Softbaits are a convieniant and easy to manage making them ideal for kayak use. Softbaits combined with the kayaks ability to glide along quietly makes them extremely successful when catching fish, as well as great fun.
Introduction to Softbait Fishing from a Kayak by Rob Fort
The Soft Baiters Kayak
Selecting a kayak for softbait fishing requires some careful thinking and foresight of future considerations. There are many brands of kayaks available which have been designed with fishing in mind and they all have their merits in many ways. As an individual with your own set of requirements you will need to get a kayak to fit your body size and shape. Some kayaks have larger weight capacities and they can also vary in size and shape. Generally a kayak with a longer hull length will move faster through the water. Width can further influence the speed of a kayak with wider hulls being more stable at the cost of hull speed. When considering stability look for chimes (hard sharp corners) on the hull and if the kayak has a centre keel this will also add stability. Then are you planning to go off-shore or mostly in-shore. Is this fishing kayak going to require use as a single only or for both double and single person use. All kayaks have certain features moulded into the deck like drink bottle holders and tackle box holders etc. Ensure the deck layout and fittings are right for your setup and personal needs. Because there is so many options available on today’s market to choose from (which can be as simple as a small three and a half meter kayak) it is important to do some research to find out what is right for you. Talking to other kayak anglers will help you think about what your plans are in the future with kayak fishing. This will ensure you don’t under set yourself up in the beginning only to find you have to upgrade further down the track. Most importantly do your homework and try out the kayak before you decide to purchase. Your local kayak dealer will be able to offer advice but first ensure they have kayak fishing knowledge (someone who does kayak fishing is preferable).
Once we have found the kayak which fits our body we need to look at the other important pieces of the kayak softbait kit. In order to successfully fish softbaits you need to be able drift along while fishing at a pace which is not too fast. An ideal drift speed for kayak that is used for softbait fishing is from half to one kilometre per hour. This usually requires the use of a suitable sized drift chute (drogue) which presents other requirements. Consider also that kayaks are affected by wind far more than current so the chosen drift chute needs to be large enough to slow you down in wind speeds of around fifteen to twenty knots which is average conditions for New Zealand waters. Because we are sitting in a kayak it is not possible to access either the bow or stern (front or rear) where any anchoring would be best positioned while in use. To overcome this we use a running anchor system which has a set of two pulleys that are fixed at either end of the kayak and run between them is a suitable strength/weight braided cord. Coming off this is an extension of the braided cord with correct clip fixed to the end. Attached to the clip is a drift chute of the correct size for the job. When making your choice it is important to select the Sea anchor (drogue) that suits your kayak. One size drogue may work fine on a certain model kayak yet be less than ideal on another, In other words ‘match the hatch’ or kayak and drogue. A good example of this is the drift chute I use for my Ocean Kayak Prowler Ultra which is suitable for a five to six meter boat and will slow the kayak with me on it to the right drift speed required. This size drogue may work well for this size kayak but when matched with a vessel which is shorter/wider and slower to paddle the drift chute may slow it down to virtually nothing suggesting a smaller sized model be used. Gaff, net and lip grippers are all items of importance when kayak softbait fishing. They each have their place on the kayak and it comes down to personal preference here. Some XOS species like kingfish require the use of a gaff just because of their size. If you are planning to keep or release these tough customers you are best to gaff them in the lower jaw for easy extraction from the water onto the kayak. Any purpose made kayak gaff will float and should not be attached to the kayak by a tether line for safety reasons. A net can also have its benefits for those who like to use them and it is preferable for the net to have a short handle, lanyard for attachment and mesh designed for soft baiting. Lip grippers have some advantages when used from the kayak and are well suited because of the close proximity to the water making them easy to use. They will handle any fish of around ten kilos allowing the user the ability to pull this fish up into the cock-pit area of the kayak. Most lip grippers don’t have suitable lanyards for attachment to the kayak so some modification will be required. The speed fish stringer is another item which is essential if using a moulded in well to store your catch. The stainless thread rod which is attached to cord is passed through the fish’s mouth and out the gill plate then the fish is fed down the line into the well compartment where the cord is fastened to the kayak. By using this method not only does the speed stringer aid you in getting the fish stored away without risk of tipping out due to moving around on the kayak with a heavy fish, but also prevents you from losing the catch if you get rolled over in the surf etc. Storing your catch is another consideration which must be dealt with and this can be done using many different options. One of the most common ways is to convert your rear well into a catch hold is purchasing and installing an insulated well cover. The cover will keep the sun off your catch preventing damage from harmful UV rays. If using your rear well to store fish it is a good idea to add some ice packs into this area to help chill your fish down especially in the warmer times of the year and this will help keep your catch in good condition. Alternatively some paddlers like to use a correctly sized chilli-bin inserted into the rear well area and this is fine as long as it is not to tall raising the centre of gravity on the kayak which will cause the kayak to become un-stable.
