Smallmouth Fishing in a Kayak
Slipping around the inside of a bend we came face to face with a deer standing knee deep in the flow. Water dripped from its muzzle—which was above our heads—as it stared in confusion or disbelief.
It never heard a thing until we were on top of it. Bambi bolted as the kayak whispered past. We often get close to animals in a kayak. Sometimes it’s an eagle in a low branch with its back to us. Sometimes a coon or a coyote.
“I’ve surprised a lot of animals,” says kayak enthusiast and outdoor writer Joey Monteleone. “Even the ultra-wary fox now and then. I’ve passed by close enough to touch them. Gets you closer to fish, too. A kayak is ninja stealth mode. Nothing is stealthier than a kayak and it’s more stable than a canoe. I can stand up and get better hook-sets. I can drift slower in a wind and it’s crazy how close you can get to smallmouths when you do that.
“It’s an up close, personal feeling,” he says. “You’re at water level. From a fishing standpoint, it’s all about that quiet drift and getting into places other people can’t. It’s more of a solitary experience that maximizes enjoyment of the sport. That’s why I don’t fish tournaments. It’s so much quieter and more intimate fishing alone in a kayak.”
Kayak tournaments have become popular, though. “Tournaments have exploded,” says Dave Mull, an outdoor content provider and “yak” tourney advocate. “In Michigan alone there are four circuits. The Kayak Bass Fishing organization, run by Chad Hoover, had its national championship in Louisiana in March, with around 400 anglers. The top prize was $50,000. I missed qualifying this year, but last year I went to the KBFNC at Kentucky lake, which had 751 anglers. Dwayne Taff of Texas won the top prize of $100,000. I finished 31st and it was worth $900.”
Monteleone fishes from a 131/2-foot Jackson Big Rig 13.5. “It weighs about 92 pounds,” he says. “It’s the most stable boat in their lineup in my opinion. No electronics. People start to separate themselves from their senses with electronics. They stop observing and it robs you of some of the fun and the chance to just use your head. People are turning kayaks into little bass boats. For me, that defeats the purpose.”
Mull must digress. “I’ve been using a Humminbird Helix 5 as the Old Town has a molded-in pod on the bottom that protects the transducer,” he says. “I learned on YouTube how to attach the transducer on a piece of PVC, which sticks up where I can easily reach it in front of the pedals. A chunk of sponge glued to the PVC keeps it from sliding down through the scupper hole between the deck and transducer pod. I lower it to take advantage of side imaging and usually forget to pull it up until I hear the transducer crunching into gravel. It’s more electronics than I need. I just need to know the depth and temp, mostly. I fish without electronics a lot in rivers, too. I ask guys around me how deep it is, even in tournaments. I often emulate Ned Kehde by turning sonar off when fishing finesse stuff. I also have a mount for my iPad in a waterproof case and use it with the Navionics app a lot for GPS.”
Roberto Briones, who organizes tournaments for the Kayak Anglers Association of The Outaouais in Ontario, is a little on both sides of the tournament question. “I like tournaments or just having fun in a kayak,” Briones says. “I enjoy seeing everybody have a good time. It’s not B.A.S.S. or FLW. It’s more about friendship, camping, and having a good time. I don’t go out thinking about winning. I don’t compete for the money. Bragging rights are nice, but fishing is fishing and I have fun, tournaments or not. I used to run a Bullet Bass Boat powered with a 250. Now, I don’t believe I’ll ever buy another boat. I don’t need a boat launch anymore.”
Mull channels Monteleone regarding eye-level encounters with surface-feeding bass. “I like being close to the water and working with Mother Nature instead of imposing my will on them with an 80-pound-thrust trolling motor,” he says.
Kayak Bassin’ 101
Sliding across the flow in a kayak, you become part of the surface film. The surrounding landscape unfolds at a pace that can be appreciated in full. No need to watch for deadheads approaching at 60 mph. No more expensive lower-unit repair jobs.
“Kayak fishing in moving water is staying on the inside of every bend and using current breaks,” Monteleone says. “Just like a migrating bass, you’re looking for the path of least resistance when moving upstream and the slowest drifts downstream. When using physical force to fight the current, it helps you understand how fish relate to those areas. It forces you to pay attention to small details.”
Being down there, close to the surface film, surrounded by insect husks and minnows down below, you can see predators on the prowl. The craft drifts silently along at current speed, overtaking animals, birds, and fish alike. Monteleone’s mantra: “There’s magic in moving water.”
