Sunrise kayak fishing. For me, it’s the silence. Absolute, pure, mind-erasing silence. Silence so quiet it screams in your face that it’s there. So quiet you can hear the smoldering burn of the stars, infinite pinpricks of electric white, lightyears away. No throttle thumping into gear, no ink-black waves from a boat’s wake slushing against the shore. Me, my kayak, the silence, and the stripers. That’s why I do it, day after day, alarm after alarm, no matter how tired I am. My greatest joy in life, the thing responsible for my most pure and alive moments as a human being, is waking up early to go kayak fishing for striped bass. It’s an obsession, an exhausting, exhilarating, soul-quenching obsession, and I don’t think I’ll ever stop.
I began kayak fishing 20 years ago in the lily-muddled millponds of central Vermont. Since then, the sport has exploded, and I’ve happily come along for the ride. At some point during post-college life, my weekend fishing alarms started to creep backward: 6 a.m., 5:40 a.m., 5 a.m. Nothing crazy there since I’m a teacher and up at 5 on weekdays anyway. But then, and I’m not sure exactly when, they slowly got earlier: 4 a.m., 3:30 a.m. Eventually, on midsummer mornings, they became obscenely early: 2:45 a.m., 2:30 a.m. Almost two decades into this sport, my excitement remains impervious to sleep. There are restless nights when I finally nod off around 10 p.m., but some unseen force snaps my eyes back open at 1 a.m., and I’m up for good. I vibrate with excitement—a feeling that doesn’t dim no matter how many times I launch.
I’ve caught stripers of all sizes: on topwater spooks, poppers, live eels, trolled plugs, spoons; fished from some of the finest striped bass waters on the East Coast, from the Long Island Sound in Connecticut down to the heart of the Chesapeake Bay. Boat, kayak, shore, rain, snow, sun—hundreds of trips over thousands of hours. Somehow, nearly 20 years later, waking up early for sunrise kayak stripers still strums my pulse like the strings of a Fender Stratocaster.
July 2021: I return from Black Hall Outfitters, a tackle shop in Westbrook, Connecticut, where I work full-time in the summer. Preparation for the next morning’s trip begins immediately. The lights flip on, and I buzz around the garage like a bee by its hive. With surgical precision, everything is laid out, tied on, and loaded up. My Toyota Rav4 is packed to the gills with gear: kayak crate, Plano boxes, Old Town PDL drive, YakAttack VisiCarbon flag, every little odd and end that I might need out there. I put the penultimate piece of equipment, my Old Town Sportsman BigWater 132 PDL kayak, on the roof rack, ready for a 3 a.m. takeoff. Finally, the rods go in. Every double-Uni knot has been checked, every improved clinch knot tugged tight, and my favorite striper setups, dialed in over years of casting, are ready.
What I’ll tie on the rods will be determined by destination. Tomorrow, I’ll hit one of my favorite hunting grounds for giant stripers. It’s a current-swept shoreline where I know every rock and eddy, every depth change, every subtle hump, bump, and crevice, every piece of the place. Giants swim there, and like the intricately woven sounds of a growing orchestral crescendo, I have a precise plan for which lures will be thrown, in what order, and for roughly how long. However, this is fishing, and that plan will likely be adjusted, changed, or trashed completely based on how the fish behave. That’s part of the fun.
Thanks to the previous night’s preparation, I’m up at 2:30 a.m. and swiftly depart by 3, steaming coffee mug in hand. Arriving at the boat ramp, I strap my headlamp on and put together my vessel. Every piece of gear in my fishing kayak must be arranged to maximize both space and ease of access. I may feel well-organized, but if a 45-inch striper comes broadside after a 5-minute fight and I can’t reach my fish grip, well, that’s a real problem. Over the years, I’ve determined my preferred setup, and these days, I can usually have it ready in 10 minutes.
Once the kayak is fully outfitted, I push off, and that is the moment I can never resist leaning back, looking up at the stars, and taking a deep breath of salt air infused with marshy, muddy magic. There’s nothing but unknowns ahead, and that’s the joy of it all. Will I cast for hours and get only schoolies? Or, will a cow striper obliterate my plug before the sun creeps over the horizon? The possibilities push me into a determined pedaling as I head into the dark.
I arrive at the shoreline around 3:45 a.m., and the pure blackness means it’s time to start throwing my pre-dawn staple: a 13.5-inch Gravity Tackle GT Eel rigged on an 8/0 Owner Beast Hook. This spot is rife with car-sized boulders, eel grass, and tidal current, a trifecta of features that big stripers love. It’s summer, and these giants move in at night when the shallows cool. They use the craggy shoreline to hunt for bait, and in these pre-dawn hours, no depth is too shallow.
The GT Eel is a superb nighttime lure. Cast into the boulders, it shimmers and wiggles back to my kayak, beginning inshore at depths around two feet and making its way to where I sit in 15 feet. My grip on the rod, a 7-foot, 6-inch Daiwa Proteus paired with a Daiwa BGMQ 4000, is tighter than the lid on a pickle jar because when that inevitable thump-thump bounces the rod tip, I’m swinging for the fences. It’s a one-hook bait, and I plan to make the hookset count.
As a cast sails through the air, I can’t see where it lands on this moonless night. It feels like fog will be present long after the sun comes up, but that’s perfect. Listening to the GT land near shore, I begin a steady retrieve, punctuated by the occasional rod twitch to give the eel some action and catch the attention of the stripers that linger here through summer.
