Fighting, Landing and Handling Fish on a Kayak E-mail
Wednesday, 21 October 2009 09:19

Fighting, Landing and Handling Fish

Jon Shein of KFM

The second most asked question by prospective fishermen looking at entering kayak fishing (stability is the first) is how do you handle large fish from a kayak.  In the northeast I was usually asked what I do when I hook a large striped bass.  I’d laugh, as a striper is a fairly benign critter from a kayak.  They don’t present any real problems.  Sure, a large striper might drag you somewhere you’d rather not go, like a rip, but otherwise the fish doesn’t possess any weapons or antics that cause concern.  In the northeast large bluefish is a much more difficult adversary.  They have teeth that can easily injure and remove fingers if handled improperly.  Also they jump, often right by the kayak and can land either in it with you or on you.

As an angler you should have an understanding of the species you’re pursuing and it’s a good idea to become familiar with whatever else is available.  If you’re pursuing fish in your local waters you’re already familiar with them so you know what to expect.  If you’re going to be fishing for new species then familiarize yourself with them. Most species don’t present any issues, but some do and you can get injured.  The most commonly caught sport species in the world are the freshwater basses.  They have a great landing handle, their mouths.  Just grab the lower lip and it immobilizes them. The striper also being a bass can be handled the same way.  However, there are very few species where this is the case.  Doing so with a bluefish would be foolish as it would with many other species.

Before you land a fish, however, you need to fight it.

Jon Shein of KFM

The larger the fish usually the more there is going on and can potentially happen.  Again each species is different and even within a species the size of both the fish and your tackle and where you’re catching them makes a big difference. Fighting a fish in open water without any obstacles around is much easier than dealing with the same species in tight quarters.  Some fish run for open water even when hooked near obstructions, while others head straight for the toughest cover they can find.

The first thing you’re going to notice that’s different about fighting a fish from a kayak is how easily they move it.  Even a two-pound bass can drag you.  Larger fish can sometimes pull you quickly in direct proportion to their size.  I use the word sometimes because some fish race off and burn line while others are all power.  I remember hooking a 20-pound striper in Long Island Sound one day and before I knew it I was several dozen yards from where I started.  The kayak flew for that short initial burst.  As the bass pulled me out into the open sound, Scott was in my way; luckily our lines didn’t tangle as my kayak collided with his.  Even a small fish will tow the kayak and the largest fish will actually pull you at speeds faster than you can paddle.  I’ve had tarpon tow me at speeds that I’d have trouble duplicating with my own power.  Species like billfish; tarpon, large jacks, tuna and sharks are going to take you for quite a ride.  Jim Sammons is credited with hooking the first marlin from a kayak and as I recall the story his companions couldn’t keep up with him paddling full speed.  That’s one of the things that make kayak fishing so exciting, as there is nothing else in fishing that is comparable.  The sensation of going on a ride with a fish on the end of your line is unique and separates kayak fishing from other forms of angling.  If you’ve ever read Hemmingway’s “Old Man and the Sea” or seen the screen version, that’s what it can be like.  That’s how I felt when I hooked a large fish in the Everglades.  It was a lot like Hemmingway’s tale as it took Santiago a long time to see what he’d hooked.  I didn’t have to wait nearly as long but it was still 1.5 hours before I knew what was on the end of my line – a very large bull shark.  When larger fish are hooked they often take you for what we call a sleigh ride.  The fastest I’ve been towed has been by large tarpon. While on a trip to the Dry Tortugas I live-lined a porgy and as soon as I dropped it in the line started flying off the reel. I closed the bail and next thing I knew the drag was screaming and I was flying up the harbor.  The next day I ran into the owner of a sailboat and he asked if I was the guy getting towed out the harbor the previous evening.  He was coming in and saw me ripping across the water.  The power of a large fish is amazing.  My second fastest ride was from a sailfish of approximately 110 pounds down in Baja.