As with all other forms of softbait fishing which are done from the various fishing platforms the kayak angler uses much of the same equipment like braid scissors and jig heads etc. Where the kayaker has its own set of rules is the rod and reel selection. The type of rod is the same and is made from graphite with the length and configuration having the most influence. When choosing a rod the length must allow you to reach the tip while holding the reel seat area in your other hand. This enables you to reach the line coming out of the tip allowing you to grab hold of it when bringing a fish on board preventing the risk of point loading which will cause the tip section of the rod to break. Ideal rod lengths can range from five foot six inches to six feet two inches. Longer rods will normally cast longer distances and a well setup rod suitable for kayak use will cast as far as other rods fifteen to twenty percent longer. A longer rod will also be easier to lift line over the nose if you have a fish on like a kahawai that swims from side to side. Grip configuration is also different with a longer fore-grip and shorter butt section which allows for the sitting position as does the reel seat position. Reels are made smaller, lighter and more powerful in this day and age which allows us a much better selection to choose from. For kayak softbait fishing the spin reel is still the most suited followed by the bait caster type overhead reel. Heavier gear is required for deeper water and larger species like kingfish also. Consider that the kayak and angler are only small in comparison to a boat and are easily dragged around by large fish hooked. If playing a big fish from the kayak you can only use small amounts of drag and line capabilities. When using heavier gear to handle large fish species there are limitations on how much pressure you can apply and by crossing the boundaries you will put yourself at risk of being pulled from the kayak. Reels are the one thing most easily worn out on a kayak and this comes down to the amount of splashing and water contact they encounter. Select a reel that offers a sealed waterproof quality drag system with decent corrosion protection to the main body and other external parts along with good general watertight features. The same can be said for the internals of the reel and again quality along with regular maintenance will ensure trouble free use. Spraying the reel with a coat of Salt-Away before and after going paddling will help keep harmful salt from your reel. Once dry spray with Inox when storing away between uses and if the reel is submerged in water always have it serviced. A good idea is to use a soft artists brush to coat the entire inside of your reel using the correct type of grease to further ensure protection.
Getting to the fishing grounds
More and more we are seeing a trend towards motorized kayaks and although these are an asset to some angler’s one basic requirement still needs to be mastered when getting to your fishing location. Paddling is still the most reliable way to get there and when your battery operated motor runs out of juice a paddle will be needed. Many kayak anglers don’t consider a paddle to be an important part of their kit and often will have a low end type of paddle. Paddling is in most cases the sole driving force which propels your fishing kayak around and as such any serious kayak angler should look at purchasing a better quality paddle. Paddling technique is the other area that isn’t really considered that much and learning the right technique can improve your endurance and speed considerably.
