Kayak fishing in the United States is a nationwide phenomenon with dedicated anglers in every corner of the country. We asked experts in every state if they had one day to fish, where would they go, when, what would they target and how would they fish? The responses uncover the top fishing grounds of the best anglers. Whether you’re traveling through Okefenokee, Coeur d’Alene, Messalonskee, Pascagoula, Big Tallapoosa or Little Tallapoosa, you’ll know where to catch the best fishing.
The United States of Fishing, Part III
Guide: Captain Jerry Dilsaver, Hobie pro staff
Hot spot: Oak Island, North Carolina for big red drum
Season: August to end of November with October prime time. Pray for light winds and calm seas.
Tactic: Fish mullet or menhaden on the bottom or suspended under a large float. Use a large circle hook to keep the fish from swallowing the hook. Or, cast a two-ounce jig with eight-inch curly tail grub.
One mid-October day several years ago, schools of bait were streaming down the beach followed by big red drum. I quickly caught four red drum. Several times, the strikes came within seconds of the bait landing in the water. I was back to the beach in time for a hot lunch.
Guide: Johnnie Candle, 2010 World Walleye Champion, Guide and tournament angler
Hot spot: Devils Lake for walleye and pike
Season: Since most of the protected water is shallow, the best time seems to be May and June. Finding fish in shallow water is easy: pick a shoreline with an onshore breeze and start casting.
Tactic: Cast shallow diving hard baits like a Berkley Shallow Flicker Shad or a jig tipped with a soft-plastic like the Pro Swimmer from Big Bite Baits. White is a great color. If the water is off color, fire tiger works well. Vary your retrieve and cadences until you find what the fish want.
One-hundred-fish days are not uncommon. Each cast has the potential for a walleye, pike or white bass. Bring lots of jigs and a fillet knife.
Guide: Chris Souders, Slunger Cat Outdoors
Hot spot: Ohio River in Portsmouth for catfish
Season: Summer after the catfish are off spawn. Best conditions favor slower current.
Tactic: Depending on the time of year, the big river can have zero to 2.5 miles per hour of current. The Ohio River is a very diverse waterway making catfish hard to find. Use aerial maps to identify points, seam lines, holes and pinch points. I locate fish with my Lowrance Elite TI2. I prefer to free drift using fresh natural bait.
One of my best trips I decided to leave smaller catfish to try for a trophy. I hooked into a giant that dragged my Jackson YuPIK around like a foam float until I was able to land the 50-pound blue catfish.
Guide: Jeremy Deanda
Hot spot: Upper Illinois River, Tahlequah for smallmouth bass
Season: Spring seems to be the best time to fish because rain storms stain the clear water giving the bigger fish confidence to venture off structure.
Tactic: The Illinois is a beautiful river surrounded by limestone bluffs well known for scenic float trips and a quality smallmouth fishery. My rod of choice is a medium-light spinning setup spooled with six-pound test line. To catch a ton of fish, concentrate on the tail end of rapids and current breaks behind structure with hellgrammite or crawfish imitations on a Ned rig. Bigger fish can be caught on a slow-rolling spinner bait around rocks or a topwater lure fished along a grass line.
Guide: Jared “Jed” Rivera, Stealth Rod Holder pro
Hot spot: Columbia and Willamette Rivers for white sturgeon
Season: Sturgeon are present year round and can be targeted for catch and release at any time unless specifically noted in the regulations. Sturgeon stack up in deep holes. Use a fish finder to find the best structure.
Tactic: Anchor in shallow water upstream of a deep hole and make short casts down river. Gear is simple: a sliding sinker on the main line to a swivel then add the leader and single barbless hook. A stout rod and reel is essential as these dinosaurs can exceed 10 feet long. Be ready for an extended sleigh ride. Sturgeon are bottom feeders with poor eyesight so favorite baits are smelly, oily shad, squid, herring, and anchovies or a combination of a few baits to create a custom buffet.
Guide: Juan Veruete, pro guide and Wilderness Systems pro staff
Hot spot: Susquehanna River trophy smallmouth factory
Season: The best time to catch a behemoth smallie is in early pre-spawn targeting deeper larger current breaks adjacent to a major spawning area. There’s a variety of structure including island and weed beds but the ledge systems cutting across the river are the best bet.
