Ocean Kayak Fishing for dummies
This is a guide to get you started in Kayak fishing, formerly known as “surfski” fishing.
We are slowly switching to the word “kayak” because it is “international” and gets you more hits on your website.
What is it?
Kayak fishing is the sport of trying to catch fish from a kayak, canoe or fishing-ski. Originally pioneered by the eskimo’s, South Africans have developed our own version of this sport. Combined with the latest technology, and typical South African rugged ingenuity, we are now exporting our flavor of this sport throughout the world, where it is especially popular in Australia.
Fishing kayaks have replaced the old ski-vees which were paddle powered mini-ski boats, wide stable and with a hatch, by combining the design of the ski-vee with surfskis used for off shore paddle racing, lightweight, narrow, unstable, fast but with an understern rudder.
Kayak fishing comes with its own challenges, most notably: lack of space, proximity to the water, exposure to the elements and the need for physical exertion. The advantages of kayak fishing are the ability to position oneself close to the fish, both when targeting them and fighting them; being mobile and quiet; and being able to launch just about anywhere without special permits or qualifications.
The advantages over shore fishing are that you choose your proximity to the fish. Since you are able to position yourself so close to the fish, specialized casting tackle is not needed, and more species can be targeted. The disadvantages compared to shore based angling are the exposure to the elements, and danger; the additional cost of a kayak; the lack of comforts (Southern Comforts don’t go well with paddling); and the shorter duration of fishing trips due to fatigue.
The advantages over ski boat fishing are cheaper setup costs; cheaper running costs and launching fees; quieter hunting; no dependency on crew; no restrictions on launching; no need for a skipper’s license; no need for a 4x4 for launching. Disadvantages are limited space, limited range, limited speed, no comforts, exposure to the elements. This makes it very difficult to catch and use livebait on a fishing ski, or to travel to other locations if your initial choice is not working, it also puts many reefs out of range, most places more than 1km offshore are not practical or safe for kayak fishermen to attempt to fish. Remember: EVERYTHING on a ski gets wet. Nothing is sacred to salt water.
Is it a craze?
Part of the recent popularity of kayak fishing can be attributed to reduced fish catches. Many shore anglers have moved to kayak fishing in the hopes of being able to target more species. More ski-boat fishermen are using kayaks due to cost. If you are going to spend the whole day and R1000 on petrol just to catch 1 Couta, you may as well try to catch that same Couta off a kayak for 3 hours with no petrol costs.
Kayak fishing is also popular to competitive surfski paddlers because it is a form of cross-training with the additional excitement of fishing. Many wind-based sports people also do kayak fishing because it keeps them occupied during periods of no wind.
Understanding some of the rationale of kayak fishing will save you many frustrations and help you to have a better time. There is a secret to Kayak Fishing.
Secret Number 1 in kayak fishing is mental attitude. Learning this one thing will help you not to become grumpy, will get you fitter, will improve your family relations, and ultimately will mean that you catch more fish. Here is the secret of kayak fishing: The point of kayak fishing is not actually to catch fish, it’s to go for a paddle, with the potential of some excitement of fighting a fish. If you have this attitude, you will enjoy your kayak fishing much more. When you have launched 10 times and returned with no fish; when you catch your fifth shark and have donated R150 worth of bait and tackle to their sharp teeth; when you get dumped so badly that your ski needs R500 worth of repairs; when you can’t launch for the 3rd weekend in a row while everyone else is catching; and when your only decent gamefish caught snaps you off at the gaff. If you remember Secret number 1: “I had a good paddle and some additional excitement”, it makes the whole trip seem worthwhile. Something for you to think about while spending ½ an hour washing down your kit.
I remember when I started, after 4 months of not catching a gamefish. Bemoaning the fact to Dazz, he said, “ If you haven’t caught a Couta by February I will buy all your equipment.” I knew I had to change my attitude. I did catch that Couta, but it was another six months before I caught another, and a year before I caught a Snoek. While Markus mentions his catch figures of 70 Snoek in a few months, at that time I had never had one on my braai and its easy to get demoralised. I am still waiting to land a Dorado, Wahoo or Sailfish, and my freezer is more often than not empty, but I still paddle at least once a week, and have some excitement of some kind just about every time I launch.
