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May 11, 2003

Kayak Fishing Florida's Gulf Coast

To start this Florida fishing trip, we simply picked up the plastic sit-on-top boats, carried them 15 feet to the water's edge and shoved off into the inky, warm shallows...

Guide Kevin Fenn's directions seemed simple enough: Meet predawnat the foot of St. Petersburg's Sunshine Skyway bridge and launchthe kayaks. No boat ramps. No waiting in line. No noisy enginesrevving, burned-oil smell or poor docking etiquette. 

To start this Florida fishing trip, we simply picked up theplastic sit-on-top boats, carried them 15 feet to the water's edgeand shoved off into the inky, warm shallows at the south end ofTampa Bay. After a 10-minute paddle to the mouth of Miguel Bay, wedrifted with the outgoing tide, a minor chop lapping at our roundedchines.

Fenn outfitted me and fellow Sport Fishing staffer ClintJones with a couple of 10-pound-class spinning rods and sometopwater lures: MirrOlure Top Dogs and Rapala Skitter Walks. In thedarkness, we threw long, looping casts out to the open grass flats,listening as snook thumped baitfish somewhere under the tangledblack wall of mangroves behind us. We could hear our Top Dogs swishand splash on the surface as we reeled blindly. Occasionally, asmall trout would rush headlong toward the irresistible Dog andhang itself on one of the trebles.

It occurred to me that this was a fine example of one ofkayak-fishing's primary attractions: sensory exploration. What youcan see, hear, smell and feel from a 12-foot boat inches above thewaterline truly teaches you something about your environment, yourquarry and your skills. And there's no better place to learn andexplore than the kayak-friendly west coast of Florida.

Fenn dominates a short list of Florida guides specializing inkayak-fishing trips. From his central Florida home, he is not muchmore than an hour and a half from the best spots on the west coastand from a few he frequents on the east coast. But the west coastoffers gentler seas, a greater multitude of flats, smaller tidalamplitudes (1 to 3 feet), and fewer population centers. And it isFlorida above all other states that provides warmer days, warmerwaters and better access to coastal areas.

"The west coast is shallow, which means you can get out and walkaround and wade a lot," says Capt. Ken Daubert of Ocala, Florida,author of Kayakfishing: The Revolution. "There are also lots ofislands, meaning it's safer. You don't have to paddle out so far.In California, you're in deep water in the surf. But here, much ofthis Gulf coast is kayaker heaven."

How Low Can You Go?

A kayak's greatest advantage may be its ultrashallow draft.Whether paddling a traditional boat or "peddling" one of Hobie'snew Outback pedal-driven kayaks - such as those Jones and I testedduring this trip - you can float in single-digit inches of water.When the tide ebbs and sandbars appear, only kayak fishermen canreach the puddles where fish collect to wait out the tide.

"I, and most other kayak fishermen, like the last of theoutgoing tide or first of the incoming," Fenn says. That's where wehave the advantage over conventional boats, especially during thelower tides in winter. A kayak drafts about 2 to 3 inches. You'llget on a very shallow flat that's 100 yards long with a hole wherethere's 5 feet of water. That's just perfect."

Spring is the best time to fish the spot Fenn took Jones and me- Miguel Bay. Redfish, snook and trout all flush out of thebackwater areas as the tidal flats begin to warm. But our visit inOctober also produced good numbers of legal and smaller redfish,plus a few small trout.

Fenn prefers to throw topwater plugs around the flats outsideMiguel because jigs and even weedless spoons can jam up in thethick grass beds. As the tide drops, he might fish a weedlessjerkbait.

"A lot of people like to see their action, and a topwater pluglets you see what's going on plus get the distance with your cast,"Fenn says. 

During our trip, Fenn caught most of his fish on a Top Dog, buthis first cast with a Mister Twister Exude jerkbait drew animmediate hookup with a tasty-looking red. The fish piled on thebait as it dropped, never giving Fenn an opportunity to drag itthrough the grass.

Alternating between sitting on the kayaks and wading whilepulling the boats behind us - a bow line tied to our waists - wecast to likely looking holes, varied our retrieves, changed ourbaits and truly learned each and every dip and drop-off. We paddledsideways to the slight breeze and let it drift us past the mangroveshoreline, plinking and playing and hoping a snook might gethungry.

I noticed immediately that all my casts flew just below themangrove branches right to the sweet spot beside the roots. There'sjust something about being eye level with your casting destinationthat improves accuracy.

