This past February, after 13 years of honing my kayak fishing skills with spinning tackle, I decided to challenge myself by adding the fly rod to my kayak fishing adventures. I had read enough to have a general understanding of the principles involved, and found a mentor to get me started with correct casting form and equipment choices.
But, making the switch from spinning to fly tackle hasn’t been easy. There are issues, both physical and mental, that must be addressed with a fly rod in the limited confines of a kayak. In this article, I’ll touch on a few of the more common physical ones.
The first issue is what to do with all the line you have stripped off the reel in preparation to cast to a fish. It has to go SOMEwhere! And the cockpit of a kayak is a veritable house of horrors for 40 to 50 feet of loose fly line! In most kayaks, foot pegs, strap buckles, and bungee rigging conspire to make a mess of your line. I’ve seen and tried a few different methods to address this. The best I’ve found so far is to mount a small stripping basket just below waist level in front of you. (This assumes you are standing to pole and fish.) It takes some discipline to always keep your hands in the same spot and strip line into the bucket, but this is quickly learned and becomes habit. Another option is to simply strip line into the water next to you. This works pretty well IF you are sitting still and have little current or wind. If there is wind or current, or if the yak is moving, the line will end up drifting away from the yak, or under the yak, and shooting line becomes difficult. Another option is to remove EVERYTHING from the cockpit and bow of the yak so it’s naked and there’s nothing left to snag the line. This works, but I actually use all that rigging for storage and accessories, especially on long outings, so it’s not my preferred method. Lastly, you can get a big, open, canoe-style yak and turn the large cockpit into a stripping bucket as it is, but most “big, open” yaks are poor performers in wind and current, leaving you to only fly fish on calm days in light current. So for now, I’m sticking with the mounted stripping bucket.
The next issue involves casting. Fly fishers, when standing on the bow of a skiff, have plenty of idle space, not to mention 2 free hands, to stand there with 10 feet or more of fly line (plus the long leader) outside the rod tip, enabling the rod to load well on the first backcast. In most kayaks, having that much loose line and leader in play as you maneuver around looking for fish is inviting trouble, so I normally only have 3 feet of fly line (plus the 12’ leader) outside the rod tip. It’s still tricky to manage this 15’ of line/leader as you paddle/pole around, but it’s workable. This means that to begin a cast, you have to be proficient at making a few short, quick whipping motions to get more fly line outside the tip to load the rod, whereby you can resume a more normal casting stroke. This requires practice and experimentation. Specialty fly lines with a particularly skewed weight forward design really help here. Also, don’t be afraid to try one size higher line weight on your rod (e.g., 10wt line on a 9wt rod) to help load the rod more quickly.
Another issue on the physical side is casting distance. Most skiff captains want their clients comfortable casting around 60 feet. With the limited height and resulting limited distance of vision inherent in a kayak, our version of the game is usually played out at shorter distances. By the time you spot and identify the fish, set down your paddle or pole and pick up your fly rod, your target will many times be at 30 feet, 20 feet, or even closer. At first, this short distance feels pretty strange, especially with a heavy crab fly, so I recommend spending a good part of your casting practice (you ARE practicing, RIGHT?) developing pinpoint accuracy at 15 to 30 foot distances. This is exactly what you’ll need in many kayak situations. Beautifully flowing tight loops don’t matter at this distance. Quietly “curving” the fly into place with an unorthodox sidearm sweeping motion and an open loop is sometimes just what you need.
I can tell you that all the trial and error has paid off, and after a lot of initial frustration, I’ve scored several bonefish, tarpon, sharks, and one gorgeous permit in my first 10 months of taking the “old buggy whip” out on my kayak. If you want help finding your fly rod trophy here in the Lower Keys, give me a ring and let’s plan a day to do it!
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