Sea Trials with the Best Saltwater Gear of ICAST

“I’m going to move the boat before we get killed by SEALS.”— words of wisdom from the captain. We were, in fact, drifting closer to an amphibious assault base. Frogmen were a real possibility.

Fishing brought us to this place, away from the grind of the work week: a sailor from the bowels of a U.S. Navy destroyer; a roaming writer from the road. And as the outboard propelled us away from a number of ominous military vessels resting on the beaches of the Chesapeake Bay, our hunt for fish began.

A few miles away, a military police boat with a .50 cal awaited our return to the harbor from whence we came.

But for now, fishing.

Spanish mackerel, cobia, striped bass, redfish, all were identified as targets. And we were armed to the teeth with the best saltwater gear of ICAST 2015. Along for the ride in a white, 18-foot Mako bay boat were the St. Croix Avid Inshore rod, PENN Clash reel, and Costa Rooster sunglasses. All three took home Best of Show honors at this year’s trade show. Buyers and media identified these three products as the best of the best in mid-July, but all three were rookies here in the mouth of the Chesapeake.

To find out if the touted tackle was really worth its salt, I took it all to a man who has seen an awful lot of salt. The battle test was about to begin.

The Mako belongs to Yeoman First Class Matthew Nolen, who—when he’s not criss-crossing the world’s oceans aboard the USS Nitze, an Arleigh-Burke class destroyer that’s packed with 510-feet of ‘Merica and whoop ass—donates his time to guide locally in the blue water near home port. A Florida-native, Nolen is no stranger to saltwater fishing. He can neither confirm nor deny the successful landing of flounder by sailors aboard the Nitze, though Navy records indicate there is no battle star for fishing.

Nolen is amped to start testing the best saltwater gear of ICAST. I am amped to be alive after launching near the assault base. Just minutes from one of America’s largest naval bases, the Chesapeake Bay really is a training ground for seamen of every type, including SEALS and Marines. Nolen, an Afghanistan veteran, was only half joking about them. Recurring visions of a camo-painted face and boonie hat rising from the the sea would haunt me for the duration of our adventure.

Away the Mako rolled. Here, the little boat was in its element.

We bounced into the bay, scanning the horizon for birds. “Diving birds,” the sailor-turned-captain shouts. “Look for those. Find the birds, find the fish.”

A few minutes later, we found the birds. In truth, we followed the dolphins to them—dolphins we could see diving deep underwater thanks to the shades. The dolphins, the birds, the fish were all within sight of the Cape Henry Lighthouses, the gateways to the bay. Score one for the Costas.

Chasing the schoolSoon, Nolen and I were upon busting schools of … something. Mackerel, we thought at first, as we rapidly cast a pair of glass minnows into the boiling blue water. There was to be no trolling here … and no anchoring. Nolen, the Mako and I were in hot pursuit of an ever-moving swarm of feasting fish. For an hour, we chased the school up and down the empty beaches of the Chesapeake. All the while, red and yellow watch towers of a marine training facility loomed in the background. Yet, chase as we might, no lure made an impact on the swarm. Whatever they were—at one point Nolen guessed they were bluefish—these creatures were not interested in anything we had to offer. Glass minnows, walking baits, spoons and chunk bait all failed to entice our quarry.

We had come for a fight, but so far, the sea was playing Floyd Mayweather to our Manny Pacquiao.

Clearly, our battle plan was in need of a fix. And after a lunchtime meeting of the minds, our two-man war council decided on a new strategy: go deep and go for broke. We would abandon the psychosis-inducing schools of whateverfish and concentrate our firepower on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. There, intelligence (a.k.a. Google) reported lingering cobia. And we wanted cobia.

The plan was daring. Cobia are known to reach up to 172 pounds. They also typically require more substantial gear than what we had. There was no reason to expect our medium-heavy Avid Inshore rods to haul one in. Typically, cobia fishing requires a boat with a special tower designed for spotting the massive fish. But you never tell a destroyer man that he needs a bigger boat, and we had supreme faith in the rods. Besides, if we managed to land a huge cobia, it would be the catch of the year for the newly-christened rods.

The Clash—loaded with Spiderwire blue camo braid—was certainly up for the battle.

We dropped anchor opposite a pack of fishing boats under the bridge. And finally (thank God), the scream of braided line slipping from a reel ignited the salt air. Fish, freaking, on!

Running the new St.Croix Rods Avid Inshore and Penn Fishing Clash through it.

Thx to Costa Sunglasses for helping us spot and Yo – Zuri America, Inc. & LiveTarget Lures for giving them something to bite. #needmorefishnomorerays

Posted by Fishing Tackle Retailer on Saturday, July 25, 2015

Son-of-a-Steve Irwin! What ignited the reel was no cobia. Nolen knew instantly. “A ray,” the sailor cursed as he tightened the Clash’s drag.

We should have known, honestly. Flights of rays had been swimming past all day, and just like the dolphins, we could see them clearly as they zoomed by.

But it didn’t matter now. Line was taught. Rod was bent. The battle was on.

This was the first true test the Clash/Croix combo had seen in the bay. With rod doubled over, Nolen shouted—and I swear this was unprompted—”This rod is amazing!” Indeed, in fight one with the ray, the smooth-spinning combo of Clash and Avid Inshore proved unbeatable. The Clash’s drag, especially, impressed Nolen (score one for the Penn), and as he lifted the ray on board we danced around its barb.

We were both left itching for another fight.

But that fight would wait for another day. Daylight was dwindling.

Minutes later, a .50 cal was pointed at our bow. We were back in the harbor, back in the land of SEALS and headed inshore to test the rods where they were meant to be all along. In the morning, we would head for the brackish marshes near Virginia Beach. If we could stay where we were meant to be …