Kayak Fishing for Trophy Game Fish
By Bluewater Jon Schwartz © 2008 www.bluewaterjon.com
As featured in Pacific Coast Sport Fishing - July 2008

Bluewater Jon's Note: To learn how to fish safely and effectively from a kayak, hire a licensed, professional guide. The information in this article is only intended to add what you learn from a guide on the water, not replace it.

4:30 am, Southern California Coast
Ahh, nothing like getting up early and being the first one on the beach, I muse as I make my way down towards the launch. My sense of self satisfaction evaporates as I drive over the last sand dune, my headlights revealing a bustling crowd of anglers. Much to my dismay, there’s already a long row of rigged kayaks, each armed with enough rods to outfit a small party boat, resembling a squadron of battleships poised for action. The bite must be hot- everyone’s got their game faces on, and there’s a palpable sense of urgency in the air. Three anglers make it past the breakers, precipitating a feeling of restlessness among those left watching. Like lemmings, the rest drag their kayaks past the surf into the dark haze, and within minutes, I’m alone. I’m tempted to rush in after them- their bait tanks’ll be full of greenbacks before I’m even in the water!- but I have an appointment- an appointment with Dark Horse.

Just before the clock strikes 5:00, a lone pair of headlights illuminates the surf’s mist in front of me. He has arrived. Unlike the rest of us, his manner is calm and unrushed. I stare at my watch and pace in the sand as he methodically secures his seat, bait tank, and fish finder. This guy’s either lazy...or he knows what he’s doing...

As we paddle out to the fishing grounds, he lays out our plans for the day. “The current has been slow in the morning and there’s been no nervous bait till the pm shift, so we only have a 10 percent chance of landing a white seabass. We’ll make bait just in case though, troll the outside ledge, and once everyone’s off the water at 10:00, the yellows will come out to play, and we’ll have them all to ourselves...”

Though his predication reeked of optimism and overconfidence, I tagged along gamely. Sure enough, the hours passed by, and the yakkers’ chatter on my handheld submersible VHF confirmed his forecast- no one had so much as a raked bait. One by one, the anglers I saw on the beach that had bristled with such energy and expectation in the predawn hours paddled by us in silent resignation, and by 10:00- almost to the minute- we were the only two out on the water.

Using triangulation, he directed us towards the spot in the open water where he promised-guaranteed, really- that he’d show me schools of yellowtails breezing on the surface. “I need you to be on my left so I can see them coming” he stated as he rose on his knees to get a better view of things, “and lose that mac you’re trolling-we won’t be using bait until the paddle home at sunset.”

I snapped a couple of photos and noticed a spectacular pattern of clouds forming to the West. Twisted fingers of mist swirled out from a fog bank on the horizon. Instantly our game plan changed- we knew we had mere minutes to make it to shelter before we were completely enveloped in a dangerous whiteout.

The kelp offered us the nearest refuge, and no sooner did we tie off the sterns of our kayaks to some healthy fingers of kelp than 20 knot gusts of wind began to buffet our tiny plastic crafts, making a howling sound as they churned up the once calm water into a sea of whitecaps. The kelp held true, and we managed to ride out the passing front after 45 minutes of fairly hairy conditions.

Once again the skies opened up, and we paddled back to the spot. Dark Horse assumed the unorthodox lookout post on his knees, and after several hours of plying the waters, the first school of yellows came into view. I should say, his view- I never saw them coming, until they were right next to my kayak- but what a sight! At least 20 of them, a good 25-35 pounds each, mere inches below the water, and not more than 6 feet off my starboard.

Sensing his moment, Dark Horse took out his Seeker Ulua 9’3” 40-60# jig stick loaded with 40 pound, and threw a Salas 7x Blue and White well past the school. After a few cranks, the line came taught, and the sleigh ride began. 10 minutes later, he’s slipping a game clip through a 34 pound yellowtail’s gills. I guess he knew what he was doing after all!

By the time we returned to shore- 14 hours after we’d launched- I had peppered him with enough questions to make a 5 year old blush. How did he know my bait wasn’t going to get bit? How’d he put us directly in the path of a marauding school of yellows? Answer: hard work. It turns out that Dark Horse- aka Josh Pruitt- gained his knowledge by spending huge amounts of time on the water on his small stealthy craft, observing the offshore environment in it’s natural state.

Because kayaks are relatively slow, can’t haul around a great deal of gear, and have a tiny amount of work space, many kayakers have, by necessity, learned to maximize each process and window of opportunity. Some have honed their knowledge of fish behavior, effects of tide, current, water temp, moon phase, and observational skills to a level previously associated with top sport fishing captains. This article will discuss some of the basics of kayak fishing, and will also delve into some more advanced information that readers can strive to make use of on the water. Before we do that, though, let us consider safety.

