We often talk to anglers convinced they have to find deep water to catch big fish. This belief often leads to buying heavy tackle and expensive boats to access deep water. For some big fish, deep water is essential — but kayak anglers consistently catch big fish in shallow water.
Baitfish and other favorite foods live in shallow water, and locating feeding fish is the key to catching them. Many of these bait-sized fish are saltwater gamefish starting off as juveniles among the red mangrove roots. They are there for protection from predators that can’t chase them down in the maze. Other goodies like shrimp and crabs fill out the menu along most shorelines.
A kayak is the ideal way to access these shallows and their feeding activity. A slow paddle along a mangrove shoreline will show any angler why a big fish might want to dine here. Baitfish scatter ahead of the kayak. Crabs edge away as you go by. Shrimp skip farther back into roots toward spots too shallow for pursuit.
This safe haven is compromised on higher tides, allowing redfish, trout and snook to hunt farther back in the root system. That can be a problem for any angler trying to cast bait deep into shoreline pockets. Snagging a mangrove branch or root is always a hassle — but if you’re not hooking into a branch or root every now and then, you’re not casting close enough. Another issue with a hookup on a high tide is that hooked gamefish will instinctively try to burrow back into the same roots that sheltered them as juveniles.
We like to fish a falling tide along a mangrove shoreline. The dropping water level flushes out the bait and makes it easier for reds, snook and snapper to capture a good meal. Another subtle but helpful thing about a falling tide is that gamefish are generally found facing the shore. This allows a kayak angler to approach them from behind and place a lure, fly or bait between the target and the trees for a great presentation. If you show them something they’re looking for and retrieve it from a direction they expect, a strike becomes a lot more likely.
Of course, a lower tidal level makes a dash into the roots less likely and your fish may decide instead to head for the safety of deeper water away from the shore. This gives us a fighting chance to land the fish. On a dead low tide, these same fish will move farther from the trees in search of deeper water along with the bait that has been forced to vacate the protective roots of the red mangroves.
Obviously, a rapid retrieve will move the lure or bait out of the strike zone near the roots. That’s why we usually choose a lure that works without any motion. When working a DOA shrimp or other shrimp imitation along the mangroves, just let it sink where it lands. When it hits bottom, a tiny twitch will often seal the deal. Scented baits, like Gulp soft plastics, also need a little time to disperse their magic, so letting them sink in place works best. If nothing picks up your offering — be it shrimp or whitebait, lure or fly — slowly retrieve it and cast into the next pocket.
Conversely, on a rising tide, laid-up fish are usually facing into the tidal flow and away from the mangroves. This lets them watch you as you approach, and if things get scary, they’re going back further into the roots. These situations require longer casts, more stealth and a retrieve that runs parallel to the shore.
Always remember that big fish eat little things that live along the shore. Whether it’s a beach, where the first trough is usually the most productive, a mangrove shoreline or the shallows on the edge of an oyster bar, they’re there looking for something to eat.
Think of shoreline shallows as the “food court” at the mall. Sure, there might be something to eat elsewhere, but their probability of success goes way up if a gamefish looks for a meal where it lives. So paddle your kayak along our shallow shorelines where boat fishermen cannot go, and enjoy the fun of light tackle and small lures to catch some surprisingly big fish.
Kimball and Les Beery, authors of the waterproof “Angler’s Guide to Shore Fishing Southwest Florida” 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, AnglerPocketGuides.com, or Amazon as a download or hard copy.