Boat:Since the main point of the exercise is paddling let’s discuss the craft. Officially, we all talk about kayak fishing but we still call our vessel a ski, surfski or fishing ski. Don’t try and use one of those modern racing skis to fish off, the bucket seats are too low and you can’t put your legs over the sides when stationary. You can use the old “Paulskis”, but any ski without a flap up hatch long enough to fit your rods inside is a bit of a mission to use. Many guys use plastic skis with great success, but in heavy surf, you need to spend quite a bit of effort securing your tackle and fish because they normally don’t have the long rectangular hatches that the fiberglass skis have. The plastic ski’s are normally a bit slower and don’t often have rudders, however in many cases, for traditional drift fishing, this doesn’t matter at all. The advantage of plastics, is that usually they have other seating options for taking family members on dams, they are much stronger, and because they are molded they often have provision for accessories like drinks holders, slots for pedal-power, and holes for sails.
The most popular boat for the large surf coastlines is the fiberglass ski with large hatch. Everything is stored out of the way in the hatch which is strapped closed. Almost every paddling trip begins or ends in a ski tumbling in the waves because of the power of the surf and shore break, so it is important that all equipment is stowed away, and it is easiest to do this in the large hatch ski’s, no tying down needed.
Paddle shapes don’t really matter in our sport, it’s not a race so if you prefer the flat blade paddles over the cupped blades (called “wing blades”), it will make little difference to the amount of fish you catch! You might get a bit more tired on the long stretches with flat paddles, and the heavier non carbon-fibre paddles will build your muscles quicker, but when starting out, buy whatever ski and paddle you can get. I always say, learn on old equipment because you are going to trash it anyway, there is so much stuff to learn in this sport, once you have learnt it, then make a good choice about some new equipment and sell the old stuff. If you are novice paddler start with flat paddles because they are easier to brace yourself with when a bit wobbly. The technique for bracing with wing blades is to actually take a wide paddle stroke which is not easy when you are a beginner. Wings generally are weaker and break easier.
Second Hand Ski: R4000
Second Hand Paddle: R500
As mentioned, one of the disadvantages of this sport is the increased exposure to danger. You will need to invest money and effort in reducing your risk of getting caught in a dangerous situation. Just like putting on your seatbelt in a car is a hassle and uncomfortable, and you may not have actually used its safety features over 10 years of driving doesn’t diminish the importance of going through the motions of putting it on. Do not skimp on safety equipment! There are three categories of safety equipment: short term (required for situations of 3 minutes of survival), medium term (required for situations involving a few hours of survival) and comfort (required to ensure that you stay out of the other two situations). We generally do not cater for long term survival of a few days because our range means we are close to the shore, and prevailing winds blow us on to shore. If you intend paddling more than 1km from land or in off-shore prevailing winds, consider beefing up your safety with a medical kit, an EPIRB (Emergency Personal Radio Beacon), and more food and drink.
3 minute survival gear:
How long can you hold your breath? For most of us it is less than 3 minutes so you don’t want to be put in a situation where you are going to need to hold your breath for longer than that! A life jacket, now known as a “PFD” or Personal Floatation Device (sounds like some kind of contraception!) is what you will need here. It must always be used for launching where there is the most risk of being knocked off your boat and getting into an exhausted situation. The life jacket allows you a few seconds of relaxation without needing to swim after getting a beating by the surf. It should always be used while on any water, even dams and estuaries, sometimes people take them off while fishing, but actually this is a very dangerous time because it is not that difficult to get yourself attached to the fish you are trying to land (either by hook or by line), falling off your ski and getting dragged down by your fish. Another reason which we all say “will never happen to me”, is more sinister. I have a healthy friend who had a blackout for no reason and fell off his ski, unconscious, 1km out to sea. If he had not been wearing a life jacket, he would have died in 3 minutes.
Spend around R500 on a life jacket and wear it! Buy a good one, it is the one thing that you will spend hundreds of hours in.
Life Jacket: R500
Medium term survival gear:
This gear is used for signaling when in distress, or for helping others in distress. Here you will need:
Cell phone in waterproof pouch. Most people use a second cheap phone for this since it invariably gets wet and destroyed at some point in time. Don’t be tempted to take your Blackberry mp3 player out with you. Experiments have shown that a cell phone is possibly the most useful piece of safety equipment since you can call rescuers and then talk to them and guide them to you. You will always spot the helicopter/rescue craft before it spots you. Cell phones are also useful for contacting your buddies to see if they have caught anything or to brag about your catch. Have the number written on your ski, or get a free sticker from http://www.coutacrazy.co.za
Rope. This is useful for towing a fellow paddler in trouble. But keep it securely tied away, a loose rope in the surf zone is highly dangerous.