Hire a licensed, professional guide, such as Jeff “Rhino” Krieger or Jim Sammons of La Jolla Kayak Fishing (see resources) and never fish alone. Look for Josh Pruitt himself to be starting up his own guiding service as well! I strongly recommend joining an online kayak fishing discussion board. There, you will be able to meet fishing partners and find more detailed answers to the many questions you’ll have. Start out on small fish, in protected waters. Always wear a PFD, file a float plan, carry a submersible VHF radio, first aid kit, duct tape, GPS, manual bilge pump, cell phone in waterproof case, whistle, headlamp, compass, and flashlight. Learn how to re-enter your kayak. Tether your rods and gear to your yak. Consult online websites for recent information on weather, paying particular attention to wind, current, and swell conditions.

Adi Ljubovic, of Socal’s own Kayak Fishing Supplies and the popular website Big Water’s Edge, relates “I won’t launch if the wind is over 10 knots or the swell is over 3 feet, and if I hear there’s a possibility for Santa Anna offshore wind conditions, I’ll stay home.”

Because you’re doing it all yourself- prepping your gear, getting to the grounds, catching bait, finding, hooking and landing the fish- the potential rewards of kayak fishing are without parallel- but so are the perils.

Consider this tale: a newcomer to the sport, whose prior experience consisted of kayak fishing Dana Point Harbor, hit the jackpot on his maiden offshore kayak voyage, landing a 40 pound white seabass.

The next morning at the launch, he proudly showed me his impressive collection of gear, including a shiny new kayak emblazoned with the sticker Fear No Fish. Hours later and miles from shore, I saw someone fall off their kayak, and paddled over to lend a hand. The angler had a look of panic of his face; he’d lost every last piece of equipment as he’d neglected to secure them to his kayak, and his PFD was floating 20 yards away- he wasn’t wearing it when he flipped. Once I helped him right his craft, I saw the Fear No Fish sticker, and only then realized it was the same fellow I’d met that morning on the beach!

Lastly, as Socal big game kayak fishing pioneer and guide Jeff “Rhino” Krieger (of Threshers Yak Style fame) advises, cut loose any fish that poses a threat to your safety while minimizing the amount of line that trails behind the fish, and don’t attempt to land any fish unless you know you can handle it.

Bait Tanks
Kayakers’s interest in constructing the perfect bait tank seems to border on the obsession. The basics stay the same- small battery powering a bilge pump that draws water into a container somewhere on the kayak- but the variations are endless. There’s videos on how to build your own, endless how-to’s on yakking websites, and nowadays, you can buy your own pre-made outfits. Heck, one particularly crafty company, Angler’s Yak Shack, installs custom bait tanks inside kayaks!

Rods, Reels & Line
Anglers often take four 7 foot rods on their yaks in the 30 pound class. They’ll have a rod or two set up for bait, often running simultaneously, one straight to hook for flylining, the other set up with a 2-3 oz sinker Carolina style to reach fish father down the water column. For years, yakkers lost many fish that lodged themselves in the kelp. Now, many use 50 pound braid tied with a small swivel to a short 2-5 foot 30 pound

flourocarbon leader. The braided line cuts through the kelp, sometimes enabling the angler to raise prizes they’d have to give up on until recently. Two rods may be set up for a combination of surface and bottom jigs, and if the angler’s jig-stick-savvy like Pruitt, they may have one onboard strung up with 40# line.

Where’s the hot spot? You’ll have to do some of your own research on that! The truth is, trophy white seabass have been landed by kayakers from Ventura, Malibu, and all points Southward, and until recently, the biggest yellowtail I had landed was in Encinitas, so go figure. Chances are if you see a large patch of kelp, there’s bait, and where there’s bait, there’s predators. In this article, we’ll focus on putting you on two of the tastiest: yellowtail and white seabass.

Making Bait
To locate bait, you’re going to want to find some structure towards the surface, such as kelp or a pier. Get a fishfinder. You may elect to attach the unit on a removable mount on the deck, securing a transducer permanently on the interior floor of your craft, or use a portable model like the Humminbird PiranhaMax 215 with a suction mount transducer stuck under your hull. Locate densely packed schools of bait. If you can’t find them, chum with some cat food, tuna fish, or dried bread crumbs, and jig a bait making Sabiki rig up and down at different depths. Tip the tiny hooks with small pieces of squid , and tie a 3-4 oz Crocodile(without hook) to the swivel end to add flash and get the rig down quickly. Some yakkers have dedicated bait rods, while others choose to switch out their bait rigs with an iron once they’ve filled their tanks. Many kayakers swear by greenback mackerel, while others say that spanish macs are equally effective.

