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Introduction to Soft bait Fishing from a Kayak by Rob Fort

The journey and evolution of soft bait fishing from a kayak in New Zealand has proven over time to be not only the most effective way of catching fish, but also the most popular. Today ninety five percent of kayaker anglers will use soft baits as part of their fishing arsenal. My own experiences with soft baits started back in 2004/05. Prior to this most fishing was undertaken using bait however this also included limited soft plastic use as well as other lures. I love kayak fishing however using bait doesn’t interest me that much. My preference involves more active styles and this comes down to an addiction to spearfishing that offers a far greater challenge. Yes I am a hunter gatherer and the same can be said for most people who go out on the water. As mentioned previously a good part of my kayak fishing techniques involved using soft plastic lures with some success. To enhance them the addition of various sprays and attractants was applied to them often resulting in a much greater catch rate. It wasn’t long after this that the new generation soft baits arrived which over time has transformed many anglers fishing. The amount of fun to be had with a simple soft bait used from a kayak is huge if you put the right techniques and equipment in place. A classic example of a day out fishing with soft baits brings one particular day to mind. Winter was knocking at the door and I ventured out to an area that had not been paddled before. I was excited at the prospect of exploring some new terrain so after making the paddle out to a group of islands I arrived at an area of coast that had relatively shallow waters. On the first cast I hooked a nice fish that had my line screaming from the reel. This was around a six kilo snapper and was followed by a second fish of around five kilos. With still the same bait on the jig head I cast again and soon had another four kilo fish with a three kilo snapper landed from the next cast. Amazed at the good condition of the soft bait I once again cast it out and this time connected with something which felt different. A brief fight with what was more like a dead weight on the line soon brought a john dory to the side of the kayak. After a short break on-shore the same soft bait was cast grabbing the attention of a passing kahawai which did it’s best to destroy the soft bait. By now it was looking a bit worse for wear showing plenty of damage but despite this it was still used again catching another couple of pan sized snapper. By now the body of the soft bait was totally wrecked however I’m not one to be defeated so removed the body and re-threaded the remaining tail section back onto the jig head resulting in yet another three fish. This finally meant the end of the soft bait but with nine snapper, one john dory and one kahawai caught it had well and truly done the job. Experiences like this are common for most successful kayak soft bait anglers and it all comes down to having a good understanding of your equipment, the terrain and target species you are prospecting for. Thinking outside the square sometimes can also make the difference in succeeding or not.

The soft bait anglers kayak

Selecting a kayak for soft bait fishing requires some careful thinking and foresight of future considerations. Soft bait fishing can be done from virtually any kayak however choosing one that is designed around fishing will give an advantage.  There are many brands of kayaks available that are made with fishing in mind and they all have their points of difference. 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. 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 molded 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 can 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 certainly an advantage).

Essential accessories

Once we have found the kayak which fits our body we need to look at the other important pieces of the kayak soft bait kit. In order to successfully fish soft baits 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 kilometer per hour. This usually requires the use of a suitable sized drift chute (sea anchor or 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 from ten to fifteen 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 is 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 loop of braid cord is a leader with swivel type clip at the end that is attached to the drift chute. When choosing a drift chute for the kayak as a guide select one that has the same dimensions found with one made to work with a five/six meter boat.  This size is ideal and should slow the kayak down to the correct drift speed that is around 1 km per hour. Drift chutes should be set up differently for kayaks so finding one purpose made at the right size is best. They should have a float attached to the rear end (smallest opening) that has the correct length cord to allow maximum efficiency plus act as a grab point when retrieving. Gaff, net and lip grippers are all items of importance when kayak soft bait 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 may be needed. The speed fish stringer is another item which is essential if using an area like rear 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 act as a conveyer getting the fish down the line and stored away, but also for securing the catch. 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. Covers keep the sun off your catch preventing damage from harmful UV rays. These days more kayak anglers are using purpose made insulated bags with the addition of some ice packs. This works well to chill your fish down keeping them in better condition especially in the warmer times of the year. Purpose made chilli-bins that fit into the rear well area are also available and take the care of fish to a even greater level however they do add extra weight.

Above: Modern rods that are shorter length not only cast as well as longer versions but also make handling fish at the side of your kayak easier to reach. Photo left: Items like lip grippers are excellent for landing and handling fish

