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So You Want to Start Kayak Fishing in the Salt

Scott Jontes

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So you’ve decided to take the plunge into saltwater fly fishing.

Now what? How do you get started? What gear will you need? How should you set up your kayak? While all these questions may seem overwhelming at first, getting started is not nearly as complicated as it appears. This primer is here to take some of the guesswork out of the equation to get you started.

Before delving into the type of gear you need, the first thing you will want to focus on is your target species and the location you plan on fishing. All over Florida you will find a wide variety of fishing opportunities that can differ from location to location.

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Target Species

Although gear setup can change among different species, you may find there is a lot of crossover. For instance, the same gear setup can be used for redfish, trout, snook, bonefish and juvenile tarpon. But if you are looking to target medium-sized tarpon, permit or near-shore species, you should upsize your gear.

Location

With the diversity of fishing in Florida, you can go from fishing the flats of the Mosquito Lagoon with little to no tides to deal with, to fishing coastal areas that have large tide swings with oyster bars and mangrove shorelines. When fishing in these different locations, your gear can vary between some fish, but you will also have a lot of crossover between species.

Tides

If you are coming from a freshwater background, trying to figure out the tides may seem overwhelming. Tides play an important role in a fish’s feeding habits (sometimes they feed on an outgoing tide while other times on the incoming), so gathering this type of local knowledge will be very helpful to your success. One way to gain this information is by hiring a kayak fishing guide. Fortunately, Florida has some excellent guides throughout different parts of the state.

If you are looking to self-guide, talk with local fly shops or check forums for the areas you plan on fishing. Google Earth can also help you find fishable areas and launch points.

Gear

Gear selection can be one of the most overwhelming aspects for newcomers in saltwater fly fishing. Luckily, saltwater fly fishing does not require you to break the bank to get your first setup. You can purchase good starter combos that come with everything you need to get on the water for around $200.00. And if you’re not sure what gear to consider, visit a fly shop to point you in the right direction.

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Rods

I prefer to use an 8wt rod as an all-around inshore fly rod. An 8wt is a great choice for redfish, trout, snook, smaller tarpon and bonefish. It will benefit you in its ability to drive a cast into a wind and help cast the larger flies that are used in saltwater fly fishing. If you are looking to pursue larger saltwater fish such as permit or medium-sized tarpon, I recommend a 10wt. Using a fly rod that is designed for your target species will aid you in bringing the fish to the side of your kayak much quicker.

Reels

A large arbor, anodized reel that is made to stand up to a saltwater environment is preferred. Saltwater fish are faster and stronger than most freshwater species and will require a smooth drag system that has good stopping power. Consider using a reel that will hold at least 150 to 200 yards of Dacron backing. You can also use a freshwater reel that is intended for larger freshwater species in saltwater. No matter which type of reel you choose, make sure to properly maintain them after each use.

Lines

For most situations I fish, I like to use a weight forward floating tropical line for fishing in the warmer months. The tropical fly lines are designed with a stiffer core for fishing in warmer climates and also have a harder coating that will not allow the line to become soft and to get tangled. The floating line will make it easier for you to cast since it does not require you to strip in all of the line before you make your next cast. This is useful when working shorelines or making multiple casts to fish on the flats. A floating line is not the only type of line you can use, however I prefer the floating line for the types of fishing that I do the most throughout the year. More specifically, I use RIO Bonefish Quickshooter line, which is an excellent line for casting out of a kayak, loading quickly and for making presentations close to the kayak. In the winter months, I switch to a cold water line designed for the drop in temperature.
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Flies

First and foremost, presentation is key. Without a good presentation, your fly selection will not really matter. Keep a variety of different types of flies on hand depending on the species of fish you are targeting as well as different weighted flies for the various depths that fish can hold. Vary your retrieves when you are working a fly to best mimic the type of pattern you are using. Fly size will vary from area to area so it is best to get some local knowledge on which size and colors to go with.

A good all-around fly to start with is a Clouser Minnow. It is a proven and versatile pattern that will catch anything in both fresh and saltwater. I recommend baitfish flies, seducers, gurglers, kwans, sliders and schminnows. If you tie your own flies, tie baitfish imitations, shrimp and crab imitations, or even spoon flies. For these flies, add mono weed guards for versatility in all locations and use hooks that are designed for saltwater, as they will be stronger and more resistant to corrosion. I like to use a lot of natural colors and match colors of the bottom to the flies I am using. Other colors that work well are white, chartreuse, root beer, black and purple patterns.

