Recently, several friends and readers who are planning to travel to the Everglades City area to fish out of their kayaks have asked me for advice on fishing techniques and gear. Based on my experience, there is no doubt that kayak fishing in the Everglades and adjacent Ten Thousand Islands area of Florida can be challenging. Conditions here differ markedly from kayak fishing in the rest of the country and even from those encountered in most of the Sunshine State. From overgrown mangrove tunnels to tidal creeks with heavy flows to a confusing waterscape dotted with thousands of islands and a maze of waterways, the going ain’t easy for sure. Did I mention alligators, crocodiles, and now pythons?!?
So I figured with gale force winds blowing today, making kayak fishing dicey at best, I would share my top ten tips for kayak fishing techniques and gear in the East Coast’s biggest watery wilderness area, most gleaned from the school of hard knocks over the past decade. I’d welcome any additions readers might have. Here we go….
#1: First and foremost, print your own maps—I learned early on that most commercially available maps for the Everglades and Ten Thousand Islands are often inaccurate and don’t contain enough topographic detail. The same is certainly true of maps on GPS systems. Using them is a recipe for getting lost and missing the best fishing spots.
Every year I run across kayakers or canoeists that are lost in the maze. The one that sticks in my mind is an older couple who haled me down as I headed back to home on Chokoloskee Island as the sunset at the end of a long day fishing the Ten Thousand Islands. The were headed the opposite direction out Chokoloskee Pass to the west and open sea. As I approached, they asked me which way to Everglades City where they had hotel reservations. My eyes must have bulged, because the elderly gent asked if something was the matter. I gently told them they were headed in the opposite direction and could follow me in. The wife looked at her husband with daggers in her eyes, shook her head, and said, “I told you we should have taken a map.”
Here’s how to make your own. First, download a good map program like Google Earth. Identify the area that you are going to paddle and print out the screen in color at a full 8 1/2 x 11 size. Then use a self-sealing laminating pouch made by Scotch or something similar.
If you don’t laminate, you can rest assured your will get wet in this waterworld and become impossible to read. Laminating also allows you to mark the map with notes in red permanent ink about fishing spots and other invaluable information for future trips. Folders in my desk full of all my maps are highly coveted by my fishing buddies who ask that I remember them in my will.
#2. Don’t leave home without an emergency satellite phone or similar device. This is true whether you are kayaking in the Ten Thousand Islands or the Everglades backcountry. Even close in, the cell phone coverage is spotty at best and non-existent as you paddle down tidal creeks like the Faka Union River or deep into the Everglades Wilderness Waterway. If you get injured or lost it could be days before anyone finds you in the maze. I use a small Garmin InReach satellite phone that allows me to text messages to my family and also send an SOS alert to Garmin at the touch of a button.
Garmin then gets in contact with the local emergency service. At the time of this writing, they go for about $450 plus a monthly connection fee of about $12—not cheap but far less expensive than satellite phones with the capability to call and talk or a funeral. I finally bit the bullet after one trip down a remote tidal creek. I had beached the kayak and was wade fishing when I caught a gaff-topsail catfish. As I tried to remove the hook from the gyrating fish, he drove his nasty dorsal fin spike deep into the palm of my hand. After giving him a piece of my mind, I pulled out my pliers and yanked out the hook. After that ordeal, not to mention having to remove all the gelatinous snot the cattie left on my line, I decided to take a snack break and found a shady spot under a tree. In a few minutes, my head begin to spin, and I couldn’t walk. I had forgot to tell my son where I was fishing and started wondering if the alligators I’d seen sunning themselves along the creek would find me during the night. Fortunately, the dizziness subsided after half hour or so. I later learned that this saltwater cat has a nasty toxin in its spike that you don’t want to mess with. I had my new Garmin phone purchased before my next trip.
#3. Use a mushroom instead of a fluke anchor. First, make sure you take some sort of anchor. Between the surging tidal flows in creeks and around islands and often present winds, it can be challenging to stay on a fishing spot. When I first started out fishing in the Everglades, I took a handy fluke anchor with me that had worked well in the Indian River near Cocoa Beach to the north. I soon found out that the flukes get hung up easily in downed snags or mangrove roots to the extent I had to cut my anchor line during an early trip in the area. I persisted in using a fluke anchor because they are convenient and fold up so nicely, until I got hung up again in a backcountry creek with a surging tidal flow. As I tried to work the stubborn anchor loose my yak spun around broadside into the current, and I came perilously close to flipping! I again had to cut the anchor line, but this time made a beeline to the local fishing shop the next day and got a mushroom anchor, which while weighing more rarely gets hung up.
