Saltwater kayaks lend a whole new meaning to “getting on top of the fish.”
By Larry Bozka
It’s exhilarating, realizing that a wild creature only a few yards away is oblivious to your presence. Native Americans had to have felt it when, with tanned buffalo hides draped over their shoulders, they slipped undetected into roaming herds of bison. Deer hunters, especially archers, live for the thrill of stalking the forest floor instead of sitting for hours on end inside the easy concealment of a four-by-four box blind.
From 10 feet, a 10-point buck with a 20-inch antler spread is something to behold.
So is a 28-inch-long redfish.
I’ve made three casts at this one, now only 12 feet away with the gap closing fast. The south breeze exhales, pushing the hull like a drifting leaf. Seconds later, the motionless red’s shadow is intercepted by the bow.
The reaction is as sudden as a trigger pull.
Where the fish’s dusky profile loomed only seconds ago there’s now a malevolent mud boil in the foot-deep water, a mushrooming cloud of silt that billows and blossoms in the creature’s turbulent wake. An arrow-straight smoke stream punctuates its escape route.
I’ve been punked by a fish.
Sure, I expected it to spook, but not like this. My shirt is soaked. The amber lenses of my polarized sunglasses are dappled and flecked with a sparkly smattering of saltwater droplets. Like a bully kicking sand on the beach, the startled redfish drenched me with a single thrust of its paddle-broad tail.
When the most enticing retrieve goes unnoticed time and again, when the opportunity to strike finally arrives after two straight hours of scanning the horizon, sizing up bottom contours and translating color changes, and then, in an abrupt, watery splash it all literally blows up in your face, you don’t cuss.
The redfish won, fair and square. But it sure as heck wasn’t because I didn’t get close enough, or didn’t have enough chances.
It’s not the first time that paddling a kayak across a saltwater flat has put me on top of a predator’s shadow.
I can only hope it won’t be the last.
It was a real epiphany when about a year ago, having just turned 50, I realized that my evolution as a boater and fisherman had quite possibly come full-circle. Like most other anglers, my fishing career began on the bank and soon graduated to a small aluminum john boat. From then on, I craved, and ultimately ran, bigger and bigger hulls with progressively larger engines and more sophisticated accessories with bigger and bigger price tags.
Now, at the phase of life when so many things that once obsessed me suddenly seem senseless, even silly, simplification has become my prime directive. Way beyond needing to impress myself or anyone else with high-dollar toys, I now spend as much time as possible fishing from a boat that’s smaller and lighter than anything I have owned.
It’s also a lot less expensive. Fifteen hundred bucks doesn’t go far on an outboard rig, but it’ll buy a top-notch, well-appointed fishing kayak.
Everything that so radically defines modern-day flats fishing is conspicuously absent from the driver’s seat of a kayak. It’s a world away from a 22-foot fiberglass hull with more horsepower than you’ll find beneath the hood of the average sports car.
I’ve grown accustomed to the silence.
For a long time, without as much as a halfhearted test, I dismissed the kayak as an unviable fishing boat. Anything that narrow, I figured, had to be unstable. Chalk it up to too many canoeing mishaps.
I was wrong, and I’ve never been so happy to be so misguided. For stability and simplicity, canoes don’t even remotely compare to modern-day fishing kayaks.
Sally Moffett, a pioneer of the sport on the Texas Coastal Bend, introduced me to kayaking in the mid-1990s. On a whim, participating in the Mercury Redbone Tournament to benefit cystic fibrosis research, I accepted Moffett’s offer to spend a day paddling across the grass-carpeted flats south of Rockport.
Though we caught quality fish and had a blast doing it, we didn’t win the tournament. Something far more significant occurred that day. Today, one decade and three kayaks later, I’ve come to appreciate the advantages — yes, advantages — kayaking affords versus launching, operating and maintaining a flats boat. Many of those incentives were strikingly apparent that first day on the shallows near Redfish Bay.
Foremost was stability. The boat Moffett loaned me was a “sit-on” model that allowed me to sit sidesaddle, and even stand up and cast. It took a bit of adjusting to, but in an hour or two it seemed like I’d been doing it for years.
Next was discovering that paddling a kayak is not exhausting. It is, if anything, remarkably relaxing. The streamlined little boats glide more than float. Longer hulls in the 14-foot range are, surprisingly, a bit faster and more paddle-efficient on the flats than smaller hulls. But regardless of size, it doesn’t require Herculean strength to capably propel a saltwater kayak a considerable distance. I was flat-out amazed at how much water we covered in so little time.
The rapid growth of coastal kayaking’s popularity has spawned an increasingly diverse array of hull designs and configurations. Be it a “sit-in” hull, a “sit-on” hull or one of either style with a rudder or pedal-driven flippers, no one model is everything to every situation. In that context, selecting a kayak is just like choosing any other boat.
Foot pedal versions are among the newest innovations. In the same way a bicycle is pedaled, the operator uses his legs to engage flexible flippers immediately below the hull. The “hands-free” aspect is incentive enough for many shoppers to spend the extra money — and these boats do cost a bit more than most conventional paddling hulls.
