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Fly Fishing the Flats, on Kayaks

Hunting redfish, snook, tarpon, and bonefish in South Florida.

Fly Fishing the Flats, on Kayaks

Everglades National Park offers snook, redfish, and tarpon in tight mangrove channels, hidden salt lakes, and coves. In Biscayne National Park, look for bonefish in extremely skinny water on the west side. In the Keys, drop your kayak off the side of the road to find grass and sand flats with tarpon, bonefish, and permit. (Alex Tejeda photo)

When people hear the word adventure, they often begin to illustrate in their minds places that are beyond the reach of most mortals—but it doesn’t have to be on the other side of the planet. A kayak can get you into places that most people only dream of. Kayak fly fishing is 100 percent adventure, and you are the captain, first mate, and the author of your own story. As soon as you push away from shore with your fly rod on board, anything can happen. Kayak fly fishing is an inexpensive way to get started saltwater flats fishing, but it can also be as intensive and intricate as you want it to be as you build and fortify your abilities.

Kayak fly fishing in Florida has brought me to many locations near and far, from Biscayne Bay—within sight of downtown Miami—to deep in Everglades National Park and to the far end of the Florida Keys. All have advantages and disadvantages, and require special skills to catch bonefish, tarpon, redfish, snook, and other species.

Throughout the years I have taken a methodical approach as I continue to learn new methods to improve my kayaking and fly-fishing skills. I have learned that a clean, obstruction-free deck works best for fly fishing. Less is more. Wider kayaks naturally lend themselves to better fly line management, plus good footing for better casting. They are a must if you intend to stand up and sight cast. I have been comfortable for several years with my 13'3" Jackson Kayak Big Rig, which has a 40-inch beam and 550-pound  capacity (enough for me and my dog). In a kayak like this with a wide-open deck layout, I am nearly as stable standing up as I am on some high-end skiffs.

Once you have a kayak that serves as a fly-fishing aid, and not a hindrance, you can start looking at maps. When I got started kayak fishing, I was obsessed with maps. I was constantly poring over them, searching for places especially suited for kayaks. I listened to locals, compared lore to published nautical charts, and eventually began to find places where I could reach Florida’s most sought-after gamefish with my kayak.


Fishing the Wall

When I got started, saltwater kayak fly fishing was still in its infancy. Biscayne Bay was my backyard, so I began push poling the nearshore flats. Kayaks give you an advantage in many shallow areas because you can portage them. If you can walk in the water, you can pull your kayak along. I spent years looking for places where I can float the kayak, walk the extreme shallows, and paddle through the channels and troughs to hunt Biscayne Bay bones. Through trial and error and finally many successes, I found kayak “drop zones” where I could meet the tide and wind on the days I wanted to fish.


Kayak fly fishing redfish florida
Redfish prefer the brackish environment where the fresh water from the Everglades mixes with the salt water of the Gulf of Mexico. In the Everglades, they tend to follow an incoming tide onto the flooding flats and shallows, where you can often find them tailing. (Alex Tejeda photo)

On the water, I found my kayak displaced such a small footprint that I could sneak up on big bones on the west side or the “Wall” of Biscayne Bay. The Wall is known for its big bones, but they are also some of the wariest fish around. My kayak allowed me to get closer to them before casting, so I could better study their movements and how they behaved in relation to the tide and the wind. Once I learned their patterns, I started catching them regularly with an 8-weight rod and a small mantis shrimp imitation.

Leaders for these fish should be 10 feet to 15 feet with 12-pound-test tippets. I lead the fish by 4 or 5 feet, and let the fly hit the bottom before retrieving. I use long, slow strips and small “ticks” so the fly disturbs a small puff of sand and debris on the bottom. Let the bones think they spooked a shrimp as they close in on your presentation.

Typically, I set up my kayak so there’s nothing on the front deck to catch my fly line. These bones will make your fly line rocket off the deck, and you’ll sometimes need 175 yards of backing before you can stop them. My fly boxes and camera gear are behind the seat and out of the way, but easy to reach.

