Thousands of miles of mangroves border the bays and estuaries of Southwest Florida. The roots of the red mangrove create a safe haven for juvenile gamefish as well as the crustaceans that redfish and snook enjoy. Without mangroves, many would agree, the great fishing around here would be a shadow of what it is now.
Understanding how to identify and fish this mangrove habitat from a kayak ensures you can find a spot out of the wind and away from crowds any day you want. So, let’s look at how mangrove shorelines vary and how that affects a kayak angler.
Not all mangroves are the same. The angler’s favorite is the red mangrove. The prop roots these trees put down in shallow water form a shelter for juvenile gamefish and crabs, and offer attachment points for oysters and barnacles. This tree provides room and board for lots of gamefish as they mature.
Some, including snook, redfish and mangrove snapper, never really leave home. They just move to the edge of this maze and concentrate on eating anything smaller than themselves. Luckily for them, the tide flows into this labyrinth and drains back out laden with goodies. That’s why fishing the falling tide is often best. At the bottom of low tide, the gamefish you’re looking for are usually a short distance from the mangroves, often in sand holes that are a little deeper than the grass surrounding them. During high tide, even the big predators may slip back into the roots in search of a meal, well out of our reach.
As a kayak angler, you can access many mangrove shorelines that pose problems for boaters and waders. Look for red mangroves that are close to deeper flats where larger fish can hang out during low tide. You may find a deeper trough along the edge of the mangroves. Consider this prime territory. Often these channels will be inside of a large, shallow flat that will eliminate competition from boaters and wading anglers, especially if the bottom is muddy. In the winter, these sheltered, muddy flats warm quickly in the sun, which contributes to the action you’ll find along the mangroves.
Slowly paddle along an easy cast from the mangroves. If you’re really lucky, the wind might let you drift on that track. Toss your lure, jig or bait into the indentations along the shoreline. On a falling tide, most fish will be facing the mangroves which will help conceal your approach. Our friend and guide extraordinaire, Capt. Rick Grassett, reassures his clients by saying, “If you’re not catching a tree every now and then, you’re not casting close enough.” We agree — the difference between a good cast and hooking a tree is sometimes less than an inch.
We use plastic shrimp and crabs, or sixteenth-ounce jigs with new penny Gulp! when targeting redfish. When the focus is snook, we like sixteenth-ounce jigheads with shad tails in baitfish colors. A big live shrimp is always a good choice, but the same baitfish the predators are hunting will quickly dismantle your handpicked shrimp. If you find a spot with redfish or snook cruising by with some frequency, try anchoring and freelining a piece of cutbait into their path.
Hand-to-hand combat is how most kayak anglers describe the quick trip into the mangroves after tangling with a heavy snook. We suggest staking out or anchoring to prevent a tour of the mangroves. But in the seconds between quietly drifting along a mangrove shore and being towed into the bushes, most folks just hang on and brace for impact. We’ll offer some suggestions on how to avoid being pulled into the mangroves, but we cannot guarantee any of them will work for you in close quarters.
Staying farther from the mangroves helps, but this will affect your accuracy. If you’re in really shallow water, you could put a foot on the bottom. In a larger kayak, orienting it parallel to the shore may give you a few more seconds to take action. An instant anchor might help, but may lack the holding power necessary to stop a snook. A stake-out pole or Power-Pole Micro might be the best choice if you can operate it with the hand not holding the rod — but that’s the one turning the reel! Brace for impact!
As you enter the tree line, not breaking your rod will become a priority. Our best advice is to point the rod toward the back of the kayak and grab the line while fending off branches, spiders and tree crabs. With a little luck, the snook will swim back out the way he came in, or you might be able to handline him away from the roots.
A snook will sometimes swim out of the mangroves down the shoreline a ways. If your line is terminally tangled in the branches, park your rod in a mangrove, back your kayak out and paddle down to land, photograph, revive and release your exhausted catch. Then cut the lure off and return to retrieve your rod. Reel in the line and replace the leader, which is probably now frayed from being dragged across branches, barnacles, oysters and other sharp objects. Tie on your favorite lure and you’re set for another epic battle.
Kimball and Les Beery, authors of the waterproof “Angler’s Guide to Shore Fishing” and “Angler’s Guide to Kayak Fishing Southwest Florida,” contribute these columns to promote the excellent fishing available in Southwest Florida. Their books are available at most tackle shops in the area or at AnglerPocketGuides.com as a download or waterproof hard copy.