Soft bait equipment

As with all other forms of soft bait fishing which are done from various fishing platforms the kayak angler uses much of the same equipment like braid scissors and jig heads, fluorocarbon etc. Where the kayak angler has its own set of rules is the rod and reel selection. The type of rod is the same also and made from hi-end materials like graphic. The kayak requires consideration with overall length that will suit each individual angler. 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 six to seven foot. 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 over and around the nose of the kayak.  Grip configuration is also different with a longer fore-grip and slightly shorter butt section that allows for the seating 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 soft bait 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 king fish 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 limited amounts of drag. Finding these limitations should be taken with caution as you risk crossing the boundaries putting 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 mixture before and after going paddling will help keep harmful salt from your reel. Once the reel is dried fully spray again with Inox before 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. If you are not sure how to give your new reel a pre-service for kayak use then visit a local tackle store and they will help you. Softbait fishing has proven its worth over the years offering anglers an opportunity to actively hunt fish successfully. This makes for exciting fishing and can also open the mind to other techniques that involve different lures. Kayaks are particularly suited to soft bait use as they are the stealth fighter of the ocean allowing the user to glide around virtually undetected by fish below. They also allow the angler to get right up into shallow water areas where larger vessels dare not go. Kayaks and soft bait fishing have proven to be a winning combination and most serious kayak anglers use them as part of the fishing arsenal. In part one of soft bait fishing from a kayak we covered the equipment as well as the options available.  Finally it’s time to hit the water and put this to use with the exception of a few more items to assist you in your adventure.

Getting to the fishing grounds

Sail, peddle power and motorized kayaks are now used by a some kayak anglers in New Zealand, however one basic requirement still needs to be mastered in case they fail. Paddling is still the most reliable way to get to and from the fishing grounds and many kayak anglers don’t consider the paddle to be that important often opting for a low end type when purchasing with the kayak. 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 these days offering provision for both the unit and hull mounted external transducer. A GPS offers the user charts on screen for navigation and tracking of drift lines that are an advantage when soft bait 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 soft bait down onto fish sign that you have seen on your sounder while drifting or paddling along. Having done this many times the resulting hook ups have seen 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 that 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 sonar or down/side imaging. Learning how to read your sonar images on screen correctly will help you understand what is going on below. Down imaging is fairly new to the scene with Humminbird the first to bring this technology to us. The dimensional view is particularly useful in reef and foul areas as it really offers detail you can’t get with normal sonar. For example the Humminbird screen shot image displayed within the pages of this article clearly shows the difference between sonar and down imaging in a split screen view. The down imaging clearly shows rock formations in almost three dimensions revealing gutters and areas where fish are likely to be sitting. Becoming proficient at understanding what is displayed on screen will increase your chances of finding more fish successfully and further enable you to put your soft bait in the right places.

The above image is a screenshot from the Humminbird 899 and shows a sonar view on the left with soft bait sinking down to be intercepted by a snapper. The right side shows the drift line displayed on the GPS chart plotter.

Left: The five turn surgeons knots is easy to tie on the open cock pit kayak and strong.

Right: Use a loop knot when connecting the jig head to your leader material.

Terminal Tackle

Before heading out to use all this gear we must rig up our rod and reel that has braid line on it and any knots used for tying braid to leader should be practiced prior. It is a good idea to select knots that are fairly easy to tie keeping in mind that you will need to do them sitting in your kayak. Personally the two knots used for this are the five turn surgeons and the lefty’s loop. These knots are strong and when tied correctly won’t let you down. Remember to always double the braid before joining to the leader material and both can be done using the five turn surgeons knot. At the business end of the leader joining to the jig head use a lefty’s loop knot. The loop allows the jig head and soft bait to swing freely meaning more movement of the lure. With regards to the loop and any knots it is wise to check these before going out ensuring the loop has no wear areas and if so re-tie it. 

Types of Soft baits

The variety of soft baits available on the market is many in number and here in New Zealand we have only a small amount of them when considering how many actually exist. These consist of common shapes like jerk shads and minnows that where more widely used in the early days of soft bait fishing in New Zealand. Some variations of these stick type soft baits are available that offer variations to the tail section like Gulp jerk shad crazy legs. Lizards have the addition of extra legs on the main part of the body and are proving lethal at enticing the fish’s attention. A soft bait with more action when swimming can be the difference between success or not on days when fish are playing hard to get. The extra moving parts are also proving useful when considering other options like trolling that most soft baits can be used for. Curled grub tail type soft baits in smaller sizes are proving to be the most popular option with the four inch jigging grub the most effective here in NZ offering a fantastic swimming action when moved through the water. This makes them ideal for trolling and is really effective for the angler who likes to hang them straight down below the kayak so the soft bait drags along while drifting especially if a good current is running.  Larger soft baits with big thumping tails like six inch grubs, swim shads and the new Gulp nemesis can also be used for trolling as well as presenting down on the bottom. This type of soft bait works well when left to swim in a current or can be worked with a fast or slow retrieval for pelagic predators like kingfish. Then there are the soft baits shaped to resemble crabs and shrimps that also have their place especially when fishing for species that are known to eat them over other things. 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 soft bait is matching it to what the fish are feeding on. This is also true with size and a small soft bait 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 combinations like orange/green and red/green have proven to be consistent performers. As a general guide with range of colours it’s a good idea to include natural browns, greens, white, pink and semi clear bodies with fleck and glitter. These will usually perform in most places and from here be prepared to think outside the square in terms of colour over time you will get a feel for what is right in your fishing area.


