Florida – the ‘pontoons’ experience

It was mid-week when I received a phone call from Jose asking if I’d like to join himself, Chris and Justin for a spot of pontoon fishing. Fish the pontoons?, this was new terminology for me, I was beginning to sense a niche in the market for an American-British kayak fishing dictionary. Ah, fishing the jetties!, yup, count me in.

So, from what I could gather, this was going to be a totally different experience to fishing the flats, and potentially a very exciting one at that. Did I mention that it was going to take place in the dark?, I swear that these guys had it in for me.

I drove over to the designated location which turned out to be Chris’s house. His back garden drops straight off into a narrow waterway which leads directly to the sea. When I say it drops off, it literally does. A small garden gate opens onto the waterway which was a 4’ vertical drop directly below. I won’t lie, I looked at this quietly for a moment, realising that this was clearly going to entail a dockside entry to the kayak. Another first for me, though I would have preferred an 18” drop!. I sensed impending doom, embarrassment and wet clothes, though I kept this quietly to myself.

The kayaks were rigged up in the back garden, my ride for the evening was a Hobie Outback, a kayak which I’d really been wanting to try out for a very long time. I’d never had the opportunity to experience the ‘peddling’, tonight was the night.

The Hobie was standard apart from a set of ST Turbo fins, a paddle should it be needed. The tackle consisted of two light lure rods, one rigged with a jointed diving plug and the other with a top water lure. Jose’s Hobie Revolution can be seen next to the Outback.

With a rope around the from lifting toggle, the kayaks were lowered into the narrow waterway, heading down at a 45 degree angle, stern first into the water.I was second to launch, feeling a little happier with a ‘safety number’ floating next to the Outback. With a little trepidation I lowered myself down onto the kayak expecting the worst. However, I found myself standing quite comfortably, though I didn’t wish to tempt fate in the dark so I was soon seated and finding my way around the kayak. The Hobie Mirage Drive dropped straight into the mounting hole (basically a huge scupper hole) and was quickly locked into place with a couple of clips. Bearing in mind that I was totally unfamiliar with the kayak, everything was simple enough to sort out and adjust. The pedals were adjusted to suit my size, though they would be fine tuned later. The rudder is lowered quickly and easily lowered or raised with a tug on the required knobs situated just forward of the seat.

Anyway, once afloat we headed down the waterway towards open water. I’d been warned that the rudder was sensitive to use, though I found no issues with it, in fact it was a pleasure to use. Moving along without a paddle was proving to be quite an experience!

The narrow waterway came to an end and we headed into open water, following a narrow channel highlighted with some wooden sticks. Almost immediately there was several crashes around me as unseen fish jumped in the shadows, I was eager to get fishing!

As we headed along the coastline it soon became apparent what this pontoon fishing was going to entail. This was ‘millionaires row’, with one mansion after another heading along the coastline as far as the eye could see. Virtually all of these houses featured large wooden pontoons with many of them featuring underwater lighting which resulted in an eerie green or white glow emanating from the water.

So what’s great about this?, well it attracts large numbers of baitfish into the lights, this of course attracts the predators. The main quarry for the night was going to be Snook, well as far as I’d understood anyway. Paddling Peddling up to the first pontoon it quickly became apparent that there were large shadows cruising through the glowing water. Damn!, these were fish and there were several of them, exciting stuff!

Now I’d been well briefed by my guides, cast past the fish (I was using the underwater plug) and retrieve steadily. Should a fish hit the lure and become hooked, turn the kayak away from the pontoon and peddle hard!. The idea of this is to get the fish away from the structure before it gets the opportunity to turn its head and make a run for for the pilings.

However, it’s not quite that simple, certainly not for a first timer like myself. Not for the first time this week my inability to consistently cast accurately caused a few issues. Having to accurately cast a lure into structure at night isn’t exactly child’s play!. I struggle to place a lure within 2-3’ of its intended target, try doing this at night when you cannot even see the lure flying through the air… difficult, very difficult. You do eventually get a feel for it and my casting did improve considerably as the evening progressed.

On my second or third cast at the first pontoon my lure was hit hard, I was in!. Rudder hard over, peddling hard I manoeuvred the kayak away from the pontoon. It rapidly became apparent that I should have turned left!. I swung around to the right and came close to another pontoon, the fish was no doubt chuckling to himself and he grabbed the opportunity and swam into the pilings. The fish was lost and a valuable lesson was leaned, survey your surroundings and confirm the exit route prior to casting!

After several more fruitless casts the fish has clearly become lure shy so we headed off to the next pontoon. This is where this type of fishing excels, should one mark fail to produce you just head down to the next pontoon, you could literally fish the whole night, moving from pontoon to pontoon, awesome!