Tactic: A crankbait retrieved excruciatingly slow and making heavy contact with the bottom will get you some big smallie eats. The Susquehanna is a shallow river, so come prepared with crankbaits that swim three to five feet and six to eight feet below the surface. In green to clear water, a crankbait matching the blue tint on local crayfish will get the job done. When the river is high and muddy, it’s hard to beat a crankbait with black back and red belly.
I only had a couple hours to fish. There was a warming trend so I had a hunch big fish were moving into a good pre-spawn location. I pulled my kayak into an eddy behind a large square bridge piling and slung my crawfish imitation just inside the eddy line. On the first lift I felt weight, set the hook and quickly snatched a heavy smallmouth into my Leverage Landing Net. The fish was a solid 20 inches. I pulled back behind the piling and within 10 minutes I found myself wrestling a 20.5-inch monster smallie. Shaking my head in disbelief, I paddled back to the piling. Three or four casts later, I was in a standoff with another strong fish. The result was an even bigger smallmouth at 21.5 inches. Thoroughly satisfied, I decided I was done fishing so I wouldn’t anger the river gods who had blessed me with an unforgettable experience.
Guide: Jimmy Chappel, President Ocean State Kayak Fishing Facebook group
Hot spot: Narragansett for trophy striped bass
Season: Fall with overcast skies and calm seas.
Tactic: Tube and worm is a simple latex tube with wire through the middle and a hook at the end. To add scent and improve the action, tip the hook with a chunk of natural sandworm. Troll slowly and try to keep the lure off the bottom.
I spent the morning chasing small striped bass with topwater lures. When the sun started to rise, I decided to see if any larger bass were underneath the smaller fish. I bounced a shad body with a 1/2-ounce jighead. My new personal best 51-inch striped bass ate the lure. The fish was quickly released after I took a photo.
Guide: Dave Jaskiewicz, tournament pro
Hot spot: Beaufort for an inshore slam: trout, redfish and flounder
Season: Spring and fall when the temperatures are friendlier. Bring insect repellent. Fishing is best when the current is running, so find a convenient tide to take you up into the creeks and then carry you back to the launch.
Tactic: EyeStrike jigs or a single Colorado blade paired with a two- to four-inch paddle tail will get bites from all three species. Work the grass lines and rips over shell beds, slowing the presentation and dragging the bottom in the cooler months. Try going weedless with an EWG hook and keep the 20-pound leader less than 18 inches to minimize break offs in the oysters.
Guide: Shane Carnahan
Hot spot: Lake Oahe for smallmouth bass
Season: Spring and summer. Watch out for the wind.
Guide: Joey Monteleone, Co-host of Wild Side Radio and outdoor writer
Hot spot: Caney Fork for largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass
Tactic: Best bet for a trophy bass is a buzzbait when the surface water is 55 to 80 degrees.
I know an area where a one-mile stretch has a bluff bank, two long sandbar points, a well-defined ditch and mid-river chunk rock. I keep at least three rods rigged: a jig rod, a spinnerbait and crankbait rod and a rod for launching buzzbaits. I saw a large wake, it was a bass chasing bluegill. I watched the bass swirl and inhale a bluegill that was trying to escape. I quickly grabbed the buzzer and cast a few feet past the disturbance. I was rewarded with a thunderous strike. I fought the fish back to my Jackson Big Rig and landed a seven-pound largemouth with a whole, live bluegill in its throat. I carefully removed the bluegill, which swam away and got a bump board shot of my Tennessee trophy before releasing it.
Guide: Chris Castro
Hot spot: Padre Island National Seashore for cobia, kingfish and snapper
Season: August when light winds hold for calm launches.
Tactic: A stinger rig is the bread and butter for kings, cobia and other pelagics. Pick up a dozen frozen ribbonfish. Troll or slow drift your rigs till you find the fish. Smart anglers put a few rigs aside with a two-ounce egg sinker just in case the fish are feeding deep.
The best day was three summers ago. In the morning, kingfish were soaring non-stop. Later, I caught two stud barracudas hanging around the rigs. Then, I’m in the fight of my life with the biggest sailfish I’ve ever seen. I went live on Facebook and landed the sailfish in front of 15,000 people. The sail measured 87 inches, setting a record for Texas kayak anglers.