In Biscayne Bay, I use a 16-foot push pole instead of a paddle for a more stealthy approach, and minimal impact on the bottom of the Biscayne National Park. I usually place the rod butt on the edge of my seat and lay the rod on the deck so I can pick it up quickly and easily when I spot my target.




Keys Dreaming

Living in South Florida gives me the opportunity to explore multiple theaters of water, and the Florida Keys are a place I hold dear to my heart. Adventuring along this chain of small islands that extends southwest into the horizon opens many fishing opportunities, and every little island and shallow spit of sand is a puzzle waiting to be figured out.

redfish, kayak fly fishing
The redfish here work the edges of the incoming tide almost continuously, and follow the water onto the flats. Look for shorebirds as a tailing sign. (Alex Tejeda photo)

The clean water, lush sea grass, and powerful currents that extend from the Gulf of Mexico and into the Atlantic Ocean lend themselves to some the best saltwater fishing in the world. For kayak fly fishing, edges of deep channels with good flow that extend to grass flats broken with sandy holes are good starting points—but only if you have an assortment of weighted flies to probe the appropriate depths along these contours. Expect to find the “big three” in and around these areas—sometimes tarpon, permit, and bones will be feeding within your field of vision but at different depths and in different currents.

I typically bring an 8-weight and an 11-weight rod for these areas. The 8-weight is mainly for bones and smaller permit, but I’m always ready for tarpon, and the 11-weight also helps me punch heavy permit flies into the wind if I require it.

Recommended


Kayaks offer the significant advantage of being able to drop into locations off the side of the road. With limited public and private boat ramps in the Florida Keys, kayaks give you the upper hand in starting off very close to where you want to fish. Most of the bridges have public parking and access to the water just a short way from your vehicle.

Google Earth is your best friend on any Florida Keys fishing trip, and will show you many side streets and small public beaches that are kayak friendly and serve as gateways to some of the best fishing the Keys has to offer.

Plan for the best fishing to be during the last two to three hours of an outgoing tide, and focus on the edges of the grass flats. This is when bones stop fighting that urge to get in the skinny water, and start working toward deeper flats and channels. I like to look for hard edges on the flats where there is an obvious depth change. Bones, permit, and tarpon will run down these edges where grass meets sand, and intercepting them along these highways is the key to finding fish. Be ready at all times, and make a few practice casts to make sure your line is cleared and neatly piled on the kayak deck.

Sea of Grass

Just 30 miles to the north of the Florida Keys lies the densely rich mangrove estuary of Everglades National Park—the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States. This “river of grass” flows from Lake Okeechobee and through a grid of manmade agricultural lands, locks, and canals before eventually filtering through the Everglades. It’s a vast fishing area of muddy grass flats and mangrove waterways that are mostly fresh water, then brackish water, and eventually actual salt water.

You make your way into this fertile fishery from Chokoloskee in the north or (my favorite) through Homestead in the south. As you make your way down the 45-mile-long road to the town of Flamingo, you will be inspired by the changes in the landscape. Once you leave the sawgrass plains and enter the high canopies of bright green mangroves in the Everglades, you know you are close to some of the greatest sight-casting opportunities in the country.

Everglades National Park, sea grass, grass flats
Once you leave the sawgrass plains and enter the high canopies of bright green mangroves in the Everglades, you know you are close to some of the greatest sight-casting opportunities in the country. (Alex Tejeda photo)

With hundreds of acres of lakes, bights, and back bays, Flamingo has two different areas to fish out of a kayak, and both areas will welcome you with hordes of mosquitoes as you paddle into Florida Bay.

To the east and north of the Flamingo marina, you’ll find the mud flats of Snake Bight, with tailing redfish, snook in potholes, and traveling schools of pup black drum, tarpon, and seatrout.

Look for an incoming tide here for kayak fishing. Your weapon of choice will be an 8-weight rod with an Amplitude Infinity Salt floating fly line. With snook and tarpon around, your 9-foot leader will require a bite tippet of 30- or 50-pound test to stop the fish from wearing through your tippet.

The redfish here work the edges of the incoming tide almost continuously, and follow the water onto the flats. Look for shorebirds as a tailing sign. They typically will lead you to the edge of the flat. As you get closer to the birds, look for the tails and fish pushing water in the same zone.

