A few minutes before the sun is scheduled to rise over the horizon, I drag my kayak down a muddy trail and slide it into the ankle-deep marsh. As the tide rises, I ride the current into backwaters too shallow for a bigger boat.
When I spot a pack of tailing redfish, the kayak glides silently into range. A short cast, a quick twitch of the lure, and the whole school attacks. Out of the pack, one redfish breaks from the squadron to pounce on my lure.
As soon as I feel pressure on the line, I haul back on the rod to set the hook. The fish splashes angrily and takes off for the horizon, pulling my kayak like a rag doll.
After several minutes of give and take, I close the distance until the bucking fish is close enough to splash its tail and cover me with water. Once the leader is in reach, I grab the line and swing the red into the kayak. The fight is not over, in tight quarters we battle fist to fins until I get ahold on the slimy wrestler and shimmy the hook out of its mouth.
Without ceremony, and with the greatest respect, I admire the coppery gold fish a few seconds before lowering it into the water and allowing it to regain strength. With a final good-bye, the redfish turns for the marsh and splashes its tail and disappears.
Chuckling to myself, I wipe beads of salty water from my face and reach down to rinse the slime off my hands. Then, I turn and replace the rod in the holder, pick up the paddle and go on the hunt, again.
These experiences are special to kayak anglers. Silently hunting the shallows, stalking an inshore trophy, the famous sleigh ride and close-quarters combat offer an intimacy unavailable on other fishing platforms.
A small, plastic, sit-on-top kayak is perfect for exploring the backwaters: no worries about running aground, spooking the fish or fighting crowds. Instead, I get to focus on finding unexplored coast and observing my target undisturbed. It’s like the kayak was invented for inshore fishing.
Fishing kayaks come in a wide range of sizes and styles, with boats specifically designed for backwaters and light tackle. To ply the shallows, I choose a paddle kayak instead of a pedal-powered boat, which draws too much water for crossing skinny water. With the paddle, I can scrape through water only a few inches deep and use the paddle as a push pole when the going gets really shallow.
A wider, shorter kayak, around 12-foot long and 34-inches wide, provides stability for stand up fishing and a reduced waterline for easy maneuverability. To further aid standing and fishing in the kayak, I use a boat with a frame seat and open, flat deck.
When I’m sight fishing, standing in the kayak is a huge advantage to see through the glare and spot structure.
To make kayak fishing even easier, I keep rigging to a minimum. Inshore trips only require three rods, one rigged with a topwater lure, one with a suspending twitch bait and the third with a jig and soft-plastic tail.
Weight is extremely important in a kayak. Every ounce I pack onto the little plastic boat is an ounce I have to pull through the water with a paddle. Just as important, rods and reels must be tough. Tackle is constantly exposed to salt water, sun, dirt, mud, and sand.
These factors encouraged me to arm my inshore kayak with PENN Conflict II spinning reels and PENN Prevail II rods. I choose a seven-foot rod long enough for casting distance and short enough to work while sitting close to the water. The one-piece Dura-Guides and grippy Winn Grips are tough to survive life on a kayak deck. The blank is 100-percent graphite for uncompromising sensitivity, which is essential for feeling the light bite of a speckled sea trout or flounder.
The Conflict II is PENN’s lightest spinning reel. A rigid resin body and rotor are lighter than metal with carbon fiber drag to provide nine pounds of smooth fighting power, important when the fish is pulling you where it wants to go. Seven, sealed stainless steel ball bearings keep things moving smoothly.
I spool the reel with 10-pound Trilene Braid Professional Grade with round, eight carrier construction and high pik count for long casts and incredible sensitivity. An arm’s length of 20-pound Berkley ProSpec fluorocarbon leader is virtually invisible in the clear shallow water with higher abrasion resistance to pull bruisers out of dock pilings, mangrove roots, and oyster bars.
Tackle must be chosen strategically. I can’t bring every color, size and style lure. Instead, I limit myself to the lures I can fit in a single Berkley Tackle Tray. Natural bait is the most effective for catching almost any fish, but keeping shrimp, squid or baitfish fresh requires keeping it cool. To maximize space and cut down on weight, I leave natural bait at home. Scented soft plastics like Berkley Saltwater Gulp! and PowerBait are easier to store and allow me to cover more water looking for fish..
The number one lure for sea trout, redfish and flounder is a ⅛ to ¾ ounce jig head and four to six-inch soft plastic. Work the lure at a steady pace to cross the middle of the water column or let it sink then bounce it across the bottom.
The second rod gets a mid-water, suspending bait such as a Sebile Stick Shadd. Sea trout, redfish, and flounder will hold deep looking towards the surface for prey to swim overhead. The suspending lure stays in the strike zone. Jerking the lure causes it to twitch and pause like an injured baitfish.
The third rod is dedicated to my topwater lure. A walk the dog lure, like a Berkley J-Walker, mimics a baitfish slowly waking across the surface.
I pack a small bag of tools including a pair of PENN Parallel Pliers and Berkley Bait Shears. I never fish treble hooks without pliers to remove them from the fish. And shears are safer than a knife, allowing me to cut line, open packages and a million other uses with less chance of cutting myself.
Rounding out the gear list, I use a two-pound grapple anchor or a six-foot stakeout pole to secure the kayak in wind and current. Not only does anchoring save paddling energy, but some lures work best from a stationary platform.
Last, but not least, a life vest keeps me safe. For inshore fishing, where the weather can be hot but the water isn’t too deep, I prefer an inflatable life vest. Floatation is provided by air bladders inflated with a CO2 cartridge. Fall in the water and the cartridge is triggered to inflate the bladders and float to the surface. Deflated, the life vest is cooler and lighter than a foam model.
Light tackle fishing from a kayak for speckled sea trout, flounder, redfish and striped bass is easy to access and fun for any level angler. New inshore kayaks are wide and stable, so anyone can get on board regardless of experience or fitness. Getting started only requires a handful of lures and three versatile spinning rods. Loading and launching the kayak takes a few minutes, making it easy for anglers to grab their boat and go fishing. And nothing matches the giggling excitement of being dragged through the water by a hooked up fish.