Trolling Bait
Pruitt recommends nose hooking your baits using a hook that matches the width of your bait’s nose, and cautions against using oversized hooks. “Besides providing an unnatural presentation,” says Pruitt, “larger hooks also have the tendency to foul hook the bait, resulting in a missed opportunity from your one strike of the day.” When the fish aren’t biting, he’ll downsize his hooks and line size, switching from 30 to 20 pound line.

According to Pruitt, yellows prefer baits flylined at the surface, while the seabass will go for baits 20-30 feet down the water column- your weighted rigs. Getting the right bait is crucial. Sometimes 6-8 inch macs will do just fine. However, if the yellows are keyed in on sardines, they’ll rarely hit mackerel, so he’ll use a light-line sabiki at greylight to load up on sardines. Conversely, in summer, he relates, ”When the entire ocean forces itself upon our local waters, including bonito, barracuda, and small yellowtail, I’ll use larger baits- macs up to 12 inches-to prevent bycatch. Larger, healthy baits tend to entice strikes only from yellowtail

and last longer on the hook.” Changing out your baits regularly will enhance your chances of enticing a strike. Baits are trolled anywhere’s from 20-50 yards behind the yak at slow paddling speeds, with the reel’s clickers set just tight enough to keep the bait from pulling line.

Your kayak will allow you to nuzzle right up to the white ghosts’ lairs in the kelp, but when targeting yellows, stay much farther away from these dense underwater forests; being much harder fighters pound for pound, they are much harder to wrest from the kelp once they’ve found sanctuary.

Fish Think

Yellowtail and white seabass also contrast markedly in the way they’ll strike baits. According to Pruitt, yellowtail prefer a strong current and eat baits quickly. In contrast, white seabass- even 50 pounders- are generally apprehensive when eating, prefer to inspect the bait thoroughly, and nibble on baits before they fully commit.

I have personally found this to be a nerve-wracking proposition. I’ve been in close to the kelp and heard the clicker start to chirp, indicating a predator is slowly approaching my nervous bait. Guessing the fish is a seabass, I have to wait patiently until he runs with it for at least several seconds; at the same time, I know that the longer I let it run, the greater the chance that they’ll bury themselves in the kelp.

Pruitt points out a similar Catch.22 scenario with an unlikely candidate: the 40+ pound homeguard yellows. Because they’re older and wiser, he recommends choosing a lighter stretch of flouro leader-down to 20, or even 15- pounds. You’ll have to use some finesse and get lucky to raise a fish of that size with such a light leader, of course; that’s why you don’t see too many anglers boating these beasts!

Landing Fish
In addition to keeping your fish out of the kelp, you’ll likely have to contend with sea lions at some point. Not only will they sometimes follow you around and steal your baits- they may devour your trophy as it sulks beneath you during a protracted fight. If you manage to get the fish up unmolested, sink a gaff into its head or shoulders, pull it onto your lap, insert a game clip through it’s gills, and stow the fish across your legs, on the kayak’s tankwell, or in your front hatch. Leaving it in or near the water will attract sea lions and possibly sharks, so, uh, don’t.

Southern California offers some of the best yellowtail and white seabass fishing in the world, and as a kayak angler, you’ll have the opportunity to fully exploit the immense potential of this region. The thrill of landing a trophy on a kayak is matched by an increase in risk factors. Conditions can change in an instant, and the lake-like conditions that you paddled out it in can quickly morph into a frothing cauldron. Be cautious, conservative, and curious; anyone can get lucky, but to safely catch fish on a consistent basis, you’ll have to study the sport and the ocean diligently.

About The Author
When he's not teaching elementary school in San Diego, 'Bluewater' Jon Schwartz travels the globe searching for new big game kayak fishing adventures. His website, www.bluewaterjon.com, features stories, photographs, and videos documenting his quests, and contains a thorough list of kayak fishing websites, tips, equipment, information, and guides. A member of the OWAA (Outdoor Writer’s Association of America), Jon has published articles in Sport Fishing Magazine, Pacific Coast Sport Fishing, Big Game Fishing Journal, The Gringo Gazette, Canoe & Kayak Online, Marlin World, appeared in Field & Stream, and operates a multi-media consulting business, Bluewater Jon Productions, LLC. He's been kayak fishing since 2002, and recently hooked, fought, and released 8 marlin from his kayak in 2 days.

You can view footage from that event by clicking here. If you need an article written for your publication, footage for your network, or just want to chat, drop him a line- he’d love to hear from you!

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