Years ago, before Florida kayak fishing was cool, I had a friend who lived in Pompano Beach who would paddle out from the 16th Street Beach to the Gulf Stream and cast a line.
The old-style canvas kayaks like his were not made for the ocean, or for fishing, but that didn’t stop “Kayak Willie” from facing the challenge of a three-mile paddle to the Gulf Stream for the ride of his life.
On occasion, as the stories go, he would hook a sailfish and skim the waves in “pursuit,” hanging on for dear life as he got dragged out to sea. Bill never bragged about his adventures, at least not to me, although there were plenty of fish stories told on his behalf, if you get my drift. “Kayak Willie” was a legend on that beach.
I wouldn’t recommend going deep into the open Atlantic or the Gulf of Mexico, especially alone. Perhaps the biggest advantage to fishing from a kayak is getting into places where nobody else can go. Inshore fishing, marshes, bays, lakes, spring runs and rivers provide those opportunities.
My immediate thoughts go to the Keys backcountry, the Ten Thousand Islands, Tampa Bay, Indian River Lagoon, the Everglades, Mosquito Lagoon, Cedar Key and Apalachicola Bay, and there is bounty in Florida’s many spring-fed freshwater streams, lakes and rivers.
And unlike Bill’s old yak, many of today’s kayaks are built for fishing with rod holders, storage hatches, and some even have live wells.
Outfitting your kayak
There are many ways to rig your kayak, and everyone has their own idea of what they need and where to put it. You will often see kayaks rigged with multiple rod holders, carrying multiple rods, and you wonder how they do it. I would suggest you wonder why they do it.
Don’t go overboard, both literally and figuratively. You need one rod, not three or four, and one rod holder. The more rods you have and the more rod holders, the more trouble. Lines get snagged and multiple rods interfere with your ability to follow a fish that circles your boat.
Keep it simple. One rod holder, either in front your cockpit or behind it, whichever is convenient, accessible, out of the water and within reach so you can manage bait and tackle.
A rod holder mounted behind you also serves your trolling as you paddle to your favorite fishing hole. Wherever you mount the rod holder, be sure that it doesn’t interfere with your paddling.
If you keep your catch, you need a place to stow it, keeping in mind that fish flop around once landed. A port or hatch into which you can drop the fish below deck onto a bag of ice is best. A small cooler strapped to a flat spot on your deck can also work, just make sure it’s stable and secure. Use the same cooler for beverages and frozen bait.
My friend Warren Richey, an avid kayak fisherman and author of “Without A Paddle”, keeps it simpler still. He uses a stringer and keeps his catch in the water. “On good days, this stringer can get pretty big and heavy. But it works. The fish stay fresh because they stay alive.”
But there is a down side when fishing where sharks may prowl. “Once I was next to a guy (about 20 yards away) when he had his entire stringer ripped free by a big shark. Lost all his fish and the rope. This is, of course, is dangerous. If you use a strong stringer, the shark may come in fast, take it, and flip the boat. So that’s the downside of using a stringer. The upside is that it is easy to rig and takes up no space.”
Warren also suggests a hand net. “It makes it much easier to get the fish off the line and into the stringer without being cut bloody by gills and spines.”
Other optional equipment includes a drift sock to stabilize the kayak in currents, a moderate length of line and a small river anchor so you can get out and wade.
Do you need a license for kayak fishing? Yes. Most people do, but not everybody. Read more: Who needs a Florida fishing license?
Best kayaks for fishing
It’s pretty much standard in Florida to fish from a sit-on-top with a relatively wide beam for stability, especially if you plan to fish in open water. The wider the beam, the slower the kayak, but it’s more stable when you hook that fish and reel it in. You have to find your own balance between speed, agility and utility.
There are many advantages to a sit-inside, not the least of which is the ease of storing your gear and your catch easily below deck. If you favor a sit-inside, go for a large cockpit. But a sit-inside is not recommended for open water where you need a skirt. The advantages disappear under the skirt and become hassles.
There are many kayaks on the market today that are designed specifically for fishing. Two that immediately come to mind are the Hobie Mirage (sit-on-top) and the popular Wilderness Systems Pungo Angler (sit inside) .
The Mirage allows you to pedal your kayak while fishing, and the Pungo Angler has many well-placed storage hatches, rod holders, drink holders, and a small deck for rigging your line. Some even offer outriggers that add stability.
You can easily spend $1,000 and up for a fishing yak, while the kayak you already have can be modified for much less and provide just as much fun.
Remember: Wide and short is slow, but has better stability for fishing. Narrow and long gets you there faster, but it’s less stable. Somewhere in between, moderately wide and about 12 feet long, is probably the best compromise for most anglers.
Tackle for kayak fishing
An inexpensive light-medium spinning outfit that handles 8-15-lb. test line is the right choice. Fresh water anglers might even go with lighter tackle. Keep in mind that your gear is going to be exposed to the elements, dropped in the water, undergo stress and more, so leave your high-end rod and reel at home. If you don’t have a rod holder, then you want a rod that will break down for storage below deck.
Wear a life vest designed for fishing, with pockets for a small box of hooks, sinkers and leaders. Add a Sabiki rig so you can catch your own bait, if you are so inclined. Fishing vests have pockets designed to carry your tackle.
For a rig, stick to the basics, unless you are targeting a specific species that requires special gear.
A flat line with just a hook is my preference for drifting live bait in currents. A fishfinder rig, where the sinker slides on the line above the swivel, which is tied to a leader and hook, is the right choice for fishing the bottom.