Although you’re going to be seated in the kayak facing forward (unless fishing side saddle with your feet overboard) the fish isn’t necessarily going to run in the direction you’re facing.  It can run behind you and can zig and zag.  When a fish pulls the kayak the normal situation is the kayak will follow the fish.  The fish runs east and the kayak gets pulled east. However this isn’t always going to happen. That’s because there are a variety of circumstances like the wind and current, the hull design, and whether or not you have a rudder.  A popular and effective technique from the kayak is trolling.  When you hook a fish on the troll it’s going to be behind you. The fish runs and will pull the kayak around.   If I have a rudder I turn to the side of the hit and I end up facing the fish.  The drag created by the kayak as the fish pulls it through the water becomes part of your fighting tackle.  The kayak acts as an additional drag mechanism especially if the kayak is sideways to the fish.  In open water this is a great technique.  There are times when you need to follow the fish.  It depends and I can’t really explain it to you.  You’ll know when you’re there.  As I mentioned earlier some fish will head for structure and I’ve found when some species are forced to drag the kayak sideways they will swim away from the resistance.  You can add resistance for the entire fight either through positioning or by using a drift sock.  The sock will add a lot of drag and is a great idea for large fish like tarpon and billfish.  My favorite way to employ a sock is to have it attached to my anchor trolley.  When I’m angling for large fish I’ll keep a sock connected so it can be easily deployed.  When a substantial fish is hooked I’ll toss it in the water and toggle it to the stern while the fish makes its initial run.

Jon Shein of KFM

As with all fishing the fight is going to depend upon the size of the fish in direct relation to the tackle.  Practically any fish can peel drag off a reel during the fight if the gear is light enough.  I’m not a fan of going super light because I release most of the fish I catch and I don’t want to wear them out to the point where recovery is difficult.  Generally I’ll use moderate tackle for the situation.  Besides not exhausting the fish I’ve learned to expect the unexpected.  You just never know what’s going to happen.  A fish substantially larger than you’re anticipating can take your offering.  In freshwater I’ve hooked and lost some big fish I couldn’t keep out of the weeds.  Everyone has heard stories of an angler fishing for bass or trout and a four-foot musky hits the lure.   I don’t want to have a rod that makes 15-inch trout or bass sporting, because I’ll have practically no chance should a trophy hit.

Above I mentioned hooking a large bull shark.  I was actually trying to make bait for tarpon.  The entire experience is outlined in the October 2008 issue of KFM.  I will never forget the power of that fish.  It was brute force.  I never went more than 3.5 mph but it towed me for a few miles.  It was a great experience fighting that fish. If I had been using the same gear I used for the sailfish the fight would have been considerably shorter.  A shorter rod with the same flex and I would have been in trouble.  The 7’6-inch rod could just barely clear the bow bent the way it was.  Many times when I had the fish close it would change direction.  Maybe it could see the kayak or sense it overhead, or it didn’t like my trying to lift it.  Whatever the reason it would surge at these times and I’d have to clear the bow quickly because if the rod hit the kayak it would likely have broken.  When the fish headed in a direction I didn’t approve of I’d use the rudder to turn the kayak and apply side pressure. It didn’t like towing the yak sideways and would change direction.

Each species has its distinct way of fighting. 

Often you can tell from the fight what it is. Some fish jump and it becomes obvious what they are, while others don’t.  Some run for obstacles while others run for open water.  Some have mouths that are like concrete while others have soft mouths and require delicate handling.  The same advice as fishing from a boat usually applies from the kayak.  I don’t like to have large fish that jump too close to the kayak.  I don’t need them in the cockpit with me and this is a real possibility.  Bluefish are notorious for not fighting a lot until near the kayak, and then they go nuts.  They jump a lot but luckily they tend to telegraph their leaps and you can either avert them or prepare.  Species like big dorado, billfish and tarpon are so fast and powerful that there is little you can do should they jump and you’re in the way.  Anglers have been seriously injured and killed by large tarpon in boats.  I know many kayak anglers won’t fish for them because they’re so dangerous, but anglers do catch them from the kayak and do so safely.  They recognize the risk and reduce it as much as they can.

While on the subject of jumping, one of the most aerobatic fish is the tarpon.  They’re known for their leaping and it’s why they are hard to keep hooked.  There is a common saying in tarpon fishing ‘bow to the king’.  It means when a tarpon leaps you drop your rod tip so the hook doesn’t pull out.  I’ve found due to their power and how easily a kayak moves that this is unnecessary.  I just keep constant pressure on them.