I wasn’t too long before I’d hooked up again, though this time there was to be no mistakes!. With a solid hook-up I peddled away hard and was soon playing the fish in open water. It wasn’t the biggest fish though it was incredibly lively!. As it neared the kayak it was quickly identified as a Snook, though these aren’t a fish to be rushed. They’re quite acrobatic at times and a lively Snook with a mouthful of treble hooks it something to be wary of!. With the lip grippers to hand the Snook was bought aboard the kayak and carefully unhooked.

These Snook really are a hard fighting fish, a large mouth predator. The fish had been out of the water for a couple of minutes and needed a little resuscitation prior to release, though moving it in the water for a couple of minutes proved sufficient as it kicked away violently into the depths.


We moved from dock to dock, some were proving more difficult to fish that others. I cast in a traditional manner, an overhead cast, though this is not particularly ideal for fishing this type of structure. Add to that the odd overhanging tree, or boat suspended from a crane, and it was a times proving rather problematic for me!.

There was a moment when I managed to cast my lure across some wooden decking, it coming to rest under a cast iron table!. The hook dug in and the lure was all but lost. I’d have been quite happy to climb the 2’ onto the dock to retrieve my lure, however, Jose suggested that perhaps wasn’t such a great idea. Yup, everyone in the US owns a small arsenal of weaponry so perhaps venturing uninvited onto a private dock wasn’t such a great idea after all!. Jose demonstrated, with great effect, how to release the lure by putting it under a lot of tension before instantaneously releasing the line. The lure shot backwards, problem solved!

Meanwhile one of the guys was standing in his kayak. This really was something to behold, fly fishing at night into structure, crazy or what!. That said, he was soon hooked up and bagged himself a nice Snook. Every single trip has been quite educational in just about everyway possible. Both Chris and Justin were catching with some nice fish coming to the kayaks.

We continued to move throughout the evening, this was Justin’s territory and he called over that the next pontoon was a good mark for trout. First cast in I hooked up, guess what?, it was a trout!!. It was a decent size and another species for the session.

I’d found myself hooked up at the next pontoon, though this felt a little different as the fish made a couple of hard runs. With the lip grippers to hand I found myself lifting a small Redfish into the kayak, another ‘Slam’!

We eventually turned around the fished the pontoons on the way back to the launch site. The guys disappeared around the corner leaving me to fish a particular pontoon, though it proved fishless second time around. I decided to see what sort of speed the Hobie Outback was capable of, so I stored my tackle and peddled off hard into the darkness. I was totally astounded as I went past a pontoon at high speed, all I could do was grin like a ‘Cheshire Cat’. The Hobie was flying along, the stern was down in the water accompanied with a wonderful gurgling noise from the rear of the kayak. I reckon I was happily doing 7-8mph, though it wasn’t a speed that could have been sustained for long. That said, it easily cruised at 4-5mph, for such a wide kayak that was extremely impressive!.

Once back up the narrow waterway it was time to recover the kayaks. Jose threw a throw line down onto my kayak, requesting that it tie it off to the front lifting toggle!. ‘You have to be joking’ was my initial thought, venturing that far forward on my Big Game would most certainly resulted in a watery ending!. Though the stability of the Hobie Outback is simply stunning and achieving this task turned out to be simplicity itself.

So what an experience!!!, without a shadow of a doubt one of my most memorable kayak fishing experiences of all time, one that will remain fresh in my mind for many years.

I’d always considered the Prowler Big Game kayak to be somewhat unbeatable as a fishing platform, its combination of stability, room and rigging potential being a difficult combination to beat. However, the Hobie Outback had it convincingly beaten in all areas, a big surprise for me!. My mind was made up there and then.. in the future I wanted to be fishing from a Hobie kayak, watch this space!

Florida – ‘the flats’ Part 2

Well as they say there’s no rest for the wicked!. The night before had been spent at the ‘Bar Fly’ in Tampa, an absolutely cracking little bar themed around fly fishing. There’s an area where you can sit and tie flies, even purchase flies and associated gear. There’s also various publications to read whilst fishing TV runs in the background… cool or what!


It wasn’t the last night that I spent there, a truly classic spot to hang out with liked minded folk.

Day two in Florida saw the alarm going off at 0430, hmmmmmm. It was another early start, hitting the road just after five. A quick pit stop to top up with coffee and doughnuts and we were heading sound to a new venue, the target species were once again snook, trout and redfish. The launch sites seem to have pretty much one thing in common, ease of launching. Swing off the road, reverse the pickup to the launch spot and slide the kayaks off right next to the waters edge. That’s something that’s very rare for me, it’s normally a case of parking up two to three hundred metres away and carting the kayak down to the launch site, often over tricky terrain.