I typically attach my anchor to a cleat with a 15-foot length of lightweight cord. I install the cleat inside the boat a few feet in front of my seat so that it is easily reached and deployed.
#4. Grab a collapsible, single-bladed paddle. Whether you own a pedal or paddle kayak, a single-blade collapsible paddle is de rigueur for the Everglades.
If you have ever tried navigating in a narrow tidal creek or an overgrown mangrove tunnel with the traditional double-bladed paddle, you know what I mean. Even if you are a pedal kayak aficionado like me, there are many instances where the shorter paddle can assist in turns or other tight maneuvers. If you are going to be covering a lot of distance in a day, a double-bladed paddle may be your choice, but I carry both.
#5. Three rods/reels are the charm. With hundreds of different types of rods and reels on the market along with literally thousands of different lures, it’s easy to get lathered up and overload your brain and kayak with tackle. My advice: KEEP IT SIMPLE.
Rods are a good example. Two six and one-half or seven-foot light/medium spinning rods will handle 75% of all conditions the Everglades paddling angler needs to be ready for. I add a third, a shorter six-foot rod designed for use in narrow mangrove tunnels and narrow tidal creeks with nice holes, where snook, tarpon, and redfish like to hang out—a common condition in the backcountry creeks like the Faka Union River, Halfway Creek, and the East River. Every inch of rod length counts when angling in the tight quarters featuring overhanging branches and air roots that make casting an adventure—shorter is definitely better. The shorter stick is ever so much easier to handle and to make accurate casts with, particularly the backhand cast that is essential to use in the tunnels. I’ve discovered the shorter rod is also better at handling big fish in constricted spaces.
And they don’t have to be expensive rods or reels costing hundreds of dollars. Indeed, given the distinct possibility of breaking a rod when a big fish dives under your kayak or a pernicious branch snaps off a rod tip in a tight mangrove tunnel, I think it is foolhardy to risk a prized rod in the Everglades. My favorite rods, from the Berkely Shock and Shimano Scimitar series, are well-made and perfectly serviceable at a cost of less than $75. You won’t feel like screaming or slitting a wrist if you break one.
The same is true of reels. My experience is that in saltwater, no matter how well you clean and maintain them, you will be fortunate to get a couple of years of hard fishing out of one before something gives out or seizes up. I used to spend $200-$300 plus for my reels, but now find that Series 2500 and 3000 reels made by Pflueger and Okuma are excellent performers for less than $100.
In addition to my standard three rods described above, I find there are two what I call specialty situations that warrant additional outfits. The first special situation is when there is the possibility of catching a toothy shark in places like the Faka Union River and in the Gulf or an outsize tarpon. Then I carry a medium/heavy seven and one-half foot rod with a 4000 series reel. I ramp up the leader size as discussed below.
The other condition is when you find clear shallow water conducive to sight fishing—then a fly rod can be the ticket. There are good opportunities for sight fishing on several of the Gulf trips as well as the Barron and Faka Union Rivers in the upcountry. A caveat is in order here. While fly casting in a trout stream in the Rocky Mountains during the summer is close to nirvana, using a fly rod while sitting in a kayak is not everyone’s idea of a good time—especially given the size needed to subdue fish in the Everglades. A fairly heavy seven- or eight-weight rod is mandatory versus the three-to-five weight wands I prefer for freshwater trout. Furthermore, standing in a kayak to spot the fish can be a risky business without a special vertical grab bars to help you balance. Unfortunately, these bars are branch magnets when navigating mangrove tunnels in the upcountry. My advice in the upcountry is to keep the fly rod broken down until you get to the lake where sight fishing is the goal. A long fly rod hanging off the back of your boat is a recipe for disaster. Having said that, there are certain instances, especially in the very shallow water of backcountry lakes, where a fly rod with its ability to lay a fly delicately in front of a nice tarpon, snook, or redfish without spooking them will give you a distinct advantage over a spinning rod and weighted lure. Fly rodding for Mayan Cichlids (AKA Atomic Sunfish) is also a blast.
#6. With line and leader, go heavy. When I moved to the Everglades from the Indian River area on Florida’s east coast, I routinely used 15-pound test line and leader. I could get away with something that light because the water there is fairly open water to play a fish in with few snags. Not so the Everglades and Ten Thousand Islands. Mangrove branches and roots, sharp oyster bars, downed trees and limbs….the list goes on. Fortunately, I rarely find the fish to be leader shy. I currently use 30-pound test line and fluorocarbon leader and am almost ready to switch to 40-pound on advice of local guides who know what it takes to handle that 40-inch snook or high-flying tarpon you are likely to tangle with.
#7. Everglades fishing fab four lures. Every angler has his or her own go-to lures. Here are mine based on a decade of experience and advice from locals and guides.
At the head of the list is a white or gold curlytail or paddle tail plastic mounted on a 1/8 ounce red jig head. Mr Wiffel and DOA Lures are my two favorite brands, with a nod to Mr. Wiffel because they are made locally. Curlytails seem to imitate a wide variety of baitfish from glass minnows to bigger fare, they are effective in a wide variety of situations from deep holes to skipping under mangrove branches, and are tough and inexpensive to boot. What’s not to like. The will even fool very selective blue crabs!
Close behind are floater/diver lipped stickbaits that mimic finned baits. Rapala and Yozuri make a variety of sizes and colors. I like the white Rapala and Yozuri 3d Crystal. For skipping a lube way back under overhanging mangrove branches and roots where snook, tarpon, and many other fish like to hideout, a fluke mounted on a weedless, weighted hook is tough to beat. A reliable color is, oddly enough, a green/white baby bass. Finally, if you want some real fun, be sure to take along a loud surface plug like the Heddon Spook. Walk that baby like a dog across the top of the water and get ready for an explosion. Of course, there are a variety of other lures that round out the well-tempered Everglades tackle box. A good plastic crab imitation such as those made by RageTail can be deadly when redfish and snook are prowling the oyster beds. If you are a fly angler, a white/green Clouser or an orange lightbulb are hard to beat.
#8. Practice those specialty casts. If you are going to fish the numerous tidal and backcountry creeks and mangrove tunnels in the Everglades, it’s well-worth the time and effort to learn three what I call specialty casts—backhand, pendulum, and skip casts. They all have a place. The backhand cast comes in handy in tight mangrove tunnels where there is no room overhead or to one side of you to cast normally. I push to the right side of the tunnel or narrow creek, then reach across my body using a short rod to flip the lure backhand at my target area. Reaching across the body gives you those several extra feet of space that make casting even possible in many situations. Because many anglers fear to cast in these difficult conditions, the fish see fewer lures, and I find them particularly aggressive. The pendulum cast is another approach that is valuable in tight spots in tunnels and creeks to thread a cast into a small space in brush or overhanging branches or roots. You start out by letting your lure hang 2-3 feet below your rod tip then start swinging it slowly like a pendulum, releasing it when there is sufficient momentum to reach that tiny spot you are targeting. Obviously, practice will make perfect with this unusual cast, but it is incredible how many snook I have seen caught in mangrove tunnels or in a small nook in a shoreline from only a few feet away with the pendulum cast. The skip cast is one more anglers will be familiar with, especially bass anglers who use it to skip surface baits into openings in lily pads. We use it in the Everglades and the Ten Thousand Islands when trying to reach snook or tarpon that are holed up or feeding way back up under overhanging branches or roots and an overhead or sidearm casts would end up snagged. The cast is started low, parallel to and almost touching the water, with the aim being for the lure to hit the water five feet or more in front of the mangroves then skip like a stone underneath the branches or roots. A good skinny, light-weight fluke bait as discussed above is a good candidate for skipping. Videos of the backhand and skip specialty casts can be found on-line. Practice makes perfect. With all the Olympic “sports” like curling, I am prepping for an appearance in 2026 when skip casting assumes its rightful place at the Games.
