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Techniques
Posted February, 1999
Kayak Fly Fishing
Reflections on a Rookie Season
by Ted Hendrickson

I had just logged off the Internet after reading my latest batch of e-mail from fly fishing friends. The mediocre shoreline reports contrasted sharply with the upbeat news from my friend, Ron, about ambushing bass and blues from his kayak. He and several others had purchased kayaks at the start of the season and I drooled over their reports of a cove full of stripers sipping worms in late May. I became more agitated as the Kayak Crew reported accessing remote fishing grounds with stealthy approach and successful catches. Somehow, I had staved off the building desire to join them, but it was now the end of July, and my will was broken.

Off I went, clutching my credit card, and my mind swirling with visions of new-found mobility. I smiled at the simplicity of throwing the craft on the roof of my wagon, launching single-handedly, and the terrific fishing that surely would follow.

The Kayak

Little did I expect the vast number of choices that would confront me when I walked through the doors of the dealer. I gazed around bewildered for a while, not even knowing enough to ask the right questions. Some homework was in order.

Basically the designs could be broken into three large groups: touring, white water, and recreational.

The recreational group includes sporting models, sit-on-top models, and small, entry-level models.

Touring kayaks are long and slender. They paddle easily and efficiently, making them especially good for long trips. Some are equipped with rudders that help control direction in currents and wind. Because of their hull design, they sacrifice some stability. Access to interior space is limited while on the water because of the small cockpit opening and slim shape.

White water models did not look like a good choice. Small and highly maneuverable, they are less likely to track well when covering distance and their limited storage was troubling. Fun for river running, but of limited use to an angler fisherman.

The sporting/recreational models looked like the place to start. First off, the sit-on-top models could be eliminated if one wanted an extended season in colder waters. That left the sit-inside designs. I looked for a large enough cockpit to provide access to gear and a wide enough boat to provide good stability, but not so "tubby" that it would paddle poorly. It had to be big enough to handle my gear and store a pair of waders and a stripping basket, maybe a small cooler. I wanted enough length for good tracking and efficient paddling, and the ability to handle a moderate chop, too. I also wanted it to be light enough to car-top by myself.

Test paddling a selection of boats was extremely helpful in sorting this out. If your local dealer can provide this service, I strongly suggest you take advantage of it. If not, look for early-season promotional events that include demonstration paddling. Testing the kayak also gave me confidence that the kayak was, indeed, a comfortable craft, and not as intimidating as it first seemed. I determined that a 12-foot kayak was best for me.

The construction of contemporary kayaks can be from composite materials, such as Fiberglas and Kevlar, or rotomolded plastic. The composites are lighter, stiffer, and sometimes provide more sophisticated hull shapes. They are, however, more fragile and costly than the plastic models. My budget dictated rotomolded polyethylene anyway. The durability and forgiving flexibility of that material seemed to make sense. I ended up with a Pungo by Wilderness Systems, but there are other good choices out there as well.

Some anglers elect to go with a beamy, touring model, such as the Acadia by Perception, or a wide open, two-seater sporting model, such as Wilderness System's Pamlico. Talk to others, do your homework, and a choice will emerge.

Accessories

Of course, you'll need a paddle. More choices.

Some are designed for distance paddling, some for power, some for maneuverability . . . Going far? Get the touring model. Accelerating into a group of busting bonito? Get the power model. Get the lightest one you can afford.

Getting the kayak home was the impetus for the next accessory -- a roof rack. These can be custom-installed system racks or the factory luggage rack variety you may already have, but check the weight limits. If you use existing equipment, a set of foam blocks that form a customizable bed for the hull is a good idea. Ask your dealer for advice if you are in doubt.

Life jackets are a must! Besides being sensible, it's the law! I got an insignia orange colored one to increase my visibility to other boat traffic. The low profile of a kayaker in the water is barely more visible than a lobster pot buoy. Give yourself all the help you can. White-bladed paddles help with visibility, too. Raise one end straight up when trying to signal oncoming vessels. A light or bright-colored hull couldn't hurt, either. Audible signals (air horn or signal whistle) may also be helpful to signal other kayakers or boat traffic.

For evening or early morning, some kind of battery-operated running lights might also be a good idea. One method I tried successfully was to use lightweight bicycle safety lights clipped on my hat. Have a bright flashlight handy for signaling other boats. Reflective tape can make you more visible in darkness, too.

Other recommended safety equipment includes a small, hand-operated bilge pump and an inflatable paddle float. These will help you get back into your kayak and get back under way in case of a capsize.

Don't forget a compass. Fog can steal in quickly and disorient the best of us. If you have the means, a hand-held, waterproof GPS can be invaluable. Keep some general bearings in mind and pay particular attention if conditions begin to deteriorate.

Most of all, use common sense and be safe.

I went easy on other accessories. While spray skirts have their place in rough water, I did not miss having one. I fish the relatively near shore waters of Long Island Sound and the salt ponds of the Rhode Island coast. A little water would slosh in once in a while, but I just scooped it out. Moderate seas just about to break into white caps were manageable. I found it convenient to stow an old towel behind the seat to absorb excess water and kept the interior dry.