There are many ways to present soft baits when encountering the ocean environment and the one you choose will have a direct influence on success. The most common technique when soft bait fishing is to cast ahead of the drift direction. When doing so it is important to keep in touch with the softbait as it sinks down because fish sit at different parts of the water column so will often prey on them during decent.  A cast of at least twenty to fifty meters is preferable to allow enough time for retrieve once on the sea floor. In water that is less than fifteen metres it is possible to immediately engage the bail arm so that the line tightens up yet is still able to sink because you are moving forward towards it. This will allow you to keep in touch with the softbait as it sinks down meaning any interest from fish will be detected. Water that is greater than fifteen meters will require you to allow for the extra depth especially if using fairly light weighted rigs. Once the rig has hit the water’s surface it is then possible to let line come off the reel spool during the early part of decent of about two thirds the total depth being fished. Do so by leaving the bail open placing your finger against the spool so you only allow line to come off the reel when it wants to avoiding loose line on the surface. Once it has reached a depth of two thirds then engage the bail arm and allow the line to tighten up so you are in touch with the soft bait and ready to react to any inquiry. This will allow the soft bait and rig to sink down without interruption reaching the bottom almost at the same distance as the cast. For example fishing with a three eights of an ounce jig head and four inch jigging grub will offer the angler a sink rate of around a second a meter. This makes it easy to work out how long it will take to get to the bottom and counting in your head will keep you up with this. I use the one a b, two a b, three a b etc technique to facilitate this and is quite accurate if counted consistently. If we look at a depth of twenty five meters using the above jig head weight with techniques of counting and letting line of the spool then at around eighteen seconds engage the bail arm to allow the line to tighten up for the last part of the decent. Another scenario that can happen when letting the soft bait down in deeper water is line running off the spool at a great rate of knots when the bail arm is open. This indicates a fish has grabbed the soft bait and is swimming away with it. All circumstances will require the setting of the hook which is done by lifting the rod and striking. When the bail arm is open you must quickly engage it allowing the line to tighten before making the strike. When letting your soft bait to sink down after a cast it is much better to keep the rod tip down parallel with the surface of the water pointing the rod tip towards the direction of the cast. 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 soft baits 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 anglers using soft baits 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 soft bait while sinking down and sometimes this is the only way the fish are feeding. When the soft bait hits the sea floor you may feel a light knock through the rod or alternatively line will go slack and loop towards you. When this happens take up the slack line by winding the reel and start working the soft bait 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 soft bait 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 soft bait 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 soft bait 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 soft bait to be dropped down and dragged out the back of the kayak which can also be done with the soft bait down underneath you. In this situation simply giving the rod tip a few lifts then lowering down again without winding can work well.

Another technique that works well when fishing over sandy areas is done by lowering a soft bait down so it is sitting just above the sea floor and place the rod in the holder. This allows the soft bait to swim along freely while using another rod for casting ahead of the drift. To get an insight into how the soft bait looks when it is moved around, simply lower the rig into the water just below the surface so it is able to be seen then move the rod tip. You will notice that whatever happens at the tip is repeated at the business end and having an understanding of movement can give you further confidence to work the soft bait. Soft bait movement is part of the key to success and sometimes using a more erratic action will be better than just letting it sit motionless. 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 soft bait 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. When fishing areas that have shallow water it is possible to use jig head weights that are lighter than normal like one sixth and quarter ounce. These will allow very slow sink rates plus don’t tend to fall through the kelp where the hook can become snagged. In deeper water use heavier jig heads and other specialist type rigs designed for soft baits that are readily available in most tackle stores. 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. Most fish will predate on a soft bait moved erratically however pelagic species like king fish prefer chasing fast moving soft baits. Using a larger grub tail works well on them and will require a jig head with decent size hook and more often heavier weighted head. This is because many king fish are found in areas with deeper water so you will need to get down in the depths. Once you are on or close to the bottom retrieving the soft bait at a fast rate is best with the odd pause thrown in randomly. This can be done in areas where you are fishing with mechanical jigs and can be just as deadly. Learning how to work your soft bait 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 soft bait 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. A gaff can be used to secure big fish like king fish by hooking through the lower jaw that allows you to pull the fish into your lap plus will allow release if preferred. It is a good idea to allow plenty of time when fighting large 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 get away with when initially hooking the fish. Remember to set that hook well and once you know that the fish is well away from the bottom perhaps 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 and big snapper 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. Larger fish can 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 possibly have your drift chute out when hook up happens and it may need to be retrieved to allow the fish to tow you around. It is a good idea to practice retrieving the drift chute so you are more prepared when this scenario arises. If you intend to target larger fish species like king fish it is best done with the assistance of a kayak fishing buddy that is a much safer option.

Safety is paramount when dealing with the marine environment and soft baits offer a safe, no mess convenient way of catching fish from the kayak.