Every kayak, SUP or canoe paddler enjoys that moment right after they launch and take a few strokes. A sense of peace and calm replaces the hassle of loading up their stuff before pushing off. It’s a feeling of oneness with the natural world that now surrounds them.
Not all paddlers are anglers. Some don’t even bring along a rod, instead opting for a camera to capture the beauty around them. Others, like ourselves, enhance the outing with the pursuit of gamefish. So, in the midst of this Zen moment, we are rigging a spinning rod or fly rod with something we hope will interrupt the peace with an aggressive strike. But first, we take a look around, feel the breeze and listen to the sounds. These things, fully appreciated, help us find more fish.
One thing most experienced guides tell their clients is to “keep looking around.” If anglers follow this advice, they will notice subtle habitats preferred by gamefish and may see a flash or splash that can make their day. But don’t ignore your senses of hearing and smell, which can also lead you to some fast action. In general, just tune into the natural world you’ve come out in your kayak to experience.
Some things to watch for are pretty obvious; others are subtle. You should be looking for everything from the white-water frenzy created by a school of feeding jacks or mackerel to a dorsal fin lazily breaking the surface as a redfish eases along an oyster bar. When you see either, throw something ahead of these fish and hang on. When casting to a school of feeding fish, you don’t even have to hit the center of the action. There are lots of fish just outside the chaos that you can’t see.
Birds, the ever-present lookouts of offshore anglers, also work for inshore kayak anglers. The same gulls and terns that lead big boats to blue-water battles can guide you too. Pelicans are another good sign. Seeing them dive on the flats means baitfish are in the area. Herons and egrets that nest on mangrove islands also indicate shallow water and easy meals nearby. Find the bait and you’ll find the predators.
Cormorants feeding over grassflats are one more sign of fish. Just make sure your released catch has recovered enough to get away unless you intend to feed cormorants. They really like seatrout and will hang around to eat your released fish that are too tired to escape.
Let your ears help you find fish too. As we drift along a creek or across a flat, we’ll often hear a strike behind us. This is so common that we have a theory: The passing of our boats causes prey to move, giving predators an opportunity. Practice being able to locate the splash you just heard. Look around to see if the rise form (you might call it a swirl) is visible. Then put a cast into that area. It’s just another version of sight fishing — locate a feeding fish, get it to strike.
Other sounds we look for when fishing freshwater include frogs. When they are active late in the day during spring and summer, bass will feed on them exclusively. We think it’s because they slide down easier than a spiny bluegill. If you can hear bull frogs, pig frogs, tree frogs or any other frog singing love songs along the shore, tie on a frog imitation.
We like the Zoom Horny Toad in watermelon red, rigged weedless on a wide-gap 5/0 hook. Fish it as a finesse bait by tossing it onto the shore or emergent vegetation and then ease it slowly across to open water. Sometimes the strike will come while the frog is on the vegetation. More often, though, the best strikes occur as it enters the open water and swims away.
How about that olfactory sense? Yep, smells can help you find fish or avoid unhealthy areas. Many spawning fish are associated with an odor from the oils in egg sacs and milt that can be detected above water. Sometimes this oil slick can even be seen.
The most well-known examples occur in freshwater lakes when shellcracker and other panfish spawn, but this same “fresh fish” odor can help anglers find spawning saltwater fish too. Kayak anglers have a better chance of finding fish this way than anglers in boats who are handicapped by gasoline vapors that disguise the subtle “fishy” scent.
Nasty smells such as sulfur, dead fish and the stink of red tide can indicate areas that are to be avoided. Even if there are fish to be had here, who wants to fish in a toxic miasma? Move on, friend, move on.
Dolphin, manatees, ospreys and alligators are what many kayakers hope to see in Southwest Florida. We like to see them too. Just don’t ignore the other subtle sights, smells and sounds around you. When we focus on these things, then add in paddling, fishing and navigation, we have no room to haul along everyday issues. We hope you find this same escape.
So, push off, take a few paddle strokes, breathe deep, make a few casts, tune in, slow down and look around. Fishing is just part of a kayak angler’s day, but this other stuff, if you pay attention, will help you catch more 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.