Where to Fish
I like to paddle. It’s good, low impact exercise. But if it’s fish we’re after, we need to give a little thought and map time to the question of where. The more time you can spend in fishy areas looking for and/or casting to fish, rather than paddling from one spot to another, the more fish you’re likely to catch. Without a motor your range is quite limited, so when reviewing a chart or satellite picture, look for fishy areas within a couple of miles of the launch - the more areas, the better. This keeps the whole trip around 5 miles and is doable in a half day by most folks in average physical condition.
One big advantage of using a kayak is the ability to fish shallower waters than a power boat. Most flats skiffs can float in 7 inches, but a kayak only needs half that. Another advantage is the ability to traverse this skinny water to access deeper interior holes and creeks that boats rarely visit.
When to Fish
One author’s answer to this was simple: the best time to fish is whenever you can! But there’s no doubt I’ve had the most success around the full moon and new moon periods. Daily high tides are higher then, and this pushes water further up into the mangroves for 4 or 5 days in a row, twice a month. Shallow water fish recognize they have temporary access to areas that normally aren’t covered in water, and will visit these areas for food and shelter. Also, the tide flows in the channels and around bridges are stronger and will push more bait around, which usually results in a better bite. This doesn’t mean the times in between moons won’t work - they will. So get out there whenever you can.
How to Fish
There’s plenty already written about inshore techniques and rigging as practiced on motorboats, and it generally transfers well to kayak fishing. But there are differences. Most times, you can go lighter on tackle and drag settings from the kayak since you rarely need to muscle a fish to boatside. Simply let the fish tow you around while putting line back on the reel. This is fun stuff! If fishing while anchored, unclip the anchor line and battle the fish as needed, return to the same spot and reattach to the anchor. Just be sure to have a sturdy brass clip and a float on the anchor line. There are times when you’ll need to power a fish away from cover (grouper and snook come to mind), and the kayak can be a disadvantage in these situations. Timing your hookset and a stiff drag setting can help. When fishing the flats for bonefish and permit, try poling the skinniest water looking out towards deeper water. The kayak is easier to control here, your profile tends to blend in with the mangroves, and I believe the fish are less likely to expect trouble from this direction (though this is only my theory). When working bridges or channel edges for snapper, mackerel, cuda, etc., silently paddle into the area and make exploratory casts to find where the fish are holding. When moving from one spot to another, trolling can be effective. A simple silver spoon, or a ¼ oz. paddletail, trolled well behind the kayak (30 yards or so), has caught mangrove snapper, cuda, cero macks, yellowtails and more while I’m in transit. And when trolling, keep a light drag setting. If a big tarpon or shark hits it, it could pull the rod out of the holder, or snap it in half!
Fighting Over-sized Fish
There is no doubt that fighting large, strong saltwater fish from a kayak is exciting! The most common comment I get is about the “Old Man and the Sea” nature of fishing this way. Over-sized is a relative term. But for our discussion, let’s define it as a fish that will pull you and the kayak far away from the spot where you first hooked up. (I once had a tarpon pull me well over a mile!) Early in the fight, you’ll probably want to “park” your paddle securely so you have both hands free, though a case can be made for keeping the paddle in your lap for maneuvering around obstacles. As you’re seated in the kayak, the preferred place to do battle with a strong fish is in front of you. Using a clock face as reference and 12 o’clock being the bow, the idea is to keep the fish between 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock, and here’s how to do it. When the fish surges away sharply to the right or left, lower your rod tip towards the bow of the yak and let the fish pull the bow around so you’re facing the fish again. Sometimes your quarry will charge under the kayak. Simply plunge your rod into the water and work the rod tip towards the bow, which again will pull you around to facing the fish. Other times a fish will circle around to the rear. For this, you’ll want to get the rod up high to clear any idle rods in holders behind you. Then, lower the tip towards the bow again and swing the kayak around to resume the preferred position.
The most dangerous position to fight a large fish is straight down to one side because this is the least stable axis in a kayak. If you have the rod bent over like this and something pops loose, you’ll likely flip over the opposite way and have a U.S.E. - Unplanned Swimming Event! So aggressively work your boat position and keep that big fish in front of you! From there you can put tremendous pressure on the fish and stay in the yak.
As the fish tires, you have some questions to answer. Are you keeping the fish for dinner, or letting it go? Does it have nasty teeth (shark, cuda, mackerel)? Can you control it with a gloved hand, or a lip gripper? Is it possibly just too big or dangerous to bring alongside or into the cockpit? One technique I’ve found useful with big fish is to put the rod in a rod holder and paddle the kayak to shallower water where I can get out and handle the fish. This works particularly well with tarpon. But always keep an eye out for sharks and cudas when you have hold of a tired fish.
December brings myriad species into Keys’ waters, so take advantage of the pleasant weather and catch ‘em up!
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