Some of the greatest scenery and fishing is found amongst the Florida Keys. Just a short drive south of Miami, on US 1, any angler can find numerous species of tenacious saltwater fish, as well as the most beautiful water in the United States!
We returned to one of our all time favorite spots, the middle Keys, recently after too long of a hiatus. On this most recent trip, I attempted to wrangle some of those hungry shallow water fish from a kayak! Normally, I fish from a shallow flats boat, but I decided to try my luck with a stealthy, man powered machine.
Every morning I gained valuable knowledge and experience with the little craft. I will say that I was at a definite disadvantage, in both speed and vision. I could realistically only travel four or five miles prior to exhaustion. Additionally, being only six inches above the water’ surface severely limits an angler’s eyesight and hampers spotting fish even in those crystal clear waters!
Still, I was up for the challenge, and as the sun began to rise, I could be found paddling my way out through the mangroves. My little craft had very little storage, thus I was limited as to what I could take along on each trip. My steadfast gear was my Pflueger President seven foot spinning rod and reel, spooled up with twelve pound Trilene, and a selection of Culprit & Riptide soft plastic baits. I also carried a second rod, switching between a Pflueger Summit casting reel with a seven foot heavy casting rod, or a lighter action topwater rod.
Normally, I would begin my day casting a topwater bait, such as the Culprit Topwater Shad, or a spook into just ankle deep water. In the “flats,” one never knows what will strike at any given moment. I caught sharks, barracudas, snappers and others on the surface. Sharks would come from nowhere to destroy that Culprit Topwater Shad! After losing my first two topwater lures, I got smart and tied on a wire leader and began to land those mean old toothy critters.
Once the sun got up, I would put away the casting rod and grab that trusty President spinning rod rigged up with either a Riptide Conley Grub or Realistic Shrimp lure. Since the water I was in was gin clear, I stuck with the natural or clear colors, which resembled true shrimp. Snappers would bite just about anytime the lure was near the bottom or close to the mangroves. Unfortunately, the one Bonefish I hooked up broke me off on the initial run. Still nothing gets an angler excited like a ‘bone tearing off line. That never gets old, although it would have be great to land one!
Early one morning found me quite a long paddle from home. Conditions were perfect and I eased my kayak effortlessly along in knee deep water, scanning the surface for the telltale sign of tailing Bonefish or Permit. I was taken by surprise when I stumbled right into a school of feeding Tarpon just yards away. Due to my limited space, I only had my topwater rod and my spinning rod at hand. Since I knew it was unlikely that I would get a bite on the plug, I hoped for the best and made a cast with the Realistic Shrimp. Since I was dealing with very light tackle, I picked out one of the smaller silver ghosts and made my presentation.
Initial casts went ignored. I repeated my casts, again and again hoping to entice a bite. Finally, that twenty-five or thirty pounder opened his huge mouth engulfing my little soft plastic creation. As I set the hook, I knew the odds were slim to land him. Sure enough, in just seconds he broke me off ! Twelve pound line is no match for the strength and sharp edges of a Tarpons head. Alas, at least I hooked one if only for a moment!
Since I had a leader on the topwater rod, I made some futile casts to the surfacing silver giants, but to no avail. As expected they had no interest in my lures. I was just relegated to watch them gracefully ease up to the surface, grab a quick gulp of air, and slide effortlessly on down the weed-line. This was just another one of those moments I thanked God that I was able to witness. Here I was just a dozen feet from several of the most revered game fish, not a ripple on the water, nor any other distraction. To quote an old adage, “it doesn’t get any better than this!”
Daily as I paddled to and fro, I observed all kinds of life. Nearly every morning I exchanged greetings with a Manatee as I propelled myself through the canal and saltwater creek enroute to the ocean bay. I observed sting rays, dozens of species of fish, osprey and eagles, lobster, crabs, and several different birds. Rarely, did I see other boats, and never did I have another kayak within eyesight save for occasionally my wife Anne.
After being beaten by the tarpon, I set me sights on landing one of those beasts. I went through my tackle, spooling up with heavier line, and adding a heavy fluorocarbon leader. I exchanged the topwater rod for a heavy action casting rod with a wide spool Pflueger reel knowing I would probably need it should I hook one of them!
The next day I made the lengthy journey back to that particular flat where I spotted them. As I paddled for what seemed an eternity I went through all the advice I had picked up. Twice I have hooked a tarpon only to be defeated. This time I hoped the outcome would change. Heck, I had hardly slept the night before, constantly checking the tide charts, checking and re-checking my gear and rising earlier than before to ensure I got there at the break of dawn.
Finally, I arrived at the solemn ground where I hoped to find my quarry. As sweat poured off my body from the trip, I scanned the surface for any disturbance that might signal cruising fish. The world was just beginning to come alive. In the distance I spotted what might be a surfacing fish, but I couldn’t tell for certain since I was facing the sunrise. Slowly, I eased my paddle into the water, forcing my kayak forward. After all the effort, I was anxious to cast to a fish tarpon or not. I still had my spinning rod and the fake shrimp tied on for luck or any approaching bonefish.
Slowly I covered water hoping to glimpse a silver tail or head break the surface. Minutes went by and I grew weary of the wait. I began to fan cast the area hoping a nearby fish would rush out and crush my offering. Cast after cast went unanswered. I alternated between shallow and (relative) deep water. Tarpon bait or plastic shrimp… Nothing seemed to in the area. Slowly I began to feel the nightmarish touch of a breeze on my skin.
Wind is the bane of a flats angler. The breeze disrupts the water, making it difficult to see fish. Choppy water and wind also hamper the ability to maintain control of my kayak while I cast. It is nearly impossible to paddle and fish at the same time!
No, I hoped against the wind, yet it began to blow. Subtle at first, but stronger as the sun got higher. In short order, my opportunity was wrecked. The wind was blowing me across the flat too quickly and hap-hazardly to properly fish. Additionally, I couldn’t have spotted a fish if it swam right by me due to the surface chop on the water. Thus I paddled toward the lee side of the mangroves, in an effort to get out of the wind and catch SOME fish. I did find an area where I could cast, but most of the fish had abandoned it. I got a few bites from snappers, but my chance for the “great one ” were dashed.
Still, nothing can ruin a beautiful scene, such as what I was a part of. Various changes were visible in the water. Clean sandy stretches were intermixed with thick weed beds, mangroves, and channel marker posts. It was one of the greatest sights, and I tried to absorb it as I paddled my way back to the house.
I never did hook up with another Tarpon or Bonefish. The Snook I saw every day avoided my casts! Still I witnessed some fabulous sights, landed more than my share of fish, and thanked God for the chance to do so.
Should you ever get the chance to visit the Keys, I highly recommend it. Take the time to paddle or wade out into the back country. Its quite easy to get away from the mainstream activity as deep water is quite a distance off shore. If a kayak isn’t your thing, there are hundreds of guides, and tours available. The great thing is we don’t even need a passport or the ability to speak a foreign language to visit the Keys. They remain one of the best kept secrets in the U.S.