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Trolling from Kayaks

Written by James Schulz
Published: Last Updated on

Had you stumbled into this seemingly placid mangrove cove three days earlier, you’d have immediately speed-dialed the Marine Patrol about some maniac (me)violating the tranquility, venting verbal nasties at 28- to 30-inch snook.

After releasing 16 of the darned things in the first two hours of a kayak tournament, I’m still pretty sure they intentionally conspired to keep me from hooking the one lousy redfish I needed for a winning snook/trout/redfish slam.

Today, poling and drifting a half-mile under an identical tide, cloud, and wind conditions had produced an equal number of redfish and precisely 100 percent fewer snook.

I flipped the jig behind the kayak, dropped the rod in a holder, and set a course down the stretch of shoreline I had just theoretically fished, opting to at least salvage some exercise from the outing.

I paddled all of 50 yards when the 3-inch shad tail suddenly quit following me, and the rod theatrics said it was no snag.

A glance back confirmed that diagnosis, as a 30-inch-plus snook sloshed across 20 feet of water into a mess of mangroves.

A dozen adrenaline-charged paddle strokes propelled me away from the shoreline.

I pried the thumping, contorted rod from the holder with my left hand, launched my one-and-a-half pound folding anchor as far as I could toward open water with my right, hoping I could pry the snook from whatever sanctuary it had taken refuge in.

The fish spun the kayak around and came close to entangling me in the mangrove maze, but we reached a stalemate when the tiny anchor burrowed into the solid bottom.

The 10-pound braid withstood one root impact and headshake after another as the snook grudgingly gave ground (right up until it flung itself over and around half an Australian pine trunk Hurricane Wilma thoughtfully transformed into snook habitat last year.)

Momentarily stuck on a branch and wallowing at the surface, the snook made me choose between two lousy options: try to winch the fish off the snag, or feed the fish some slack and trust that it would do the right thing.

Not being the trusting type, I pulled.

An embarrassment to every snook on the planet, that fish climbed down out of the tree and emerged in open water, where the rest of the fight and release were pretty mundane after the preceding 30 seconds of drama.

I retied the shredded 30-pound leader and darned if a 27-inches didn’t jump all over the jig 30 yards down the bank. A pair of 25-inch snook continued my education in the next 200 yards of paddling.

Trolling attracts the most aggressive gamefish. That aggression plus a sharp hook generally ensure a good hookset even with the rod in a holder.

Hooked redfish and trout tend to run toward deeper water, but grown-up snook possesses an innate map to the nearest root or log and a single-minded intent to introduce you to it.

Although briefly thrilling, coaxing even a 5-pounder through 75 yards of mangrove roots rarely accomplishes little beyond an opportunity to practice your re-rigging skills.

So don’t fight the fish on its terms. Leave the rod right in the holder when you get a strike, and simply paddle away from the shoreline at an angle that keeps the line tight.

The kayak’s forward momentum combined with hard paddling smoothly powers fish into open water before they panic and make a run for cover.

Your odds of actually landing a snook rise exponentially if you engage it perpendicular to the shoreline rather than parallel to it. Once out of harm’s way, drop an anchor if the snook threatens to drag you back into the bushes.

Rattling Lures Are Effective In Turbid Conditions

Some days, snook just prefers trolled food over meals that bounce off the bottom or zigzag on the surface.

Inshore trolling, while not widely practiced, has always put snook in the boat. But that traditionally meant dragging deep-diving plugs or live mullets along channel edges and bridge shadow lines. Kayaks changed that.

Although I wouldn’t get out of the electric chair to drag bait offshore, I frequently tow a lure behind the boat as I paddle between mangrove points and creek mouths.

It’s a terrific search technique, especially in winter when seagrass recedes and trout huddle up along some small, nondescript ledge or structure. Catch one, catch a bunch.

Under windy conditions and turbid water conditions, trolling a noisy, vibrating lure sometimes finds scattered trout and snook when nothing else works. Even flounders fling themselves at diving plugs rattling over their shrouded hideaways.

The sneaky nature of a kayak lends itself well to shallow trolling. The boat’s inherent jerkiness also factors in.