Here I enjoy using Gurglers for topwater eats and for staying out of the grass. Borski Sliders in dark tans and orange with heavy weedguards are also favorites for snook and redfish. Don’t be afraid to hit these reds on the face, as they are digging hard in the grass and mud. They will not see a fly unless it’s inside a cup-size radius of their face. With a kayak, you can get very close to these fish.

You can also paddle to the north through Flamingo Channel, into Coot Bay, and then into Whitewater Bay. For me, it’s like paddling back in time to a place that is undisturbed and quiet.

Snook lie in the shadows of the mangroves, and your casting skills will need to be on point to reach these wary, wily fish. Sliders and Gurglers with contrasting colors like white and black/purple work best in the tea-stained water. I often drop down to a 6-weight rod for this technical work. A sidearm or even underhand double haul comes in handy, as you need to punch the fly way back in the small coves along the shorelines.

Look for mud minnows and shorebirds like the roseate spoonbills that frequent the area. The shallow shorelines with structure will hold snook. Also look at hard edges like dead mangroves against lush green mangroves, as these locations typically harbor small to medium tarpon that are working the edge of the trees and deeper water.

The look, feel, and listen approach works best in these areas. Look for rolling tarpon before you cast. Active fish will blast bait, and the sound typically echoes across the water so you can hear the fish feeding and work your way toward them around and through these coves and points. Use small fast strips for the tarpon and a long, strong strip-set. Snook always seem to be onto you, so I typically prefer to lead these fish by a greater distance and use long, sliding strips.

Anchoring Your Boat

Contribution by Thomas Allen

It can be frustrating to deal with the constant movement the wind and currents create when navigating a kayak. And the regular maneuvering efforts an angler must produce to remain in position can be challenging. When you are fishing for moving fish like tarpon, you must wait in position for the fish to come to you.

Frankly, every kayak needs some sort of anchoring system. You just have to decide what best complements your preferred style of fishing, the specific boat you fish from, and the current modifications you’ve already added. Here are some highly recommended kayak anchoring systems.

Yakgear Anchor Bar Cleat Kit

Yakgear Anchor Bar Cleat Kit, kayak fly fishing
$7 | Mariner-Sails.com

This one may seem like a no-brainer, but kayaks generally don’t come with a bow line or anchor cleat included. This is an important add-on whether you plan to anchor or not. It’s a good idea to add a few of these for several reasons. First, if you do intend to use an anchor, or may end up needing a tow, place three to four of these, in likely locations. The YakGear Anchor Cleat Kit comes with a 4-inch nylon anchor cleat for kayaks, canoes, or other small boats. The cleat provides a stable access point to secure anchors, drift socks, bow lines, and safety lines. And as always, the kit comes with all stainless steel installation hardware, full instructions, and rigging tips. $7 | Mariner-Sails.com

Power-Pole Micro Spike Diver

Power-Pole Micro, anchor, kayak fly fishing
$599 | Power-Pole.com

The Power-Pole Micro Spike Driver can hold johnboats and kayaks, up to 1,500 pounds, securely and confidently. The anchoring unit is easily removable, making storage or transfer to another boat quick and easy. Regardless of your preferred style of fishing, the Power-Pole Micro is the ideal hands-free shallow-water anchor for secure boat positioning. The unit works flawlessly with any 3/4-inch spike, including the Power-Pole Heavy-Duty or Ultra-Lite spike. It features an adjustable mounting bracket, two-button key fob remote, an advanced dash switch, and 15-foot power cable (12v). To power the Power-Pole and any other electronics you may install, add marine-grade kayak batteries from lithiumbatterypower.com. $599 | Power-Pole.com

Feelfree Anchor Kit

feelfree anchor kit, kayak fly fishing
$80 | feelfreeus.com

Once you’ve located the best spot, you won’t want to leave, right? Well, if you hook a giant tarpon you’ll need to quickly detach from the anchor line to fight the angry giant on the other end. Once hooked up, detach the anchor line and it’ll remain afloat and attached to the buoy while you work things out on the other end. The grapple-style anchor will hold tight in mud, rocks, sand, or whatever substrate you’re dealing with, then easily let go when it’s time to head back. $80 | feelfreeus.com

Make it Back

Personal responsibility and safety should remain priorities at all times, plus it’s equally important to adhere to local navigation and safety requirements. While some states may not mandate navigation lights on boats below a certain size, lights are both safe and smart. There are plenty of kayak navigation lights available on Amazon and at other kayak dealers—a simple search will return countless options.