Flares. These are needed for signaling and can show your exact position, being visible for a few kilometers. You will need to bite the bullet and buy these, they are not cheap and they expire after a few years. The type to buy are pencil flares (so called because they have a grip that looks like a pencil). They are fired like a bullet that shoots off into the sky leaving a trail which lingers for a few seconds.
Waterproof pouch for cell phone: R270
This is gear that generally won’t keep you alive or assist with your rescue, but is needed to sustain you and protect you from the elements.
Water: 1litre of water should be carried in addition to your juice, in emergencies, this will give you a few extra hours on the water before dehydration sets in and causes you to lose your strength.
Underwater epoxy: this can be useful if you are paddling long distances from your launch spot and you develop or notice a crack in your hull, you could make some running repairs.
Duct tape: this is standard duzi canoe marathon equipment and is really useful for fixing cracks, sealing wounds, making splints, fixing paddles and generally holding broken stuff together. Beware: the surfaces need to be dry, and not salty for it to work properly.
Water bottle: R5
Duct Tape: R50
Waterproof container to hold the above: R30
You will definitely need a hat to protect you from the sun, and it can be used as a glove when handling bill-fish (Ask Keith Hockly or read his Sailfish on Onde-Onde story on http://www.fishingcorner.co.za). Put it in your through the surf, and put it on as soon as you get out otherwise it will get fish slime or bait blood on it and be banished from stinking out the house when you get home.
You should wear a rash vest, this prevents chafe from your life-jacket (which hopefully doesn’t apply because you did buy the expensive “comfort model” life jacket didn’t you?). More importantly, buy a long-sleeve one which protects you from the sun. Skin cancer on the arms is not cheap. You can also save on the amount of sun-screen you need to apply. Rumour has it that sunscreen getting on your bait puts the fish off so the less of it around the better.
You should apply sunscreen to exposed areas, face, neck, ears, top of legs and hands. Most convenient is the aerosol type since they are non greasy and only need one hand to apply. Greasy hands when paddling out can cause you to slip on your paddle stroke.
Just use any shorts that don’t come off when you swim. Don’t use long pants, they are dangerous for swimming.
Sunglasses are optional, the water droplets on the lenses can cause irritation and vertigo. They can help see fish however we don’t normally do sight fishing like in the rivers of New Zealand, so it is not essential to see the fish to target them, unless you are fishing for Bonito or other surface live bait. If fishing the early morning shift, the sun is not that intense so there is not much glare on the water.
Rash vest: R170
Big Bin for wet clothes in the car: R100
Big Bin for Fish in the car: R100
(You should have your own shorts?)
When starting out, keep it simple. Buy one rod, one reel and one lure and paddle that around for about 5 or ten trips. This advice was given to me, and has been given to others, and you will be surprised how many times a beginner has caught a fish while other guys have got nothing on the day.
A lure is easy to use, it is designed to swim properly with no adjustment, doesn’t get eaten off by small fish, and is attractive to a large range of species. It doesn’t sink, but swims at a good depth, and it doesn’t stink if you leave it in your car boot the whole day! It is also easy and quick to tie on once you get out to backline, which means you have more time actually fishing and less time fiddling.
There is so much you are going to have to contend with, and learn on your first few trips: balance, swells, paddling fitness, hatches, rod holders , paddle holders, setting the drag, letting out line. Just keep the fishing part simple. Put on a rapala or halco and paddle it around for a few hours. Yes, people do say that lures need to be fast moving, but I have caught my biggest couta on a stationary halco. The couta must have been watching it because I took a break, had some juice, and as I pulled off, I was on by the time I had taken my 3rd stroke. Surfnick ONLY fishes with lures off his ski, and catches at least one decent fish a week in season including tuna, couta and snoek.
Buy the cheap rods designed for paddle ski fishing. They are robust and fit in most hatches. Ask at your fishing shop. I say, BUY THE CHEAP ONES when you are a beginner because they take a hammering in and out the hatch. Rods can be considered disposable items since you will probably break one on a shark at some point!