If you are around oyster bars, where redfish congregate, use an Equalizer, a cork float with a one-foot leader that drifts with the current.
For hooks, a No. 2 J-hook works for most people. Circle hook are also a good choice, especially if you are not quick on the draw when a fish takes your bait. The key to success with circle hooks is to keep the bait small. A pinch of shrimp works nicely.
Bait for kayak fishing
Live bait is always best, no matter where or how you fish. For salt water, use live shrimp. For fresh water, real worms.
To carry shrimp, pilchards and other live bait, you should have a trolling bait bucket to keep the fish alive. These buckets are common and inexpensive. Tied to your kayak, they float behind the boat while you fish and have holes that refresh the water (and oxygen) for your bait.
When you’re on the move, pull the bucket into the cockpit while you paddle so it doesn’t drag. Every 10 minutes or so, dip it to freshen the water inside.
As I mentioned earlier, a Sabiki rig with multiple miniature hooks is handy for catching small bait fish in the wild, but you need a small bucket to keep that bait alive. Exchange the water often to keep it fresh.
One of the great advantages of kayak fishing is that you can also pull ashore almost anywhere to hunt bait. My favorite bait in Mosquito Lagoon are tiny crabs that scurry everywhere on island beaches. Clams and oysters can be harvested from many inshore waters, as well.
While live bait is best, artificial lures, worms and “designer” baits all have their advocates. Artificial minnows and plugs are favored by those who troll while they paddle. Plastic worms offer a lot of simulation to real fish. And designer baits, such as “Fish Bites” or “Gulps” have a huge fan base.
Indeed, it’s always a good idea to carry some artificials in your tackle box or fishing vest pockets in case you run out of live bait.
Frozen shrimp is a good option option for saltwater marshes. Though not as effective as live shrimp, frozen shrimp is easy to transport. Cut the shrimp into small pieces and just tip your hook or jig.
Fly fishing from a kayak
A kayak to fish in shallow waters, in and around oyster bars, down narrow channels to fishing holes where few people can go, even in shallow-draft flats boats. A kayak offers terrific access to prime, quiet areas for fly fishing.
You don’t have to fish a mountain stream to enjoy fly fishing. I’ve had huge fun catching redfish with streamers in saltwater and bass with big bugs and poppers in fresh water. Dragon flies are popular throughout Florida (match the hatch). My standard rod for Florida fly fishing, whether it be salt or fresh water, is an 8-weight. It’s heavy enough to handle anything from bass to snook, yet light enough to give you the thrill of the catch.
My most memorable catch on a fly rod was a lunker bass on a popper in the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge.
Don’t forget your water shoes
So, you are coming up on an oyster bar and want to get out of the boat and wade. This is not territory for barefooting. Neither are mud flats, coral banks or sea grass beds.
Water shoes are essential gear for kayakers, whether you are fishing or not. Waders and boots are not very practical. You need more flexibility to get in and out of your boat, so you are more likely to be wearing shorts or zip-off fishing pants. A packable poncho is also a practical accessory.
A broad-brimmed hat is essential. The Florida sun is brutal, so shade your face and neck. Did I mention bug spray and sunblock?
Where to fish
The kayak will carry you to places where nobody else will go, but the rules are generally the same when trying to identify fishing holes.
Structure is best, whether it’s a dock, a bridge or a mangrove. Fish congregate in areas that are cool and shady, not unlike people.
Watch for currents and feeder streams. At the edge of a current, or at the mouth of a stream, predator fish congregate for a meal of passing bait fish.
Oyster bars are prime territory, so search them out in waters that support them.
Make a point to talk to the clerk at a tackle shop near your fishing destination. They won’t divulge the big secrets, but they will advise on the right bait and provide you with a general description of where the fish are likely biting.
Half the fun of kayak fishing is finding your own special spot, a prolific hole that produces the big catch. Or just a quiet day on the water, floating and fishing, enjoying the view and feeling the peace.
Best kayak fishing destinations in Florida
Florida Keys. Some of the best saltwater fishing anywhere in Florida is in the Keys, and the backcountry of the Lower Keys may be the best for kayak anglers. Hundreds of barren islands and deep holes in the flats offer shelter for fish.
Ten Thousand Islands. A prime breeding ground for snook, spotted sea trout, snapper and redfish, these islands harbor oyster bars in the backcountry that are inaccessible to larger boats. Kayaks rule. Tidal flows flush fish out of the mangroves into the passes.
Indian River Lagoon. One of Florida’s prime fishing grounds, the lagoon, like the Ten Thousand Islands, is flush with oyster bars and clam beds, many leased to farmers. But the fish that feed off those banks are fair game.
Florida Springs. Every springs has a spring run that joins a river somewhere down the line, and those outflows are where gamefish gather for dinner. Kayak downstream in the crystal clear waters and look for your opportunities.
St. Johns River. The St. Johns is where freshwater anglers go to retire. Fed by freshwater springs and vast wetlands from its source to its mouth in Jacksonville, the St. Johns is Florida’s fishing gold mine.
Lake Okeechobee. The bass capital of the world. Need I say more?
- Kayak Fishing Florida’s First Coast Canoe & Kayak magazine
- KayakFishingGear.com Kayak Fishing Florida forum
- Fishing The Great Calusa Blueway
Notes from the editor:
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Bob Rountree is a beach bum, angler and camper who has explored Florida for decades. No adventure is complete without a scenic paddle trail or unpaved road to nowhere. Bob co-founded FloridaRambler.com with fellow journalist Bonnie Gross 12 years ago.