First, locate a productive grass flat. Therein lies some confusion. A productive grass flat is anything but an unbroken, homogenous expanse of thick green seagrass. Instead, find a grass bed containing well-defined sandy edges: pothole edges, dropoff edges, oyster or rocky spoil bar edges—anything that breaks up an otherwise solid green desert. And in my land of giant spotted sea trout and snook, there has to be tide flowing over that habitat to fire up the bite.
Snook and trout love seagrass. But they spend most of their time in sandy depressions, utilizing grass perimeters or clumps as camouflage to ambush prey that drifts by in the tidal flow. They generally slip into thick cover only to hide from threats to their well-being.
Okay, you’ve located a combination of grass and sand. Now avoid it. That sounds counter-intuitive, but you’ll catch more and larger fish by keeping your distance.
Approach no closer than a long cast. Giant female sea trout—my goal every time I kayak is to catch a 30-inch-plus trout—are different than other denizens of the flats. They possess better eyesight, better hearing and better camouflage. It’s also taken them twice as long to reach that venerable size versus a comparable snook or redfish. A sea trout that has survived Flipper, bigger trout (yes, they’re cannibals), sharks, ospreys and anglers for eight to 10 years is doing something right. To catch her consistently, so do you.
Kayakers are some of the worst offenders when it comes to running over fish. We apparently believe we’re invisible in our little boats, that no one hears us coming. The truth is, a paddled kayak pushes a pressure wave easily discernible to a trout that’s invariably looking up and always paying attention. And some kayaks, frankly, produce more hull slap than a good technical poling skiff.
In approaching the target area, quietly position the kayak where the tide and wind will silently push you within casting distance. This often requires paddling a wide circle around the target, but that one memorable monster catch is worth the extra effort.
Third, the approach has to leave you in position to feed the fish from the correct angle. I’m an absolute fanatic about angles. Growing up on a fish hatchery and trout stream, I watched how fish orient themselves to current and cover in order to grab an easy meal. Many years of fishing have convinced me that those observations apply universally to catching saltwater fish on any tidal flat.
To catch big snook and trout, think flounder. If you watch frustrated flounder fluttering along, unable to catch up with a rapidly moving lure, you’d feel sorry for them if you weren’t laughing so hard at their awkwardness. It’s obvious they’d quickly starve to death if they relied on chasing bait in open water. Their bodies simply aren’t designed for speed or distance running—they’d burn more calories than they could ever catch.
What they are flawlessly designed to do is ambush a meal that comes to them. Flounder simply park themselves amid bait concentrations, both eyes focused upward, their adaptive camouflage rendering them virtually invisible on the bottom. When they detect the silhouette of a baitfish or crustacean passing overhead, they burst out of the sand, sink their canines into the prey and descend to the bottom to digest dinner. It ain’t pretty, but it’s efficient.
Snook and trout rarely maraude over vast areas chasing food the way jacks and bluefish do. Instead, they emulate the lowly flounder; indeed, I catch them along the same edges using similar techniques and lures. They too wait for the food.
Ambush species all face into the current, since that’s the direction the forage is coming from. That’s an obvious concept, yet I watch fishermen pitch their lures downcurrent and retrieve them upstream all the time. Why make fishing hard? Feed the fish from the direction they’re expecting.
Position the kayak where you can cast upstream and across the current, allowing the lure to bounce downstream. As my lure of preference has long been a D.O.A. three-inch plastic shrimp that weighs just a quarter ounce, I also try to set up with the wind blowing over my shoulder if at all possible. That, along with very thin braided line, adds distance to a cast, a vital component in fooling the hog trout for which the Indian River Lagoon is famous. In all the years I’ve fished, I’ve never caught what I regard as a gator trout up close in shallow water; rather, the wary old girls were all hooked at the far end of my cast. The longer the cast, the less chance they’ll detect you.
Seasons of the Sea Trout
Big sea trout bite all year long, but March through June is generally most productive. I actually try to avoid catching them during the summer. They are incredibly hard to catch and release when the water is hot. Then, it can take an hour to revive an exhausted fish. Winning a plaque or a mental pat on the back ain’t worth killing a big trout.
Twitch and Twist: the Secret of the Shrimp
D.O.A. Lures’ Mark Nichols grew up in the live shrimp business, and probably spent way too much of his youth watching them swim before constructing fishing’s first plastic shrimp over 20 years ago. He got the balance just right. I’ve been fishing since I was three, and I have yet to meet a lure that generates so many reaction strikes.
There’s a learning curve to fishing the D.O.A. shrimp. Mark probably designed it to be fished slowly, but I treat it like any other twitch bait. The key is to throw it upcurrrent of your target and give it plenty of time to sink near the bottom on the initial drop before giving it a short wrist snap. The shape of the lure causes it to plane up in the water column, twist sideways (You tied it on with a loop knot, didn’t you?), suspend briefly and then swim back to the bottom. Give it time to settle again. Repeat.
Congratulations. You’ve just emulated a scenario that fish have utilized to grab an easy meal for millions of years.
As large mullet or other bottom feeders such as manatees graze, they kick up small forage species such as pinfish, shrimp and crabs. This presents a brief feeding opportunity for an attentive predator before the little guys scoot back to the bottom to hide in the grass or mud. It’s an instinctive sight reaction—fish have to respond immediately while the food is vulnerable. That’s one of the reasons I prefer the shrimp—it hangs in the water column longer than most lures, an easy, irresistable target. $2–6 per package; doalures.com.
Jerry McBride’s parents dragged him from the waterfront of Southeast Florida to a Nebraska ranch and fish hatchery at age five, an act bordering on child abuse. But the lessons he learned observing fish every day are still paying dividends.
This article first appeared in the Summer/Fall 2011 issue of Kayak Angler. For more great content, subscribe to Kayak Angler’s print and digital editions here.