Hailing from Virginia Beach, Tom VanderHeiden is the Coordinator for the Tidewater Chapter of Heroes On the Water. Known for his approachability, friendliness, and story telling abilities, Tom is an angler with an a true affinity for the sport’s practitioners. In his own words, “I’m not a guy that is concerned with collecting fish citations or tournament plaques, but treasure the friendships that I’ve gained through kayak fishing.” When not enriching the HOW community, Tom can be found spending time with his family, tending to his garden, or adding to the collective good through his involvement with Tidewater Kayak Anglers Association and the Pirates of Lynnhaven.
What first drew you to this style of angling? When was that?
I think that the initial thing that attracted me to kayak fishing was the economics, but that was soon joined by the freedom to go where and when I wanted. As with any type of fishing, you can spend as little as you want or as much as you want. At one point, I had considered getting a skiff to allow me to expand my reach on the water, but a close look at an expense sheet – one that never seemed to end – made me reconsider. A coworker convinced me to attend a local kayak fishing seminar, and I quickly realized that kayak fishing would meet all of the prerequisites of cost and functionality. It’s been a decision that I have been extremely happy with and never once regretted.
Do you remember the first fish that you caught from a kayak?
My first fish from a kayak came about because of the generosity of a guy I met at my first kayak fishing seminar named Wayne Bradby. He loaned me a spare kayak, and we fished for bass and crappie in a neighborhood lake near his house. My first fish was a medium sized crappie, and this was enough to convince me that kayak fishing was the way to go. A few months later, I was lucky enough to have my first fish in saltwater be a Redfish. This reinforced my decision!
As Coordinator for the Tidewater chapter of HOW, you are, quite possibly, the first point of contact for veterans curious about kayak angling. As such, you fulfill a role in which you are, essentially, the face of the sport that you value and love. What does this responsibility mean to you?
I’m just another guy out there doing what I love and have a lot of fun with it, but I take the role that I’m in very seriously. As kayak fishermen/women, we know the enjoyment and serenity that being on the water brings; being able to pass some of this to people that can truly benefit from it is very rewarding. If you think about what you have experienced on the water, guiding your kayak where and when you want, the feel of that tug on your line, the sound of line dragging off of your reel, and all of the sights and sounds you’ve experienced, what is that worth to you? Providing that opportunity to someone else to experience and gain back a part of them that they may have felt was lost and to never return is wonderful. The volunteers of HOW are helping our nation’s service heroes and their families, and should be very proud of all that they do. The consistent message is one of WE and not I. It sounds a bit corny, but when you realize that HOW is an organization made up of volunteers, you can understand the WE aspect. I was once asked who the heck is WE that I am always referring to, my reply is simple WE is YOU because it’s the volunteers that make what HOW does possible.
What food and/or music fuels your drive to the put-in?
Saying that I’m a foodie is an understatement! Before getting on the water I usually try to eat something that is going to fuel me up, so CARBS it is! While on the water, I’ll usually bring an apple or two and a pack of cheese peanut butter crackers. My music selection will normally be some classic rock, since a good drum roll is best played along with on the steering wheel while driving down the road.
Who, specifically, is shaping the future of kayak angling?
This depends on how you look at it. Of course everyone who tells a story about their experiences contribute to furthering the sport. The guys and gals that meet at the ramp, online, or at their club meetings to share a good fishing story are definitely furthering the sport. Most of us know that we won’t be the big guy on the block, but impact is also through sowing the seeds through a positive and consistent message. Heck, the majority of us don’t want to be a big dog on the scene; we just want to get out on the water and catch some fish!