Buy any of the multiplier reels. Don’t go for the really cheap ones because they aren’t really cheap and won’t last. I have some Penn jigmaster reels that are over 20 years old, but Penn are notorious for lack of support in the spares department, and the body cracks if you drop them in the car park. Just put any line on the reel, don’t go for the expensive line, line is not very important in kayak fishing because you are never really fighting the fish, just reeling yourself towards it, and allowing it to tow you along, and go for the odd sprint. You don’t have to contend with rocks, casting, wind, snagging, shock, etc. like in rock and surf and skiboat fishing. You also mostly only use the first 50m of line on your reel, the other 200m is only needed if you catch a really big and fast gamefish or billfish.
You will need to buy a gaff to land your fish, and you will need a knife. Buy a cheap one, they invariably end up overboard. Seeing your personally engraved leatherman sinking to the bottom is a really memorable feeling. It happened to me 10 years ago and I still haven’t got another one. But you can get cheap imitations that cost about R70 and last pretty well.
You can’t have too many knives on board, I normally take 3 out with me. You always need one close at hand to cut line, cut bait (when you start making snoek taces), and get hooks out of fishes mouths. Your knife is going to be the thing that gets you out of an entanglement situation.
A pair of pliers is also very useful for getting hooks out of fish’s mouths.
A pair of scissors is the most useful piece of equipment you can take onboard. It is the easiest way of cutting line – no sawing needed like with a knife, it can be used for trimming baits to get them to swim better, it is useful for trimming all the cotton off a snoek fillet that has been smashed by a fish, and you can easily neaten up the tag end of your line after tying a knot. Scissors come into their own when cutting off a shark on the wire trace, they cut wire really well when it is under tension.
Don’t worry about flick sticks, couta traces, bait, dropshots, spinning reels, yozuris, GPs, fish finders, or anything else you may be tempted to buy. You don’t need that stuff to catch fish. Sure it helps, but keep it simple for the first 10 trips and add those things one at a time.
Remember: a fish is not going to inspect your boat, rods and reels to see if you are worthy of catching it.
That’s about it, you’re all set for your first launch.
Rod Leash: R30 (Paddle leash type) R200: proper type.
Your first launch
Check windguru and buoyweather for a day that has little wind (less than 7knots up until 11am) and little swell (less than 1.5m the whole day). Prepare everything the night before. Contact a paddling partner to launch with. Load your ski onto your car, put all your tackle and safety equipment into your car (or your ski if it is light enough to carry loaded on your own). Don’t forget your paddle, and if there is anything you need to pack in the morning (like juice, bait and food from the freezer) write a note and put it on your windscreen to remind you. Also put 2x2liter bottles of water into the car for washing your ski.
Get your clothes ready, charge your cell phone and set the quietest alarm you can for 3:30 am. Why so early? Generally the wind is less early, the sun is not as intense, and some species of fish bite more early. You can be back home at 8:30 without disrupting too much of your family time.
If you know you get seasick, then take a tablet before you go to bed, it will help you sleep and still be in the system for the first few hours after you launch. If you take one when you wake up, it invariably kicks in the middle of that boring presentation back at work!
When you wake up. Leave the room in the dark with everything you need! Don’t subject your spouse to your fiddling around collecting your stuff and sending sms’s to your buddy!
Check the wind conditions, by looking out of the window, online using METARS, or by using the sms service. If it’s over 7 knots at 3:30 am, go back to bed.
It is not essential to change out of your pajamas, nobody at the car-park notices. It is not essential to eat early, most people can go without food until 8am. DO NOT DRINK HIGH SUGAR CONTENT DRINKS early. If you do, your body detects a high sugar level in your blood, pumps insulin into the blood to process the sugar, the sugar disappears just as you hit the shore break, but the insulin is still around, and by the time you need to put in a burst of speed to make it to backline you are wondering why your arms feel like two floppy pool noodles.
At the beach, offload your ski and carry it to the first bit of beach, then load everything in so you can drag it down to the surf by the back handle. Put your cell phone in its waterproof pouch, a good place for the cell phone, drink and food, and safety equipment is in the back circular hatch. Bear in mind that this hatch does often take in water so don’t expect your sarmies to stay dry. Put anything you don’t mind getting smelly into the big hatch.
