherman” trolling for walleye. And I hated it. Unless I was driving the boat, I was miserable. My dad still gives me crap about it. I was in world-class walleye and lake trout fishing, and I didn't appreciate it at all. My brother loved it, I couldn't stand it. Most pictures of me before the age of 14 show something related to a lake. There's one picture my mom still has of "typical Abe" - on a fishing trip, miserable, curled up in the bow of the boat reading a science fiction novel.

Young Abe Mathews

I did start fishing my own way on our lake as I got older. I'd paddle our old Grumman canoe out around the lake with a bulk spool of 8 lb test and some curly tail jigs. I'd hand-line for crappie and bass. At the time, we had two power boats and dozens of good quality rods. My dad thought there was something wrong with me.

I didn't hold a fishing rod from age 18 through age 34. I lived in central Florida, and had friends who fished the Indian River and Mosquito Lagoon for reds. I never considered going. It wasn't until I moved to Tennessee that I started fishing again. I was riding a motorcycle at the time and had a pretty scary wreck. I'd been going to the mountains every weekend to run a road called "The Tail of the Dragon". After my wreck, I decided not to ride anymore, but I wanted a reason to go to the mountains. I'd seen people fly fishing as I whizzed by, and thought it looked interesting. Completely green, I went to my local fly shop, spent $500 on a "starter" setup (gulp!), and started fishing.

I took nine trips to my local river before I caught my first fish.

Campfire stories - everyone loves them. Tell us a story that wasn’t covered by the above questions.

It's a fishing-related story. I'm blessed to be able to work with a charity called Casting for Recovery. This charity helps breast cancer survivors deal with the disease through fly fishing. CFR has become very important to me, and I've tried to find ways to use my skills to help the organization raise money. Every year we send 14 breast cancer survivors on an all-expenses-paid wellness retreat where they have medical and emotional help, and learn how to fly fish. The motions of fly fishing are actually very helpful to women who've had breast cancer. They stay at a four-star resort lodge, and fish private water for a weekend. Each woman gets a professional guide who ensures they catch fish.

CFR Tying

Over the past few years, I have done what I can to help. I've tied flies to give to participants. I've worked at events talking to people about what we do, and why it means so much to women who are chosen to participate. CFR's colors are pink and purple. Thinking myself a manly man, I'd never worn pink in my life. At one CFR function I attended, all men who were there had to wear pink feather boas and purple tiaras. I did my part. And although I avoided cameras like the plague, my CFR director (Lindsay Long) got a picture of me in the getup. The folks I work with found out about the picture.

I told Lindsay that my department's admin, Sara Jarnigan, would be calling her asking for a copy of the picture. And that they could have it, on one condition.

Last May was my 40th birthday. The day before I left on the trip that ultimately would have me fishing from a kayak for the first time, I came around the corner to my office to see my whole staff, my co-workers and friends wearing pink feather boas, and tiaras - each one with a copy of that picture of me. There was a poster-size print of the picture, as well as a cake with the picture. Sara had led my team to raise enough money to send one woman to the retreat the following year, as I had requested. It's not a small sum of money, and everyone I knew pitched in to help send a woman to our retreat. It's without a doubt the most touching birthday gift I've ever been given.

Last modified on Thursday, 28 March 2013 05:52
Mark Watanabe

Mark "YakSushi" Watanabe is the Co. Founder of YakAngler.com, "He built this site!". He considers himself a mediocre fisherman and an unexceptional writer. He's the devoted father of a ton of little sushis (Air Quotes) and everyday tech ninja.


# standingyak 2013-03-28 09:24
Awesome--way to represent w/ the long rod. 8)
# FERAL ONE 2013-03-28 18:00
great read ! something about the flyrod that just calls to folks !!!
# smj190 2013-03-28 20:48
Fantastic Article! Great to know more about you!
# Fishinsmurf 2013-03-29 16:00
I loved the article. Sure makes me want to grab my flyrod and fish.
# wildrover 2013-06-07 06:51
Very inspiring article and well written.
# Plan B 2013-06-07 23:36
Pretty great interview there. Interesting guy!

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