As a veteran and Fort Bragg-based HOW volunteer, Michael Ortiz knows both sides of the group’s equation. An angler since his fourth year of life, Michael drew upon his experience and talent to earn, after a short two years of kayak fishing, a coveted spot on the Wilderness Systems Pro Fishing Staff. Currently stationed in Afghanistan with the 82nd Airborne Division, Michael is looking forward to returning to the sport, volunteering with HOW, chasing the elusive flounder, and enjoying life as a kayak angling guide.
What first drew you to this style of angling? When was that?
I was surf fishing in Texas, and saw some guy fishing from a kayak. Something about just being out there in the water like that drew me in. I went and got my first yak that next weekend. It was 2010.
Do you remember the first fish that you caught from a kayak?
I do! It was actually a Guadalupe Bass I caught on the Guadalupe River just outside of San Antonio. It was about a pound, but every time I tell that story the fish gets bigger. The first saltwater fish was a Gaft tail Catfish. I had yet to learn the art of the inshore Reds! So I was just hanging around in deeper water of the beach.
You are currently stationed in Afghanistan, serving your fourth tour of duty, and awaiting the day in which you can return to the sport you love – perhaps even in the capacities of professional kayak angling guide and HOW mentor. What advice would you give to a kayak angling-curious veteran thinking about making an initial call to a local HOW chapter?
For me, working with the guys and girls from HOW has been life changing. To see people who have a very similar frame of mind is healing for me, as well, while we are on the water. Introducing both warriors and volunteers to the sport only adds to the passion. I have fished with Vets from Vietnam, Desert Storm, and the current War on Terror…our stories, while different, are very much the same. That is what drew me in to working with others and helping them heal themselves on the water.
What food and/or music fuels your drive to the put-in?
My buddy Dean “Slowride” Thomas would tell you I was crazy, but I have a routine/ritual I do before every trip…I get a cup of coffee, 2 energy drinks, a lemon pie, and trail mix…it’s the energy drink that sparks the crazy comment…I shake it up so it explodes when I open it (letting the fish know I am coming haha). As for the music, just whatever is on the radio really. Usually listening to country music before I put in.
Who, specifically, is shaping the future of kayak angling?
Hands down, Dean “Slowride” Thomas. He got me into the sport in ways I have never seen; his influence to people all over the world is amazing. He is a true ambassador to the sport.
With regard to kayak angling, what issues are important to you? What, if anything, can be done about them?
Conservation of the sport, the areas we fish, as well as the fish. To practice CPR and get the fish on its way, I only use single hooks on all of my lures. I don’t use live bait, as I have seen that, unless I am going to keep what I catch, the fish usually swallow everything and in turn usually causes too much damage to let do. Flying and top-water allow me to control the set of the hook. Kayaking also adds a unique way to cover water with little damage to the ecosystem, although I have nothing against boats – I find that people who don’t pay attention to their surroundings or water levels do more harm than good with their props. I think teaching and preaching the potential harm, and protecting certain areas, are key to our sport.
You are a self-proclaimed lover of top water action and fly fishing, and, as such, have placed yourself within a camp that truly values the visual excitement of the strike. To what do you attribute your affinity for this sensory experience?
The first fish I caught on a top-water was a ladyfish. It came out of the water and I didn’t have a clue what it was or what to do. I was actually just practicing “walking the dog,” and my heart jumped. I almost fell out of my kayak; it was crazy. Then seeing a red “waking” behind your lure -if that doesn’t get your blood going nothing will. Sometimes the miss is almost cooler than the catch. I have had reds blow up on a top-water and send it flying 5 feet in the air. I swear that is how people lose their rods in the water; you see explosions like that…I might have dropped a rod or 2 from that… just sayin’!
Barring money or logistics, what is your dream kayak angling trip?
To be 100% honest… I would love to just get back down to Aransas Pass again. I am “home” there, and hands down I would pick that place in a heartbeat.
What’s in your milk crate?
Box of flies, box of top-waters, box of DOAs, my energy drinks, camera, 3 fishing poles, 2 turtle doves, and a partridge in a pear tree!
Tell us about your best day on the water.
I have 2. The first would be the first time I did Casting for a Cause with Dean “Slowride” Thomas and HOW; the fact I got to be with a bunch of fellow veterans and wounded warriors was awesome, and it was also the day I caught my biggest redfish – 30.5in on a super spook Jr. The second would be the first time I got my dad out on the water,. He had never been in a kayak, and I was watching him have a field day on speckled trout down in Aransas Pass.
What is the kayak fishing lifestyle?
I would say we are a unique group of anglers, mellow (sometimes – haha), and just enjoy the sport. The good thing about being a kayak angler is you really can’t be a hothead on the water – scares all the fish! We like to sit on the porch after a long day of fishing and just chill out, we have really big arms from paddling and tiny legs from just sitting… haha just kidding.
Tell us a story, any story.
I have a species of fish that has refused to cooperate with me, the elusive flounder! The first time I went after flounder, Dean “Slowride” Thomas was ASSURING me that he knew where to find them… so we fished… and fished… and fished…nothing. On the last hole, on the last cast, instead of letting me get the first toss he drops his lure in and catches a damn flounder, the lifts it out of the water, drops it in my kayak, and whilst laughing says, “Mike meet flounder, flounder this is Mike.” Smart ass. That was in Texas.
Then my brother, Adam, who had never fished on a kayak, came to fish down in North Carolina with me. While I was slamming some good Specs, I hear him yelling, “Michael, look… it’s that fish you can never catch!” I mean, why couldn’t it be “hey, look at my flounder!”, but somehow my name and inability to catch one has to tossed in there every time. No justice I swear!
Your first angling mentor was your grandfather, a man who instilled in you both talent and passion. He passed away during your teenage years, but his angling abilities and outdoors-directed respect live on within you. If he were alive today, what would your grandfather have to say about your chosen fishing methodology?
He would ask where his kayak was at. He loved to be outdoors. I would have to get him off night crawlers, though, and teach him to work a top-water. But he’d be all for it.
What does the future hold for you?
I wish I knew. I know that if in my future I am fishing, life is still pretty good.
*Imagery courtesy of Dean Thomas and Steve Garcia