Boat builder, tournament angler, and kayak-based guide, Tommy Samuels is a proud North Carolina resident known transforming his passion into a successful and pioneering outfitting business. When not placing clients onto reds or spending quality paddle time with his family, Tommy is busily penning numerous publications related to the sport, including those found in Coastal Angler Magazine and Tideline. Tommy is sponsored by a multitude of companies, including KBF, Confluence , Okuma Fishing USA, Columbia Sportswear, and Pure Fishing.
What first drew you to this style of angling? When was that?
My parents fished before I was born, and some of my earliest memories are camping and fishing – first at Badin Lake and later at Carolina Beach. My brother and I fell in love with Carolina Beach, and he moved there when I was 12. One day we were hanging out at his place, and saw a huge school of fish busting bait a couple hundred yards from shore. They were out of casting distance, so we grabbed a couple of longboards and our spinning reels, and paddled out into the melee. So there we were sitting on surfboards, catching blues and Spanish on Hopkins spoons…what a hoot.
Fast forward about 10 years, and I’m sitting in a doctor’s office leafing through Wooden Boat Magazine when I stumble across Mac McCarthy’s article on building the Wee Lassie canoe. My mind instantly flashed back to that day fishing from surfboards with my brother, and I had to have a Wee Lassie. Three months later, I was paddling the first of several boats that rolled out of my garage in Jamestown, NC.
Do you remember the first fish that you caught from a kayak?
Wow, tough question; I need to think about that for a minute. I fished the home built canoes for a while before I tackled building a ‘yak, and I was still living in Jamestown back then. Yeah, I remember; I took my first home built kayak (what a dismal failure that boat was) out to City Lake to fish the aerator lines. I got lucky and jumped a cooperative school of largemouth that were feeding on shad, and they couldn’t resist a Rat L Trap.
As the owner of the guide service, Kayak Fish SC, you are among the first set of fishing guides to use a kayak as the primary means of getting clients onto fish. Pioneering efforts, by definition, are not built upon the actions of predecessors. What were some of the challenges associated with your initial foray into this largely uncharted territory?
The biggest challenge is getting noticed. I have a big group of friends in the kayak fishing community, but I wasn’t starting a guide service to fish with them. I needed to get noticed by tourists. How do you do that? Some call it diligent work; others call it shameless self-promotion. I call it nurturing a fledgling business that I’m trying to grow without any debt. So I started writing more: Examiner.com, Coastal Angler Magazine, a couple of articles to Tideline, and lots of activity on the local fishing forums. Everything I wrote carried a link to my website, so over time, my search rankings improved.
The number two challenge is juggling the schedule to fit wind, weather, tides, family, and a real job. Let’s face it, no one gets rich as a fishing guide, so keeping the real job is a necessity. That leaves me fishing on weekends or using vacation days to run trips. Funny thing about tourists, they arrive on Saturday and don’t get around to reading Coastal Angler Magazine or Tideline until Sunday or Monday. The typical phone call goes like this: “Hi, I read your article and checked out your website. I want to fish on Tuesday or Wednesday, but it has to be at 9 or 10 am, and if you can make it a trip chasing reds in the grass that would be great.” I honestly couldn’t do it without Justin Carter. He makes those mid-week miracles happen time after time.
What food and/or music fuels your drive to the put-in?
Strong black coffee and Cheerios or oatmeal always start a day of fishing. I prefer oatmeal in the winter for the slow burn and long lasting full feeling. I’ve got an odd range of music in the car: Jimmy Buffet, Bonnie Raitt, Poison, Craven Melon, just to name a few. “A Pirate Looks at 40″ gets me going 90% of the time.
Who, specifically, is shaping the future of kayak angling?
There are so many people doing incredible things; it would be hard to name just one. Take a look around and you see Jim Sammons, Chad Hoover, Morgan Promnitz, Luther Cifers; those guys are legendary. They are shaping the “business” of kayak angling. Some people that have really impressed me recently are guys you’ve probably never heard of, people like Juan Veruete, Justin Carter, and Paul Davis. They’re shaping the “education” side of kayak angling. Juan’s boot camp, Carter’s kayak fishing 101, and Paul’s how to blogs are making a difference to the sport.
In your search for the perfect kayak, you paddled 43 different models. This total is greater than the sum often tested by professional reviewers. What are some of the things that you learned during this quest?
The most important thing I learned is there is no such thing as a one size fits all kayak. I paddled some long skinny speed demons, but they were so narrow that I felt uncomfortable fishing, or that my feet and legs would start to cramp. I paddled short and fat boats that pushed such a large bow wake I would wear myself out paddling against any sort of tidal flow. I also learned that when most people talk about stability they are only concerned with initial stability and give no thought at all to ultimate stability. Now I can look at a hull and know with a pretty high degree of confidence how it will paddle.
With regard to kayak angling, what issues are important to you? What, if anything, can be done about them?
The legal fight in Virginia over landowners claiming rights to waterways has me nervous. That battle could destroy inland river fishing. I can’t tell you how thankful I am to live near commercial waterways.
Barring money or logistics, what is your dream kayak angling trip?