Saltwater Leaders

For most species, I like my leaders to be 8 to 10 ft of hard monofilament or fluorocarbon with tippet sizes from 12 to 20 pounds. If you are fishing for snook and/or tarpon, bump up your tippet sizes. If you plan on fishing in the Florida Keys, consider increasing your leader to 10 feet and beyond. Within the last few years of fishing in the Keys, I have used between 12 and 15lb fluorocarbon leaders. You can tie your own tapered leaders or buy them pre-made from companies like RIO Products that are ready to fish right out of the package.

Practice before you go

Once you are all setup with your gear, now what? I cannot stress this enough: Practice, practice, practice! You need to be able to cast quickly and accurately while at the same time minimizing your false casting. Everything in saltwater fly fishing happens fast and sometimes you only have a few seconds to make your presentation. Throw into the mix the wind, your kayak’s movement and the fish constantly on the run. You won’t have time to make an accurate presentation and may only have one chance at it.

Spend as much time as you can practicing your casting, and not just the week before your trip. It will go a long way in helping you when you have that fish of a lifetime in front of you. One of the most important aspects of your casting to work on is your double haul. The double haul will help make those accurate casts into the wind. When you’ve mastered the double haul, you will find that it will help with all of your casting, in both fresh and saltwater.

The best tip I can recommend for practicing is to not cast all of the line off your reel, but to practice at realistic casting distances. Casts can be up to 40 to 60ft but many shots in the kayak are actually in the 30ft and under range.

On the water

In your kayak, there are a lot of factors to consider when a fish takes your fly in a short amount of time. Saltwater fish are strong, fast, and can make long runs, which means you will need to keep your cool especially when they are near the kayak. When you do get a fish in close try to be careful not to high stick your rod getting the fish under control.

One of the biggest differences between freshwater and saltwater fly fishing is setting the hook when a fish takes your fly. For saltwater fly fishing, you will need to learn how to perform a proper strip strike to set the hook. To make a strip strike, your rod and line should point towards the fish. It’s very important not to have any slack in the line when you do this. When the fish takes your fly, pull your line quickly back in a hauling fashion WITHOUT lifting the rod tip. Once the fish is hooked, lift your rod and begin fighting the fish. Remember to keep the line tight at all times and let your reel’s drag system do the work for you. Keeping constant pressure on the fish is the best way to wear them down and bring them to your kayak quickly.

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Setting up your Kayak

Even though you can set your kayak up in multiple ways for fly fishing, how you ultimately do it comes down to your own personal preference. One of the biggest issues you will run into while kayak fly fishing is line management. If you have something on your deck that fly line can get entangled with, IT WILL. I like to keep my entire kayak very clean and clear of anything that can entangle my line. I choose not to have rod holders or any other mounts other than my RAM camera pole. With all of your stripped out fly line lying on your deck, you’re just asking for something to get snagged on. A few ways to deal with this issue is to use a stripping basket or stripping mat. You can buy ready-made stripping baskets or make a DIY one from a collapsible laundry basket. An advantage of a collapsible laundry basket on your kayak is you can stow it away so it does not take up room when not in use.

Just like the stripping basket, you can buy a pre-made stripping mat or you cab make one. I made a stripping using a rubber floor mat and large wire nuts, which I am really happy with. Check online for the many DIY ways you can make either a stripping basket or mat. You can also look into stripping baskets that you can wear or can attach to a stand up bar if you have one rigged on your kayak. Another thing you can do to minimize your fly line getting caught on your kayak is to lay a towel on your deck to cover any hatches, snags or even peddles.

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Parting thoughts

Fly fishing from a kayak can be a challenge and that is how you should look at it. Challenge yourself to leave your normal gear at home and only take a fly combo with you. It will take you out of your comfort zone and will open up a whole new world of fishing for you. One final note about fly fishing is to never stop learning. This is one of the biggest appeals of fly fishing to me: you will never master it but chasing after that goal is what keeps it exciting. 

~Scott Jontes