Put the reel onto the rod, put the rod-leash on as well. Push the rod into the hatch first, you may have to bend it and slide it in eyes up at first, then rotate the rod and slide it eyes down for the rest of the way. Never force it. If it is sticking, look in the hatch for something snagging it, like something in the rod guide or line, or tackle.
It is best not to rig the rod with the line and lure on the beach, it makes it harder to get out the hatch, and an undetected nick on the line due to handling, could mean you lose a fish.
Wait on the beach for a gap in the surf. If there are no gaps in the surf or you feel unsure, load your ski on the car, drive to some flat water and have a good paddle then go home. Never go home at 4:40 am, you will wake everyone up and they will be grumpy with you.
Once you have made your decision to launch, when you see a lull in the waves, push your ski out, jump on as fast as possible and then paddle like crazy till you get out behind the waves. Paddle another 50m just to be safe. Yes, you will be tired and out of breath! But that’s all there is to launching. You can read some of the articles and watch movie clips for the finer points, but basically you must paddle hard to get out, and don’t waste time in the surf zone.
If you fall off, try and hold onto the back strap with one hand and your paddle with the other for as long as possible, until a lull in the waves, point the ski in the right direction, get back on and paddle as fast as you can. Rinse, repeat, as often as needed to get out.
Always consider the surf and feel free to go home if you feel unsure, there will be plenty of other days where the surf is as flat as a lake. A friend of mine is an excellent fisherman, spearfisherman and skiboater and a good fit paddler and swimmer, but he will consider the surf for at least half an hour before launching, and as keen as he is for fishing on any particular day, will often go home without trying to launch, even if others have made it out.
The shore break has cracked two of my skis. If it is dark, and you still launch without noticing, you can get into big trouble as your ski sinks out at sea.
Remember, with surfski fishing the motto is: GO SMALL OR GO HOME. If the surf is small for your capabilities then launch, otherwise go home.
You have a heavier craft, more equipment and a 50% slower hull design than racing skis, so you need double the length of lull to get out than a racing ski, so don’t judge the conditions on previous knowledge or watching others, judge it on your confidence, fitness and paddling abilities.
Your first “Angle”Fishing is catching fish, angling is trying to catch fish. Time to do some angling.
Slide your paddle, blade face down, into the stretchy paddle holder on the nose of your boat. Don’t slide it up to the shaft otherwise it can swivel away from you in the water. With the stretchy over the wide part of the blade it is most secure. Watch your paddle often to check that it is still in place. Many paddles have drifted away silently, paddles are devious things, continually seeking their freedom.
Re-organise any stuff that might have got moved around in your hatch, put your hat on. Push most of the stuff back under your seat to free up the rod. Pull the rod out gently, don’t fight it. Immediately put the rod-leash on. The best place is to secure it to the carrying handle by your knees and not at the back lugs near the rod holders because when using the rod it is always in front of you anyway. Rods are not lost by fish but in moments of absent mindedness or when falling over.
Make sure there is no sand on the butt of the rod and put it in the rod holder. A rod stuck in a rod holder is a big problem. (Consider paddling in, tying your ski it onto your roof racks, driving down your drive at home, all with a rod sticking out. It happened to me.)
Get your lure out, position your gaff, knife, pliers and scissor in the hatch so that they can be reached quickly with one hand. Close the hatch and secure it with one strap in case you fall over.
Loosen the drag, NOT FREE SPOOL or you will get an overwind, thread the line through the rod guides. Tie the lure on using a normal fishing knot, or a rapala knot if you want to be fancy, but only use knots you have previously practiced and tested. Don’t worry about trimming off the excess line after your knot, the fish don’t mind, I asked them.
Lift the rod out of the rod holder and drag the lure through the water next to the boat and check that it is wiggling correctly, and that the line is not snagged around one of the hooks.
Put the rod back in the rod holder, click the reel onto free spool, without the noisy ratchet on. Pick up your paddle (if it’s still there) and paddle 5 strokes, look back and see that the line is running off the spool. Paddle another 20 strokes in a straight line. Put your paddle back in the paddle holder, take your rod out of the rod holder. Click the lever back onto drag. Pull some line out to test the drag. I like my drag set tight so I really have to pull the line hard, I believe this helps the hooks to set properly when the fish takes, but others have different thoughts. Once the drag is set, click the small clicker over to engage the ratchet, you may have to wiggle the spool to do this on some of the cheaper reels. Pull some more line out to check if the drag is still set correctly and the clicker is clicking. Enjoy the sound!