Roadside Fisheries

Florida's west coast offers more variety than its eastern shore,both in types and quantity of habitat and in available fisheries,Daubert says. Finger channels, grass flats and oyster bars weavethrough the nearshore Gulf coast. Kayakers find public access atparks, along causeways, near bridges - literally anywhere a pieceof public land crosses a tidal tributary. Most launch sites liewithin 5 miles of viable habitat for redfish, trout and snook.

But those inshore slam species are not the only prey available.Migrating tarpon, mackerel and cobia, and resident jack crevalleand snapper will bend a kayaker's fishing rod all within theconfines of bays, nearshore flats and estuaries.

Some of Daubert's favorite locations include the following spotsalong Florida's west coast (above Tampa and belowSteinhatchee):

  • Fort Island, near the mouth of the Crystal River: "That's theshortest paddle. You've got the river and the open Gulf with themangroves. You can fish right there where you launch." 
  • Ozello, just south of Fort Island: "You can fish the creekshere in cooler months. One ramp takes you to St. Martin creeksbetween Homosassa and Crystal River."
  • Yankeetown, north of Crystal River: "Nearby oyster bars holdredfish, jack crevalle and trout."
  • Cedar Key, north of Yankeetown: "Water inshore is off-color anddirty. You want to paddle out to get to clear water and grassbeds."

Fenn's preferred haunts include these spots from Steinhatchee inthe Big Bend region (where the peninsula curves toward thePanhandle) to the Everglades:

  • Cow Creek, near Pepperfish Keys just south of Steinhatchee:"That's another one of those Everglades-type spots. You don't seeanybody all day. If you want big trout, that's where to go."
  • Big Island, off I-275 where it crosses Tampa Bay: "At BigIsland from August through the first of October, you'll find60-pound tarpon rolling in the morning."
  • Weedon Island, on the St. Petersburg side of Tampa Bay (southof Gandy Bridge): "If you're into paddle-fishing - this being ano-motor zone - you've got a 3-mile-square area all to yourself. Itreminds me of Flamingo, in the Everglades. Half is mangrove tunnelsthat open up into bays; those bays are where the snook and redfishgo in the winter. There's a power plant nearby, and I fish forcobia in front of the outflow from December through February."
  • Fort Desoto Park: "This park is on a peninsula on the west sideof lower St. Petersburg. It's on the northwest side of theSkyway."
  • Miguel Bay/Joe's Bay, at the south end of Tampa Bay: "Miguel ison the west side of I-275, and Joe's is on the east side. Whatmakes these areas really good is that there are no boat rampsnearby. There's a rest stop at the south end of the Skyway bridge.You take your kayak and unload by the guardrail, and you're on thefish in five minutes."
  • Palma Sola Bay, near Bradenton Beach: "If you get out a map ofwest-central Florida and look along I-275, around the Skyway,everything along that line is a hot spot. At low tide, these placesare littered with canoers and kayakers."
  • Flamingo, at the tip of the Everglades: This technically isn'tthe west coast, but it ranks as Fenn's No. 1 pick in the state. Hesays, "This is what Tampa would have been like years ago."

Pedal and Paddle Power

As the day wore on for us in Miguel Bay, I grew ever more happythat my kayak had pedals. I'm sure kayak purists will grind theirteeth, but the Hobie's hands-free operation allowed me to castwhile underway. And the convenient rudder switch helped me createalmost an autopilot effect.

The pedal blades beneath the hull encumbered the kayak's draft,but in the shallowest spots, I quickly folded up the blades -locking them fore and aft with my feet - and coasted. When my legsneeded a break, I locked the blades again and pulled out thepaddle.

Even when not used for locomotion, paddles offer extra insuranceand make effective depth finders and lure retrievers, but it'simportant for anglers to keep them tethered to the boat with aleash. A leash allows you to drop everything - including the paddle- when you need to catch or cast to a fish.

Besides a leash, paddlers must carry a personal flotation deviceand a whistle; after dark, they must have a hand-held signalingdevice such as a light. Fenn also suggests that kayak fishermencarry an anchor - possibly also a sea anchor to create resistancewhen fighting big fish - foul-weather gear and more food, water andsunscreen than they think they'll need.

Summer temperatures soar, and anglers often can't find shade;reflective light, combined with the strong Southern sunshine, canquickly burn skin and dehydrate paddlers. On the other hand, afast-building storm could keep you stranded for hours as you waitout lightning and driving rain. Food, water and the properfoul-weather gear can provide sustenance and protection until youcan leave. Fenn also advocates carrying a spare paddle and ahand-held VHF radio or cell phone.

