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Big fish, small kayak - Guide to catching big fish in kayaks

December 19, 2019
Big fish, small kayak - Guide to catching big fish in kayaks

I was casting softbaits around for snapper, catching a few when the fishfinder lit up with a huge school of fish. The water around Great Barrier Island was crystal clear and there was at least 10 metres visibility.

Passing under the kayak was the biggest school of kingfish I have ever seen from my kayak. These weren’t small specimens either and they were completely oblivious to the brightly-coloured yak above.

A softbait setup wasn’t ever going to stop them so I grabbed the only other setup on the kayak, which was a small Zest metal leaf jig. Down it went through the school and several of the fish changed course and followed it down but not one fish touched it. A mechanical jigging pattern was employed with the little leaf jig and this starts to work as a couple of the fish tag the leaf jig.

Big and angry

Suddenly it’s all on and there’s an angry kingfish hanging off the snapper setup: a Shimano Currado 200 and 5-8kg BackBone Elite. This is just not the right set up. Whilst some may manage a kingfish on this gear it wasn’t working that day.

The fish was too big and the drag wasn’t set high enough. Within seconds the fish had sped off and the bottom of the spool was becoming visible. Just as I was about to be completely taken to the cleaners, the fish dropped the jig and all the weight came off.

Winding the line back on the reel, the adrenaline was still pumping and even though the hook-up failed, the episode was a real thrill.

That battle was never going to be won. You need to have the correct gear when chasing the big ones from a yak. So let’s look at the gear, baits and techniques that will help to snare big fish for you.

Bringing bigger fish onboard can make a kayak more unstable.

Lighten up

If you were going off chasing big fish from a boat, you’d immediately go for a good strong stiff rod that would easily put the hurt on the fish, which is what you ultimately need to do.

However when a kayak is your work platform, a rod like that will put more pain on you than the fish. You can’t brace yourself against the gunwales of the boat, nor can you strap on the gimbal belt and use your weight against your foe so a stiff rod is only going to act as a lever and finish with you taking an early swim.

So from a kayak you need to look for a rod that is probably considered light for the target but it means that the rod will bend and act as a shock absorber between yourself and the fish.

Looking at jigging rods, I’d recommend a rod designed to be used with a 250gm jig. This will be a good balance between flex and power. I’ve seen a 250gm JigStar rod land a 37kg kingfish off a kayak. I have a Tica RedBack 250gm overhead and K-Labs 150-250gm jig rods in both overhead and spin in my arsenal.

The reel deal

The reel is your key to being able to bring that fish to the kayak and this is the part where you really need to look at good quality gear. The tried and trusted applies to both overhead and spin setups. Strength is the key.  

As you will see with most jigging setups these days there is a lot of metal involved - solid alloy CNC machined frames on overheads are the main stay. However don’t dismiss some of the newer materials such as CI4 from Shimano, which is a reinforced carbon fibre. This will give you huge strength without the weight, and best of all for we kayak anglers - no corrosion or rust.

I use a Shimano Talica 8 on my overhead and a Shimano Thunnus 12000 CI4 on my spin setup. Don’t get too stressed out on having to spend a fortune on reels though.

If budget is an issue, look at the tried and trusted reels.  The Shimano TLD range of reels have been used successfully including on the setup used to catch the big kingfish mentioned earlier so they have been proven to stand up to the task.

Kingfish are a real challenge for kayak anglers.

On the line

Line choice comes down to braid or mono and it’s your call but it should be dictated by your chosen fishing technique. If jigging or using lures then braid is the right option.  If you are live or dead baiting then mono or braid will do just fine.

One thing to keep in mind when fishing off a kayak is your ability to bust off should your prey wrap you around a rock or other structure.  On a boat you simply give it the big heave ho and bust it off but on a kayak you are much more unstable and do not have the leverage.

It then comes down to brute strength to bust that line so you don’t want to go too high. Most of us who are jigging off a kayak are using 50lb braid although there are a few using 80lb. If you are fishing baits down deep for the likes of hapuka or kingfish then be sure to attach your sinker to the rig with a lighter mono, around 20lb is good.

This is so that if you get your sinker snagged on the bottom, it is very easy to bust off and you’re not trying to bust that 100lb leader you tied your rig with.

Let’s talk terminal

Everyone has their favourite rigs for the style of fishing they are employing – it’s down to choice. However, if you are chasing the big ones, make sure all your rigs, hooks and swivels are up to the task.

Multi-hook rigs, such as hapuka dropper rigs, are normally made up with two hooks. This is all well and good but if two baited hooks get snaffled up by two fish, you have one serious mission to crank two big fish up from the depths. Think about cutting one of the hooks off or making up your own single-hook rigs.

Perfect your technique

Big fish techniques are pretty much the same whether you are fishing from a boat or a kayak. Live baits and dead baits are fished the same. Jigging can be interesting from a kayak although mechanical jigging is quite difficult when sitting down as you don’t get the full range of motion. There are people who seem to be able to pull it off easily.

Speed jigging is a well-used technique that popped up when jigs first came out. Many anglers now use this technique with knife jigs.

Fight the good fight

There are a lot less assists on a kayak than on a boat so you can’t brace yourself against the side of the kayak like you can on a boat. Also, on a boat you bring the fish to you but on a kayak there’s not enough weight in the kayak to do that so what actually happens is you wind yourself to the fish.  

You end up directly above the fish which is when you start putting the real pressure on. Keep this in mind when you hookup because you want to keep the rod tip pointing towards the front of the kayak.

This way the kayak will be more stable and will travel through the water easier as you are being pulled along. If you have the rod sticking directly out to the side you risk the kayak being pulled sideways or worse still, rolling and you ending up in the water.

If you do need a bit more stability when playing a fish you can always drop your legs over the side of the kayak or even sidesaddle on your kayak with both feet over one side.

An American kayak angler I’ve fished with does this all the time when playing big fish as it also presents a greater drag to the fish if it’s trying to pull you around.

Just remember it is really hard to get yourself back in your kayak if you fall out so practice in the shallows first.

Landing the fish

Landing a big fish isn’t that much different to landing a small fish but there are a couple of things you need to keep in mind.

Big fish obviously weigh more so when you get that fish on board you may become a little more unstable. You will also have much less space to deal with your catch than you are used to.

If you have managed to bring your catch to the kayak very quickly you may also find that the fish is still green (not worn out) and will be very unhappy about being dragged from its environment. It’s going to express that unhappiness by thrashing about in your arms or on your lap so be careful to keep your balance.

Many anglers have ended up in the water with their catch while dealing with angry kingfish.

If you want to keep your catch, then make sure you secure it. A fish stringer comes into its own for this purpose. Once the fish is on the stringer, even if it does end up overboard then it’s not going anywhere.

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