“The kayak forces you to focus,” he says. “You get your ducks in a row and pick drifts carefully because you spend more time traveling between spots. The paddle is both outboard and trolling motor, but it takes you to water nobody else can reach. The kayak drafts in 4 to 5 inches of water—less than a canoe and most jet boats.”
Mull doesn’t paddle. “I fish from an Old Town Predator PDL, which features a bicycle pedal, propeller-style drive,” he says. “I recently acquired a Predator 13 (no drive) and plan to put a Minn Kota electric on the transom with a mount Kevin Dismuke, a guy in Texas, makes in his garage. I should be able to make the rest of the field eat my wake. I’ve resisted electric motors steadfastly, but since it’s allowed in tournaments, might as well take advantage. Plus I have a story sold on outrageously rigged kayaks, and need to rig this one outrageously.”
Once again, Briones, a pro staffer for Jackson Kayaks, is a little of both. “I like to paddle, but now I have a foot-pedal kayak, too,” he says. “Keeps a constant speed against the wind. My 2018 Jackson Liska is for paddling, and my new 13-foot Jackson Big Rig FD runs on leg power. It’s super stable—42 inches wide, so you can stand and cast. But, for smallmouths in rivers, I mostly sit. You can end up swimming. It’s not a matter of if but of when you’re going to fall out of a kayak. I practice flipping my kayak in warm water and getting back in. I always wear a life vest. You don’t post a picture in our group without a life jacket.”
It’s called turtling. Shell up, man down. “I rolled one during late March in 50°F water on a small river in 12 feet of water,” Monteleone says. “I lurched and turtled the kayak because a rod started to slip off the boat, so now I have them tethered with little bungee cords or zip ties. I came up under the kayak and rolled it over. I carry a dry bag with extra clothes, but it was like a bad dream. I lost four rods, but it was better than losing my life. At least the tackle boxes floated. Getting back in isn’t hard—you reach across the boat and flip your legs in. It’s something that people should practice in warm, shallow water before going way off shore. Hypothermia can happen in 60°F water. It was a good experience. I had my life jacket on and I never go without a life jacket anymore.”
Mull has invoked the turtle a few times. “The first time came on an unexpected expedition,” he says. “My buddy JJ Merimonti and I checked out a stretch of a small river in southern Michigan on Google Earth. Another friend had fished it from a canoe and annihilated big smallmouths and a few largemouths. Perfect. Just three miles of river according to the ‘path’ function on Google Earth. Except in September, it was low. We spent so much time dragging plastic boats over logs and sandbars, we fished about an hour of the eight hours it took to get to the landing.
“Just before the takeout point, I tried to reach a rod holder I’d dropped in the stream without getting out of my kayak one more time. Silly, because I was already soaked and muddy to my chest. I found out that when you lean out of a kayak too far, you get to a point where it capsizes with the thrilling surprise and speed of a mousetrap snapping. We were even too tired to have a beer at the bar where we’d parked JJ’s truck. We did catch lots of bass (Z-Man TRDs ruled), and we spooked dozens more. Super clear water and we saw some big ones. When it was over, I realized it had been the most fun fishing trip of the year.”
The trouble with trebles: One show about fishing from a kayak included a muskie leaping into the host’s lap. They quickly cut to commercial. “Smallmouths jump into your lap sometimes,” Monteleone says. “So clip two of the hooks off every treble. Bring them in hot with multiple trebles and trouble ensues. Single hooks catch just as many fish, and it’s harder to release bass hooked on two tines of each treble.”
“I much prefer to catch fish from a kayak with a one-hook lure,” Mull says. “Personal thing.”
Some tackle items lend themselves to ‘yak fishing better than others. “I’ve got room under the seat and off to the sides for 4 Plano 3600 tackle boxes,” Monteleone says. “I take some lead in my pockets. I often change colors more than I change baits, so to save space, I take extra skirts instead of extra jigs and spinnerbaits. I have species-specific boxes organized or at least tilted to match conditions. In dirty water I’m making house calls, flipping with more jigs. On a kayak, in clean water, I lean toward ‘feel baits’—soft plastics and jigs.”
Mull hoards. “I struggle with what to take and usually have too much along,” he says. “I use 3600-size component boxes—one for jigs and weights for Neko rigs, Texas rigs, split-shotting, and drop-shotting. Ziplocs and Z-Man binders carry my soft plastics. I keep a selection of spinnerbaits and chatterbaits in an old Tackle Logic binder and I plan to use a small Plano KVD Speed Wormfile for a winnowed-down selection for 20 bags of soft plastics this year.”