It’s also wise to inform loved ones where you’ll be and when you expect to be back. Keep a cell phone handy and easily accessible, and don’t forget to wear a Coast Guard-approved PFD.

Mustang Survival MIT 100 Manual Inflatable

mustang survival MIT 100 manual inflatable, PFD, life jacket, kayak fly fishing
$140 | mustangsurvival.com

Kayak fishing is a compact sport. There isn’t a lot of extra room to allow for movement and action, but a PFD isn’t optional. The MIT 100 features a streamlined design for comfort and safety in calm water conditions. A manual inflation cord lets you deploy it by hand if the need arises. The simple one-fold design makes repacking a snap when it comes time to recharge, and it will provide up to 28 pounds of buoyancy and keep the wearer face-up when inflated. One size fits most, and it comes in two colors, red and admiral gray. $140 | mustangsurvival.com

Fly Fishing Kayaks

NRS Fishing Kuda 126

NRS Fishing Kuda 126, kayak fly fishing
$1,495 | nrs.com

Length: 12'6"; Width: 38"; Weight: 31 lbs.; Overall Capacity: 300 lbs.; Propulsion: Paddle, or accessory motor

Ideal Application: For the ultimate backwoods lake excursions, it’s hard to beat an inflatable kayak. Shoulder the lightweight carry bag on a bike or distant hike, then pump it up and go! It’s also a practical option for fly-outs to tropical islands, or packing on a powerboat for long-range voyaging.

Overview: The Kuda 126 is a playful-looking rig, but NRS doesn’t play around. This is a fishing-mission-equipped inflatable with rugged three-chamber PVC construction. The center chamber is a high-pressure 6" drop-stitch deck that inflates to 8 PSI with 9" side tubes to create a stable platform to cast, move around, or stand. An EVA foam deck pad protects the PVC from punctures and provides secure footing. The aluminum-frame, nylon-mesh seat is installed with four nylon straps and may be moved fore or aft as desired. Adjustable foot pegs are also included, a rarity for inflatable rigs. Nylon D-rings and bungee fasteners are included. Available in gray fish scale, digital camo print, or lime green: Neutral, natural, and high-vis, befitting other quality products within the NRS lineup.

Notable: NRS Fishing designers studied the practices of hardcore anglers and added finishing touches accordingly. At the bow is vulcanized rubber reinforcement to protect against anchor line chafing. The stern area is totally clear for mounting a Torqeedo or Power-Pole Micro (it can be done with two-part Stabond Adhesive). Five YakAttack base mounts are pre-fitted in strategic spots, over reinforced nylon plates. $1,495 | nrs.com

Old Town Sportsman Salty PDL 120

Old Town Sportsman Salty PDL 120, kayak fly fishing
$2,000 | oldtowncanoe.com

Length: 12'; Width: 34.5"; Weight: 104 lbs. assembled, 79 lbs. with drive and seat removed; Usable Weight Capacity: 346 lbs.

Ideal Application: Surf launches, moderately fast rivers, anyplace you want to get in and get going quickly and confidently. Old Town bills the Salty as a grab-and-go pedal kayak, and indeed when you de-rig the boat for transport it comes in at a manageable cartop weight. Like its cousins in the Sportsman lineup, it’s rigged for fishing.

Overview: The Salty is equipped with the PDL drive, a durable propulsion system that takes no time at all to learn, and requires no adjustment other than picking where you want to position your seat (there’s a shuttle track). Single-mount steering control for the rudder is to your left (keeping your right hand free to handle a rod), and opposite that is the up-down lever to deploy or stow the rudder. All the components are included in the package. Old Town adheres to the contemporary (and welcome) trend of offering rugged, factory-spec accessory attachment points, in the Salty’s case, with twin 18-inch gear tracks forward, making it a cinch to add—and move—a mounting arm for a fishfinder, video camera boom, or any other type of gear. EVA padded deck is also standard. No drilling or gluing. Beneath the seat is a generous surface to accommodate tackle trays and other supplies—and the seat itself includes a sort of mezzanine-level storage, framed by mesh. It comes in Photic Orange and Photic Camo.