Some use clips to store their paddle alongside when not in use. With a big cockpit, I found sliding it inside under the bow and along my legs was quite fine, but I highly recommend a paddle leash or at least a rope tied to the middle of the paddle shaft. Don't wind up in the proverbial up the creek situation! In fact, I also tie off my tackle bag to the boat and use a stout string from my rod butt to my life vest. The rope trick served me well when a bonito grabbed my fly pattern as it hung in the water and yanked the rod overboard!

I found an anchor to be a big help. A small 3- to 5-pound mushroom or fluke style with blades is fine. It allowed me to hold in productive water against wind and current. A small rope with a clip on the anchor line helps pull the anchor rope back to the cockpit for getting under way again.

You are likely to encounter toothy critters, such as bluefish, so a small net, or Boga Grip will prove mighty useful.

Tactics

Hey, you're in a boat! Tactics are the same as fly fishing from a small skiff, only you can now get into even skinnier water, and a heck of a lot more quietly, too.

Trolling is a practical way to cover more water while you are getting to where you are going. Some kayak anglers use rod holders that swivel to allow trolling. I troll by bracing the rod handle under my leg, and let the rod cross in front of my body under the opposite arm. It works, but don't forget the safety string tied to the rod butt. Sinking lines help while trolling, and be sure to set a fairly loose drag to prevent break-offs and broken rod tips.

Due to your seated position, casting will take some getting used to, but you'll get the hang of it. Some anglers may prefer a 9.5- or 10-foot rod to keep back casts off the water, but you are sacrificing leverage by using the longer rods. I make out fine with 9-foot models.

I don't find the need for a stripping basket in a kayak. Retrieving the line and letting it fall between my legs in loose coils works well. Take note to clear obstructions or stray ropes to avoid tangles and stopped casts.

One kayak tactic is racing to breaking fish, slowing with a side-to-side touch down of the paddles, and placing a cast into the school as you coast silently to a stop. So effective is this technique, particularly on spooky species, that I've sat in the middle of breaking bonito for minutes at a time on several occasions. Once, one almost jumped into the kayak with me!

Schools can't be too far off, but if they're spotted within 50 yards and stay up for a couple of minutes, a sprint can reach them in time. Learn your local waters for likely fish-holding spots and the most productive tides.

Fish often work patterns as they follow the bait. Make note of these and get ahead of the trend. You are forced to commit to a smaller area of water than anglers with power boats, but what you'll gain in stealth can be worth it when you pick your water carefully.

Be sure to slow down before casting so that you do not over run your line. If your charge has been an excited run to quickly moving fish, you will have to really slam on the brakes. It is often necessary to take the tide and wind into account so that a slack line makes it impossible to detect a take or set the hook.

The time will come when you hook a strong, powerful gamefish. Get ready for a unique experience -- the Nantucket Sleigh Ride.

A light kayak is easily towed about during a fight with a large bass, blue, albie, or bonito. It's just fun in open water. Relax and enjoy it! In traffic, near rocks, or on breaking waves, the fight is complicated and requires a wary eye for potential problems.

Once a tired gamefish is brought near the kayak, it tends to swim in circles beneath the shallow hull, and your mobility is much less than it would be in a boat. I summarize the feeling this way --

Hook up = Fun
Nantucket Sleigh Ride = Fun
Fight to the boat = Fun
Fight at the boat = Whoa, Nellie! Check that rod warranty!

Don't get your rod doubled under the kayak with the fish heading the wrong way. It can be like a chess game, trying to keep the rod tip positioned for maximum mobility, and it's helpful to have a rod long enough so that the tip clears around the bow to the other side during a fight. In any case, a big fish is a challenge, and don't forget that lifting such a fish from the side can destabilize your craft. I nearly capsized the first time I tried to hoist a 20-pound striper over the gunwale.

Also choose your cockpit partners wisely. A gnashing bluefish in your lap is not particularly good company.

Of course, using a kayak to get to otherwise inaccessible shores is yet another tactic. In some situations, it's best to beach and secure the boat. Watch the tide! In some spots, it may be possible to tie the kayak to your waist and tow it along with you as you wade. Opening additional shore angling territory may be worth the price of admission alone for many, but bear in mind that it is illegal to beach a vessel not in an emergency on most state, county, and town beaches, and you're always running the risk of trespassing on private properties.

However you decide to use your kayak, have fun, but fish safe! Let someone know where you will be paddling. If possible, go with a buddy kayak angler. Wear your PFD! Watch the weather and water conditions, and know your own physical limitations.

I'm looking forward to my first full season of fly fishing from my kayak. Hope I see you on the water.

------

Ted Hendrickson grew up fishing the waters of Long Island Sound and has been saltwater fly fishing for 20 years. He is a member of The Coastal Conservation Association and Connecticut/Rhode Island Coastal Fly Fishers.




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