Having made a name for himself in many of kayaking’s sub-genres, Ollie Hughes is a veritable tour de force in the paddling world. A paralympic flatwater sprint, white water slalom, and outrigger canoe sprint athlete, Ollie is also a whitewater kayak instructor, talented angler, and passionate HOW volunteer. Ollie’s determined spirit and love for the sport are, perhaps, best summed up by the man himself: “I was injured on April 13, 2011 by an IED which struck my side of the MRAP truck and crushed both my legs. I amputated my left leg below the knee in my efforts to free myself, and my right leg was shattered below the knee with multiple compound fractures. Somehow, I stayed calm, collected, and conscious. Put on my own tourniquet, gave instructions to my soldiers, staged my gear in the truck, and helped facilitate the extraction of my right leg. One of my first thoughts about what life was going to be like after “all this” hit me when I came out of my medically induced coma in Landschtuhl, Germany: ‘Now, how the hell am I supposed to load and unload the yak off my car?’”
What first drew you to this style of angling? When was that?
I came across a forum community pic of some dude in an SOT kayak, in the Gulf, with a 5ft bull shark draped across his lap. I went kayak shopping the next day, and have immeasurably enjoyed every moment kayak fishing since. I’d been reintroduced to fishing because I’d accidentally caught a huge (for me at the time) large mouth bass in Lake Waco, TX while stationed at Ft. Hood in 2006. I got tired of the frustrations of shore/dock fishing and knew that if I could only get out onto the water I would get on the fish I was struggling to catch. At first I was attracted to this type of angling because of logistics and economics, but now I am addicted to the stealth and flexibility the kayak affords me on the water. Couple that with the ability to set in anywhere I want, fish any water I want, and I can still carry my boat on my back as an amputee. Because of the cards I was dealt in Afghanistan, I’ll never again move with anything resembling grace on land again. When I’m in a kayak, there’s just something sleek, graceful, and powerful about all of my movement. It’s also a lot harder to notice a physical difference between me and the dude next to me, which is a real nice break from all the rock-star stares my lower extremity injuries attract. I’d already made up my mind long before I was hurt, but after I returned to the kayak from the hospital, one fact was glaringly clear to me…I’m never going to fish from a powered craft again.
Do you remember the first fish that you caught from a kayak?
I remember the feeling of accomplishment more than the fish itself. It felt like I had made a REALLY good decision in having laid out a good chunk of money. I think I’d belted out something along the lines of. “Oh, it is so TOTALLY ON MO*FU*,” to the fish. Which happened to be a relatively so-so sized large-mouth bass. Ask anyone who’s fished with me, I can get pretty pumped and dramatic (read loud like a pirate). I’ve finally improved my game to where I no longer use the F-bomb like punctuation.
In April of 2011, an IED struck your vehicle and caused damage severe enough to crush both of your legs. You then amputated the damaged left appendage, spent time in a medically induced coma, and underwent extensive rehabilitative therapy. Flash forward a year – you now compete in flat water kayak sprints, white water slaloms, and outrigger canoe racing. To what do you attribute this meteoric ascension of paddling prowess?
Stubbornness, competitive spirit, and a whole lot more spare time than I’ve had in years. Seriously though, I’ve got a really great coach that I was put in touch with during my therapy here in San Antonio. He was a former Olympic white water kayaker and runs the Outdoor Olympic Center in San Marcos. Ben Kvanli is always pushing me in creatively subtle ways, which just encourages me to always look past my physical problems and mental hang-ups. He just has this way about him which makes reaching for that next level always feel like it’s right there for the taking and totally obtainable. With his coaching, nothing really feels like a meteoric ascension. It just feels like a natural progression of achievable goals one right after another. He’s the constant positive influence which has allowed me to see beyond my physical conditions and challenges.
What food and/or music fuels your drive to the put-in?
Usually, some reheated coffee from the day before and a chocolate chip & peanut butter Cliff Bar. Tunes are strictly ska or punk while I’m driving to put in.
Who, specifically, is shaping the future of kayak angling?
Chad Hoover. This dude embodies everything which attracted me to kayak fishing. He is the Ted Nugent of kayak fishing. There’s just something about the way Chad relates to everyone which brings everything into the realm of, “Duh, I can totally do that.” Every time I read or watch Chad’s stuff I feel like I’m talking with a friend I’ve known all my life. I’m sure I’m not the only one he influences like this and I see his style of teaching able to reach a lot of people in order to introduce them to ‘yak fishin’. In the early days after my injury, I was struggling with rediscovering how I was going to get my life back to what it was before I got blown up. I knew I was going to be able to kayak, but had no idea how I was going to wrestle my boat onto and off the water (an “oh $h!t” thought which ran through my head the first time while I laid on a gurney on the LZ waiting for my medevac bird). Chad, through a KBF shirt give-away, responded to my email and put me in touch with Jim Dolan, Joe Winston, and Bill Stroud from HOW. He also set me up with a very generous amount of gear so I could get back out fishing as soon as my butt cleared the hospital. All of my stuff was still stuck in Kentucky at the time. There was just something about what everyone did for me in those first days which really helped to make it all seem like it was going to work out. Chad led that whole effort.