After the experience with the bull shark I started targeting them, as they’re very common in the 10,000 Islands area from May to December.  I spent several days fishing for them and they averaged six feet and 150 pounds.  They all fought the same; powerful runs that produced great sleigh rides.  The water where I was catching them is quite shallow.  When I hooked them in Chokoloskee Bay it rarely exceeded five feet, so the fish couldn’t sound.  Still they got as low in the water column as they could and hugged the bottom.  Lifting them was hard.  Targeting them with heavier gear still produced half hour fights for a six-foot fish.   It was a lot of fun and I could catch several in a day.

The larger and more powerful the fish the more important it becomes to wear it out before bringing it to the kayak.  Some species I don’t want to land.  When I’m fishing for blues I like when they get off at the latter stages of the fight.  I’m thrilled when ladyfish get off, as they’re very slimy, have teeth and are difficult to get on a lip gripper as they writhe about.  Unless I’m taking the fish home to eat or I want a picture I prefer they get off.  That’s why I use barb-less hooks a lot.   Sharks are a blast to fight but I don’t really want to handle them at the kayak.  My unwillingness to do so is in direct relation to their size.

Once the fight is over and it’s time to land the fish you’ve got several options.  I like to set up my kayaks a certain way and land the fish on a particular side.  I’m right-handed and am therefore more dexterous with my right hand. I usually use a lip gripper.  Working a lip gripper or net is much easier for me with my dominant hand while on this side of the kayak—same with using pliers.  I like to reach out rather than across my body and kayak so my kayak is set up for landing fish on the starboard side.  I keep my paddle and electronics on the port.  How I land the fish depends upon the species.  If it’s a species I can lip (basses or Snook) I’ll generally do so.  Sometimes I’ll grab the fish (like sea trout) but I wet my hand before doing it so I don’t remove its protective slime.  My favorite tool is the lip gripper.  I always have one with me in the kayak.  It’s usually in the starboard rear flush rod holder.  I rarely carry a net but when I am fishing for summer flounder (fluke) or sea trout and keeping them I’ll land many more with the aid of a net.  A net is a great tool when fishing a tournament, as a lost fish at the kayak could be crucial.  For larger fish that I plan to keep, a small hand gaff can be invaluable.  If I have no intentions of keeping the fish or taking a picture I try to minimize my contact with them.  Less is best.  If I don’t have to touch the fish it’s better for both of us. 

A hooked fish sends out signals while struggling, which is akin to ringing the dinner bell for predators.  Predators are always looking for an easy meal and they interpret these signals as such.  In freshwater your biggest threat is going to be from alligators, but if it’s near salt access then there’s the possibility of a shark.  That’s right, sharks in freshwater and not just any shark but the nastiest of them all, bull sharks.  I’ve never encountered one in the fresh but I see them regularly in brackish water.  I’ve had a few dealings with sharks.  All of them in the warmer climes but it can happen almost anywhere.  My first shark encounter while kayak fishing was on a trip to Baja.  We were mother-ship fishing and keeping dorado for dinner.  I had a dorado on the lip gripper and it was in the water while I paddled over to the boat.  I felt something tugging and looked down.  There was a five to six foot hammerhead pulling the fish.  I grabbed the gripper and pulled it away.  There was a ruckus and I ended up with two thirds of my catch.

Shallow water fights can present unique challenges. 

I have experienced problems at times when fighting snook and reds in skinny water.  Should the fish head under the kayak in very shallow water you can’t plunge the rod under as you would when it’s deeper to clear it around the bow or stern because there isn’t any water in which to plunge.  Anything protruding below the bottom of the kayak presents potential hazards.  As previously mentioned, while rudders and pedal drives aid in maneuvering while fighting a fish and can be great assets during battle, they also present obstacles that can tangle your line.  I’ve had to pull the drive a few times because snook have run the line through it.

