The first fin appeared about 20 minutes after we launched, a rust-colored tail weaving and wagging its way along a grassy bank about 40 feet off my bow. Straddling the stern of my kayak and kicking along the oozy bayou bottom with my boots—"Flintstoning" in local parlance after the cartoon character's foot-powered car—I eased the boat into a perfect scenario: close target, no wind, and a hungry, feeding fish. He was so busy rooting around for crab and shrimp in six inches of water that he hadn't even noticed me. I casually cast the fly about four feet in front of him. And as the fish turned and sprinted toward it, he sent such a spooky, fast-moving wake across the water that he might as well have been swimming up my spine.
These are redfish, the most visually enticing species on the Gulf Coast and the quintessential kayak quarry. If you've ever struggled to understand kayak fishing or have wondered why someone would waste a perfectly good paddling day tossing lures at fish, your answer is swimming in southern Louisiana's Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary, a four-million-acre swath of barrier islands, beaches, bays, and marshland about two and a half hours south of New Orleans. The estuary is twice the size of Yellowstone National Park, and encompasses more coastal wetlands than any other in the United States. It is bordered by the Mississippi River to the east; the Atchafalaya Swamp to the west; the town of Morganza to the north; and, to the south, by the tiny fishing community of Grand Isle.
It is here on Grand Isle that I found myself with a couple of friends, Flintstoning along a roadside marsh getting a dozen or so shots a day at six- to eight-pound fish. If we tired of fishing, we did some birdwatching, or paddled around a sunken New Orleans city bus or other debris deposited here by Katrina. We came to Grand Isle to paddle, to feast on the oysters and shrimp for which the area is famous, and, like so many others, to see for ourselves what the tail-end of Louisiana looks like a year and a half after the storm. But mostly we came for redfish, the muscle-bound species that has become a target for an increasing number of kayak fishermen every year. Author Charles Gaines once wrote (showing his age) that if tarpon are like Deion Sanders, then redfish are like Larry Csonka. They don't do anything flashy, they just bulldog their way around the marsh or—if it's a big one in open water—treat you to what our host, local Captain Danny Wray, calls a "Cajun sleigh ride."
Wray is a slim, athletic-looking, middle-aged surfer, someone you might take for an ex-third baseman or point guard. Like so many of the thousands of people who have taken up kayak fishing, Wray has fished his entire life, mostly out of skiffs or pontoon boats. But all of that changed in 2002 when Wray walked wide-eyed into an East Texas tackle shop.
"I saw all these kayaks up on the wall, and it was like being back in a surf shop again," Wray says. "I took one look at those boats and said, 'That'll work.' I didn't have to worry about batteries, lights, gas, nothing. All I needed to do was put the things on a trailer and go."
This simple discovery is one being made by countless anglers across the country every year: That a sit-on-top kayak costs about one-fiftieth the amount a new skiff costs; that there is a virtually unlimited number of places to launch one; that they are equally at home on a lake or on the ocean; that spouses are often more agreeable to a fishing trip if it doubles as a form of exercise rather than a form of beer-drinking; and, most importantly, that in certain fishing situations—like, say, a muddy, shallow, Louisiana marsh—a kayak simply provides the one thing that no other craft can: access to the fish.
In a muddy, shallow Louisiana marsh, a kayak provides the one thing no other craft can: access to the fish
One of Wray's first experiences with his new kayak was a fall fishing trip off the beach of Grand Isle. Redfish generally spend the first three to five years of their life living in estuaries, before maturing and moving just off the beach to spawn. They are a fast-growing fish, and it is during this autumn spawning activity that many of the biggest "bull" reds are caught. It's not uncommon to hook fish up to 40 pounds, and the all-tackle world record is a 94-pound monster taken off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, in 1984.
"I hooked a red that pulled me and my kayak about 400 yards off the beach," Wray says. "That's when I realized that nothing compares to kayaking in terms of putting you in the fish's element. Nothing."
Up until Wray got his kayaks, he had only fished for fun, using it as an escape from work or as a way to put some sea trout on the dinner table. "I used to take friends and we'd make the suicide run down from Baton Rouge, leaving at three in the morning and getting to the water by five," Wray says. "And every one of those people were like, 'Man, you should do this for a living.'"
So he got a partner and a business plan—to offer mothership trips, loading kayaks and passengers onto a pontoon boat and motoring them off for an overnight stay on an island somewhere. He changed course after paying a visit to Dean "Slow Ride" Thomas in Port Aransas, Texas. ("He's the kingpin of Texas kayak fishing," says outdoor photographer and fellow Texan Tosh Brown.) "Visiting Dean really opened my eyes about how to run a successful kayak fishing operation without using a bigger boat," Wray says.