Both locally and nationally, we have folks that stand out because of their passion for adventure, forward thinking, and ingenuity. The ones that have the heart and soul of a truly good person are the ones that stand out in my mind. I’ve been impacted the most through a few people locally that I hold in the highest regard, because I see the true nature of their being and the stewardship for the sport. Folks like Cory Routh, Mark Lozier, Rob Choi, Kevin Whitley, Wayne Bradby, William Ragulsky, and Forrest Short come to mind because of a passion for conservation, education, and documenting and furthering an understanding of our fishing resources. Jim Dolan and all of the volunteers with HOW are providing the sport to a group of people that benefit in a way that is just beginning to be studied and understood. Social media has made a huge impact on the sport. Reading and seeing posts and blogs of folks from around the country such as Dee Kaminski, John Oast, and Juan Veruete is really great, and adds a fresh and new perspective to the sport. There are many, many more, but these are a few of the folks that I can name with whom I’ve seen have a positive and sustainable impact at the local and national level. Impact isn’t only achieved by big players, but also by the guy or gal that consistently sends out a message of what good is in the sport.
With regard to kayak angling, what issues are important to you? What, if anything, can be done about them?
I have a few areas that are important to me. I think anyone who spends time on the water soon starts to have a real concern for the environment. My background is in Energy Management, so the ongoing debates of conservation, new energy resources, and sustainability are always on my mind. I have real concerns about the natural gas industry and how their fracking practices are impacting our environment – especially our rivers and streams. Sustainable fishing is a real concern in many areas. The pendulum seems to swing as to who has the most influence rather than in a fair manner. We are starting to see areas that are being closed to not only commercial fishing, but also to the recreational angler. Other areas seem to be being swept clean of their fish populations by the commercial industry. There just doesn’t seem to be an open discussion of proper management at times. As public access to the waterways dwindle, the recreational boating industry continues to grow. Hopefully, as the kayaking industry explodes, political pressure will follow and look at the public’s right to access our waterways. It is sad that many of our politicians are more concerned with headlines than solving real issues. I hope through public awareness, a desire to fully understand an issue through open debate, and limiting financial influence we can apply the political pressure to resolve some of these issues.
With the ever-expanding universe of kayak angling-specific online media meeting the rapid growth of HOW, many anglers are becoming aware of the organization, and are subsequently moved to get involved. What advice would you give to a person wishing to volunteer, but worried that they are not an expert-level paddler or tournament champion?
The volunteers that we have in HOW are an extremely diverse group. Take a slice of HOW and you have a well rounded slice of people that you meet in the sport and in life in general. Our volunteers are comprised of every background imaginable and every skill level within kayak fishing. We have those folks that are at the forefront of the industry, but the vast majority are the folks that view kayak fishing as a hobby and just want to get out on the water and share their passion. We also have a growing group of volunteers that are not kayak fishermen. The role that these folks play can be anything from helping to spread the word of HOW through social media, blogs, and photography, but we are also looking closely at capturing their talents in organizing new ways to expand HOW. Skill level is not a prerequisite to helping, but the desire to help is.
Barring money or logistics, what is your dream kayak angling trip?
You know, I’m not really sure that I have that one dream trip. Having only one would provide me with only one story to tell, and anyone that knows me knows that I love my stories. I think that every trip with friends and family are really the trips that make me happy. The camaraderie on the water that I have experienced. along with those trips that I get out alone, are memories that are truly memorable. As long as those continue, I’m happy.
What’s in your milk crate?
This really makes me laugh! Every year I make the comment that I’m going to reduce the amount of “stuff” in my crate. I have even nicknamed my kayak the Conestoga Wagon because of the over abundance of things that find themselves on the water with me. It’s wasteful in time and money, and is an area that I’m going to have to address. Along with all the necessities for safety and such, I can never have enough water with me. Not preparing for day one, makes day two really bad.
Tell us about your best day on the water.
It’s hard to label one day as that one special day. When I think of the great times on the water, several memories seem to pop into my head. Crabbing from our kayaks with my wife, the first time I saw stripers swimming in the light line of the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel, my first quality Speckled Trout (had the waterway completely to myself, screaming like a little kid), Bluefish on top water, rough seas with a jetty nearby and steadily hooking into Horse Croaker, seeing and hearing the Navy SEALS in their Zodiacs singing Anchors Aweigh as the sun came up, and being there when a HOW participant catches their first fish and seeing their passion grow for a sport that we all love are the days that I see as my best days on the water.
