Growing up in Pennsylvania, trout fishing streams and public lakes offered full access around their entirety. It is a wonderful place to fly fish, and because of that level of access I never felt the need to get any kind of boat. Moving to Maryland, I found a very different experience. There are fewer trout streams within close proximity, and access to the water is limited everywhere you go be it the Chesapeake Bay, its tributaries, or even the Eastern Shore millponds. And, access points are often crowded. However, having a kayak changes all of that in an easy and relatively inexpensive way. Yet fly fishing from a kayak can be a discouraging endeavor. I have brought the fly rod out on many occasions, only to put it back in the rod holder for a spinning rod because fly gear was difficult to cast and properly present to the fish. Through a great deal of trial and error, I’ve pieced together tactics that will help improve your casting and presentation to fish and get you back on the kayak fly fishing horse.
Your Fishing Kayak
Though it helps tremendously, you do not need to go out and spend thousands on a pedal kayak. With a few adjustments you can use just about any kayak to its full potential. That said, if you are serious about kayak fishing in general, you will want to get a sit-on-top kayak. Sit-in kayaks are lightweight, easy to store, and will do the job for most fishing trips, but make it darn near impossible to fly cast. These types of kayaks sit the user low in the water and offer no place to collect the fly line, forcing them to either tangle the coils or put them in the water, which creates drag that affects casting. A sit-on-top is a must for fly fishing, and one with an elevated seat is even better. (See Selecting the Best Fishing Kayak for more info on kayak choices).
Being able to stand in your kayak is most useful for fly fishing. You can look to see any fish nearby and you have full range of motion. However, kayaks stable enough to stand in can be expensive, and not everyone wants to or can shell out the money for them. Instead, I’ve found if you kneel on your kayak seat and fish off the back of the boat you get the benefits of being elevated with more stability. This trick also works for conventional fishing in situations where you need to be a little higher to accurately cast lures into heavy cover, such as snakehead fishing in tall lilies.
I do not often see other kayak fly anglers out on the water and the last one I saw paddled into the wind, could only cast 20 or 30 feet, and had to reposition after a couple of casts. That's a great way to get your exercise for the day, but makes catching fish much tougher. You need to have the time to set things up and get into a rhythm when fly fishing, so I find it far better to use the current or wind to drift past the water you want to fish; you can cast farther and keep better control of your line.
Out west on big rivers anglers in drift boats use what is called the "Walk the Dog" technique, where the angler casts downstream at a 45-degree angle and the rower keeps the pace with the river current so that everything travels the same speed. It’s incredibly effective, and the angler up front only needs to watch for a strike. It’s difficult to do this in a kayak — this is where having pedals comes in handy for adjustments — but casting at an angle with the wind at your back sends the fly farther, allows your fly line to land straighter, and helps prevent slack so you can better present your fly. This technique works great for fishing streamers.
In scenarios where you want to fish slower and deeper, like fishing nymphs for crappie, you can cast at a 45-degree angle against the wind, let out slack to give the fly a chance to sink, and then tighten the line to check for bites as everything drifts behind you. One of the benefits of fishing light flies is smoother movement in your presentation. Jigs for spinning gear need to be heavier to be able to cast, but that extra weight causes a jerky presentation. It works, but I find a properly presented fly will out-fish jigs on most outings.
If you have the budget and the desire, installing a rudder on your boat will improve your drift exponentially. The ability to drift in the desired direction without spinning improves the accuracy and consistency of your casting and presentation. If you can't do that, I recommend an anchor in conditions with wind and/or current.
Stripping Baskets for Kayak Fly Fishing
If you are fly fishing in most kinds of boats it is a great idea to bring a stripping basket, and kayaks are no exception. Fly line likes to get tangled on anything and everything, and dealing with a snag or a knotted section of line ruins a cast. These don’t need to be anything fancy; a cheap plastic bin with a modified belt to go around your waist will do. If you are using the kneeling technique described above, you can put an empty milk crate in the back of the boat and put the line in there. I have seen laundry hampers and trash cans used; get creative.
Fly Casting from a Kayak
Finally, we come to fly casting in a kayak, easily the biggest deterrent in the game. It can be incredibly difficult to make Norman Maclean's perfect four-count rhythmic cast sitting in a boat maybe a foot off the water. However, if you can master the art of the double haul cast, you will be ready to catch anything that swims and will take a fly. Sadly, my words cannot properly explain the double haul technique; it is best demonstrated. But searching YouTube for double haul casting will give you everything you need to learn and practice this technique. It allows you to keep control of your line in tough conditions, land the fly properly, and as soon as it hits the water you’re ready to retrieve — vital when fishing for something like stripers blitzing during Rocktober.
If you see action happening in the opposite direction of where you are casting or you accidentally spun in an inopportune direction, have no fear. Perform your casting action in the direction you’re facing, then when you are ready to let it fly, throw the line back toward the water you want to fish. This is called back casting, and it is far more accurate than trying to cast at an odd angle.
Hopefully, these tips take away some of the variables that have kept you from taking your fly rod out in the kayak and let you enjoy this wonderful art in a whole new way.
-By Peter Turcik