No matter how refined your paddle stroke, or how well a kayak tracks or glides through the water, at each stroke the bow and stern swing ever so slightly left and right, and there is the tiniest hesitation in the forward motion of the boat between strokes. Wave chop enhances the effect.

So without the angler intentionally imparting any action, the kayak transmits fish-attracting flutter to the lure.

Predators anticipate forage to move with the tide parallel to the shoreline, which is exactly what a trolled lure emulates.

Depending on the tide stage, snook may be under the mangroves, but I usually pick up more fish paddling along the nearshore dropoff or grass edges.

Just as in plug-fishing, shoreline points or any other structures that concentrate the current produces the majority of strikes.

On my usual morning paddling circuit, I can somewhat reliably predict where the hits will come, and which points or docks will contribute the biggest fish.

The leaning Australian pine with the six roosting cormorants has been good for at least one snook each of the last five mornings right at daybreak.

Replace Treble Hooks With Single Hooks To Make Releases Healthier For You and The Fish.

Small redfish, trout, and snook seemingly care little about how far back a lure is trolled, but, despite the kayak’s stealth, adult snook appreciates it if you put some distance between the lure and boat.

I routinely drop back at least 75 yards of the line while paddling a before-work route near the office. Surprisingly, my catch rate indicates that trolling with or against the tide doesn’t make much difference.

I Get Strikes Coming And Going

Lure choice is crucial but has more to do with snags and water depth than what you imagine the fish want.

Matching available forage is never a bad thing, but fish don’t have time to analyze a potential meal going by at kayak cruising speed.

However, a lure that mostly resembles a tossed seagrass salad swimming by at three knots, unless you’re trolling for vegetarian tilapia or grass carp, is not likely to draw much interest.

So choose a lure based largely on water depth and the presence or absence of seagrass.

Small Subtle Lures Are Best Over Shallow, Clear Flats

Thanks to polluted, silt-laden water dumped from Lake Okeechobee, the St. Lucie River is now a seagrass-free estuary.

The only snags are hurricane debris or an occasional dead oyster possessed with enough afterlife to grab my line.

Given the lack of obstacles, I usually drag around either a shallow-diving plug or a 1/16- or 1/8-ounce DOA CAL jighead.

Jig color hasn’t proved critical, as long as it provides some contrast with the soft-plastic tail, which apparently enhances visibility in the turbid water.

With all the baby bunker and mullet present at times in the river, a natural-colored head tipped with a Floriday’s 3- or 4-inch shad tail in iridescent pearl/greenback or Arkansas glow is a crowd favorite.

Solid pearl-white with any contrasting head -natural, red, or chartreuse -is always good. A white, soft plastic on a lightly weighted, screw-in Hitchhiker worm hook also achieves solid hookups while avoiding most snags.

And snook eat up a small Rapala X-Rap plug that enticingly wobbles along about a foot deep. But replace the little trebles with single hooks.

A 4-pound jack simultaneously soaked me and ripped the front split ring and treble clean off a plug dangling in the water next to my cockpit as I trolled a jig farther back, and there wasn’t much left of the mangled rear treble by the time I freed it.

Single hooks don’t hinder the lure’s action or hookups, and they make releases healthier for both the angler and the fish.

Tall summertime grass beds and floating grass in healthier estuaries require a more weedless approach, or more likely a move to deeper grass line edges.

One simple technique is to put that same jig or a plastic shrimp under a rattling cork, keeping the leader short enough to float the lure over the grass.

Kayak-fishing fanatic Jerry Coleman trolls weedy Indian River Lagoon shorelines on a regular basis.

I really prefer the vibration of paddle-tail soft plastics,” said Coleman. “But they’re too short to rig weedless on a typical worm hook.

So I use a Mustad Power Lock Plus weighted wide-gap 3/0 hook, 1/16- or 1/8-ounce, and a longer split-tail soft plastic in either gold or white.

I paddle just fast enough to keep the bait from hanging up in the grass.”

Kayak trolling will never approach the level of excitement or sense of accomplishment of sneaking up on an unsuspecting gamefish in shallow water.

But it does add anticipation and frequent surprises to an otherwise routine day of paddling, and might just show you where you should be tossing that jig or plug.

courtesy Florida Sportsman Magazine

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