By Jerry McBride
Kwanza Henderson grew up in a tough neighborhood in Miami, and lost his father when he was young. Against the odds, he has become an icon in the South Florida kayak fishing community. He’s currently working on a documentary, We Yak Too, which he hopes will inspire others to find a path out of the cycle of violence he experienced. Henderson moved to Fort Lauderdale in 1999.
How did you discover fishing?
My father passed away when I was 5, but in that short time he took my brother and me fishing a lot. He called us his fishing partners. Miami wasn’t built up as much then, so there were a lot more places you could fish without a boat.
When did you get introduced to kayak fishing?
2006. A guy I know bought one, and he kept telling me how we could reach places we normally couldn’t fish from shore. He talked me into one, and that’s when the magic started. We fished three bodies of water a day sometimes.
How long before you headed offshore?
2007. There were no other kayakers in the ocean back then. Not one. We hitched our way out there. We paddled a little farther out each time. We finally just headed all the way out.
What was your first catch offshore?
Kingfish. I was trolling two rods, one inshore and one offshore. We were in 90 feet of water, and a 38-inch king hit a Rapala X-Rap on the light inshore rod. We had no idea what we were doing back then.
You live in South Florida. You’ve got the Everglades, canals and lakes, plus the Intracoastal, Keys and the Atlantic. That’s a huge range of fresh and saltwater fishing to choose from. Do you have a preference between the two?
Definitely salt, but if I can get into brackish tarpon, snook and trout, I’m good with that, too. But I have to put away my offshore salt gear, because I’ve forgotten how to fish. Fishing offshore, especially with live bait, really doesn’t require much skill—you just throw out a live bait and let it do all the work, or maybe troll a lure. I did a lot of bass fishing when I was young, and that requires skill to do it well. You have to cast accurately and work a lure to make it look alive. I have to get back to doing more of that.
What do you consider your greatest kayak catch so far?
My 38.5-inch snook. Offshore, it would be a 45-pound amberjack or 30-pound blackfin tuna. Fresh, I got a 5- or 6-pound bass on a plastic worm.
Snook, by far. A guy took me fishing at a canal spillway when I was 9, gave me a bream to put on my hook, and told me to hang on when the locks opened. I had no idea what he was talking about. I felt the power of the fish and heard the drag screaming, and I’ve been hooked on snook ever since.
What’s your favorite fishing technique for inshore fishing?
Definitely topwater. There’s nothing like watching a fish blow up on your lure.
Do you use the same kayak for inshore and offshore?
Offshore, I paddle an Ocean Trident Ultra 4.7. Inshore, it depends on how deep the water is. If it’s real shallow, I use an Old Town Predator 13. If I have enough water to run the motor, I use a Predator XL. People are always arguing about whether paddle/pedal/motors are best. My buddy Santiago and I tried to start a charity tournament where they could compete against each other, but nobody signed up.
You have a busy life. Gym at 5 a.m., pharmacy job, wife and two kids about 10 years apart in age. When do you find time to fish?
When I know everything is taken care of around the house, and I know my wife isn’t going to be stressed if I go fishing.
Kwanza, you stated in one of your videos that kids growing up where you did looked at football, basketball or rap music as the only means to escape the neighborhood. I haven’t seen you listed on the roster of the Miami Dolphins or Miami Heat, and I haven’t seen you in any music videos. So how’d you manage to get where you are now?
I’m a good athlete. I played football, and I was a pitcher in baseball. But at a young age, I knew I had to be different. It doesn’t matter how you get out, as long as you don’t hurt people.
Do you see the kayak community coming together to give kids who grew up like you some other options?
That’s my plan. I need to establish myself first. I need to be able to tell kids there’s things in life other than sports and music. If you have an education, you have options. It gives you more ways out of a bad situation. I need to give back to the people in need.
Your son’s 11. You put him in a kayak yet?
Oh yeah, my son gets out there with me. I want to get him a small kayak so he can do it on his own. He says fishing is his favorite sport. I was really surprised when he called it a sport.