Navigation and finding the fish
Chart plotters and fish finders are seriously considered by many boat owners and kayaks are no different with most kayak models designed for fishing offering provision for both the unit and hull mounted external transducer along with any associated equipment. The GPS offers the user charts on screen for navigation and tracking of drift lines which are important when softbait fishing. The sounder further allows you a view of what is down there and when used with the kayak can offer some of the clearest images. Because of kayak stealth it is possible drop a softbait down onto fish sign that you have seen on your sounder while drifting or paddling along. I have done this many times resulting in snapper up to sixteen pounds landed in ten meters of water. Terrain and fish types can also influence how you target certain species. The more you study the environment the better the understanding which will add to your success. The level of electronics you choose for your kayak can be as simple as an entry level gray scale sounder through to the latest colour side imaging sonar. Learning how to read your sonar images on screen correctly will help you understand what is going on below. Becoming proficient at this will increase your chances of finding fish successfully and further enable you to put your softbait in the right place giving you a better chance of catching them.
Types of Softbaits
The variety of softbaits available on the market is many in number and here in New Zealand we have a small amount of them when considering how many actually exist. The main ones found over here are what we call stick baits which require the most movement added to give the right action and these are jerk shads and minnows. Some variations of these stick baits have now become available consisting of changes to the tail section like the new Gulp Crazy legs. The addition of extra legs has also proven lethal at enticing the fish’s attention and the lizard shape softbait is further proving useful when considering other techniques like trolling which most stick baits can be used for. Grub tail type baits in both large and small sizes allow the user the ability to utilise its fantastic swimming action when current is present and are ideal for trolling from the kayak. Softbaits with big thumping tails like swim shads can also be used for trolling as well as presenting down on the bottom and these require a different approach so are best left to swim themselves in current or alternatively either fast or slow retrieved. Colour is another aspect that can affect the performance on any given day so probably one of the most important things to consider when choosing a softbait is matching it to what the fish are feeding on. This is also true with size and a small softbait presented in the right way can be just as lethal and in some cases more effective than the bigger sized ones. Other times a random colour will work and some colours like orange/green and red/green combinations have proven consistent performers.
There are many ways to present softbaits when encountering the ocean environment and the one you chose will have influence on your level of success. The most common technique when softbait fishing is to cast ahead of the kayak drift direction and when doing so it is important to keep in touch with the softbait as it sinks down because our prey can attack the bait at any depth depending on where the fish are sitting in the water column. When doing so you must cast at least twenty to fifty meters directly in front of yourself and the further your cast the better. Once your softbait hits the water’s surface immediately engage the bail arm when fishing in water of fifteen meters or less. Water that is greater than fifteen meters will require you to allow for the extra depth especially if using fairly light weighted rigs and letting line come of the reel spool during the early part of decent (first ten meters) will allow the softbait and rig to sink down without interruption reaching the bottom almost at the same distance as the cast. An example of this is when fishing in twenty five meters using three eights of an ounce jig head with five inch jerk shad attached. A rig like this will sink at a rate of around a second a meter in most cases so it is easy to work out how long it will take to get to the bottom which is twenty five to thirty seconds. As such letting line come of the spool in small loops for twelve to eighteen seconds then engaging the bail arm will allow the line to tighten up for the last part of the decent making it possible to detect interest from fish. Alternatively if the line suddenly starts to run off the spool at a great rate of knots when the bail arm is open then this indicates a fish grabbing the softbait and taking off with it. Both circumstances will require the setting of the hook which is done by lifting the rod and striking and when the bail arm is open you must quickly engage allowing the line to tighten before making the strike. When allowing your softbait to sink down after a cast it is a best to keep the rod tip down parallel with the water pointing the rod towards the direction of the cast and doing so allows for better strike ability while keeping the line laying on top of the water where it is unaffected by wind. Nine times out of ten you will find that fish take softbaits on the decent so it is important to stay in touch with it just as much as it is necessary to use the lightest