It was another dark start, though the kayaks were quickly rigged and we pushed off into a narrow channel that led up to a large area of somewhat enclosed water. The water here was shallower than the previous day with an average depth of less than a foot, though this was due to increase with the flooding tide.

The fishing techniques were the same as the previous day, alternating  between top water and spoon. What I didn’t mention from the previous day was the mullet. At times these fish become extremely active, jumping clean from the water whilst moving around in large shoals. It’s very common to spook a shoal whilst paddling, resulting in a flurry of activity or disturbed water as they move away. It’s all signs that you start to watch for and the advice I was given was watch out for the mullet, their presence being a good sign that other species will be in the area.

In places there were large oyster beds, exposed at low water, though disappearing from view as the tide rises. They’re certainly something to watch out for, one for potentially holding fish, also as a potential fouling hazard for the kayak. The first hour or two was spent trying various areas around the mangroves. Despite a couple of hits I’d failed to hook up at this point. As the water level rises the fish move out onto the flats and you can cover a lot of water whilst fishing on the drift. It’s interesting to look at the type of ground that you’re drifting over, lush sea glass with sandy patches and holes, the latter being a good fish holding feature.

One of the forum guys, Marty, had located a school of Redfish and called me over to have a cast at them. I headed straight over and dropped my stake out pole. Following his advice I cast past the area he’d highlighted and worked my top water lure back towards the kayak. I watched in amazement as a strong wake appeared a few yards behind the lure, accelerating rapidly towards it. The back and tail of a fish broke the water and a couple of seconds later the lure was hit hard. I was hooked up and line stripped from the reel. With some line recovered I bought the fish towards the kayak only for it to shake the hook free. Sure it was disappointing, though exhilarating at the same time!

I failed to get any further interest in my lure so I moved to another spot and drifted over a particularly sandy area. The top water lure was hit hard and I found myself hooked into something quite lively. After a couple of minutes a small Snook came aboard the kayak.


I continued to drift this ground and about thirty minutes later I found myself hooked up into another Snook. This one was a little larger and gave a good account of itself on the light tackle. They’re not a fish to be hurried, it’s just a case of enjoying the sport until the fish tires. The last thing you need is a very lively fish thrashing around with a couple of treble hooks firmly attached!


There was a lot of grass floating on the surface making fishing with a top water lure a little tedious at times. I’d often only manage a few metres of a retrieve before the lure would pick up some grass killing the action of the lure instantly. It’s something I quickly became aware of, the feel during the retrieve changes immediately and it’s then a case of getting the lure back quickly, cleaning off the grass and flicking it out once more. This became rather repetitive so I made the decision to swap over to the spoon. At least this way I kept clear of the floating grass and was maximising my fishing time once more.

After a few nips at the spoon I was hooked up into something small and trout was soon lifted into the kayak. Yup, it was not going to break any records, though it was another species for the day.

Now there’s a thing in Florida called a ‘Slam’, basically it entails catching a snook, trout and redfish in the same session.. I was close!. A ‘grand slam’ includes the capture of a tarpon, well I can dream right!

I thought I’d get tired of lure fishing for several hours at a time, though the outfits are lightweight and that problem never arose. Apparently sight fishing in the way ahead, though with a chop on the water this was proving very difficult. There was of course the option of standing to sight fish… in a Prowler 15?, not happening!. It was a case of working an arc whilst drifting over the water, covering as much ground as possible.

By mid-morning the fishing seemed to have quieten off, I’d missed a few fish, though I was just enjoying nosing around the mangroves and drifting over the flats. Mark called up to say he’d caught a decent and Redfish and that I should head over to his location. I was soon on scene and decided to try the top water lure once more. I missed a couple of hits though it wasn’t too long before I found myself hooked up into something particularly lively. After a few solid runs the fish quietened down and headed in the direction of the kayak. It felt quite different to anything I’d had before so I made a point of not rushing it. I was pleasantly surprised when a nice Redfish came alongside the kayak. The lip grippers were put to good use and the fish came aboard… I had my first slam!

I managed a couple more trout as I fished my way back to the launch site, drawing another great day on the water to a close. Standing the shallows whilst waiting to drag the kayak out of the water I was amused to see a pair of mating Horseshoe crabs scoot past underwater, not an everyday sight for me!. Every so often tiny crabs would board the kayak, quite often several at a time, quite bizarre.

