Florida — surf and sandy beaches: That’s a valid association for much of the state’s extensive coastline. But the shore along the entire bottom of the long peninsula is a very different world. Here, upper Florida Bay is characterized by shallow, muddy, or tannic-stained bays and bights lined with impenetrable mangrove jungles.
It’s not a terribly hospitable environment, unless you’re a mosquito — or a redfish.
Fishing these waters will certainly challenge the skills and equipment of power boaters — even jack-plated flats skiffs —because of both the tricky terrain just under the surface and a number of areas closed to motorized craft.
But the area is tailor made for poling ultra-shallow, ultra-stealthy kayaks.
And for several days last year, that’s just what a group of us did.
Assault on a Small Country
When I pulled into La Siesta Marina, in Islamorada, on an October afternoon, I was heartened to see four Freedom Hawk Kayaks sent down by David Hadden — president of Freedom Hawk — waiting for us, along with Hadden.
Two other anglers soon joined us — Ted Venker, director of communications for the Coastal Conservation Association , and Rob Kramer, president of the International Game Fish Association — and we all helped Hadden remove shrink-wrap, put together paddles (with interchangeable blades and poling tips), and generally get each kayak ready to rock ‘n’ roll for an early-morning departure.
Long intrigued by the novel design of the Freedom Hawk, I was anxious to try one out. Pulling a lever deploys what the manufacturer calls its “in-line outrigger system.” The rear third or so of the craft separates longitudinally into two pieces that lock into place well out to either side of the main body to provide stability for stand-up fishing. Being tall and not the world’s most coordinated guy, I figured to put that stability to the test.
I hadn’t long to wait. The next morning the four of us were back at the marina, awaiting Capt. Matt Bellinger of Bamboo Charters. Instead of playing guide in the traditional role, Bellinger would serve more as a ferry skipper, taking us, our kayaks and “enough gear to launch an assault on a small country” in Venker’s words, across Florida Bay to its remote upper reaches (along with a fifth kayak and gear for Jason Arnold, our photographer).
Bellinger had assured us we wouldn’t have any trouble fitting all that into one bay boat, a 24-foot Action Craft, powered by a 300 Merc. And though it took a bit of jockeying around, we did it.
The 15- to 20-knot winds whipping up Florida Bay dampened our spirits a bit, but Bellinger made the 45-minute ride easy by taking routes that offered some protection inside of islands and nearly exposed flats.
Once into the upper reaches of Rankin Bight, we could find lee shores even in stiff winds. That’s true as long it blows from the east, north or west. Southeast to southwest winds make it pretty tough.
Poling and Casting
Day 1 was something of a shakedown effort and, frankly, the action was a bit disappointing. But our next day in the area offered more action.
This time, Bellinger’s associate, Capt. Billy Wert, dropped us off farther east, near Terrapin Bay. While my colleagues stopped to sample the shallows around the island where we put in, I paddled north across a bit of open water to the mainland shore.
Once within casting distance of the mangroves, I oh-so-quietly stowed the paddle, pulled the Freedom Hawk’s lever to separate the outriggers, then stood, pole in hand, to begin working my way along in water about two feet deep.
The winds were down some (though that would change soon), and water clarity was up a bit from the day before. The sun was shining. And I began seeing redfish.
I probably wouldn’t have spotted very many (except a few wakers) had I been sitting. The Freedom Hawk 12 worked as advertised, and while it was just tender enough to require this large angler to be somewhat measured in his movements, I had no worries about poling or casting.
Even better than seeing reds, soon we were catching them. Soft plastics — Gulp!s and Z-Man’s PaddlerZ — were the order of the morning. In the quiet water near the trees, my Bill Lewis Slap Stick (minus front two trebles and with a single hook in the back) worked slowly and got results. Hadden made it farther back into the shallows to a small creek mouth where he jumped some tarpon, landing one of 20 pounds or so.
Trout Wide-Open on Top
The next day in the far north proved the best. Bellinger dropped us off at the bottom of Garfield Bight (just east of well-known Snake Bight). We ended up poling around one turtle-grass flat most of the morning since the seatrout bite was wide open on topwaters (with the odd ladyfish thrown in). Nearer shore we found some redfish willing; Hadden, fish-catching machine that he is, released quite a few while poling and sight-casting from what was at that time a prototype of the Freedom 14.
Having seen a pretty-good-size lemon shark, I sank a circle hook into a fist-size chunk of fresh ladyfish. About the time I forgot I was towing the bait under a float behind the kayak, the little spinner’s drag began to sing. It turned out to be not a shark at all but one of the trip’s better redfish. We also caught snook on these flats.
On the windiest of our four days, a lay-the-trees-over easterly talked us out of fishing the northern reaches. Rather, we fished pretty close to home, around shallows tucked in along the western shoreline of Upper Matecumbe Key, starting just above World Wide Sportsman and working our way south back to La Siesta.
We were pleasantly surprised with great action in the kayaks, mostly thanks to sharks (lemons, blacktips and bonnetheads).
“The best part” of fishing these waters for Kramer (who had previously fished them only from a skiff), “was having to master techniques to catch fish from the kayak.” He says that particularly meant operating in stealth mode and always being ready to cast quickly.
Besides the fishing opportunities the kayaks offered, says Venker, “I found it amazing what I could see and hear in those shallow mangrove bays — the fish and wildlife don’t even realize you’re there.”
From his days hard at it, Kramer offers three suggestions: 1) Don’t be afraid to go across crazy-shallow areas; that will get you where others (in boats) just can’t go — or have gone; 2) try to position yourself to take advantage of the wind when poling or drifting over a flat; and 3) be able to stake out immediately when you hook up.
I wouldn’t expect kayak fishing the shallows of Florida Bay to be every angler’s cup of tea. It’s definitely a whole different ball game and, in many ways, more challenging than zipping from spot to spot at 40 knots, and casting to fish a guide points out.
In this approach, the guide puts you in the area and waves goodbye. Then it — that is, Florida Bay — is all yours.
Capt. Matt Bellinger, Bamboo Charters — www.bamboocharters.com ($625 a day for two kayak anglers, $50 for each additional angler. Note: limited number of Freedom Hawks available at press time.)
What to Bring on the Water
Wherever Bellinger decides the best fishing will be, he’ll get anglers there or as close as possible, and remain in the area. But it’s best to have a VHF and cell phone (in waterproof Plano or Pelican case); equip your iPhone with the Navionics app — it can be a lifesaver in the backcountry if you don’t have a separate GPS. For tackle, light spin and bait-cast gear will serve well — 8- to 12-pound braid or mono. You’ll want lots of soft plastics with worm hooks and light jigs as well as your favorite lures (don’t neglect topwaters). I found extra little bungee cords handy, among other things, for staking out with the pole. Don’t forget the bug repellent from spring through fall. And a small dry bag or two often prove useful.
Paddles aren’t the only way to move a kayak these days. Visit www.sportfishingmag.com/kayakpower and discover the many propulsion options that are available.