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Turning Big Lakes Into Small Waters

Even the fastest kayak is still slow right?  Even with pedals and motors you're still not running and gunning main points on any lake in a reasonable amount of time.  That's why you need to increase your chance of success by shrinking big waters.  I personally fish Wheeler Lake a good bit during the winter and I try to shrink the lake by picking spots that provide me a good selection of structures and depths without having to spend all of my time paddling.  With tools like Navionics web app and Google Maps you can quickly find spots that have rip rap, creek channels, and stump flats within 2 or 3 square miles.  By fishing this target rich environment you can quickly pattern fish and figure out if they are deep or shallow and if they may be holding to rock or wood.  Once you have the pattern figured out then you can decide wether that 2 mile paddle to another stump flat or rip rap bank may be worth it.

I've never fished here even once, but it looks like it has a lot to offer in a small area.  Shallow stumps, creek channels, road beds, and rip rap with enough deep water nearby to keep fish during the winter and enough shallow cover to hold them during the spawn and throughout the summer.

The Difference Is Often In The Details

Every time I'm on the water I always want to take something away to help me be a better angler.   Sometimes it may be something as simple as increasing efficiency so I can get more casts in or it may be a certain presentation that I haven't tried before.  The other day I realized I was once again ignoring the details instead of following the clues.

I love a swim jig.  I've had one tied on since late fall and have been really successful with it catching multiple fish over 3lb., and a handful over 5lb.  That success sometimes blinds me to the fact that I need to tie something else on and not drag a lure down a grass line or by shallow stumps.  One particular scenario happened last week after a particularly cold snap, the water temps were struggling to get above 40 degrees even though this particular day the air was in the mid 50's.  I had marked shad on one deeper spot near a shelf and had tried a jerkbait, crank, and swimjig with no luck so I quickly gave up and moved on to fish how I wanted.  After searching the shallows with the swimjig and bouncing cranks off of rocks to no avail I finally decided to hit the reset button and ask what I was missing.  40 degree water?  They may not be willing to chase down a swimjig, so I set it down.  Shad holding at 10-12 feet?  Why am I running baits across shallow cover? 
The Strike King SwimJig was on fire in the fall for me, add a Keitech Fat Impact and hold on.

Recently the Damiki Rig (small jighead with a finesse bait) helped Jacob Wheeler win a Bassmaster Elite tournament on Cherokee lake targeting inactive smallies deep in cold water.  That little tidbit came to mind as I was looking at these fish suspended in deep water with a small school of shad over them.  Also knowing that we had just had a shad kill I knew the bass had likely been picking off dying shad for the last week or two. So in order to match the hatch as best I could I rigged a fluke onto a 1/4 ounce jig-head and lowered it down barely moving it over the bottom. Within minutes I had my first bite of the day, a 14" little bass, not a wall hanger but it was a bite that told me I was doing something right.  So I replicated the technique again and within minutes  a 17" fish was splashing at the surface beside the boat.

Damiki rig

So what was the takeaway?  I always want to listen to the fish, but sometimes you have to use the clues to get you within earshot so to speak.  Location, location, location, it applies to more than just real estate, and if you can't find the fish you can't catch them. Even if you are doing the perfect technique with the perfect bait. 

Frog Fishing from a Kayak - 4 years of lessons learned - Pt. 1

First let me give you a little background on how I got into frog fishing so you can see why it appeals to me.  About 4 years ago I got into kayak fishing and started exploring new places around the area, and one of those places was a swamp called Blackwell.  It was full of vegetation unlike anything I had previously fished on the main river or in the small creeks I frequented.  Lily pads were basically blanketing the water with various types of grass woven throughout and stumps nearly every 3 feet.  At the time I thought it looked not so much fishy as snakey.  So I fished the open holes I could find just as I had the other places I fished, with a shakey head or a spinnerbait, and had some success.  However, I kept seeing wakes move about in the lily pads on the edges of the holes and felt like I was only presenting my lure to maybe 1% of the fish possible.  So after doing a little research I went back armed with a weedless selection of lures, some  tx rig plastics and a hollow body frog, I don't remember which one exactly but if I had to guess it was probably an h20 or maybe a Booyah Pad crasher.  Well the frog bite was on, nearly every other casts for the first hour of the day resulted in blow up after blow up and zero fish.  Every single one happened the same way, massive explosion, a short jerk, a hookset, and nothing.  So I decided I would let the next one chew on it before setting the hook.  Sure enough he was on the edge of one of the holes I normally fished with a spinnerbait and as I drug it out from the lily pad wall he blew up, I counted to 3 and reel down and set the hook.  Finally a fish on!  I think I was more proud of that dark 16" bass than just about any other fish I had caught in recent memory.  I had no idea that for the next 2 years a frog would be the primary lure that I used to catch fish with and that I would catch several 5+ pound fish, sometimes multiple in the same trip.  First I had to figure out how to increase my hookup ratio, so after a little research I realized the weakness in my setup was mono line.  I had never used anything but mono before and it worked well for every other technique I had tried, but the same stretch that keeps a crankbait fish hooked up in a creek was allowing bass to bury up in the grass and throw my frog.  After spooling up with some 30lb powerpro something awesome happened,  I caught a dozen bass on the frog and only missed about five.  That was an incredible increase from the one out of ten bites on my last trip, the fish were staying hooked and I guess you could say I was too.

