Summer truly is a fun time to go sight fishing on the flats here in the Lower Keys. The days are long, the glamour flats species of bonefish, permit, and tarpon are around in numbers, and winds are usually light which makes for easier paddling. But summer also has some challenges you won’t find during other times of the year. In this month’s column, I’ll explain some of these challenges, and some ideas for dealing with them.
Probably the most obvious thing is the heat. Temps in the low ‘90s, high humidity, light breezes (or calm conditions), and the blazing Florida sun can combine to make things uncomfortable in a slow moving, human-powered vessel like a kayak. Stripping down to your swimsuit is tempting. (I even know one kayaker who paddles naked!) But these options aren’t a very good idea since you could easily end up nursing a nasty sunburn for several days. The answer is proper tropical weight clothing. This does not mean cut-off jean shorts and a cotton tee shirt! High tech, quick drying, moisture wicking fishing clothes are easy to find and worth the money, turning a miserable, sweaty, sticky day into a pleasant one. Go for long pants and long sleeves, and remember your hat and face mask. Gloves are also nice to protect the back of your hands. Some opt for less clothing, preferring to use sunscreen on any exposed skin. That works too, although in recent years I’ve chosen to keep sunscreen use to a minimum. I don’t want to slather chemicals on my skin day after day. But either way, protect yourself from getting too much sun and you’ll be able to fish longer and more comfortably.
Another thing I’ve been incorporating into my personal fishing trips is a short swim. A snorkel mask tossed into a hatch takes up very little space and can provide a nice mental break from the intense focus of looking for fish, and cool you off as well.
Midsummer heat can negatively affect the fishing due to hot water temps. Permit and tarpon deal with this fairly well, but bonefish don’t care much for 90 degree water. One way to counter this is to fish early or late in the day, especially if you have an incoming (usually cooler) tide. There’s no doubt that if you find a patch of cooler water, you have a much better chance to find fish, all else being equal.
Many summer days will have light winds, even getting calm at times. These slick conditions can seem like a boon to the flats angler, since spotting fish and casting accurately is much easier than on a windy day. But the fish can see more easily too, including above the water’s surface. In addition, they can more easily sense vibrations in the water. So work to improve your stealth, both visually and sonically. Visually speaking, keep a low profile - literally. Once you’ve located target species, stay low in the boat and keep your paddle and rod movements as low as possible. Use a sidearm cast. Consider using smaller and lighter lures, hooks, and flies as well as longer leaders. Sonically speaking, most of the unwanted noise in kayak fishing comes from poor paddling technique. Learn to paddle, pole and turn the kayak quietly and efficiently at all speeds.
Another difference in summer flats fishing has to do with the fish themselves. Most fish, and larger specimens in particular, tend to tire easily in the warmer water. If you let the fight go on for an extended period, the fish will push themselves to the point of exhaustion, and they’ll have trouble recuperating. I hate to admit it, but I’ve had fish that I just couldn’t revive, even after 15 minutes of trying, and they ended up being shark food, with crabs finishing off the scraps. The way to avoid this is to tighten up the drag a few clicks and really put the heat on the fish to shorten the fight. Then after landing them, keep handling to a minimum and try to get them back on their way as quickly as possible.
Summertime fishing in the Keys also will put you in the vicinity of thunderstorms. Sometimes it’s simply an awesome light show in the distance. But other times it’s a direct threat to your well being. Daily weather forecasts are notoriously unreliable. I strongly recommend getting good radar and lightning apps on your smartphone and using them. They’ll give you real time data for your specific location. The problem for kayakers is we can’t fire up a motor and outrun a squall like a powerboat. Which means you WILL eventually get stuck in a storm. The best course of action is to find a nook or cranny in a level-topped mangrove shoreline and wait it out. Pull down all of your rods and put away your paddle.
Whatever else happens, DO NOT get caught out in open water during a lightning storm. There is a bright side to all this stormy business. It is usually a short-lived event, and after the squall passes, conditions often get flat calm for an hour or so. The rain cools the water ever so slightly, and the fish like it! Juvenile tarpon will start rolling, permit tails will start popping up, and the fishing can get as electric as the just-passed lightning storm, making the rain delay worthwhile.
Summer in the Keys - time to enjoy the calmer conditions and get some fish from your kayak!
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