Step Out of Your Fishing Kayak
Going overboard may be your best shot at that fish of a lifetime
Words and Photos by Jerry McBride
Here's a new way to think about shallow tidal flats: Approach them as if you're fishing a mountain trout stream. Ambush predators, whether saltwater or fresh, orient to structure and current in exactly the same manner. Envision a brown trout darting out from behind a rock or log to pick off a minnow or grasshopper drifting downstream. Now imagine a sea trout lying in wait near a sand pothole. The reason the pictures in your mind look so similar is because the food chain works the same way on a salt flat as it does on a mountain stream.
As anyone who has done much small-stream fishing will tell you, it's best done on foot. Yeah, I know this is a kayak magazine. You'll still need the kayak to haul your gear, and to access less-pressured grassflats that 'yak-less anglers can't reach.
As long as the bottom is solid, the water shallow and the structure (sand potholes, oyster bars, channel edges, dock pilings) concentrated in a fairly small area, the wading techniques that are so effective on the river will work just as well when chasing snook, trout, redfish and flounder on the flats.
The added height of standing vastly improves your ability to observe the subtle nuances of bottom contours and current. The higher vantage helps you spot the little nooks and crannies where predators hide. Standing in the water also provides precise knowledge of current speed, direction and depth even if the water is murky. That's information vital to presenting a lure properly. Wind becomes your friend when wading; utilize it to extend casts to distant fish unaware of your presence. Casting accuracy and distance also improves when you move from the kayak to your feet. Position yourself to present a lure from the proper angle (again, think mountain stream, fish facing into current).
There's nothing complicated about this type of fishing. A pocketful of soft-plastic paddletails, jerkbaits or plastic shrimp on light jigheads or weedless hooks—whatever you have confidence in—is all that's required. Toss them upstream or across the current, let them sink, and twitch them through the target area. Give the lure plenty of time to reach bottom on the initial drop and during pauses between short, sharp wrist snaps. Don't be afraid to crank up your lure presentation as spring warming thaws fish out of their lethargic winter attitudes. An erratic retrieve often generates far more mindless reaction strikes than a lure chugging along at a steady pace.
Of course, not all tidal flats feature hard, shallow bottom. When the water is deep, the bottom sticky or the fish scattered over a wide area, staying in the kayak becomes the only choice. In my home waters, the disturbing disappearance of seagrass—and the ambush cover it provides—necessitates covering a lot of ground in this manner.
Keep in mind that every time you cast from a kayak, especially when standing up, the boat rocks. Long casts are essential to reach fish beyond the detection range of hull slap and pressure waves. Hard plugs and spoons excel when distance is important.
As much as I love watching a plug get slammed on the surface, subsurface twitchbaits or wakebaits seem to draw more strikes most days. The trick is to find a lure that stays beneath the surface, yet out of the weeds. On the low outgoing tides I prefer, that doesn't leave much margin for error. Fortunately, several manufacturers offer lures you can trust to run within a foot of the surface. To further reduce grass conflicts, consider replacing treble hooks with singles. They feature the added benefit of quicker, less damaging releases for both fish and fisherman. In my experience, single hooks are also less likely to bend or pull loose than the standard trebles on many plugs, particularly when gator trout attempt to rub the offending hook off on the bottom or by diving into seagrass.
Fishing in open water may require a different lure choice, but the need for a stealthy approach doesn't change. If necessary, paddle a wide circle to reach an initial drift point upwind or up-tide of the area you intend to fish; avoid paddling directly through it or trying to fish into the wind. This allows you to put down the paddle and cast ahead of and perpendicular to the kayak's path, covering a large swath of virgin water. Again, keep in mind that fish face into the current; lures simulating crustaceans or injured baitfish should approach fish from the opposite direction.
Light, fast-action spinning gear loaded with 5- to 10-pound braid provides a great combination of casting distance, sensitivity and adequate strength on open flats, whether standing in the water or standing on the kayak. Skip the swivels and snaps. Twenty-pound fluorocarbon leader is fine for trout and redfish, but beef it up to 30 to tolerate a snook's abrasive teeth, sharp gill plates and penchant for diving into structure. Learn a good loop knot for attaching any lure that lacks a split ring; they impart much more life-like action than cinched-down terminal knots.