I can’t remember where we all headed to for lunch, but like all the meals I experienced during the week, it was excellent!. It’s a novel experience to hop off the kayak, pants and sandals somewhat wet, and to be sitting down in the same attire for lunch moments later.. it’s just not British!

Florida – ‘The flats’ Part 1

For the past three years or so, I’ve been a member of the Hardcore Kayak Anglers Club which is primarily made up of anglers from the Tampa Bay area of Florida. That kind of raises the question as to why I’m part of that group?, after all they are based several thousand miles from the UK!. I stumbled onto their forum by pure accident, I was probably researching techniques for catching Tarpon or something in preparation for a trip to the southern Caribbean. However, it was clear that these guys experienced some very different fishing from what I was used to, what’s more it looked exciting and the tight knot group of anglers provided a very friendly forum atmosphere. That’s all it took for me to join, enjoying reading about their experiences whilst sharing a few of my own.

I’d been hoping to travel over there last year with a view to meeting up with some of these guys and to experience some of the fishing that this area offered. For one reason and another I was unable to make the trip, however, when an opportunity arose out of the blue this year I grabbed the chance. Plans were put in place and flights were booked, it was then just a case of waiting rather impatiently for the time to arrive!

Tampa Bay

One of the forum members, Mark, had kindly offered to put me up for the week, what’s more he kindly lent me a car with sat nav, it really doesn’t get much better than that!. The plan was to fish most days during the week, with me experiencing a variety of fishing whilst meeting several of the forum members along the way.

I arrived in Tampa late afternoon and was duly informed that we’d be doing some ‘flats’ fishing the next day. Launch time would be around 6am, leaving around 5am, therefore up at 4:30am. I’m sure I double checked those timings on more than one occasion, damn these guys were keen!. Ok, it has a lot to do with the summer temperatures over there, fish early and get off the water before the temperature gets uncomfortable. There was also another factor which I’d not considered, nor appreciated… thunderstorms!

During that first evening, Mark ran me through what he’d set me up with. A Prowler 15  kayak, crate and other associated stuff. The tackle was FAR lighter that what I’m used to, light spinning rods with 2500 sized fixed spool reels loaded with 10lb braid. Bait?, nope lures.. that was going to prove interesting. As much as I used to be quite an avid lure fisherman, that’d been twenty years ago.

My corpse arose at 0430 and over the next few minutes life signs returned, within twenty minutes I was fairly functional. Mark had already loaded up his pickup, all that was left for me to do was grab a few cold drinks and hop into the truck. A quick stop at the local fuel station for a coffee and a doughnut and we were on our way.

Ok, I wont lie here, as much as they whole idea of fishing somewhere so different is exciting, it’s also rather daunting!. I’d be fishing from a different kayak, different venues, different techniques and different species. To cap it all I’d be launching into the dark whilst having to take all this on board.

Once at our launch site I met a lot of the guys, blinding headlights, silhouettes and strange voices, who were these guys?. Sure I recognised a good few of the forum names, though come daylight they’d all still be strange faces. This was going to be interesting!. The kayaks were dragged from the back of the pickup and with a few basic items thrown aboard they were were basically rigged and ready to go. Clothing was basic, full length pants, long sleeved shirt and sandals. A mosquito kindly buzzed in my ear reminding me that some bug spray was needed. Safety equipment?, well it a legal requirement to carry a PFD on board the kayak, most of the guys either keep in stored in the front hatch or the rear tankwell. What do you mean you don’t wear a PFD?… all would become apparent later.

The launch site was a small break in the mangroves, somewhat muddy and distinctly aromatic. Dragging the kayak through this ooze I was soon aboard and getting a feel for the Prowler 15. A little tipper than what I’m used to, though the secondary stability was far greater than the Big Game. No complaints at all, comfortable with all areas easily accessible, what had I been worrying about?!.

The area that we fished comprised of a large area of open water with multiple mangrove islands of differing sizes scattered around. The target species were Snook, Redfish and Speckled Trout. As mentioned the tackle was light spinning gear, I had two rods rigged and ready to go. One rod was setup with a top water lure, the other with a weedless spoon.

I was recommended to start off with the top water lure, the technique required me to ‘walk the dog’. It soon became apparent that my dog was severely handicapped and three legged at that!. However, with a little perseverance I managed to produce an action that was acceptable, to me at least. The top water lure had a ball bearing in and it was interesting to listen to it work during the retrieve. Mark was clearly a master at this method and his lure was rattling away at twice the speed of mine. That said I’d convinced myself that he had two ball bearings in his lure!.