With regard to kayak angling, what issues are important to you? What, if anything, can be done about them?
Conservation cannot be stressed enough. The whole reason we have the resources we have now is from the conservation efforts of the generations before ours. I want my kids and my future grand children to know and love the outdoors like I have had the luck to do. If we don’t collectively fight hard to maintain and improve our wildlife areas, there won’t be much left to pass on to the next generations. I haven’t seen any areas “undeveloped,” but I’ve seen entirely too many going the other way around. My heart breaks every time I see more nature being paved over or trashed. I’ve almost gotten into physical fights with people I’ve caught littering or poaching. I tend not to mince words or beat around the bush. These turd burglars are trying to ruin things for the rest of us, so I have no problems being one of the first to get in their faces and call them out about it. Not that I expect everyone to take it to the level I feel comfortable with; being impolite just happens to be the icing on my cake.
Having spent time as both a HOW client and volunteer, you have seen both sides of this unique and beneficial therapy. It can be deduced that these roles are mutually symbiotic, meaning that time spent in one arena benefits the time spent in the other. Is there indeed any truth to this notion?
Absolutely. I’d always though HOW was a brilliant idea from my perspective of being a fellow soldier and kayak fisherman prior to my injuries. I hadn’t realized how huge the impact was until I had become injured and felt like I wouldn’t be able to kayak again without serious assistance. Of course, once it dawned on me that I was finally close enough to a chapter that I could finally volunteer and help, I was all about trying to contact HOW and get out of the hospital. You can imagine the surprise they had when there’s this injured soldier looking to volunteer who already had all this experience kayak fishing. That first day back on the water post-injury was a pretty significant day for me. It was the first really tangible indicator that things could seriously become “normal” again. Everything else up to that point was taken on faith. Knowing the weight of this influence on the psyche of an injured soldier really focuses my efforts as a volunteer.
Barring money or logistics, what is your dream kayak angling trip?
Ever since I ran across that forum community picture of this guy with a 5′ bull shark straddled across his lap in a SOT kayak out in the Gulf, I’ve wrestled with the on and off again concept of me pulling that off. I’ve managed to stave off the desire for doing so by sticking to fresh water fishing and trying to convince myself I’m not quite crazy enough to try something like this. Turns out it’s on my bucket list after all. I didn’t quite realize it until you asked me this question and I had to actually think about some kayak trip which is just somehow beyond my reach at this point. I’d love to attempt a “Texas sleigh ride,” with a variety of larger salt water fish including sharks, marlin, tuna, and sailfish. Now I just need to find somebody crazy enough to take me along and show me the ropes.
What’s in your milk crate?
My hopes and dreams. Seriously though, an eclectic variety of backup lures, terminal tackle, my anchor, and occasionally my prosthetic leg. I strap all the important stuff on the outside of my milk crate.
Tell us about your best day on the water.
Every day I’m on the water feels like my best day. There was this one morning recently while I was fishing the 2012 Casting for a Cause tournament in Corpus Christi, when Dean Thomas and I were paddling out from our set-in with the sun lazily rising over the horizon on a hazy semi-overcast sky where I was just overcome with an overwhelming, almost giddy, feeling of happiness. It felt like all the conditions were merging into the most perfect moment on the water and my every stroke with the paddle was both effortless and powerful. Even my pain meds had kicked in and I’m certain they contributed to the experience I was enjoying. It really felt like unbridled freedom and natural beauty on a kayak. Giddy, even though we got skunked. Some days it’s not even about the fishing.
What is the kayak fishing lifestyle?
It’s a more intimate approach to sport fishing which sits in better harmony with nature. I was always attracted to the stripped-down and simpler approach of kayak fishing. It is laid back and more athletic than anything else floating around the water. I’ve even struggled with the idea of putting a fish finder on my yak for just this reason. It just seems contrary to the root of the lifestyle to complicate things with electrical wiring, excessive hardware, and a marine battery. To date, I’ve won this argument with myself and insist on keeping everything simple and streamlined on my kayaks. The more I consider seriously competing in the sport the more it seems to bring me closer to cluttering my setup. I keep promising to switch over every day I get skunked too, but manage to have a change of heart by the time I get around to shopping.
You have admitted that, while deployed in Afghanistan, your escapist thoughts often revolved around kayak angling. Tell us about some of the memories that helped you through this time period.
Early misty mornings on the cool water, all the sounds and smells, the almost effortless glide of a kayak through smooth water, and the stark solitude. Then there’s the lack of people trying to shoot me or blow me up. These memories all seem to grant me a deep sense of internal tranquility. A great thing to have when you are walking all over the deserts and mountains of Afghanistan in 120 degree heat with 100+ pounds of gear on your back. My memories of times spent on the water in a kayak are, without a doubt, one of my “happy places.”
What does the future hold for you?
My future is in a bit of a holding pattern because of my injuries and subsequent rehabilitation. I’m still in the process of determining whether or not the Army wants to keep me around or see me medically retired. While retirement would definitely open my schedule to a lot more kayaking and fishing, sticking with the Army would require a lot of hard work and very long hours. Either way I go, I’d like very much to continue to train in my paralympic kayak events so I can make the 2014 US Team. I’d like to also start seriously competing in more kayak fishing tournaments.