While each species exhibits certain tendencies in a fight they are still living creatures and individuals.  You just never know.  Tarpon are known for being powerful, explosive adversaries.  In April 2008 I hooked one that was about 40 inches. As soon as it felt the sting of the hook it leapt six feet into the air.  I anticipated a strong run, with the fish heading to the adjacent boat dock that separated it from the open bay.  The run never came.  My tackle was fairly light for a fish this size.  A medium action Ugly Stik with 20-pound braid tied directly to a five-foot, 30-pound fluorocarbon leader.  The reel was a 2000 size.  The fish towed me around and a couple of times I headed it off before it could go under the dock but the fish never got more than 25 feet from the kayak and spent almost the entire fight within sight.  It did jump three more times and they were spectacular, but it was a weird fight.  I didn’t have any trouble putting the lip gripper on it and removing the circle hook.   I felt things were just too easy, as if the fish didn’t really know it was hooked.  After the hook came out it went nuts, got off the gripper and was gone.  I was using large live bait, a 14-inch mullet, and in retrospect maybe it affected the fish.  A big meal slows me down and maybe it did the same to the tarpon.  I’ll never know.

Fighting fish is why most of us go fishing.  It’s the best part of the sport and is even more fun from a kayak.  While we’re more exposed, we’re also more in tune with what’s going on.  So do a bit of homework so you can safely fight your adversary.  It’ll be better for both of you.  Here’s wishing you lots of sleigh rides.

 

Comments  

 
+1 #1 Guest 2011-04-08 10:38
Thank you for both an informative and an exceptionaly well written article. Being geographically separated from the salt (living near the eastern U.S. sub-continental divide, a birthplace of rivers in extreme western Maryland) I don't target or tangle with truly large fish very often, but will be vastly better prepared for such occurrences as a direct consequence of having read your well crafted words. Again, thanks for sharing!
 

You must be registered to post a comment.


Login

Newsletter

Subscribe here to receive FREE email issues of Kayak Fishing Magazine.

Most Popular

Choosing a Fishing Kayak
Like many kayak fisherman, my first fishig kayak was a mistake and I only used it a few times.  There wasn’t a lot of information available.  Things have...
Effective Trolling With Your Kayak
  While trolling is a mainstay of saltwater fishermen and also popular for targeting suspended fish in deepwater lakes of the northern US and Canada, it’s not the way most...
Electric Kayaks – an in Depth Look
Bassyaks, Torqeedo and Torque I have been living with electric kayaks (EK) since July of 2009. I have done so in order to get a much better understanding of their potential,...

Random

Taking Better Kayak Fishing Pictures
Spectacular fish photos which grace the cover of sporting magazines are no accident.  They are the result of careful pre-planning and coordination between the cameraman and...
Down South, Down Under
When Australia is looked at from an outside angler’s perspective, most think of the northern region, where warm tropical waters host fishing similar to the rest of the...
The Iconic Salmon
Perhaps the most iconic fish species in the northern temperate coastal regions has always been the salmon. These anadromous fish spend most their lives in the salt, but return to...

Latest Kayak Reviews

Stealth Pro Fisha 575
 
3.0
Field and Stream Eagle Talon
 
5.0
Feelfree Moken 12.5
 
5.0
Pelican Castaway 100
 
4.0
Ascend FS10
 
4.0
Sun Dolphin Excursion 10
 
4.0
Santa Cruz Kayaks Raptor SOT
 
5.0
Old Town Predator 13
 
5.0
RTM Kayaks Tempo Angler
 
4.0
Hobie Mirage Revolution 13
 
3.0
Stealth Pro Fisha 575
 
4.0
Stealth Pro Fisha 475
 
4.0

Latest Equipment Reviews

Body Glove 3T Barefoot Max
 
5.0
Body Glove 3T Barefoot Warrior
 
5.0
Body Glove 3T Barefoot Warrior
 
3.0
Columbia Drainmaker
 
5.0
Sperry SON-R Sounder Shandal
 
4.0
Garmin VIRB Elite
 
4.0
Polaroid XS100
 
4.0
Backwater Paddles Assault Hand Paddle
 
5.0
Backwater Paddles Assault Hand Paddle
 
5.0
Stohlquist Piseas
 
4.0
Wheeleez Tuff Tire Kayak Cart
 
5.0
Boga Grip
 
4.0