So many fish, so many locations. I’m thinking about world class fisheries where it would be completely up to me, no mother shipping allowed, and that somewhat limits my choices. Keeping it in that context, I’d have to pick Costa Rica. My wife and I were down there on vacation a couple of years ago. We somehow managed one of those weeks that was perfect for a surfer and suicide for a kayak angler with 6 foot barrels breaking on the outer sandbar. I sat on the beach watching waves crash against the cliffs about a quarter mile away with small boats bailing huge roosterfish one after another.
What’s in your milk crate?
Two years ago my milk crate had everything but the kitchen sink in it. I made a decision last year to simplify, so now it carries the essentials for that specific trip. A plano box with soft plastics, another with hard baits, bug spray, sunscreen, three liters of water, VisiCarbon Pro from YakAttack, landing net, and 3 rod and reel combos if I’m fishing by myself, or 8 to 10 if I have clients.
Tell us about your best day on the water.
My best day on the water is tomorrow. That probably sounds cliché, and I apologize, but every day above ground is a blessing, and every day on the water is magic.
My best day on the water had nothing to do with fishing, even though there have been some amazing fishing days and tournament successes that are great memories. My best day was going paddling with my kids on the Ashley River about 5 minutes from our house in Summerville. I tossed 3 boats on the minivan, talked my daughter and son into going paddling, and we spent a few hours enjoying one another’s company in the place I love most. Other memories may fade, but I’ll carry that one with me for the rest of my days.
What is the kayak fishing lifestyle?
For me it’s kayaks, sunshine, and sports cars. A little convertible is the land based equivalent of a kayak. Don’t be surprised when I pull up to the landing in a Miata, pulling a trailer loaded with kayaks. The 20 year old living inside my head keeps wondering what the hell happened as I get in my car and drive off the real job 5 days per week. Saturday rolls around and that same guy is doing the Snoopy dance.
Tell us a story, any story.
It’s Easter Monday, 2010; I’ve got a day off from the real job. Anne and the kids are in Greensboro visiting family, so I get to go fishing TOTALLY guilt free; no work, no wife, no worries. I hit up a spot on the Stono River not too far from Wappoo Cut, because I had caught a couple of pretty nice reds there two days before and I wanted to try for a repeat performance. First cast to the dock pilings and I’m hooked up to a nice over slot red. He comes boat side and measures out at 28 inches – not a bad start to the day. A guy says to me, “Oh, you caught one of the little ones.” The guy turns out to be the homeowner and he’s been catching MONSTER reds for about a week from a deep hole not even 30 yards from where I’m fishing. We talked for a few minutes, I got some tips, then went to fish in the honey hole.
I cast across the honey hole and slow hopped a 5 inch swimming mullet soft bait along the bottom. On about the 9th or 10th cast I was ready to give up and move back to the pilings when WHAM. It felt like I’d snagged something on the bottom that just wouldn’t budge. I dropped the rod tip and gave a good pull to get free when the snag nearly ripped the rod out of my hands. This fish realized it was hooked and he was none too happy about it. He was ripping line off my spool way to fast, so I unclipped from my anchor to go for the sleigh ride.
I need you to form a mental image here. Kayak fisherman tight to big redfish. Big redfish running for the next county just a little shy of warp speed. This fish is towing me wherever it wants to go and all I can do is try to “steer” the fight away from obstacles. The fish turns away from the docks, I’m enjoying the ride, giggling like a little girl, when I get a blast from a ship’s horn. I look over my shoulder to see a mega yacht bearing down on me with the Captain leaning out the window watching. I screamed that I was hooked up and the red decided to see if it could detach me by pulling me into the path of the oncoming yacht. The Captain throttled back and the folks on board came outside to watch the show. 10 minutes later the fish gives up the fight and I boat (at that time) the biggest red of my life: 36+ inches long and 22 pounds on the Boga. I finished that day with 6 reds over 30 inches.
Through your blog posts and articles for Coastal Angler Magazine, you have painted a rich and colorful portrait of the Charleston area waters. It can thus be deduced that this area holds special meaning for you. Tell us about the experiences that have solidified your passion for this fishery.
You’re right; I absolutely love this place. Charleston and the surrounding waters have become home to me. Launching into the Wando River before dawn, paddling downstream on a falling tide to sit at the edge of a mud flat and watch for redfish as the light slowly comes up. Easing into a flooded grass flat off the ICW and seeing blue tinged tails waving in the air as a fat red roots around for crabs. Sitting on the Stono River, casting to one spot on an oyster bar that’s no bigger than a dinner plate and knowing, just knowing, that there’s a flounder waiting there for you. Paddling through the breakers on Folly Beach on an already hot summer morning to find a school of tarpon rolling on the surface. Poling along in the Ride 135, sight casting to bonnet heads cruising in the shallows of Copahee Sound. There’s a picture, a story, a special memory that goes with each of those experiences. My real job has taken me around the world, but Dorothy was right; there’s no place like home.
What does the future hold for you?
I want to continue to grow. What does that mean? I’ll keep guiding trips, fishing tournaments, doing speaking engagements, writing, and expanding the locations in my log book. I want to build the prototype of a drive system that’s been in my head for over 20 years.