Kayak Kevin’s East Coast Tour | Kayak Angler Magazine | Rapid Media
Kevin Whitley's frist campsite. Photos by Kevin Whitley.

The joy, pain, sunshine and rain of the Trident Fishing Tour

When “Kayak” Kevin Whitley set off on a six-month, 1,000-mile kayak tour of the east coast, he had the support of major sponsors and the attention of the world.

The 46-year-old Ocean Kayak pro staff has already completed a half-dozen long-distance paddle trips, and built a voracious following on social media. But this tour would throw him in a tailspin. He would conquer swamps, open ocean and mangrove forests, only to be knocked down and forced to quit by his own body. Whitley's story proves that life is a war, not a series of battles.

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The happy days. This was the first tarpon of the trip.


Since my last circuit of the Chesapeake Bay in 2010, I had been itching to get on tour again. While I was serving on the design council for Ocean Kayak’s new Trident, I got the idea to test the boat on a long-distance paddle fishing trip. I paddled from Florida to Virginia in 2003 and Pensacola to Norfolk in 2005, so I knew these waters would be a perfect test for the boat. After getting support from Ocean Kayak and Yak Attack, I was set to go. 

Before I left, I spent the winter conditioning with long paddling trips and yoga. I started the tour 20 pounds lighter than I had started my other tours. On my last crossing of the Chesapeake Bay in 2010, I almost sank my kayak by over-loading it with water and gear. I figured losing weight would allow me to carry supplies for two more days. That decision came back to bite me in the end.


I paid $5 and launched at the public ramp north of Key Largo. The wind started blowing my first day on the water. I planned to spend a few weeks fishing the Keys, but I knew the steady east wind would make it impossible to paddle back to Florida Bay. So, I turned west and headed towards Flamingo. I spent six days crossing Florida Bay, paddling up to 20 miles each day. I was covering open water, sometimes shooting for small islands that I couldn’t see on the horizon. 

I don’t use a GPS for navigation, so I relied on my compass and map to stay on course. It took a while to dial in the fishing action. I did see snook, snapper and even bonefish swim past me. I broke off a big jack crevalle and spotted a 30-inch snook. The water was clear until I reached the western side of Florida Bay where it was muddy with dead grass. It didn't look healthy.


Wind was gusting to 45 mph blowing all the water out of the bay. Even at high tide, there was hardly any water to paddle. I spent four days at the Flamingo campground eating junk food from the small camp store and hanging out with tourists. One good thing, the wind kept the mosquitos down.


I left Flamingo heading west to Chokoloskee. Finally started to figure out the fishing. Caught my first snook of the tour. Snook hunt the edge of mangrove islands. Their narrow face and tail make them look like a stick under the water. Once I figured out what they look like, I could sight cast to them. Each day I would paddle to my next destination looking for fish on the way. I didn’t know I needed a permit at some of the campsites. Some nights, I stayed on beaches that were closed.

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Paddle all day then find a beach for camp.


I reached Chokoloskee. Stayed for the weekend recharging batteries and resupplied at the grocery store. The guys at Everglades Area Tours let me stay on their property and showed me around the area. Choko is a fishing outpost. The island is made of oyster shells left by the Calusa Indians. There is a boat ramp and one restaurant in the middle of the island. Most of the people are tourists and guides.


I set off for Everglades National Park. The first night I was hit by a huge storm ahead of a cold front. I set up my tent between the full moon high tide line and the low tide line where the beach is flat. In the middle of the night, I saw the lightning coming. The wind picked up and the rain started. I felt safe in the tent, but I packed up everything that had to stay dry. With the wind and rain whipping, I went to sleep. A few hours later I woke up and felt the tent floor floating. I moved everything higher on the beach as the water kept rising. If the water had come up any higher, I would have had to climb into the trees. 

The next morning the temperature dropped into the forties. I put on layers of clothes to stay warm. That’s when the park guards busted me. I got a ticket for illegally camping without a permit. They let me off for filming without a permit. I get it. The rules keep people from destroying the area. “Fuck this,” I said to myself, “I’m going where I can camp and fish anywhere.” I headed back to Chokoloskee where I resupplied. I spent two days fishing with Ocean Kayak teammate Jean McElroy. She caught a huge snook.


