Monday, December 6, 2010

A Jackson Kayak Weekend: Factory Tour and First Float in the New Coosa - December 2-4, 2010

It was mid-afternoon on December 4, 2010. The air temperature was cold and the wind chilling. There I was, standing and fishing from my new Jackson kayak as I floated down a river in central Tennessee. I was surrounded by some of the most talented and friendly anglers in the southeast. All I could do was look around, shake my head, and smile. Life couldn't have gotten much better. Here is how it happend....

My first float in the Coosa - central TN
Photo by: Hunter King

A few months ago, professional kayak fisherman Drew Gregory showed up at one of our Carolina Yakfish tournaments with a prototype of a boat he was designing for Jackson Kayak. I knew about Drew's reputation and we had talked briefly online, but I had not met him prior and was anxious to do so and to see his new boat. The boat had a very open design with very few features and a basic front deck. At that time, the name hadn't even been finalized, but he was fairly certain it would be named the Coosa - after a river in Alabama known for it's aggressive spotted bass. It's major selling point was that it was designed with river fishermen in mind, but is great for any setting...and to top it off - the boat was made to be stable enough to stand and fish from. The original prototype looked nothing like the finished version I got to see this past weekend, but I was able to take that prototype for a brief paddle and from then on I was hooked on getting a boat that I could stand up and fish from.

A few months later I teetered on buying a Native Ultimate 12 - actually from Drew. But, he convinced me otherwise and mentioned to me that if I was interested and was willing to put in some effort, there may be a place for me with Jackson. Needless to say, I was excited to hear this and have been trying extra hard to be a positive ambassador for the sport of kayak fishing in as many ways as possible ever since. My hard work paid off and thanks to Great Outdoor Provision Company (who are my sponsor for Jackson) and Jackson, I can now call myself a part of the Jackson Kayak Fishing Team.

A family friendly brand made entirely in the USA!
Photo by: Ben Roussel

This past week we met in Sparta, TN to tour the factory, get our boats, make some customizations, give feedback, meet the Jackson staff, and spend some time on the water together. I left Durham around 1 PM and headed west on I-40. I barely made a turn and ended up in Cookeville, TN around 7:30 PM local time. There I met up with Drew G, who would be my roommate for the weekend, grabbed some food, and soon met some of the other guys - Ben Roussel from Baton Rogue, LA and Tim & Adam Parker from Georgia. We spent the night watching the Eagles-Texans game as well as telling fish tales and watching a number of Drew's recent videos. The next morning we got up early and headed for breakfast at the hotel. There I met Joe Pulliam (founder of Dagger Kayaks and current 'Head Coach' at Jackson) as well as some other team members. From there we packed up and headed for Sparta, where the Jackson Kayak factory is located.

Gotta love their motto!
Photo by: Ben Roussel

A few more team members met us there. After a bit of chatting, it was obvious that this was a diverse and talented group. It included anglers ranging from age 15 to early-50's, coming from all across the southeast (and beyond), and specializing in just about every type of fishing you could imagine. The factory is located in an old Wrangler Jeans warehouse and really epitomizes a small, family friendly business. We were treated like close friends from the moment we stepped in the door. Inside were some offices and another door that opened into a huge warehouse stacked full of kayaks. Along the main aisle we saw about 15 Coosa's...and they had our names on them! Some colors - such as the camo, red and black mix, and blue were a hit. Others - like the white & red mix and white & orange mix - were up for debate. Looking around, I noticed that we were all smiling like idiots - a trend that carried on through the weekend. I was in love with my Coosa - a Duke Blue version that really looked sharp.

Excited to get our shiny new boats!
Photo by: Sean Brodie

Like kids at Christmas time...
Photo by: Sean Brodie

We spent the next hour or so going over some basics of the boat, making a few minor changes, and visiting with each other. Then we got a factory tour and saw how kayaks are made from scratch. It is odd to think that their boats, made from some of the toughest plastic polymers you can get, start as a colored, sand-like material. Then they get molded and pieced together by hand. Each boat is assembled by one worker rather than assembly line style. Mine was built by "Uncle Steve" - so if you happen to read this Uncle Steve, I want to say thank you!

Thanks Uncle Steve!

I have never toured another kayak factory, but I can see why Jackson has such an awesome reputation. They are extremely careful and detail driven throughout the entire process and have some great people and great minds at work there.

One of the Jackson employees putting together a Coosa

One of the many kayak molds Jackson uses

After getting some food we made a few more changes to our boats and began to load them onto/into our vehicles. For most, it was as easy as throwing a yak or two into the back of a pickup. For me, the Coosa fit great in my Thule J-cradles. For others like Ben R and Ben Adrien, they had to fit 3 boats on top of their vehicles (with Ben Adrien's being a smaller coupe). From there we headed south to the home of owner/founder Eric Jackson and his family.

