At a little after dawn, inbound commuter traffic on the Parkway East was already starting to slow between the Squirrel Hill and Fort Pitt tunnels. But just off the launch at South Side Riverfront Park on the Monongahela River, the city seemed a world away.
We pushed our kayaks into the steady flow, scattering a family of Canada geese, and felt the river take control as it guided us downstream. Wisps of mist rose from the quiet morning water. Big beavers, annoyed at our intrusion, passed between our boats and shore. With coral-colored skies reflecting off the water, we cast poppers and spinnerbaits while gliding past old industrial shoreline structure.
At the base of a tall rusted flood wall a few feet from the Three Rivers Heritage Trail, Noah Heck set the hook on the first of two feisty smallmouths caught and released during a short kayak fishing trip squeezed in between breakfast and going to work.
"I love doing this with the cityscape in the background," he said.
The convenience of kayak fishing close to home was only part of the allure for Heck, who lives in an apartment Downtown. No slip or trailer required -- he stores his 55-pound car-topper in the apartment. No barriers -- the kayak accesses waters that are unfishable from shore and difficult to reach with other boats.
Last year, Heck and Josh Edmiston, also of Pittsburgh, combined their interests in kayak fishing and community volunteerism. At the same time they cofounded Kayak Anglers of Western Pennsylvania, they opened the Pittsburgh branch of Heroes on the Water, a charity that provides physical and emotional rehabilitation through paddling and fishing to military personnel who have been injured or disabled. Kayak Anglers donates a portion of its fishing tournament fees to the charity and invites the wounded soldiers and sailors to accompany them on trips.
"The fishing group and charity really feed off each, because most of the guys in the group want to be involved in Heroes on the Water," Heck said.
The outdoors industry has begun to catch on to the tactical and strategic opportunities kayaks can provide to anglers. Just as row boats evolved into high-tech bass boats, kayak design has diversified from oval-bottomed white water paddle crafts to vessels specifically designed for the demands of fishing.
Like all kayaks, fishing kayaks are built of light plastic in three designs: sit-in, sit-on and hybrids that combine elements of both. With flat bottoms that can be nearly a yard wide, fishing kayaks are built to be stable. Sit-ins are generally considered to be more stable because the boater sits slightly below the waterline.
Some fishing kayaks have foot-controlled rudders; all are designed to accommodate angling accessories. Moveable tracks in some make it easy to attach a depth finder, multiple rod holders, net, stowage space for tackle boxes and other gear. Bungee cords do the rest. Kayak anglers pride themselves on homemade ingenuity.
Scupper holes in the sit-on models drain water, and in relatively shallow water an angler can to drive a pole through the hole into the lakebed or riverbed to hold position while casting to active fish.
On our Monongahela morning trip, we used 10-, 12- and 14-foot boats.
"The 14-footer will be faster and cover a lot more water," Heck said. "Guys who fish in the larger lakes like the longer boats. More of the hull is in the water, giving you better tracking, staying straight."
"But a 10-footer is going to be a lot easier to turn, more maneuverable," Edmiston said. "For moving water, you kind of want boats that are 12 feet or under -- they're easier to turn."
Paddling can be virtually silent. Kayak anglers can get close to fish -- right on top -- without spooking them.
"You're so stealth in these things," Heck said. But on moving water, he prefers to maneuver parallel to the shoreline within casting distance of the target. That's how he caught his second bass of the morning -- a smallmouth taken on a spinnerbait under the Smithfield Street Bridge.
"You can't beat the convenience [of kayak fishing]," Heck said. "Except maybe with the price."
While the cheapest all-purpose kayaks can cost less than $250, fishing kayaks can run $650 to $1,200. Storage, transport and launching is a cinch, and with no motor, state registration is not required (unless Fish and Boat launch access is used).
Displacing little water, kayaks glide across the water and can be easy to paddle. But on our trip on moving water, the crawl back upstream from Station Square almost to the Birmingham Bridge was a cardiovascular workout. Heck called that an advantage.
"Catching fish and getting a workout in the morning before work, you can't beat it," he said.
Details about Kayak Anglers and upcoming tournaments can be found at www.kayak-anglers.com. Learn about Heroes on the Water at heroesonthewater.org.huntingfishing