When broadside to current, the trolley system is anchored both fore and aft, not at a single point amidships. In heavy current or wind, however, bring the “eye” in the loop to the stern by pulling the bottom of the loop, or up to the bow by pulling the top of the loop. It’s safer to point one end of the craft into the current. Attach the anchor to a relatively weak split ring that can be straightened without too much force when the anchor is trapped. Pulling too hard can “turtle” the craft in a hurry. Every time the eye of the trolley is moved, the kayak faces a new direction. Fancasting becomes much more comfortable and efficient.
Monteleone uses Lew’s spinning and casting rods. “I like light line for smallmouths,” he says. “They head for deep water when hooked. If the drag is set right, you’re in good shape fishing 4- to 6-pound mono. I carry four 61/2-foot rods on a typical day. In low, clear water I use a medium-power, fast-action spinning rod for plastics. Rods have to do double duty on a kayak, so my medium-power casting rod handles spinnerbaits, topwaters, and cranks equally well.”
Mull carries 4 or 5 rods. “Some boats, like the Hobie PA 14s, have six rod tubes along the gunnels,” he says. “Some guys put two rods in each, so they have 12 extra rods to go with however many they have in the milk crate tethered down behind them.”
Briones travels light. “I take 4 to 6 rods,” he says. “Almost all for plastics like tubes and Senkos with weighted hooks or wacky rigged. My only hardbaits are spinnerbaits and suspending jerkbaits. You have to multi-purpose your rods and I carry a medium-light, extra-fast action 6-foot 10-inch rod for drop-shotting and wacky rigging, a 7-foot 1-inch medium-power, fast-action spinning outfit for tubes, and a medium-power, moderate-action 7-foot 8-inch casting rod for spinnerbaits and jerks.”
One method Briones mentioned took me back to my college days, when my only craft was a 17-foot Monark canoe. On windy days I would “scull,” keeping the paddle in the water and using a semi-circular motion to slow the drift while dragging a Texas-rigged worm, craw, or tube off a shelf or weedbed, then retrieve and repeat. “That’s my favorite technique,” Briones says. “Slowing the drift with my paddle or pedals to drag a tube or drop-shot rig.”
Some accessories make fishing easier and more enjoyable. An anchor rig is a must, and the safest way is rigging up an anchor trolley system. A loop of rope runs through carabiners or small pulleys attached to the carrying handles at the bow and stern. The loop lays alongside the kayak. Tied into the loop, on the side closest to the water, is a heavy split ring or metal triangle. The anchor rope passes through the ring so you can you can pull the top rope to take it to the bow, or the bottom rope to position the anchor line toward the stern and tie off to a cleat. Each change repositions the kayak to make it easier to cast in all directions. Most kayakers use 3- to 5-pound anchors. Anchor trolley kits can be purchased at Walmart, online at eBay, Dick’s, and other merchants, but you can easily make your own.
“For a nice, quiet approach and sheer fishability, a kayak can’t be beat—especially when rigged with an anchor system,” Mull says. “Anchors are important for thoroughly fishing cover. You watch the Navionics app on your phone as you approach different structures, anchoring and fishing, letting out more anchor line to cover more stuff downwind, lifting anchor and letting the wind push you silently to the next spot. Fish and repeat. At the risk of sounding like a hippie environmentalist, I like fishing without burning any gas on the water, too.
“A sit-on-top kayak is about 100 times more comfortable to fish out of compared to most canoes. Driftsocks can be deployed off the stern of the kayak, usually using the anchor trolley. It keeps your kayak slowly moving downwind, allowing you to search and cover water. That’s gaining a lot of popularity.”
“Maybe the most enjoyable thing about smallmouth fishing in a kayak is fighting the fish at their level while fighting the current and staying alert,” Briones says. “The smallmouth being so acrobatic—pound for pound the finest fighting fish that exists.”
“Big smallmouths can tow you around, too, which is fun,” Mull says. “Nothing beats a topwater bite for smallmouths in a kayak,”
Monteleone says. “When they jump out of the water to come down on a buzzbait next to the boat, it’s heart-stopping. In those places other boats can’t reach, the obvious spots hold big, biting fish—like the downstream side of a log, boulders, incoming creeks. The pull they give you is incredible. River bass are fighting current all their lives and they’re tough.”
“Just think about paddling and observing,” Briones says. “Just go fishing. Leave problems on shore. It’s not just the quiet that makes time stand still, beyond the yapping of people. It’s listening to the water slipping around the kayak, the birds, solitude—enjoying nature and just being out there thinking about nothing.”
As a famous Zen master once said, “when you wash dishes, you think about washing dishes.” And the mind is cleansed.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Matt Straw has contributed to In-Fisherman publications for over three decades.