What is the kayak fishing lifestyle?
This question makes me think of an article you would find in a magazine tucked in the seat pocket on an airplane. As you open it up, you see a full page picture of a good looking guy or gal with a huge fish, of course they are on a brand new spiffy looking kayak floating in crystal clear water as well!
I come to see the kayak fishing lifestyle as looking much different. Of course, it’s all fun and addictive…but picture that same person, well maybe not so good looking and usually sun or wind burned, the fish may be big, but many times they are smaller, the kayak is pretty at first, but soon is scratched and dinged, and the water may be crystal clear, stained, or downright muddy! But one thing is for sure, that person has a big smile on their face and one hell of a story to tell about getting up early, staying out late, the one that got away, or what they learned the hard way!
Tell us a story, any story.
Oh, this would have to be my worst day on the water! Partly cloudy skies with an occasional drizzle in the middle of summer – occasionally I would check the weather radar on my phone. Between the occasional Redfish bite and being able to watch the nesting egrets, it looked to be a fun day. I remember the piercing sound of the lightening sirens from the nearby golf course, a sound that will always send terror throughout your body. Seeing the approaching black clouds appear from behind the tree line was horrible. Within moments, the sight of lightening on three sides of me made me realize that the paddle back to an area where I could land my kayak and make a run to the club house was going to be a half mile race against mother nature. At one time, lightening even came out of the sun lit sky ahead of me. The thought of dying wasn’t a question but rather something I knew was going to happen. Maybe I should have made the closest landing, thrown my rods out, and laid down for the duration. In the moment, my only thought was to get into the safety of a building. I paddled so hard and so fast, trying to control my breathing and my paddle stroke. My destination was an area that I had seen earlier where the reeds were flattened down and just over the raised bank was the golf course. I ran like hell, didn’t even remove my PFD! Through the sand trap, across the fairway, along the cart path, I made it, whew! Took me 45 minutes to finally catch my breath! The folks in the clubhouse informed me that they watched the storm on radar disappear from miles away and actually bloom over the golf course. They said it was really cool to watch…but they weren’t on the water. The storm continued for a couple of hours and provided a summer show of lightening the entire time. I was glad that I wasn’t still out there laying low. My kayak spent the night on the bank, and after a couple of good nightcaps, I spent the night in my bed. This was a lesson learned and is always on my mind during the summer months.
Your relationship with HOW began with a charity-oriented tournament, and parlayed itself into you fulfilling a vacancy and taking over as chapter coordinator. Was there a defining moment in which you felt a calling toward a leadership role within the organization?
A few years into my kayak fishing addiction, I found myself getting ready to turn the mid century mark in age. Funny how hitting certain milestones make you think about a bigger picture. I remember telling my wife that I really wanted to do something meaningful to mark my 50th, but I could never put my finger on it. Thoughts of making a generous donation to a worthy charity or some other meaningful act crossed my mind, but nothing seemed to hit the mark.
Through the years, I had been active with coaching or occasionally as a club officer or board member, so I figured that was the road I would probably travel once again. I was a board member of TKAA, volunteered with its annual Charity Kayak Fishing Tournament, and had become familiar with the Heroes on the Water (HOW) organization. The Tidewater Chapter of HOW was headed, and initially started by, Cory Routh shortly after HOW was formed nationally by Jim Dolan. Due to Cory’s hectic schedule, he decided to pass on the reigns of the chapter and he put out some feelers to see if anyone was interested. I threw my name in the hat, and after some discussions with both Cory and Jim, I took over as Chapter Coordinator. A few months into it, I remembered how I had wanted to do something good to mark my 50th. I realized that I had found it.
What does the future hold for you?
Who knows? Hopefully I’ll have a smooth sail into retirement, where I will continue to enjoy kayak fishing, some traveling with my wife, and life. I’d like to keep volunteering in some way, since some of the best times in life are by giving back. Maybe mix in some world peace and a couple lottery wins; that would be pretty cool as well.