In this spot, it seems the bass set their alarms for about a half-hour before dawn. The bite often picks up as the dim glimmer of false dawn makes itself known above the horizon. I occasionally strike it big with a whopper of a striper prior to topwater time, but it’s not always about the catching. In a world oversaturated with beeps and buzzes, deadlines and due dates, being out in the kayak this early provides a salty, sublime calm that’s impossible to replicate elsewhere. It feels like the whole ocean belongs to me. I can hear burbling baitfish, smell the warm breeze coming off the water and, overhead, see the fleeting flash of a shooting star that feels like an omen of the good to come.
Eventually, the seeping glow of dawn provides enough light to cast a topwater plug. For me, this is it. I’ve lived for the next few hours of topwater fishing, and my setup for this tactic is a workhorse—a Lamiglas Black Inshore 7630S rod latched tight to a Daiwa BGMQ 6000, spun with 30-pound braided line, and tipped with a 50-pound fluorocarbon leader. This combo can launch a 3-ounce plug to the moon, and I plan to do just that. I begin with my most productive topwater bait of the summer, a 247 Lures “Mully,” a wooden, rattle-free, spook-style lure. It’s already tied on, and as I pick up the rod, my grin widens. It’s go time.
Repositioning the kayak about 30 yards from shore, I rip a cast as far as possible, ensuring that it will be retrieved with the flow of the outgoing tide. On calm days, when I’m done fishing, I’ve spent considerable time going back and forth over the spot where my plug just landed. It’s a minefield of giant striper territory where van-sized boulders bracket patches of eel grass on a 4-foot flat near shore. Only a couple rocks are visible above the water’s surface, and that’s because of what (in my mind) is the key feature of this spot: a sharp drop-off from 4 feet into a roughly 11- to 13-foot channel. On good days, the current flow provides a ready supply of hapless baitfish for stripers cruising the flat. This is the feature I’m most keen to capitalize on, and I stand up, slowly tick-tocking the rod tip back and forth, letting the plug work its silent magic as it pushes water in the pre-dawn mist.
From nowhere, a wake appears in the shallows—a large one—a few feet behind my plug. Simultaneously, I must control both myself and the lure. As my throat tightens, the spook maintains its rhythmic path. While the stars look over my shoulder, I utter a whispered, “Omigod, omigod.” The wake builds, gaining speed. What comes next has enraptured anglers for centuries: this striper, emerging from her nighttime haunt with a vengeance, explodes on the surface like a brick of C4. The sucking, splashy smash of a striper strike is unmistakable, and the fight begins.
The backbone of the Lamiglas kicks in and I summon all available leverage, seeking a strong hookup. Back arched, keeping balance in the kayak, my line tightens, and the first rattling zip of drag cracks the silence like a gunshot. By now, the bass knows her food is fighting back.
Anglers by nature immediately try to discern the class of fish that they’re battling. Stripers over 40 inches, with thundering headshakes and unstoppable runs, rarely leave us with much guesswork. This one is no different. The hookup is good, and as she takes off on her first big run among the rocks, I deploy a valuable trick of the trade in kayak angling: reverse pedaling. This fish hit in about 4 feet of water, and tension on the braid renders it vulnerable to snipping by any sharp edge, of which there are many. I must get her to come out of those rocks. To do this, I drop down into my seat, keeping the rod tip high, and pedal backward, hoping to apply enough pressure, peeling drag aside, to guide her into open water. It’s a high risk/high reward move. But then, after a pause in her run, more violent headshakes, and more pulling, I can tell it’s working. She has cleared the drop-off into that micro-channel, and now I’ve got the upper hand.
The fish is moving toward my kayak now and overtakes me portside, heading toward the stern. I never like it when a fish this green gets really close to the kayak early in the fight. The sight of the kayak and the sensation of being pulled toward the surface often triggers strong runs in these fish, and I like to loosen the drag a quarter-turn to compensate for the sudden tension applied when these runs occur. After I do so, off she goes, using that broomtail like a locomotive’s piston, churning water and taking line. As for me, well, I’m on a “Nantucket Sleigh Ride,” a term originally penned by mariners being dragged by harpooned whales, but now often used by anglers to describe the sensation of being pulled around by any large fish. Driven by fury and fright, she fights.
Seconds later, my modern tools overpower her evolutionary gifts. Her head turns slowly while I lift the rod up and crank down, then repeat it: lift, crank down, lift, crank down. Soon, the fish is under me, deploying what I’ve found to be the final trick up a cow striper’s sleeve: hunkering down to the bottom. I crank, and she rises. A few last gasping headshakes mark the end of this frothing, chaotic dance. Her rich white belly bulges, packed with bunker, while I eye up my favorite part of striper coloring: the light, lilac glow of purple running laterally from gills to tail.
Grateful for the fight and in recognition of her role as an aging egg-machine, I treat the fish with respect, keeping her submerged, apart from a quick picture and measurement for memory’s sake. Topping out at 45 inches, this is a day-maker. The stiffness of my clenched fingers is matched in soreness only by my cheeks, as they’ve been pulled into an elated grin since I latched my hand onto her lower jaw. However, now it’s soon revival time. After about a minute of gentle pedaling, the seawater flows over her gills, her energy returns, and I feel the gritty clamp of her jaw close on my fingers. It’s time to say goodbye and wish her well, which I always do.
Admittedly, this is the most emotional part of sunrise kayak fishing for me. By some combination of chance, skill, and luck, this fish and I have crossed paths. She’s given me memories, raw joy, and an unrivaled flash of adrenaline. I’ve returned her to keep living, growing, reproducing, as a vital part of a declining species that many of us care so much about.
As the sun reaches full strength, I know it’s my turn to head home. My sunrise has come and gone in all its glory. Another chirping 2 a.m. alarm, another deep breath under the stars, more casts in the eyes of a dawning day, I’m left with braid cuts and sore hands, gratitude, and the unyielding determination to come back again, as soon as I can. This is sunrise kayak fishing, my happy addiction.