After getting a camping permit, I spent two days fishing the Everglades National Park before turning west and paddling into Cape Romano. That's where I found heaven. This was the highpoint of the whole trip. I could fish and camp anywhere. Every island had a beach for my tent. When the wind blew, I could fish inside the islands. On a nice day, I would head out into open water. I could go six days without returning to Goodland to resupply with water. 

Each day, I would wake up before dawn. Drink my coffee and take a shit. Then I had to return to the tent as the sun came up and the no-see-ums swarmed. Once the sun burned off the bugs, I would re-emerge, pack camp and head to the next island, fishing along the way. 

I caught my first pompano along with snook, redfish and speckled trout. I’d paddle and fish until late afternoon then find an island to set up camp. Before the sun set, I’d clean up the boat, organize my gear for the next day, eat, and hang out until the bugs came out at dark. One week I would paddle east. One week I would paddle west. Each day I set out to find a new beach to camp and a new place to fish. I didn’t even realize that I had spent four weeks fishing a 20-mile area until I returned to Chokoloskee and saw the date stamps on my film.

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I took a sidetrip to catch Peacock Bass.


Time was running out. I knew I had to leave in order to make it home before fall. I left Chokoloskee heading back to Flamingo. The kayak was weighted down with extra water for the six-day crossing. The first day I paddled 20 miles into the wind across Florida Bay to reach my camp. The forecast called for more east wind. I didn’t have enough water to be held down for more than a day, so I made the decision to turn back towards Flamingo. The wind is my enemy. I’ve spent so much time paddling open water that I have a personal relationship with the wind. I hate it. I will yell and scream at the wind. I know that I can’t beat it.

I called Ocean Kayak teammate Robwil Valderrey who picked me up and drove me around Miami to Jean’s house north of Stuart. I wasn’t worried about skipping most of South Florida. I had paddled the area in 2005 and I knew it sucked. I had to paddle all night to cross 45 miles through Miami. Unfortunately, I had planned to spend a couple weeks fishing Biscayne Bay, but, once again, the relentless wind wouldn’t let me reach Elliott Key. The forecast was for heavy winds and I knew I wouldn’t even be able to reach the Keys. So, I spent a week at Jean’s trying to gain weight, I was already too lean. I put on 10 pounds but it was all fat.


Jean dropped me off at Fort Pierce. I spent a week camping on the spoil islands in Indian River. The inland bay is calm with no current. Each day I camped on a different island, zig-zagging through the Indian River. Fishing was really tough. The water is clear and heavy fishing pressure has made the fish smart. I swear the fish recognize me when I see them. Any noise spooks one mullet and every fish in the area takes off. I spent more time taking pictures of fish than fishing. I caught redfish around the inlet and found jacks blowing up on bait.

It takes a long cast to fool skittish speckled trout. Luckily, good friend and Native Watersports team angler, Dee Kaminski showed me the ropes.

MAY 14

I left Fort Pierce. The wind was on, again. Dee Kaminski gave me a ride around Palm Beach, where there is no place to camp, and dropped me off south of Titusville and Mosquito Lagoon. Fishing was even tougher. The fish just looked at my lure like, “I saw this yesterday.” 

There are great places to camp on the spoil islands. Each night I listened to nighthawks dive bombing bugs. Their wings make a loud whoosing sound as they zoom through the air. I turned on my light in the tent to draw in mosquitos and the nighthawks dive just above the roof. I had a good time and fished with some great people, but I’m ready to move north.

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Paddling and camping in constant rain takes its toll.


I left Mosquito Lagoon paddling up to 30 miles each day. The mangroves turned to marsh grass and tidal currents are picking up. I had to time my progress to coincide with the current. I would catch the incoming tide from an inlet and ride it north until I met the outgoing tide for the next inlet. I casted at rolling tarpon but couldn’t get a bite. The rain started. Every day I paddled through thunderstorms, lightning striking like a bombing range. I couldn't get dry. Paddling in a rain jacket affected my posture and wore me down. And there’s always wind. 