possible weight head you can. Some kayak anglers using softbaits will have too much weight on the end of the line causing it to sink like a speeding torpedo at a million miles an hour. While this will ensure they get to the bottom successfully it often prevents fish from seeing the softbait while sinking down and sometimes this is the only way the fish are feeding. When the softbait hits the bottom you may feel a thump through the rod or alternatively the line will go slack and loop back towards you. When this happens take up the slack line and start working the softbait by flicking the rod upwards in a jerking motion making a number of movements until you are pointing the rod up towards the sky. Then you must slowly lower the rod tip while winding any line onto the reel at the same time. It is important when doing so not to wind any slack line as this may cause a loop of line to lay over the leading edge of the spool which will cause a bird’s nest in the line on your next cast. The softbait should be worked like this all the way back to your position while maintaining it on the bottom. Often when fish are proving hard to get they may follow the softbait until you get to the point where you are ready to bring it from below causing the fish to nail it before getting away. There are a couple of speeds you can work the softbait as you bring it back to yourself and one is quite fast with erratic movements of the rod tip as well as a much slower style which seems better when using smaller sized baits. Another method is to allow the softbait to be dropped down and dragged out the back of the kayak which can also be done with the softbait down underneath you. In this situation simply giving the rod tip a few lifts then lowering down again can work well without the need to wind in any line. Another thing you can do when fishing over sand is to have a softbait on a rod which is set up in the holder allowing the softbait to swim along while using another rod for casting ahead of the drift. Something you can do when first starting out with softbait fishing is to lower the rig into the water so it is able to be seen then move the rod tip so you can see how the softbait looks when you move it in a certain way, by doing so you will have a better insight has to how it looks on the bottom. Kayak stealth is the one area that the kayak angler has an advantage and at certain times of the year when the fish are playing hard to get this can be the difference between success or not. One thing we do better than any other water craft is probe (prospect) the shallows. This involves positioning yourself so that you drift across an area of coast line while casting the softbait in all directions as you move along. When doing this it is a good idea to either have the drift chute deployed or on stand-by so it is ready to be thrown over and deployed which will help prevent you from being dragged into the rocks by big fish encountered. In deeper water use much heavier jig heads and other specialist type rigs designed for softbaits which are now readily available in most tackle stores. Usually when fishing much deeper water it is more desirable to allow the rig to be lowered down from the side of the kayak and then bounce along the bottom much like when using the drop and drag technique. Learning how to work your softbait correctly can take time and there is no better way to do so than getting out there on the water and doing it.
Playing and landing large fish
If you are going to be softbait fishing from a kayak then it is only a matter of time before you will encounter some larger specimens. This can add all kinds of problems if you aren’t ready or equipped for them and a gaff is probably the one item that comes to mind. The gaff can be used to secure big fish like the kingfish by hooking through the lower jaw allowing you to pull into your lap for either release or dispatch. It is a good idea to allow plenty of time when fighting the fish. The amount of drag pressure you can apply on a kayak is much less than if you where in a boat and using too much will put the user in a position which might cause them to be pulled from of the kayak. Working the drag is a constant juggling act so use as much as you can when initially hooking the fish and remember to set that hook well, then once you know that the fish is well away from the bottom back the drag off slightly. Backing off the drag will allow the fish to run when it wants to making it tired allowing easier handling at the side of the kayak. Kingfish will test your skills on the kayak and these tough customers require a lot more skill and effort to tire out. Try to keep yourself locked into the kayak using your knees and point the rod toward the front of the boat as much as you can. This helps spread the load better because you are using the bigger area for putting pressure on the fish. Kingfish will often change direction very quickly and when this happens having the rod locked in so the front end can be dragged sideways will really tire the fish out. You may also have your drift chute out and may need to bring it in so the fish can swim out deeper and away from the rocks. If you cannot handle this scenario then most outcomes will end in tears. Targeting larger fish species like kingfish with the assistance of a kayak fishing buddy is a much safer option. Safety is paramount when dealing with the marine environment and softbaits offer a safe, no mess convenient way of catching fish from the kayak.