Guide: Cody Henley, tournament pro and owner of Henley Custom Lures
Hot spot: Mantua Reservoir for largemouth
Season: April to mid September. Mantua is a shallow lake and summer grass grows to the surface making it difficult to get around. Some of the best fishing is early prespawn through the middle of the summer.
Tactic: Throwing a frog from sunup to sundown. During the middle of the day, I cast into the shade of overhanging trees.
Guide: Zachary McNaughton, 2020 and 2021 Vermont KBF State Challenge Series Champion, Host of the Vermont Master Anglers Fishing Show
Hot spot: Lake Bomoseen for largemouth bass
Season: In early spring the bass are along shallow rock structures with a northern exposure. I cast surface lures or troll along ledges and drop-offs. During the summer, I do most of my fishing at night. Even on the windiest day, the lakes are typically dead calm at night and I have the entire place to myself.
Tactic: To have a blast, all you need is a jerkbait.
Guide: Ric Burnley, editor of Kayak Angler
Hot spot: Eastern Shore for trophy red drum
Season: Spring with a full moon, light winds and clear skies.
Tactic: Sight fishing for schools of large red drum in shallow water. Search flats and shoals for reds swimming just below the surface. Cast a two-ounce jig and seven-inch Z-Man paddle tail. Later in the spring, use side-image sonar to find schools of drum on deep channel edges.
One Friday last spring, I hit the flats after work and picked off a big red just before dark. Saturday morning, before sunup, I paddled to the same area and found it covered with schools of giant redfish. At dawn, I caught three fish in a row. The school was so thick, 40-pound drum were slamming into my kayak. I ended the day with six trophy redfish.
Guide: Brad Hole, Kayak Angler contributor, Hobie pro staff
Hot spot: Lake Tapps, Bonney Lake for trophy tiger muskie
Season: Summertime when the water is warm and the fish are active. Fishing the full moon is always a good bet. Otherwise, get on the water early to beat the boat traffic.
Tactic: Muskie are the fish of ten thousand casts. On a large, clear reservoir with fingers and channels I cast to weed beds, drop offs, docks and old-growth timber where muskie ambush pikeminnow and perch. My favorite crankbait is the perch pattern Squirrely Ernie by Muskie Mania. Another option is trolling deep-diving crankbaits around channel openings.
Guide: John Rapp, FeelFree pro, Host of Rusty Hooks Kayak Fishing podcast
Hot spot: Floating the Cheat River just below Parsons for smallmouth bass
Season: June and July. The rapids aren’t big and the shoals are easy to fish.
Tactic: You can’t beat topwater early in the morning. Later in the day, mix in squarebill crankbaits, Ned rigs with TRDs and the trusty Senko.
Guide: Jeremiah Burish, team Bonafide
Hot spot: La Crosse, Upper Mississippi River for smallmouth and largemouth
Season: One of the absolute best times is during heavy feeding sparked by cool fall temperatures.
Tactic: A hollow bodied frog catches fish in the thickest vegetation, cut banks, docks, floating debris and on open water when shad or other baitfish are present. In the spring, a frog has become one of the first lures I’ll throw even as early as my first outing after the ice melts. Bass move into the warmer backwaters seeking clumps of vegetation acting as a warming blanket. A frog retrieved with a slow walk-the-dog pattern has caught the attention of bass in 45-degree water when I can’t seem to find a bite on anything else.
My friend and I had a plan to float a four-mile stretch of backwater. After launching the Bonafide SS127s we immediately began catching bass on topwater. The water level had gone up and the fish were pushed into the emergent vegetation. We only made it a quarter mile from our launch before we saw tremendous baitfish activity with predators busting the surface. We worked this backwater area from the open water edges to deep in the emergent rice grass and the bass were stacked everywhere. The deeper we went into the rice beds the more fish we found. We each caught over 40 bass and pike and we never traveled more than a half mile from the launch.
Guide: James Francis
Hot spot: Grayrocks and Hawk Spring Reservoir Season Fish Grayrocks in the morning and Hawkspring in the afternoon.
Tactic: At Grayrocks, focus on rocks, the dam and points. My favorite lure is a chartreuse Ned head with a Z-Man TicklerZ TRD in green pumpkin. I also use shad pattern Rapala DT 6s and 8s crankbaits and Vision 110 in pro blue or natural colors.
Muskie mania. | Feature photo: Brad Hole