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!
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!