Notable: The twin tankwell design, with no bulky hatch forward, is going to be popular with anglers who want to bring coolers, fish bags, and other accessories that they’ll use now. Despite the boat’s relatively small size, and yet true to its name, the Salty loads and feels like a true seagoing vessel. The raised sheer line forward and deep-vee entry add to the look—and the genuine performance. Ditto for the generous and functional scuppers. $2,000 | oldtowncanoe.com

Hobie Mirage Compass

Hobie Mirage Compass, kayak fly fishing
$3,100 | hobie.com

Length: 12'; Width: 34"; Weight: 87 lbs. rigged, 68 lbs. fitted hull; Overall Capacity: 400 lbs.; Propulsion: MirageDrive 180 Pedal, paddle

Ideal Application: This is a clean, beamy fishing kayak capable of tackling all kinds of waters. It’s well equipped as is, but also a popular model for DIY-minded anglers who wish to install custom accessories.

Overview: The Compass features a new seat this year, built of anodized aluminum, monomesh, and ripstop nylon. The retractable rudder is mounted beneath the stern, where it won’t snag lines or stand in the way of a Power-Pole Micro Anchor (which can be installed easily in the pre-fitted brass inserts). The rudder is also a Kick-Up design, like the MirageDrive fins, meaning it will fold up and out of the way automatically, then recover, if it strikes something. H-Track accessory rails are installed forward of the seat, to mount anything from accessory rod holders, to camera booms, to chartplotter/fishfinder units. (Hobie designed its transducer mounting system and cable plugs for Lowrance compatibility.) There is a storage net forward, and template for adding Twist-N-Seal hatch, if you like.

Notable: A camo package is available, patterned appropriately for duck hunting and equipped with Kick-Up Turbo Fins. $3,100 | hobie.com

Bonafide P127

Bonafide P127, kayak fly fishing
$3,100 | bonafidekayaks.com

Length: 12' 7"; Width: 34"; Weight: 120 lbs. with pedal and seat, 100 lbs. for transport; Overall Capacity: 475 lbs.; Propulsion: Propel Pedal Drive, paddle

Ideal Application: Pedal, paddle, and easy to motorize! Performs great in fresh and inshore saltwater conditions. The rudder retracts up and down, offering great benefits for anglers traversing shallow water or rough, open waters. Great capacity, well suited for larger kayakers.

Overview: Bonafide kayaks are known for comfort and stability. The P127 is a hybrid catamaran-style hull tuned to accommodate the Propel drive and any added stern weight (motor). The seat is hand-sewn, U.S.-made with great back support and fore and aft adjustability. It mounts in a relatively high position, giving anglers good visibility and ample space below for storing tackle trays and other needs. The Propel unit is the same bomber design as that found on the Native Propel kayak models. The seventh-gen Propel features a new integrated weedguard, to go with the proven stainless gearing. YakAttack Aluminum GearTracs are mounted port and starboard, fore and aft. Quick-draw rod stagers and covered areas forward for the tip sections are included. Lastly, there’s a transducer recess with mounting plate.

Notable: The bow hatch has “Doubleheader” hinges—if you’re standing outside the kayak, as on the trailer or beach, you can swing it back to slide rods all the way inside the body of the kayak. If you’re seated, you can swing it forward to access supplies or the battery/transducer wiring. Also noteworthy is the new rudder design on this boat: It retracts fully for shallow launches but deploys deep for maximum control in winds or hard currents. $3,100 | bonafidekayaks.com

Capt. Alexis (Alex) Tejeda is on the Jackson Kayak pro staff and operates Bone Collector Kayak Fishing (bonecollectorkayakfishing.com), a South Florida guide service specializing in kayak fly fishing. Find him at @bone_collector_kayakfishing on Instagram.

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