If you’ve ever seen an angler wading the flats, walking the beach, or fly fishing from a kayak and thought “that looks like fun” — you’re right! Fly fishing has long been a favorite among anglers chasing salmon, trout, bass and panfish all over the country, and it’s popular down here too. Fly anglers are not restricted to smaller fish and fresh water. Today’s graphite rods with matching reels are tackling marlin and sailfish as well as trophy-size snook and redfish. There’s a tool for every job and a fly rod for every fish, but let’s look at what kayak anglers need here in Southwest Florida.
Our favorite fly rods are 8 weight, four-piece rods loaded with weight-forward floating line. These are comparable to a medium action spinning rod and will handle most loads. For tarpon and larger fish, you might want a 12 weight; for panfish and seatrout, a 5 weight will be plenty stiff. Select a rod that is light weight and comfortable to cast but has enough backbone to control and land a fish without killing it. Too light a rod means the battle continues to the death for the fish, and release is then futile.
How much should you plan to spend? High-end fly tackle isn’t cheap. You can drop thousands if you want — or you can go in another direction. Generally, more money gets you better gear, but let your budget be your guide. Our outfits, including rod, reel, line, backing and leader from TFO, cost less than $150 and have worked great for years.
The fly reel you select should give the rod balance and hold enough line and backing to stay with a redfish on a long run off the flats. Most modern fly reels have a drag. Set it light, as the line going through the guides creates a lot of additional drag.
Most fly lines are too bulky to store great lengths on a reel. You only need as much fly line as you can cast, so most fly lines are about 100 feet long. If a fish runs out more line than that, 200 yards of 20-pound braid backing will keep you connected to the fish. Weight-forward lines have a heavier, fatter area near the leader end that makes them easier to cast, especially into the wind. The line’s color doesn’t matter too much if you use a long leader.
Fly lines come in floating or sinking. We like floating lines because they are easy to pick up off the water and we usually fish flats and shorelines. On deeper flats, a sink tip or full sinking line will get your offering down deep quicker. The main issue with sinking lines is they are hard to pick up and cast. When using sinking lines, it helps if you strip in most of the line before trying to get it in the air for the next cast.
Think about casting while seated in a kayak, and it becomes obvious why we like floating lines. When the fish are feeding deep, a heavier fly or small splitshot ahead of the fly will get it down to them without seriously impairing the ability to cast. We also carry sink tip leaders that do the job when needed.
Speaking of leaders, traditionalists tie them in graduated sizes to get from about 40-pound test at the fly line down to about 10-pound test at the end where the fly ties on. We prefer pre-made tapered leaders, even though they are a little more expensive. Every time you tie a knot, that’s another place for weeds to hang up. Tapered leaders don’t have knots, which eliminates this problem.
Be sure to add a “bite tippet” of 20-pound fluorocarbon material between the fly and leader to prevent toothy fish from chewing through the leader. We usually tie on about 18 inches of bite tippet so changing flies doesn’t use it up too fast. Really toothy fish, such as mackerel, require heavier 40- to 60-pound bite tippet or even a short piece of wire tied ahead of the fly to prevent cutoffs.
So, how does this all go together? Start with tying the backing to the arbor of the reel. Wind on a couple hundred yards, but leave enough space on the reel to hold the fly line. Tie the backing to the end of the fly line with a nail knot that will slide through the guides easily. Now, wind the fly line onto the reel and tie the fat end of the leader to the line with another nail knot. You’re almost there — just tie the skinny end of the leader to the bite tippet with a surgeon’s knot and attach the fly to the bite tippet with a loop knot.
Which fly? That is always the question, and the answer is always to match the hatch. Whether you are casting to trout in a mountain stream or bonefish on a flat in the Bahamas, this advice will get you by. Look around the shallows for baitfish and note their size and color. Around here, it’s hard to beat a shrimp pattern fly. Every gamefish will eat a shrimp. They work great on grass flats and sink slowly across the shallow spots.
Another favorite is a Clouser minnow. These come in lots of colors, and with eyes made of beads or lead, they adapt well to various depths. Strip them using short pulls of 6 to 12 inches and vary the speed. Along the mangroves, where a tight cast into a difficult spot is required, we like crab patterns and fish them where they land as they sink to the bottom.
These ideas on basic rigging should help get kayak anglers started on fly fishing. A word of caution, though: This game can be habit-forming and lead to a psychological dependence on the thrill of catching big (or little) fish on a fly rod. One fish caught on a fly rod equals 10 on spinning gear, if you’re keeping score.
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.