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How to fish soft baits from kayaks and small boats

By Scott MacDonnellNZ Fishing World
How to fish soft baits from kayaks and small boats

Using soft baits from a small inflatable, kayak, or dinghy can be incredibly productive

The use of artificial ‘softbait’ lures and modern braid line technology, has certainly changed the face of New Zealand sport fishing, and with good reason.

The classic target species we love to chase; snapper, kingfish, trevally and even bottom feeders such as blue cod, John Dory and gurnard, are all suckers for these colourful rubbery baitfish imitations. Not only is this method of fishing extraordinarily effective, it keeps you constantly active, and can offer the saltwater angler a hint of the fly fisherman’s thrill when a fish grabs a nicely presented lure.

Young Louis MacDonnell nets a nice pannie on a soft bait

When softbait technology met the exponentially growing sport of kayak fishing, it was a match made in heaven. The two go hand-in-hand. Water fished by paddlers is often just offshore and tends to be between 10 - 30 metres. This is where softbait lures on light spinning gear really come into their own.

The stealth and silence of a gently drifting kayak, combined with softbait fishing methods, provide a combination that often produces spectacular action and impressive catches.

Now the growing sector of small inflatable boats available means those that don't like to paddle (or can't due to physical limitations) still can fish in close and launch from virtually any location without a boat ramp.  There is a little engine noise but after a while on the drift there is still a stealth factor as no banging or noise is transmitted from the 'rubber ducky'.

All the gear

As great as this all sounds, there are basic fundamentals and gear requirements without which the experience can be a waste of time.

Specialist fishing kayaks are now available, from basic models that will get you offshore, to high tech boats complete with electronics and even live bait tanks.  

Small inflatable boats fit in the boot of the car and cost similar dollars to a decent kayak, although may not be quite as durable.

Apart from the mandatory safety gear, ideal kit for a boat fitted out for softbaiting will include a couple of rear mounted rod holders and a drift chute or drogue. A drift chute is critical, and in all but dead still conditions will make the difference between success and complete failure. Ideally the chute should also be on a running rig that allows deployment from the stern or bow.

Light craft are easily blown across the water in the slightest wind. A key to softbait fishing is that it is performed whilst drifting, not at anchor. A chute will slow down the drift to a speed that allows a lightweight lure to be fished efficiently in its intended strike zone for the maximum time.

Softbaits work well, and sometimes the results are popular with lurking bronzies and makos

Other gear on board should include a landing net, gaff, containers for easy access to jig heads, softbait bodies and terminal tackle and a fish stringer or insulated fish bag to store the catch safely in the rear fish well. You’ll also need an iki spike and rod leashes to stop expensive rods, reels, and other loose paraphernalia unexpectedly heading for the bottom.

Where once comparatively heavy rods and reels were used, softbait rigs are scaled right down to be lightweight but still incredibly powerful. The typical softbait outfit is a spinning or ‘eggbeater’ style combo, spooled with 3 – 10kg braid line and a 2-metre fluorocarbon leader.

Attach the trace to the braid with an Albright knot and the end of the trace to the jig head with a loop to allow the lure free action.

The Rapala loop is most common, but I use a perfection loop, which is a bit cleaner and more minimal. The jig head must be threaded onto the line and fed through the main loop when completing the knot. This allows the jig head to swing freely and perform with a natural action in the water. Jig heads will usually be 10 – 20 grams with 1/0 – 3/0 hook sizes. I fish a 14 gram (half oz) head with a 2/0 or 3/0 hook 90% of the time with excellent results.

Softbait choice is huge, I personally favour a 5” jerk shad from Gulp or a Z man of similar size. These are available in a vast array of colours, many of which defy any resemblance to a living organism, but they sure work nonetheless. I like natural colours, but great results are often self-perpetuating. Use your favourite all the time and it will naturally reap greater rewards!

Gulps are permanently scented and biodegradable, but even so always take chewed up baits home for disposal as they can wash up on shore, often before breaking down. When there is a plague of smaller fish or leatherjackets decimating the softer Gulps, I’ll turn to a more robust Z-manz rubber body in the same size jerk shad or paddle tail pattern.

Electronics

It’s not an essential, but once you have used a fish finder and GPS unit, fishing without one will make you feel naked. Whenever mine has failed at sea I suddenly feel in the dark. Electronics will show you critical information about the depth and nature of the structure below, and tell you that the fish are or are not around or may be holding at a certain depth.