I didn't want to eat, I just wanted to get to the end of the day, crawl into my tent and get dry. The lightning makes me nervous. As a storm approached, I watched lightning strikes and wondered how long before I got hit. With the clouds building and the sky on fire, I started to get anxiety attacks where my muscles would seize and I couldn't breathe. As soon as the rain started and I felt safe my whole body relaxed like I just survived a train wreck.


I reached the border between Florida and Georgia. I got a campsite and my mom came down from Virginia to visit. She was immediately worried about my weight. After weeks padding on full rev without refueling, I’m down to 140 pounds from 160 pounds at the beginning of the trip. I spent two days hanging out with Mom and resupplying.


At the start of the next favorable tide cycle, I set off again. I felt good. I was in tune with the tides and weather and paddling hard. I camped on the south end of Cumberland Island. The next day I left for the north end of the island. It was raining again with a brutal headwind. I was paddling hard, making big strokes and taking deep breaths when I felt something pop in my chest. Every time I inhaled, I felt the pop. 

I changed my stroke to relieve pressure but this caused my diaphragm to cramp. After six miles of wind and pain, I reached the north end of Cumberland Island. Georgia has 10-foot tides, so I had to walk my loaded kayak 70 yards up the beach by first moving the bow then moving the stern. That night, I ate a ton of food, relaxed and recovered. I was so thin that I could see veins and muscles through my skin. When the rain started again, I had a little mental breakdown. I called Mom and told her I was alright.


The next morning, I was walking the boat back down the beach when my legs collapsed. Everytime I tried to lift the bow or stern, my legs tingled and gave out. I called my mom and told her that I couldn't feel my legs. She told me I must stop. I felt like a car that blew its engine and lost its transmission. I was feeling good up until I hit the wall. My mind was tuned into going hard but my body was falling apart. I spent two days recovering on Cumberland Island.

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Back in Chesapeake Bay, haven't lost the touch. 


I made it off Cumberland Island heading towards Jekyll Island where Mom would pick me up the next day. I set up my tent below the full-moon high tide. I was getting ready to turn in when a group of women approached me. They told me I was on a turtle nesting area and I had to leave. It was already dark and the current was rushing out. I explained what I’d been through, how I had nowhere to go, I wouldn’t use my light and I’d be gone on the tide in the morning. They insisted I leave. 

That’s when I cracked. “I’m not going anywhere!” I shouted at them. I’m crazy. I’m feral. “Are you going to send me out into the dark in my kayak?” I yelled. “Are you going to be responsible for what happens to me?” They made a phone call and left. The next morning, some guys showed up and circled my camp. I got out of the tent and stared them down. They didn’t fuck with me.


Mom picked me up and took me home.


I arrived home and focused on recovery. I was starving, so I had to recover slowly by eating light. Eating too much would make me sick. A few days later, I decided to continue the tour by camping and traveling around Virginia. I wanted to hit my favorite spots and discover some new places.

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140-pounds and starving.


It took me three weeks to recover. As soon as I felt well enough, I fished and camped several of my favorite places on the Eastern Shore. It was good to be on the water and under the stars. As part of the tour, I wanted to explore Virginia’s river fishing. The folks at Williamsburg Kayak Fishing Association invited me to their annual summer fishing event on the James River. After hanging with them a couple days, I wanted to hit another section of the river. I invited Brandy Brisson to join me. We spent a few days on the water and hit it off. After that, she came to the coast and we fished and camped around Pocomoke, Maryland. Since then, we’ve spent a lot of weekends fishing and camping on rivers all over Virginia. I like river fishing. Learning how to catch bass is a new challenge. Smallmouth are aggressive; I get amped up watching them chase topwater poppers.

Navigating the river is a new world for me. I love the rapids. I’ve even bought a helmet. But mostly I love fishing rivers because there’s never any wind. I really hate the wind.

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