Put the rod back in the rod holder. Do a visual check to see that the line is not wrapped around the rod tip, any part of the reel or the back handle at the back of your boat.
Go for a good paddle around, close to backline, deeper out, up and down. Faster, slower.
Your first fish
Eventually, when you least expect it, your reel will make a loud buzzing noise. Take two hard strokes to set the hooks. Put your paddle in the paddle holder, reach around and take your rod out of the rod holder. Hold the rod tip towards the front of the boat, this will bring the nose of the ski round to follow the fish which will hopefully start towing you. Reel yourself towards the fish. You may need to tighten the drag a bit. Just be ready to loosen the drag, or help the spool a bit by pushing it if the fish decides to make a run, you want to let it go on its run, and reel it back in when it’s not running. I am no expert fisherman, please correct me if my technique is incorrect. Remember, fishing ski technique is different from Rock and Surf and Ski boat technique.
Eventually you will be directly above the fish. Try to bring it up inch by inch. Hold your hand at the top of the rod grip and lean backwards. As the fish comes up drop the rod tip, lean forwards and reel in. Repeat. If the fish makes a dash for it, let it go, and start again. Open your hatch, make sure your gaff is available. If not, loosen your drag, put the rod in the rod holder, and sort yourself out, then continue fighting.
When the fish is alongside and within reach, get your gaff out and try to hook the fish. You will probably miss. The fish will probably run. Let it, and fight it back to the boat. When gaffing, try to avoid the line, keep trying to gaff it until you succeed, once gaffed, the fish will go mad, loosen your drag and get the fish into the hatch as soon as possible, don’t worry about undoing the hooks, just put everything into the hatch including the gaff. Once in the hatch, cut the line, put the rod in the hatch, put your hat in the back hatch (because your main hatch is now full of couta slime), and paddle back to shore, no point is staying out at sea with your first fish on board!
When coming back in to the beach, put away every bit of equipment. Make sure all hatches are tightly sealed. Wait at backline and observe the swells. The idea is not to surf the biggest wave in like a surfer, the idea is to try and find the last of the big waves, and paddle in during a lull in the waves. Once you have made your decision about a lull, paddle as fast as you can to get yourself past the impact zone. Hopefully, past the impact zone, a small wave will pick up and you can ride this back in. KEEP PADDLING fast, even while on a wave, otherwise it will push you sideways like a stick.
DO NOT RIDE THE WAVE ONTO THE BEACH unless the surfski manufacturer has given you a lifetime guarantee, just before you hit the beach, jump off into chest deep water, hold onto your paddle, allow the ski to ride up the beach without you. Quickly get out of the way of the ski and get out of the water, try and grab the ski by the back handle and drag it out of the surf. Sit down on the beach exhausted but content with another good day’s paddling.
I find its best to clean the fish on the beach because you can easily dispose of the guts. NEVER TAKE AN UNPROTECTED FISH INTO YOUR KITCHEN. Unload your ski, putting all wet stuff in one bin and the fish in another. Try to keep stuff with fish slime on it together and away from everything else, it is very hard to get off. Wash the sand off the ski with the 2liter water. Load the ski.
At home, rinse off all tackle with fresh water. Let everything drip dry. Rinse the ski, make sure no stuff is left in the hatch to rot. Store the ski upside down off the ground.
Fillet the fish on some newspaper OUTSIDE THE KITCHEN. Wrap the fillets in glad wrap and put them in the freezer. Some people like eating fish heads so offer it to your cleaning staff at work, they may want it.
Throw the rest of the fish skeleton into your neighbours bin because it is really going to stink.
Enjoy your first fish!
Get in a routine doing the basic stuff, which allows you to innovate in other areas. Get fit slowly and this will build your confidence.
Don’t get depressed when you don’t catch, enjoy the paddle! Don’t get depressed about catching sharks, I love catching sharks, it tests my knots, strengthens my arms, gives me fighting experience. Don’t damage the sharks please, and don’t bring them onto your ski, they are dangerous.
Written by Fish Feeda from fishing corner