So that's the end of the story right? Not quite, it was actually the beginning, I became obsessed with frog fishing and trying out different kinds, brands, styles, rigging, colors, etc.  If it popped, buzzed, walked the dog, or looked any different from what I already had tried, I tried it.  I've been called a frog expert, I wouldn't say I'm an expert at anything fishing, but I was definitely a frog fanatic.  I even had friends that knew I had gone frog crazy sending me emails with new frogs and asking me which ones I had tried.  Live Target, Scum Frog, Stanley Ribbits, Z-man Hard legz, Kahara diving frog, Popping pad crashers, Spro walking shad, etc etc.  They all seemed to have their own style that they brought to frog fishing but I soon had a few favorites.  One was the popping scum frog, it was cheap compared to it's competitors at $2.99 and it's hookup ratio was one of the best.  It was a very soft frog and that meant if a fish pulled it under he almost always stayed hooked up.  However, there were two things that made me look for something better, it wouldn't last for very many fish until it was taking on water, and at 5/16 oz it was a challenge to cast on anything but calm days.  After going through a few brands I finally settled on a frog that I could cast like a bullet that allowed me to target low overhangs but would survive multiple big fish, the popping pad crasher from Booyah.  However, there were times when I would see fish wake up to the bait and turn away or occasionally found grass so thick the frog wasn't able to effectively grab enough water to pop like it should.

So I started looking for something to get a reaction bite and that would be effective in the thickest grass.  Stanley Ribbits seemed to be the obvious answer and I still have a place for them in my box to this day but I couldn't cast them like I needed to and they were too light to make much of a presence in the thickest mats. That being said one of my best days at the swamp was pulling ribbits across lily pads and killing it in the holes, as it fluttered down they would thump it and the hook up ratio on them is fantastic.  Stanley also offers another buzz frog but this one is unique in that is floats even when paused in open water, the Stanley Top Toad.   This lure was catching fish for me unlike any frog I had tried so far, and big fish at that.  At 3/4 oz I could cover water quickly, trigger strikes in the thickest mats, and pause it in the holes when necessary since it floated.  Also with the double take hooks if I didn't pull it away from them too quick I almost never lost a fish after the initial hookup.  I had found the perfect compliment to my popping pad crasher.

So those two frogs will catch everything that swims right?  Not exactly, I could trigger strikes in the thick mat that would blow a 10" hole in the grass but sometimes they would completely miss the frog, I could reel it in and try again but often the buzz would bring them right up to the boat and sometimes spook them.   Well, remember that H20 hollow body frog that I started with?  With a 6'6" mh rod and a 3/8 oz frog I could hit those 10" holes or just barley past them, and when that subtle movement came into the hole, maybe the injured frog the bass just blew up on?  They would hammer it.  This allowed me to capitalize on the missed strikes and not worry about trying to catch every fish that blew up on the top toad.  It was an interesting system because I was literally screaming the top toad across mats just hoping for a blow up, not even trying to catch a fish, just trying to get them to show theirselves, then that's when I started fishing for them.  I could cover 100 yards of mat in 30 minutes and cover every 3 ft.

At first I was scanning random banks without no rhyme or reason, I was basically willing to accept that for every fish caught I was probably making 100 casts.  But soon I realized a pattern, there were hot spots, where I would catch 2 or 3 fish in a small stretch and then nothing for a while and then 2 or 3.  I tried to understand the pattern but it didn't seem obvious to me at first, until I realized this blanket of grass that seemed featureless had points, pockets, seams and structures and if I was able to key in on those structures instead of mindlessly scanning the banks I could maximize my time on the water.  I also realized that almost without exception all of my fish were caught by 9 am.  There were also other variable I could go into that would require another book like post, maybe one day, that determined what lure I started with and colors etc.  But for the moment the most important thing was to start early, fish the hot spots and realize when to adjust these techniques or compliment them.  I often had 3 rods on the deck with 3 different frogs, or 2 frogs and 1 buzzbait.