There are single-passenger and double-passenger models, though the latter are mostly for touring (treble-hooked lures zinging from 7-foot trout rods are frightening to dodge from the rear seat of a ’yak). There are even super-stable kayaks with tandem hulls that resemble Polynesian outriggers. However, for reasons of portability and weight, they’re rarely used by fish-hunting paddlers.
Extensive books have been written on the subject (Moffett, in fact, just completed one). Kayaking Web sites abound. But there is arguably no better way to make a wise purchase than to start out by renting several different models. Kayak rentals are inexpensive, and there is a budding legion of facilities up and down the coast that provide such services, often within easy paddling range of superb fishing waters.
Again, would-be kayakers need only understand that there is no substitute for firsthand experience. The initial outing is an eye-opener. Almost invariably, a single exploratory trip dramatically changes the way an experienced saltwater angler views the sport’s most daunting challenges.
I was, for example, an enthusiastic and avowed wade fisherman for over 25 years before I first set foot in a kayak. Situations still exist where wading gets the nod. There are times when a kayak cannot safely substitute for an outboard-powered flats rig. It’s risky business to cross an open, deep-water bay via kayak alone. Most anglers who own outboard-powered bay boats, yours truly included, now use their “big boats” to transport their kayaks, often to previously unexplored locales.
The Texas coast hosts countless areas where wade fishing is virtually impossible, places where, although the water is kneecap-shallow, the bottom is as soft and unstable as quicksand. Marsh inlets and sloughs, traditional high-odds fishing locales during falling tide phases, are both prime examples. Hardcore waders sometimes brave these marginally supportive zones, but seldom without muddying up the terrain in less than a dozen steps.
Noise is another drawback. Shell reefs are proven, firm-bottomed fish attractors. Unfortunately, though, sound travels almost five times faster underwater. The sound of oyster shells crunching beneath a wade fisherman’s boots is about as comforting to skittish reds and trout as the crackle of dried oak leaves is to wary white-tailed deer.
Even when executed on a firm sand bottom, wade fishing is physically punishing. Maintaining balance exacts a painful toll on leg muscles, lower backs, shoulders and arms. Always present, too, is the nagging realization that every step taken away from the boat is a step that must be repeated in order to return. If it’s a lengthy shuffle to a wade-fishing spot, it always seems at least twice as far on the way back. A kayak transforms what was once a grueling trek into a pleasant round-trip breeze.
Distance is essential to surf fishing as well, particularly getting baits or lures to the blue-water break that so often beckons just beyond the third or fourth sand bar. Either as a fishing platform or a vehicle to carry big natural baits far out in the surf for presentation to bull redfish, sharks and other large species, a kayak is the ultimate hull.
Although long hulls shine on shallow flats, shorter versions excel in the surf, especially when water conditions get choppy. In anything but optimal conditions, beachfront wade fishing can be brutal. Rolling breakers, surging tides and powerful undertows were once sobering obstacles to my surf fishing. Now, with a 12-foot kayak and a firmly fastened life jacket, the beachfront, like so many other previously restrictive fishing spots, is my personal playground.
The wafer-thin paddle slices through 18-inch-deep water. Tiny green whirlpools spin past the hull with each stroke of the blade. An enthusiastic flock of laughing gulls is wheeling and diving over a frenzied school of speckled trout that’s at least a half a mile away.
In the past, fishing afoot, there’s no way I’d make the journey. Not this time. Thanks to this amazing little boat, those fish won’t have the slightest clue I’m there. Even if I’m right on top of them.
Coastal Kayak Rental Facilities
If there is an invaluable tip for the aspiring kayak owner, it’s “Rent before you buy.” In tandem with an ever-expanding array of manufacturers and models, a burgeoning community of rental facilities up and down the Texas coastline now allows motivated kayak shoppers to do just that.
Following is a list of some of the coast’s more noteworthy kayak rental facilities.
Port A. Kayak, (888-396-2382, <www.portakayak.com>)
Slowride Guide Services & Kayak Rentals, (361-758-0463, <www.slowrideguide.com>, <www.texaskayakfishingschool.com>)
Trula B, Norm Baker, (361-949-1673, <www.trulab.com/kayaking.htm>)
Caribbean Breeze Boat Rental, (409-740-0400, <www.caribbeanbreezeboatrentalandfishingcharters.com>)
Matagorda Bay Nature Park, (979-863-7120, <www.lcra.org/parks/developed_parks/matagorda.html>)
South Bay Bait & Charters, (361-758-2632, <www.fishportaransas.com>)
Cove Marine, (361-727-1100, <www.covemarineinc.com>)
Jubilee Guide Service, (361-727-9835, <www.jubileeguideservice.com>)
Rockport Kayak Rentals, (361-790-6205, e-mail: <email@example.com>)
Rockport Birding and Kayak Adventures, (877-892-4737, <www.rockportadventures.com>)
The Boatyard, (956-761-5061, e-mail: <Jibber@WindsurfTheBoatyard.com>)
Kayak rentals are also available at select Texas state parks. For information on specific locales, call TPWD at 800-792-1112.