Ben's truck getting loaded

Along the way we stopped at Rock Island State Park to check out the sweet waterfalls. Not so coincidentally, they were less than 2 miles from EJ's home. I had spent about 2 hours looking at YouTube videos of EJ and the rest of the Jackson whitewater team before heading to TN. All I can say is WOW you have gotta take a look (*not an official Jackson Promo Video)!

Rock Island State Park, TN

We pulled up and he met us outside. He, much like Drew G, is a high energy guy whose gears are always turning. He talked about how Jackson was founded, where he sees the company going, and what he expects of us. Jackson is the leader, by far, in whitewater boating and was looking to expand - so their partnership with Drew G was a great fit. Then we just sat, ate some tasty food he and his wife grilled for us, and talked about all sorts of things. The best part was that despite being an insanely talented whitewater kayaker, he grew up in Florida and loves to fish too! We all headed out fairly early (we were pretty exhausted). Some guys headed home and others, including myself, headed back to the hotel and found a place to float the next day - a stretch of a local river known for holding muskies.

7:22 AM local time, 41 degrees, wind chill of 35 degrees - perfect morning to fish!?

We got up the next day, met for breakfast around 6:30 AM, and headed for the river. We set up a shuttle and after some prep work we were on the water. Now comes the only down side to my entire trip. I launched the boat and was excited to feel that it handled much like my 10' sit in kayak. In fact, the only real difference was that I was sitting up much higher (the Coosa has multiple seat positions) and the Coosa is 1.5 feet longer. I paddled around a little and then went to grab a rod and make a cast. As I took my rod out of the rod stager and unstrapped it from a bungee I momentarily looked away. As I did, the rod slipped from my grasp and into the water. Numerous attempts at a rescue proved fruitless - as the water was higher than normal and not clear enough to see bottom. I was pretty bummed, but thankfully the rest of my trip was so great that I soon forgot about the entire situation.

The first two Coosa's lined up and ready to launch (UGA and Duke uniting)

Drew G, Bruiser, and I paddled down river to catch up with the rest of the group. I wanted to get some footage of everyone since Drew G had put his GoPro Hero HD video camera in my kayak for the day (he was filming a promo video with another camera). Although nothing too spectacular happened, I am interested to see some of the footage and am pretty sure one of those little gadgets will be riding with me by spring time (at the latest). We floated and fished - mainly seated except for Drew G and Adam (who was the lightest of the group by far). Eventually, I decided I wanted to try and stand to fish. I had never stood in a kayak before and was really anxious to try. We came to a slow section and I, nervously, gave it a shot. I stood up for about 5 seconds before the shaking in my legs caused me to return to my seat. It was a combo of my nerves and getting used to the stability of the boat, but at that moment I thought I would never be able to stand and fish from the Coosa.

Hunter King in his new boat

Ben Roussel in action

But after floating for a little while longer I decided to give it another shot. This time I stood for about a minute and was getting the hang of just standing. Then I picked up a rod and started casting away. Although a little wobbly at times, I was getting the hang of it pretty quickly. In fact, I think casting actually helped me adjust faster to standing in the boat. Now, I wasn't hopping around the boat like Drew G tends to do, but I was slowly getting there.

Slowly getting the hang of it
Photo by: Hunter King

Searching for that elusive bite!
Photo by: Hunter King

We stopped for a break and found that no-one had caught a fish. Ben R got a good bite, but the fish got off, I had a follow (just saw a flash at the boat), and that was about it. We were getting tired in the cold weather and we continued down river fishing rather casually.

All the boats lined up during a break as Drew G and Brusier paddle to catch up
Photo by: Ben Roussel

This stretch was a little slower, so I made it a point to stand and fish as much as I could. Over the final few miles of the float I rarely sat down. I easily fished and paddled from the standing position and quickly fell in love with that feature.

Above two photos by: Hunter King

After a few hours of floating we had reached the end of the float. No-one boated a fish, but we all had a lot of fun and came away very impressed. From there we loaded up and headed our separate directions. For me that meant heading north to I-40 and then cruising to Durham and the 3 inches of snow they received earlier in the day. After a long drive (that actually went by fast), I got home around 1:15 AM. I still couldn't stop smiling....

What a great day and weekend!
Photo by: Hunter King

I will post a more detailed review of the boat in a day or two. Until then, tight lines!

Some Additional Pictures: