Kayak fishing has exploded in popularity over the last 5-10 years. What started as a way for casual anglers to get off the bank to chase bass or redfish has quickly evolved into a realm of fishing that covers the whole spectrum. The unofficial world record for biggest fish ever caught from a kayak was just broken by Joel Abrahannson with an estimated 1,247 lb Greenland shark. With more and more anglers wanting to chase big game from little boats, safety precautions and having the right knowledge have become more important than ever.
Robert Field has been fascinated with the big-fish-little-boat dynamic ever since he first sat down in a fishing kayak. Robert dreamt of catching a sizable shark from his kayak after his first trip out catching sand bass, and he accomplished that goal with a 6-foot blacktip just 5 months into his kayak fishing career.
Since then, Robert has hooked many large fish from his kayak, from big sharks to king mackerel to the legendary paddlefish. Along the way he’s learned some important techniques to maximize safety, as well as learned the hard way what not to do. He’s agreed to share some of this insight with us to help guys who want to target big fish do it as safely as possible.
Depending on the species, hooking into a big fish can be a challenge in itself. Typically a lot of force will be applied to your rod and reel in a hurry, so making sure your drag isn’t set too tight is critical. You want that fish to be able to strip off line until you can secure the rod and begin applying pressure, otherwise it will put a lot of force on your rod holder whether it’s mounted to the deck or flush-mounted. If trolling with artificials you want your drag set tight enough for those hooks to penetrate the fish’s mouth. If soaking baits for sharks or big bull reds you want your drag looser so the fish doesn’t feel resistance and will start chomping on that bait.
Once I get a run, I will typically tighten my drag significantly and then apply steady pressure if using a circle hook, or set the hook pretty hard if using trebles or J hooks. If fishing for sharks, always pinch or file down the barbs on your hooks to make releasing the fish possible. Their skin is like thick leather and if your hook has a barb on it, you’ll never get it out in a kayak.
A rod leash is also highly recommended, and the Platinum Series Offshore Rod Leash by Yak Gear will ensure your rod doesn’t get taken overboard by an unexpected run.
Fighting a big fish from a kayak can be a hairy proposition. There are a few things to remember that can keep you upright and out of the water. First of all, be aware that especially in the beginning of the fight, you will more than likely be reeling your boat in to the fish rather than the other way around. If you’re anchored when you hook up and can tell it’s a sizable fish, it’s often a good idea to unclip from your anchor so you can gain some line back if the fish is peeling it off the reel. Be sure to have a float at the end of your anchor line, and use a carabiner to attach it to your anchor trolley so you can release it quickly.
Once you’ve caught up to the fish, always be mindful of where the fish is in relation to the boat. This is where you have to be careful. I’d say that about 80% of the fight with a big fish is within 25’ of the kayak. This is hand-to-hand combat at its finest.
You want to keep your rod tip facing towards the front of the boat at all times. A fish will never flip you end-over-end, but if your rod tip is facing off either side of the boat and your drag is set too tight, a strong run downwards will put a lot of force on one side of your boat, increasing your chances of flipping or falling out. If the fish makes a strong run to one side, keep your rod tip to the front of the kayak and it will turn your entire boat around to face the fish again.
Even when you’ve worn the fish out and it appears to be giving up, you need to remain diligent. Often times you’ll be forced to tighten your drag in order to pull the fish to the surface alongside the boat. This can spell disaster if the fish catches a second wind, and sharks in particular are notorious for explosive runs even after they appear to be done. To avoid this, keep your drag relatively loose but thumb the spool to keep line from coming off the reel while pulling the fish up. That way if the fish does make an unexpected run, you can simply lift up your thumb and allow that fish to take line out rather than having to fumble with your drag amidst the chaos.
Depending on the species, it may or may not be a good idea to try and hoist the fish into your boat. I personally will never pull a shark into my kayak unless it’s small enough for me to easily grab behind the gills with one hand. Other fish are safer to pull up into the boat, but always counter-balance while lifting it over the edge of your kayak by leaning back to the opposite side of the boat. Be sure to have a really good grip on the fish, though, otherwise if it gets away from you and you’re leaning too far on the opposite side you might flip if you drop the fish. If trying to release a shark, know that the shark isn’t completely done until it begins to bob up and down. At that point you can work to remove the hook using the longest pliers you can buy. They’re never really long enough. If you pinched down the barb on your hook, it should come out relatively easily. If the shark is small enough to handle a bit, try to hold its dorsal fin and revive it boat-side until it swims away.
Chasing big game in a kayak is perhaps the greatest rush there is in fishing. Knowing that the fish actually has the upper hand on you is a humbling and exhilarating feeling that I’ve been unable to replicate in any other style of fishing. The important thing is to always maintain your focus. With the right knowledge, the right precautions, and the right mindset, it really is safe, and it is a total blast.