It wasn’t all that long ago when sharing a photo like the one below would get you placed on the FAA’s “no fly” list. Assuming you just returned from some exotic fishing adventure in a third world country possibly targeting the Goliath Tigerfish or other gnarly beast when you foul hooked this thing. It’s obviously infected and you were forced to eat it when your guides abandoned you at the sight of the infectious creature. That’s pretty much the expression I see on faces when I tell people I fish for grass carp. Sorry, this isn’t a survival story or an episode of “River Monsters.” It’s a fishtale but there’s a method to my madness.
I’m not lucky enough to practice my skinny water redfish game on a regular basis. So I found an alternative, swamp sails. Redfish and swamp sails don’t have a lot in common. The tactics for catching one will not help you catch the other. Seriously, take a 6wt and 8lb fluorocarbon leader on a redfishing trip and tell me how that works out for you. However, they do share a fondness for the shallows which means that targeting them on the fly from a kayak is almost identical in method. The method being how you approach them in skinny water.
It’s always fun to take someone sightfishing for the first time and watch as the excitement of spotting fish after fish gets replaced with the frustration of spooking fish after fish. They eventually realize the fish spotted them when they did their happy dance on top of the kayak. A happy dance goes like this – Kayak ninja is paddling in paddle deep water, sees a tail sticking out of the water and gets really excited. In the process of stopping the kayak from drifting closer and replacing the paddle with the weapon of choice. The stealthy angler ends up disemboweling the kayak with the paddle alerting the aquatic world to their presence. They watch in disgust as the fish goes real far, real fast. There’s a learning curve involved and the more you do it, the better you get…sound familiar?
As the name suggests, the most important part of sightfising, is stalking. You were expecting sight, right? That’s next. You’ll never see anything if you poll through the flats and it sounds like you’re in a marching band. Keep in mind, as a kayak angler you’re the paddler, push poller, sighter, bug launcher, first mate, and the camera operator (my camera guy sucks). The kayak has the ability to sneak into the shallowest of areas without disturbing the water but it’s restricted to the skill of the angler. Fish in the shallows have their radar up and are always on alert to any unnatural noises. Go paddling through two foot of water, clumsily banging your paddle off your kayak, creating wake while you try to get into bug deployment position and watch as your targets crash through the emergency exits.
Being able to manage the kayak quietly and efficiently requires practice. The activity of polling, sighting a fish, stopping silently and presenting a fly can be a challenge. For me, it’s important to develop a system. It might seem OCD but everything has a place on the front deck of my kayak. Fly rod on the left, stake out pole in the middle with handle on seat (so fly line doesn’t snag it), right side free for my paddle. I put my paddle in the bungees on my cuda a specific way so that the hook removal tool doesn’t snag. I lose it quick when I see a fish, need to make a correction, but can’t because the paddle is snagged. Now I’m playing tug-o-war with my kayak instead of fishing. My head is about to explode as I watch a big fish panic and get gone quick. Having a good technique is fundamental when you’re searching for 40″ reds or swamp sails in two feet of water because they will eventually locate you. You have a limited amount of time to get something in front of your target. The timer started before you ever spotted a fish.
Now the sighting part. It’s all about perspective so standing in your kayak is a must. This activity usually takes place in the shallowest of water. Being able to spot fish from a distance is somewhat helpful like having a parachute if you ever find yourself falling (why would anyone jump) from an airplane. Sure there’s a chance you’ll bounce twice and live but it’s not likely. Same logic applies to eye scoping fish from a kayak. You’ll spot some fish while sitting down. You might even catch a few but you’ll spook more. The fish that are tailing or swimming half way out of the water aren’t hard to find. That kind of reckless behavior doesn’t happen as much as I would like. The cautious, on guard, resting on the bottom in ambush mode is much more common. Standing makes it easier to see them before they see you. There’s an inverse relationship between how close you are to a fish and how likely you are to catch it. That means…keep your distance if you want to catch more fish.
You might have all the coolest gadgets in the world on your kayak. The high-tech electronics that can paint an exact replica of a 4lb 4 oz bass in 60 feet of water buried in 3 feet of vegetation won’t help in 20 inches of water. The latest in high-speed low drag fly gear, like self-loading rods and super slick, self-shooting fly line. Again, these are useless if you never get close enough to use them. The skinny water game is about technique. It must be developed. I don’t know of many other freshwater fish that get as big as a redfish and spend most of their time in skinny water. For that reason, grass carp offer a great opportunity to work on some important skinny water techniques like kayak control, line management, and stealthiness. Take the time to work on these fundamentals and avoid playing tug-o-war with your kayak as a bull red exits stage left.