Fishing close into the mangroves revealed once painful fact to me, my casting was far from accurate!. Sure I’d lure fished before, though it’d never required me to flick a lure 20-30 yards with the intention of dropping it 1-2' feet from it’s intended target. Yes, this was proving to be interesting!. You may not fully appreciate the mangroves from a distance, though climbing through them to retrieve your lure provides a far better understanding of their makeup.

What really struck me about this location is the sheer volume of wildlife. There’s a huge variety of birds, whether it be pelicans, frigate birds or just various wading birds. It’s really something and added to the whole experience no end.

The fishing was apparently rather slow according to the other guys with hardly a fish being report. This of course made me feel much better as I’d yet to hook into a fish. Though this wasn’t a great surprise to me, I was still trying to master the art of accurate casting and working the top water lure correctly.

So why do they call it the ‘flats’ ?. Flats fishing is a common term for fishing these shallow saltwater areas in Florida. So how shallow are we talking?, well on this first trip afloat I doubt I saw water greater than three feet in depth, often far less. It’s a real novelty that when you’re feeling a little stiff or have call of nature just to step out of your kayak. For me, stepping out of my kayak in my local fishing grounds would mean a fair chance a death!.

In the photo above you can clearly see two rods. There’s also a white pole, apparently protruding from my head!. Yet another new thing for me to contend with, a ‘stake out pole’. This ingenious device simply sticks in to the bottom and holds you in place, it’s a simple case of lowering the pole until it grips the bottom and that’s it. Well, that’s what I’d read somewhere at least.

In essence that’s exactly how it works, however it’s ultimate an anchor or sorts and it has certain ‘characteristics’. There’s no tide to speak of at this type of venue, certainly not the type of water movement that I’m used to experiencing. However, the wind tends to push you along at a reasonable speed and when that pole grips the bottom the kayak will swing about. At first this certainly gets your attention at the kayak leans over and swings around. Worst case scenario you end up in a couple of feet of water collecting your various belonging before they float away. Grabbing the paddling an ensuring that you’re fairly stationary prior to deploying the stakeout pole make a world of difference!.


The local contingent were chattering away over the airwaves monitoring the weather radar on their ‘smart phones’ like a bunch of geeks. I mean seriously, it was sunny, minimal wind with the odd dark cloud in the distance. However, this is where my lack of local knowledge soon became all too apparent. The rumbles of distant thunders increased as the skies became ever darker and there were soon flashes of lighting on the horizon. The radio traffic increased and kayaks were seen to be heading towards the mangroves to take cover. With increasing wind and the lightning closing in who was I to argue?. Though seriously, why did my ‘guides’ have to pick a small mangrove island that was populated with pelicans. Yes, the close up view was wonderful, however, the odour was not!.


With the kayak backed into the mangroves I found it rather amusing to hop out into a couple of feet of water whilst enjoying a Coke as the storm clouds passed overhead. It didn’t stop Russ from fishing though!. I found it very interesting to see the various kayaks that are clearly very popular over hear, Hobies, Natives, etc, brands that aren’t particularly popular within the UK. ‘Sit in kayaks’ (SINKS) tend not to see saltwater use in the UK as a ‘Sit on top’ (SOT) is far easier to right post a capsize in deeper water. However, in the shallows this really isn't a concern. As for the Hobie’s with their ‘Mirage Drive’ they really came into their own into this type of venue, more on that in a later article.

The top water lure was not bringing me any joy, as mentioned earlier the fishing that morning was particularly slow. I switched over to a gold coloured weedless spoon, something that’s worked slowly close to the bottom. I’d always asked myself why the ‘yanks’ take to the water with so many rods. All became apparent as it’s so easy to swap quickly from rod to rod as you switch from one method to another throughout the day in an attempt to hook up with  a fish. Again, it’s very different from what I was used to and the experience was turning into quite an education.


It was whilst fishing the spoon that I had my first hook up of the trip. It turned out to be a speckled sea trout, nothing sizeable, though it was a fish and it saved the all embarrassing blank, after all I was flying the flag for the UK!


I switched back over to the top water lure in the hope of making contact with the elusive Redfish, though elusive it remained!. It was also my first experience at using lip grips, something which proved easy to use and helped to keep the fish under control whilst removing a set of treble hooks!.

It was around midday and the decision was made to call it a day. It’s been quite an experience, a day of many firsts. Despite my steep learning curve I’d still managed to bag a couple of fish so there were no complaints from me!

We headed off to the local eatery, Skyway Jacks, which provided some great food and conversation. All in all, for a first day afloat with much to learn, it tuned out to be a thoroughly enjoyable experience with a great bunch of guys!

Many thank to Mark Knowles and Russ Caipen for making all this happen.

Watch out for part 2, it’ll be along shortly!