A chart plotter tracking a nice snail trail of your drift allows you to return to precisely the same point to repeat a drift, or to cover fresh ground methodically.

Small inflatables like these Motayak (now Trukit) models are very good softbait platforms and can handle a bit more gear than a kayak.

Organisation and strategy

Equipment organisation is critical in a limited space on a small craft. Movement is restricted and a lot of gear needs to be available readily to hand. Develop a routine and store everything in the same place consistently. My layout never changes so reaching for what I need is now automatic.

A good arrangement includes up to four rods mounted behind the seat, the outside right hand one always fishing a lure. Rod leashes are secured to their respective side of the boat to avoid tangling.

Tackle and soft bodies go in a container between the legs. I usually unpack several packets of Gulps and store them in a sealed container for easy access. The front deck is also the place for braid scissors on a tether, and the iki spike (another tool I leave strictly in the chilly bin and use only against the lid on an inflatable).

A net goes up front allowing immediate one hand access, as does a drink bottle. First aid, spare softies, phone, and an extra jacket in a waterproof bag go in the front sealed hatch. My handheld VHF, flares, point-&-shoot waterproof camera, and sealed lunch bars go in a pocket behind the seat.

On the way out to a good 15-20 metre target  zone, stop a few times and test the shallower water first. Just cast out, and start immediately slow retrieving. The bottom is reached very quickly but sometimes big fish have come in shallow and you may be paddling straight over the top of them.

Figure 1: normal fishing conditions

Start your drift. If there is anything above 5-10 knots of wind you will need to deploy a chute off the back to control drift speed and orient the kayak with the wind at your back (Figure 1).

In the less common instance that there is a strong current flowing the opposite direction to a lighter wind, a chute can be set off the front of the kayak. In this case casting out into the wind is not required. The current will do the work towing you along. Just drop a bait and keep it ticking along the bottom. The current lets it stay there and drift in the strike zone (Figure 2).

Figure 2: strong current vs wind in opposite direction

The first thing I do as soon as the paddle is strapped to the boat, is to throw a softbait out the back and put the rod in a rear facing holder to drift a couple of metres off the seafloor. Set the drag to just what you would play a fish with. Continue to actively fish forward with another rig, but be assured the rear mounted gear will buckle over more often than not at some time during the day if you are anywhere near fish. Often enough it will be the fish of the day.

When the bite is hot, retire this rig, or grow two more arms as double hook-ups are common. Another good option is to bring the lure right to the surface just a few metres below the boat. Big dominant snapper will confidently come right up and slam it, and there is always the chance of scoring a roaming kingie - an instant adrenaline rush as these fish hit hard.

Once a drift is established, cast out forward a good distance. Engage the reel as soon as the bait hits the water, allowing it to sink naturally. Gently take up the slack if this develops too quickly to maintain direct contact with the lure. Fish will often take the bait as it drifts down so be ready to strike.

As the lure sinks, watch the line carefully and it will suddenly go limp as lure hits the seabed. This is another time when fish commonly strike, so again, be ready. Next,  twitch the rod tip and work the lure back towards the boat for a few metres. Stop and allow lure to fall back to the seabed.

Do this until the lure is directly below you, still bobbing along the seabed. You’ll feel every bump through the line. Hold this position as long as possible, fish strike at any time now. When the line starts drifting back behind the kayak and lure lifts away from the seabed, wind up and re cast forward off the boat to start again.

The catch

If you hook up on a really big fish you may need to scramble to pull in the sea anchor and dump it in your lap to avoid getting fouled. This allows the boat to be quickly pulled directly above the fish and no matter how hard it runs, the line stays nice and vertical, minimising risk of being wrapped around weed and rocks. A good fish can easily tow a kayak quite a distance, and you can end up with a reasonable paddle back to the fishing zone.

Landing fish on a kayak can provide great comedy. I’ve found a rubber net for smaller to medium fish unbeatable, and I have this within ready reach at all times. Gaffing larger specimens and flopping them into your lap requires a little practise, and justifies the iki spike.

Kayaks are so low to the water that the fish is eventually right at your level. It can be easier to ease a gaff into a gill slot lifting the fish gently from the water, rather than throwing a wailing swipe.

On an inflatable I always leave the gaff at home and take a net, for obvious reasons!

Softbaits usually allow easy release at the side of the boat without any harm to the fish as they are generally hooked in the mouth.

One way to ensure success fishing softbaits is to commit fully. Don’t take any other gear or bait, fish with confidence and patience, and the rewards will come.

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