West Florida's shallow water, gentle tidal currents andgenerally calm seas mean anglers can use most kinds and brands ofkayaks, although almost all anglers choose sit-on-top styles andcertain hull shapes work better if you want to paddle longerdistances. Daubert suggests narrower touring kayaks such as OceanKayak's Scupper Pro Classic if you think most of your excursionswill exceed 5 miles. For shorter trips, a wider, more stable kayaksuch as Ocean's Scrambler XT will carry more gear. With a cooler orbaitwell fastened to the stern, the Scrambler is a very stablechoice, he says.

The Paddle Plan

With the proper boat, kayak fishermen are limited only to theirpaddling range and to storage space. Their overall view may berestricted since they sit so close to the water. But they becomebetter scouts because they explore locations more closely, and theycan often make more precise casts.

That doesn't mean kayak fishermen must fish only artificials,though. Many kayak anglers remain die-hard live-bait users. Infact, Daubert's book describes methods for trolling live baits. Herecommends paddling backward so you can see the bait's action. Justleave the rod in a holder (many kayaks come equipped with basicholders that can be upgraded), and let the motion of the boat setthe hook while you paddle Ñ or use a light drag on aconventional reel and a circle hook. When the fish hits, pick upthe rod and crank.

Kayak anglers must plan their outings more carefully than mostanglers - even when fishing the friendly west coast of Florida.They must pay attention to the tides and to currents and wind whendeciding where and when to launch. They also must choose whether tooutfit for live-baiting or for casting artificials. Depending onthe kayak's size and the paddler's ingenuity, he may be able to doboth, but he'll suffer some trade-offs, too: Load the kayak to thegunwales and lose maneuverability. Take along conventionallive-baiting outfits and there's no room for light spinningrods.

Fenn also suggests choosing shorter rods when kayak-fishing, soyou can trek more easily through dense mangrove tunnels or workmangrove edges where trees can snag rod tips. But you don't have togo lighter or heavier on the tackle you'd normally use aboard askiff.

We needed no live-bait edge to capture the multiple redfish andtrout that made our trip on Miguel Bay last October. Besides thefishing, we also saw giant egrets and herons and ospreys on thehunt. The day was peaceful without engine noise, and my shouldersand legs experienced a healthy workout.

"The thing I like best is the picture you can paint when you gointo the backcountry and spend time on the kayak. Maybe you havelunch on an oyster bar," says Fenn. "It's like an ecotour with afishing rod."

Paddle Prep

Fishermen who want to become kayak anglers should take apaddling course, says guide Kevin Fenn. "If you don't know whatyou're doing in a kayak, you won't be doing much fishing," hesays.

Most kayak shops offer a free course with the purchase of a boator will conduct introductory classes at a minimal charge. Fenn andCapt. Ken Daubert, author and kayak fisherman, suggest finding akayak shop that caters to fishermen. Ask at your local tackle storeand search online for "paddlefishing" or "kayakfishing." Also checkout www.kayakfishing.com.

 To book a kayak-fishing trip with Fenn, call 352-331-3836or visit his Web site at www.castandpaddle.com.

You can purchase Daubert's book Kayakfishing: The Revolution for$15.95 at some paddleshops or by ordering online at www.amazon.com.You can also buy a copy at Daubert's Web site,www.floridakayakfishing.com, or by e-mailing Daubert atCptKen1@worldnet.att.net. The book offers an index of kayak-fishingresources, including kayak manufacturers, books, magazines,accessories, clubs, guides, tours, links and paddleshops. Here arethe Florida shops listed:

Action Watersports: 402 Progress Rd., Auburndale, Florida;863-967-4148; www.actionwatersports.net.

Estero River Outfitters: 20991 S. Tamiami Trail, Estero,Florida; 941-992-4050; www.all-florida.com/swestero.htm.

The Canoe Shop (two locations): 1129 Beck Ave., Panama City,Florida, 850-763-2311; 1115B W. Orange, Tallahassee, Florida,904-576-5335; www.paddlenorthflorida.com.

Osprey Bay Kayaks: 17952 U.S. Hwy. 19 N., Clearwater, Florida;727-524-9670, 877-KAYAKS2; www.ospreybay.com.

Wade Clark Auctions: 314 Reid Ave., Port St. Joe, Florida;850-229-9282; e-mail: wcauctions@digitalexp.com.

For more information on Hobie's pedal-powered Outback kayak,call 800-HOBIE-49 or visit www.hobiekayaks.com.

Ocean Kayak, 800-8-KAYAKS, www.oceankayak.com;

Heritage Kayaks, 401-253-3408, www.heritagekayaks.com.