Two northeast Kansas anglers gained a newfound respect for the power of nature this fall during a pair of saltwater kayak fishing tournaments in the Gulf of Mexico.
Ozawkie residents Isaac Jaap, 35, and Cody Simecka, 36, saw that power firsthand during a 12-day fishing excursion, during which time they camped under the stars and slept in cots. They even bought a tarp at one point to keep the rain off of them as they made their way south.
“It was a perfect storm for my buddy and I,” Jaap said. “All summer we’d been talking about doing an offshore kayak fishing trip. So we’d done our math, researched everything and we couldn’t find two big ones back to back.”
However, the stars aligned for the pair during one of the most catastrophic storm seasons to hit the mainland U.S. in history, with three Category 4 hurricanes (Harvey, Irma, Maria) making landfall in the gulf between Aug. 25 and Sept. 20.
The Texas Bluewater Kayak Classic near Corpus Christi, Texas, which originally was scheduled for Aug. 26, was postponed to Oct. 7 after Harvey hit the area. The later date meant that the pair could travel to Pensacola, Fla., for the King of the Island tournament on Sept. 30, then make their way back west to fish the Texas tournament all in one trip.
They drove 16 hours straight from Kansas to the Florida Panhandle, where the water was smooth as glass and relatively untouched by the destructive gales of Hurricane Irma to the south. Though they didn’t fish that well during the first tournament, Jaap said they had a lot of fun catching sharks and other fish in the Florida surf during the trip, even cooking mangrove snapper on the beach. After the KOTI tournament, they drove 11 hours to Port Aransas, Texas, for the Bluewater Classic.
However, the scene was much more grim when they arrived in Texas.
“We got in about 1 a.m., and it’s looking like a bomb went off,” Jaap said. “Us Midwesterners, all we see is what’s on TV. Whenever you drive down those streets, those houses, literally, all there is are two-by-four frames on hundreds of houses, piles of trash bigger than any building there. It was really devastating to see that. People are like, ‘Are you working here?’ and I was like, ‘No, we’re here for a fishing tournament.’ I didn’t even like telling people that, you know, because they’re devastated. They’re still living in a damn shelter and here we are to fish.”
The combined damage of Harvey and Irma was estimated to be between $150 billion and $200 billion, according to Moody’s Analytics. However, some estimates, such as the one made by private weather firm AccuWeather, have put the total of Harvey alone at $190 billion. At the time of the tournament, a smaller, Category 1 hurricane, Nate, also was making landfall along the coasts of Louisiana and Mississippi.
‘You’re probably going to die’
From the very beginning, there were warning signs that they shouldn’t be out on the water that day.
“The night before the tournament, literally, we had the beach patrol — because the beach was closed down as we were trying to find a pre-date launch point — they’re like, ‘Everything’s closed, you don’t need to be out on the water,’ and pretty much telling us that we’d probably die if we went out there, which was kind of unsettling,” Simecka said.
The two would launch from Port Aransas, one of the hardest-hit areas during Hurricane Harvey.
“That town basically got wiped off the map,” Simecka said. “Talking about being just eerie, down somewhere where we couldn’t get any gas, we couldn’t get any ice for our fish bags, we had to drive back to Corpus Christi because there’s no electricity and all of the stoplights, if they were working, they were working off self-contained units. The hurricanes had wiped through that area.”
On the day of the second tournament, they headed for the deeper waters near oil tankers where they had heard the fish were biting. As they were heading out to the deeper water, they saw people heading back to shore, too seasick from the huge waves to keep fishing. As they approached the massive ships, Jaap caught a 3 1/2-pound Spanish mackerel, which they put in the fish bag on Cody’s kayak.
“I think we ended up probably about 6 miles out in the ocean,” Simecka said. “Out there, I mean there were just huge rollers, probably around 18 to 20 foot out there, basing off the sides of these huge oil tanker rigs where you could see the water lines on it as it was swaying back and forth and water was hitting it.”
A strong riptide swept Simecka about a mile and a half south of his partner, to the point they could no longer see each other or contact each other by radio.
“The last thing I told him on the radio, you can see these waves are breaking two, three hundred yards off shore, I mean they’re 12-, 14-foot-tall just crashing, even the surfers aren’t going out there,” Jaap said. “He asked me, ‘Where does it look good to go in?’ and I told him ‘Whatever you do, Cody, do not go past that pier. If you go past that pier, you’re probably going to die.’ And that was the last thing I heard from him. I couldn’t even see him anymore.”
Simecka tried to work his way back to shore, but he couldn’t tell if he was actually getting closer or being pulled out farther into the ocean.
“I’d gotten to the point where I was all alone, I couldn’t see another kayaker in sight, I couldn’t see another boat in sight,” Simecka said. “My radio, which I mean it was a really nice, expensive radio with the Coast Guard channel, it really wasn’t working. I couldn’t contact anyone at the tournament, I couldn’t contact Isaac.”
As he struggled toward shore, a massive wave came up from behind him and capsized his kayak, sending his equipment flying out into the turbulent waters.
“Pretty much flipped a 13-foot kayak end over end,” Simecka said. “My seat got ripped out of my kayak — me and Isaac both have Vibe Sea Ghost 130s. I got tossed and tumbled, I ended up coming out of my lifejacket, my center hatch concealment compartment ended up popping open. I lost my cellphone, lost my GoPro, lost probably several hundred dollars in tackle.
“After the roll, when I came to … I kinda thought I was drowning. I came out of my lifejacket, my kayak was upside down, it was all I could do to stay upright getting tossed and tumbled in the ocean. Then I made my way and actually went to grab what I thought was my lifejacket floating in the water, which turned out to be my fish bag.”
In the confusion, he tried to put the bag on as though it were his lifejacket, but soon realized it was the fish bag and put it under his arm to stay afloat.
“Sometimes when people go in through breakers like that, if they are big, you’ll actually get out of the kayak and hold on to the back of it and use your body as a drag point, which kinda keeps your kayak straight and will help pull you on the back side of those waves before they start crashing. So that was the only thing I could think to do, plus I was just flat-out exhausted. So yeah, I threw the fishing bag up on the boat, grabbed on my back rudder. The shore looked so far away it was ridiculous. From that point, it was still a good 45-minute struggle.”
As he approached the coast, people on the shore saw him and helped him back to land.
“I had a lady on shore, she was like ‘Oh my gosh, I’m on the phone with 911, we saw you coming in, couldn’t see anyone around you.’ Their first question to me was ‘What were you even thinking about being out there?’ ” Simecka said.
When he told her he’d been fishing a tournament at Port Aransas, she was shocked he’d gotten so far south. When he told her a riptide had taken him, she responded to the Kansan, “Well yeah, the riptides today are one of the worst ever!”
The National Weather Service in Corpus Christi attributed the particularly strong riptides to flooding and large swells caused by easterly winds over the gulf, combined with a high tide caused by the full moon.
Simecka, who also survived a near-death experience after crashing his motorcycle, said he would definitely go kayak fishing again, though he called the experience “literally one of the most horrible days of my life.” He said in the future he would use a pedal kayak rather than rowing for longer trips, and wouldn’t get on the water if the weather or tides were dangerous.
However, it wasn’t all bad. Simecka’s partner, Jaap, ended up winning the tournament thanks to Simecka getting the fish bag to him just in time to weigh in.
“Turns out that the lifejacket that popped off of me ended up being a $4,000 fish bag, because it still had Isaac’s fish that he had caught in it,” Simecka said.