Rafael Vargas feels right at home floating miles off the coast of Guam in a 14-foot kayak … hauling in game fish and the occasional shark. There’s a name for people like Vargas. No, it’s not “crazy” or “insane,” although some people may think otherwise. They call themselves kayak fishermen.
Since arriving on island with his family a year ago, the Air Force lieutenant colonel and accomplished bass fishermen has fallen in love with salt water fishing despite what he calls a “steep learning curve.”
“I have been working hard coming up with techniques that would work for landing game fish from a yak,” he says.
He’s even started Guam Yakers, a group of like-minded individuals who jump into souped-up kayaks and fish off shore and in the rivers of Guam.
“It’s catching on,” he says of group, of which one of the members is his 11-year-old daughter, Angelique.
After checking out video of Vargas hauling in some big fish, Stripes Guam asked this extreme angler what makes him tick and why he does what he does. We found that he is more than just a skilled fisherman and kayaker. He’s a tournament organizer, fundraiser and a member of Heroes on the Water, a non-profit organization that helps wounded vets.
So, read on. And if you are interested in being a Yaker, Vargas will be happy to talk with you.
Q. So, are you a kayaker who fishes, or a fisherman who kayaks?
A. I am a fisherman who kayak fishes. That is for sure. Kayak fishing is a self-discovery journey; there is no right way or wrong way to do it. It enables you to connect with nature and your surroundings. Whether you hook a bass, a mahi or a shark ... that first tug will transform your life.
Q. Seriously, sounds like you’ve done some great volunteer work in both fields. What’s Heroes on the Water all about?
A. Heroes on the Water is a nation-wide non-profit organization helping veterans with or without physical disabilities to rehabilitate and reintegrate through the therapeutic qualities of kayak fishing. As an active-duty member, I felt very passionate about this, so I spent two years organizing kayak fishing tournaments across the Midwest in order to benefit a regional HOW chapter in Nebraska. The response and support from the kayak community was so overwhelming that we stood up an additional chapter in Kansas while working with some of the VA Hospital's PTSD divisions. Today, one of my tournaments (Midwest Kayak Fishing Series) continues to grow every year while supporting these two chapters.
Q. So you come Guam, grab the smallest vessel possible and head out to sea to catch sharks and other big fish. Kind of living on the edge, eh?
A. Well, I use Hobie kayaks and one of my main vessels is 14' long. These kayaks are pedal driven by an innovative system called the MirageDrive. I can fight the Pacific Ocean's winds and current effortlessly while hunting for big game fish. Safety is always paramount, so every time I go fishing I check the tide, weather and wind direction to determine how far I will go and what area I will fish. VHF/GPS radio, PFD, navigational lighting, plenty of water and sunscreen are among some of the things that I always carry with me.
Q. The Guam waters, currents and coral can take down the best of swimmers and boaters. What precautions do you take and what advice do you have for others?
A. Guam is such a beautiful island, but indeed, very unforgiving when it comes to the surrounding waters. The perimeter reef can pose a grave threat to any kayak angler, regardless of experience level. I mitigate this by avoiding these areas and keeping a safe distance from any type of surf or reef areas that could put me in a bad situation. I normally fish waters way outside the coast, where my biggest threat is the wind, hence it is imperative to know what the wind forecasts are and plan your route accordingly. Also, a buddy system is imperative. I am very lucky to have great experienced kayak anglers who share my passion. We always plan our outings while keeping each other honest about sea state and weather.
Q. What’s the scariest scenario you’ve encountered while fishing off Guam?
A. The very first time I caught a shark from my kayak. I would be lying if I didn't say it was a humbling experience. As soon as I saw the shark, a million things went through my mind in a matter of seconds. I knew that I was in a small vessel, in their element and a wrong move by me could make the difference between a unique experience and a very bad day. In the end, the shark was successfully released and I got to keep all of my extremities intact. I do not target these amazing predators, but sometimes you get the occasional shark on the end of your line.
Q. Bass fishing or saltwater kayak fishing?
A. Kayak fishing for bass or for pelagics? Oh man, that is a tough one. It’s like asking me whether I prefer cookies and cream or mint chocolate chip ice cream. Passionate about both. Unfortunately Guam does not have bass. Definitely less risk involved in bass fishing, that is for sure.
Q. How can people get involved in Guam Yakers?
A. We have a Facebook group called "Guam Kayak Fishing - Guam Yakers" and it is growing. We are seeing more and more kayak anglers out there. We hold meet-and-greets, as well as seminars and just regular get together fishing events. I will be trying my luck against boaters in an offshore derby sponsored by the Navy base May 15. Wish me luck!
Q. When your military career is over, will your next career center around fishing and Kayaking?
A. You bet!