So after winning a Kayak Angler for a Cause tournament on frogs, and several new PB's on frogs, what have I learned these last 3 years?

1.  Frogs catch big fish.
2. There are a few tips and tricks to increase your hook up ratio, but the biggest is to let the fish have it.  If you set the hook on the blow up you've missed it 9 out of 10 times.  See the explosion reel down and strike up.
3. People have favorite frogs from one brand or another, I haven't seen any catch more than another, I  look for a healthy mix between effective and cheap and the Booyah Pad Crashers have done that for me, as for a buzzing frog I could easily go back and forth between the hardlegz by Z-man and the Top Toad, they both work well.
4. Braided line is a must, if not for it I would have given up on frog fishing a long time ago a medium heavy or heavy rod also helps a lot as well.
5. Fish early or fish late, I have caught fish on a frog on a sunny day at noon, but it's not ideal.

I think the most important thing with a frog is being willing to give it the time to be comfortable with letting them chew on it, learn where the ambush points are in a sea of grass, and realize how versatile a frog can be.  Just the other day I started throwing frogs in a small clear creek for smallmouth after seeing Chad Hoover using one to target smallmouth in Tennessee.  You know what?  Alabama smallies like frogs just like they do up north.  I have caught more smallmouth this past month on a frog than anything else.  And I haven't completely settled on which frog I'll always use for what, when a new product comes along I like to see if I can add something to my arsenal I don't have, for example my last two big fish have come from a new frog from Academy, their H20 popping frog.

So go throw a frog, if you're just starting out grab a couple of the cheap scum frogs to ensure a good hookup ratio to help you gain confidence.  Fish them around overhangs and holes in the grass early and hold on, it's a technique that you'll not soon put down after your first few frog fish, at least not until November.

Common Questions About Kayak Fishing

I've owned a Kayak for almost 4 years now and I've went from a casual kayak angler to helping with an organization focused on kayak fishing.  I've seen the repeat posts asking questions about kayaks and kayaking in general and I thought it would be nice to have a post that I can refer to when I see these questions posted time and again.  Because ultimately the answer will never change to any of these.  Please don't think that I am saying I know it all or have the best answers, I'm just telling you what I've learned and hopefully it can help you.

1. Which kayak is the best? 

Anyone that answers that question immediately with a specific model instead of questions does not have your best interest in mind, they are just pushing a boat that they have because it must be the best if they own it right?  To truly answer that question a few questions need to be answered and above all you need to demo a few.  No matter what anyone on a forum tells you it will never replace seat time and that means more than sitting down in knee deep water and wiggling around to see if it feels stable.  You don't know if a boat is stable until you test it to it's limit and see what it takes to flip it.  Some boats that might feel a little wobbly might have a lot more in them than you think.  So here's what I would say you need to consider

 - Do you fish mainly open water like lakes or moving water like small rivers and creeks?  Maybe somewhere in the middle?  A Coosa is a great boat for creeks and small rivers but will absolutely wear you out on a windy lake trying to keep it pointed straight.  On the other hand a Hobie is the Cadillac of big water boats but you don't want to be dragging it through shoals on an upstream paddle.  Doesn't mean you can't, but you don't want to.  So once you answer that question we can then narrow it down to one or two boats from nearly every brand.

- Do you want to stand and fish?  If so you would likely want to look at boats that are 33" wide and wider.  Keep in mind you are sacrificing speed to gain stability unless you go with one of the pedal drive models, they're pricy but you can stand and fish and still outrun most other boats.

- What is your budget?  You can find a good boat anywhere from $500 - $3000.  Just depends on what features you want and if you're willing to shop used boats with a few character scratches you can save some good money.  But ultimately that will also weed out what boats you're truly after.  If your ceiling is $1500 you're likely not buying a brand new Big Tuna or Hobie.  But that doesn't mean you can't find something that will still fit the bill in another brand or model.

Ultimately, demo as many as you can and find out which ones you like best.  The most comfortable seat for me isn't likely the same for you.