#9. Take some water shoes you can wade in. These days lots of attention is paid to what the well-appointed angler should wear. God forbid being caught by your buddies wearing a shirt or pants that aren’t at least 50 spf or fishing without hand coverings. Oddly, I don’t hear much talk about the best footwear for kayaking. I see lots of tennis shoes which are ok, but long ago I started wearing flats fishing boots with neoprene gaiters. Why? First, I like to wade. It’s a good way to stalk fish quietly, and I love the cooling, calming effect of being in the water. On a recent trip my decision to beach my kayak and stealthily approach a deep pool paid off with an immediate strike by a two-foot snook that put up a wild fight among the downed trees and branches.
Just as important is the fact that in the Everglades or out among those Ten Thousand Islands you will inevitably have to jump out of your yak to pull it over a sandbar, over or around a downed tree in a mangrove tunnel, or around the edge of an oyster bed bristling with sharp shells that has suddenly appeared and blocked your route. Then you want a boot that has a tough sole and something to keep the mud and other detritus out. My choice is Simms flats wading boots tied down tight at the top with neoprene gaiters like those used for fly fishing waders and boots.
Bass Pro and NRS also make similar footwear. I may not win any fashion contests, but don’t hesitate when I have to hop out of my kayak to wade when the situation calls for it…unless I see a gator or gator skid nearby.
#10. Don’t forget the essential little gear. Like most kayakers, I keep a list of gear that I check through every time as I pack up my SUV for an outing. Of course it includes major items like paddles, kayak seat, fishing rods, etc. I’ve learned over time that there are some little items that are also important that I often overlooked in the past and now consider essential. The first one is a hook hone.
I learned this trick years ago at a seminar put on by the famous Lefty Kreh, one of the first to write about saltwater fly fishing. He guaranteed that checking that hook for sharpness several times a day was one of the most important things an angler could do. He was right. In the Everglades and Ten Thousand Islands there are oyster bars, barnacles, and other assorted snags that can dull a hook in no time, not to mention the tough mouths of snook, tarpon, snapper, and other assorted fish. I check frequently during the day and after every fish. You can test your took by running it against your thumbnail at a slight angle. If it bites, the hook is ready to go.
Another important item is a short six-foot tow rope for your kayak.
I use mine on almost every trip for a variety of tasks such as tying off the front end of the boat to a mangrove tree for shade while anchoring for lunch thereby keeping it from drifting into the sun. I also like to wade fish, especially in hard-bottomed creeks or along islands with sandy beaches, and the rope allows me to tow the kayak behind me keeping net and other gear nearby. I attach brass snaps to each end for easy handling.
Another very useful small item is a fish lipper/gripper. I like the plastic ones that clamp on the fish’s lower lip so I have better control of it while removing a hook or taking a photo. The gripper also helps avoid having to handle the fish that can remove its important protective mucous covering and allows the fish to revive before release.
Because water temperature is a critical factor for fish such as snook and tarpon, having a water thermometer can help you decide if it’s worthwhile to go out or to pinpoint areas that might hold these favorite quarries. I am continually surprised how temperatures can vary by 5-10 degrees in different areas of a lake or stretch of a creek.
Another essential item I learned to use through the school of hard knocks is tube rod holders that fit in the rod holders built into the hull of my kayak. These plastic tubes elevate the rods making them easier to reach behind me and hold them more securely than the shallower hull rod holders.
I learned the hard way when standing and paddling one day when I apparently accidentally caught the reel tucked in the shallow hull holder with my paddle and flipped it overboard. I soon realized what I had done but could not find the rod and reel anywhere despite searching for a half hour. I hustled down to the local fishing shop the next day and purchased a couple of rod holders and have never had a problem since. The only downside of the holders is that because they stick up a foot or so above the hull, they sometimes catch on branches when I am navigating a tight mangrove tunnel. Of course, I don’t leave my rods in the holders in those situations and sometimes remove the holders if the going is particularly tough. Another option used by some yak anglers is to affix a series of rod holders to the plastic gear box they carry in the storage area behind their seats.
Finally, don’t forget to take along a gallon bottle of water for variety non-drinking purposes such as washing out a reel that gets an unwanted dunking in salt water (which just happened on my latest trip), pouring over a head gaiter to cool it and your noggin off on those sunny, hot days on the water, or washing out a wound. Of course, it can also serve as an emergency drinking water supply if you get stranded or run out of other drinks which has also happened to me when I accidentally knocked by Hydroflask water bottle overboard and lost it.
That’s my top ten. Hope they get you into more fish and keep you safe! Let me know if you have any additions.