2.  Where can I catch some fish?  

I doubt you'll get many straight forward answers with this question because the sport is growing and it's no longer a rare thing to see backwater creeks full of new boats that were empty last summer.  However, you can still find fresh spots by getting on google maps and finding small spots miles from the main lake.  If you find a good spot keep it to yourself and enjoy it.  If it's a small spot with good fish take your kids and friends you can trust, post too much about it online and it won't be the good spot it was when you found it very long.

To be honest the main lake isn't that bad right with the big boats, keep your wits about you so you can avoid an 80mph rocket that the operator has eyes locked onto his side scan.  Just because you're out there competing for spots with bass boats doesn't mean you can't find some great spots.  As a matter of fact one of my best days in the last month was out on a main river ledge, caught a couple dozen fish that only wanted a brushhog pulled slowly up the drop.  That's something that would be hard for a bass boat to do since the top of the ledge was inches deep but was perfect for a kayak.

There is no substitute for time on the water, I read a lot of articles and watch a lot of videos but you'll never find as many fish online as you will in your boat.  That doesn't mean you'll always be catching, but even bad days can teach you if you pay attention.

3. What's the best PFD for kayak fishing?  

I have used the inflatable and it was very comfortable but I generally prefer my NRS Chinook.  Any fishing oriented kayaking vest will have a high back to stay out of the way of the seat, large arm holes to allow a range of motion for paddling and pockets and attach points for gear.  They all run around $80 - $130 and you can often find coupon codes to Austin Kayak to get them a little cheaper.  That being said, the best PFD is the one you have on you and will actually wear.  I know of at least two cases of drownings in the last few months and neither had their jacket on, the second one was reportedly reaching for it as he went over and trying to put it on.  Trying to put it on when you need it is too late.  No one would try to put their seat belt on right as a crash is happening because it's too late.  Unfortunately it can be the same way in many situations on the water, not enough time to make it right.

The best PFD is the one that can save your life, that's all of them, just make sure you wear it.

Anything else I should add?

Do you ever get in a rut of catching fish?

Yeah that's a problem most people would like to have but hear me out.  Last year I had a handful of spots that all required similar presentations and I figured out how to be successful in those spots.  If you know me you know that presentation was throwing a frog.  Well around comes the winter when the frog bite died down and I didn't do as well.  Fish were still there to be caught but I had focused so much on a particular technique I had left others behind.  This was never more apparently clear than when I fished a tournament at Mud Creek this year and felt so out of place and confused on what to do and where to go.  How did this happen?  I felt like a competent angler last year, why am I so out of place now and not able to get on fish?  Because I got locked into a rut last year of catching fish in reliable, easy spots.

I hadn't become a better angler, I had become a honey hole fisherman.  I'm fairly certain that you take any seasoned angler to the spots I was fishing and they would wear it out.  So I decided this year to make a change.  I was not going to be a honey hole fisherman, instead I wanted to find new areas, new places that would challenge me to figure the fish out.  Have I caught as many fish as last year?  Nope.  Have I learned more and felt more competent finding and catching fish in new areas?  YES!  Have I been skunked a few times? Definitely, but I feel like in the long run I will be a better angler and more able to compete against other fisherman when not in my honey holes.  I have to admit that going to a new spot blind and figuring the fish out and being successful has been more rewarding than catching lots of big fish in a honey hole.

So what have I learned?

- I need to learn to throw soft plastics more, when the bite is hard natural presentations can make a huge difference.

- You can catch fish subsurface and it can be fun too. (lots better than none at all)

- A chatterbait is a wonderful lure that is a jig, spinnerbait and wakebait all in one.

- The hotspots that I found in the honey holes still hold true to big water, find the points, find the transitions, find the fish.

- Be willing to change presentations, many times I leave with a preconceived idea of what will catch fish and often those days that I end up getting skunked.  On the other hand the days I leave understanding I don't know what they will bite I'm more willing to adapt and be successful.

Do you have that special spot that is easy catching?  Enjoy it, fish it, and don't tell anyone!   However, I think to become a better angler you can't rely on it.  You have to break your routine to grow as a better angler, to become more versatile, and to be more successful.  Trust me, the new stuff you learn will only help you catch more fish even in the honey hole on those off days and you're not guaranteed that honey hole forever.   One of my favorite spots experienced a fish kill last year and it has not been the same since.  Hopefully I'll discover a few more spots that will be honey holes in the future by exploring new water and learning new things.  Maybe some of the spots I don't consider honey holes now really are and I just haven't unlocked their secrets.  One thing is for sure, I won't ever know if I don't break out of that rut, so to speak, of catching fish.