One of the things that I love about fishing in general and about kayak angling specifically, is the problem solving. Each day and each location are full of constantly changing variables that make each situation unique. That means that there's always some amount of on-the-spot problem solving to be done. But even beyond that, there are larger problem solving opportunities that come with the process of learning and improving.
I strive to continuously refine my overall approach, fine-tuning everything from my seasonal and daily game-plans, to my kayak and fishing rigging, my gear organization, etc. In this installment I'd like to go over that process a bit, and give some specific examples.
My approach to angling in general is firmly based on the old saying attributed to Sun Tzu, "Strategy without tactics is the slow road to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before the defeat." He probably didn't even ever actually say that, but no matter, it applies to many things and it's absolutely spot-on when it comes to fishing.
I break most everything down into one of those two categories: strategies and tactics. I go on the water with a definite strategy and I use specific tactics to implement it. I make note of everywhere my tactics fall short and address it as a problem that needs solved. Maybe just more practice, maybe a different rig, or tool, or approach.... Whatever. The way I see it, if my tactics are sloppy, and I fail on the water, I have no idea if my strategy was sound or not. I can only make a quality assessment about my strategy if it's successfully implemented with properly executed tactics.
When I set out on this quest to become a proficient flathead catfish angler, it wasn't just targeting these fish that was new; It was dealing with current, and river fishing in general. Sure, I did some reading, (OK, a LOT of reading) to try and get up to speed on what to expect, especially with regard to the dangers associated with flowing water, but a head full of written words will never equate to actual experience. So when it came down to it, I had to toss my kayak, which was all rigged up for bass fishing in no-wake-lakes, into the current, and find my river-fishing base-line.
To begin with, I knew I would have to get my river-paddling chops up to speed. That would just be a matter of spending time on the water, so that's what I did. I would often put in at dawn and commit to several hours of paddling. Sometimes, before I left a spot that I had fished, I would paddle back up just a bit and float back into it. Can I pull up to that log like a piece of driftwood? Can I park next to that logjam without making noise? How best can I take an Inside line around a bend; an outside line? How should I position to fish that seam? A lot of it was on-the-job training while I was actually fishing, but an equal part of it was practice for practice's sake too. I challenged myself to keep getting more comfortable, and more proficient at maneuvering around in the current, all while trying to be honest with myself about my skill level so that I didn't push beyond what I was ready for. So river paddling was the initial tactic that would require ongoing refinement. It wasn't so much a problem to be solved though, as it was a skill, that simply called for time on the water to get the experience.
There were plenty of areas for actual problem-solving too though.
My initial understanding of flathead fishing was that live bait was pretty much a requirement. I could always purchase bait, but that sort of went against the spirit of why I give myself these challenges in the first place, which is to keep learning. So I set out and I found places to catch a variety of different bait fish. This was a bit of a struggle, but by putting in a little research and asking around I soon had a couple of honey holes for bluegill and bullhead where I could catch bait most any time. I also bought a cast net for catching shad and green sunfish. My cast net skills are still a work in progress (read - I still need LOT'S of practice) so I currently rely mostly on the bluegill and bullhead. In a pinch I can always fish for small channel cats to use once I'm on the water as well.
Keeping that bait alive once I was on the water presented another problem. I had one of those frabill bait trolling buckets that I used on my first outing. In lake situations, I'll set it up on my stern while I paddle from one spot to another. Once I hit a spot that I want to stop and fish, then off the side and into the water goes the bait bucket and there it stays until I'm ready to relocate. Works like a charm. Well let me tell you something about using that type of bait bucket in current; Terrible idea! It basically acted like a drift-sock on me. As soon as I put it in the water then the current took it. It banged into my yak, it got pulled under my yak, it tried to swing my yak around. No matter what sort of adjustment I tried it was always a train wreck. That meant I had to keep it setting on my stern up out of the current. The water got hot, the bait died. This was a serious problem.
The bait bucket just didn't make the grade so I took an old cooler and transformed it into a live well by adding a portable bubbler. I also made a spot to mount a blue ice block on the inside of the lid so it keeps the temp down without touching the water. I consider this type of live-well a must have.
Another area that required a series of tactical adjustments was with anchoring and my ability to get into desirable casting positions.
I wasn't really sure what would be the best way to hold position when I started so I planned on experimenting with anchors, brush clips and stake-out poles and figuring out what worked the best for me. There are some inherent dangers associated with anchoring in current, so I was hoping to avoid it as much as possible. It turns out that I found anchoring both noisy and cumbersome anyway, so I ended up relying mostly on the clip and the pole.
Positioning on the outside bend or up next to a log jam means I'm using the brush clip. On the inside bend where it's shallower I'll use my stake out pole.
I also found that even with my anchor trolley moved all the way to the stern position I was still catching a lot of current that would try to swing my back end out around. My line would hold me, but it created a lot of water-slap and made kind of a ruckus; something I was trying to avoid. I felt it was important to be able to anchor in these kinds of spots though, so I ended up adding pad eyes to the very end of each side of my kayak. I ran short lines through them with clips on the end. I float up to something, clip on to it and as I drift past it then I tighten my line and pull myself backwards until my stern is right up against the clip. It's super-stealthy and eliminates all of the slop and sway. I upgraded to a new yak this season and the first thing I did was add the pad eyes like this. I'm hoping that I can get my trolley back far enough on the new ride that I can just use that but if I can't get the desired effect I'll just keep running through those eyes.
Another important point is that the river bends both ways. Being limited to just clipping off on one side won't cut it. Dual trolleys or anchor line systems of some sort are also considered a necessity as far as I'm concerned.
By paying attention and addressing these, and other tactical issues that came up, I soon found that I was able to get myself in just about any position I chose with a fair degree of stealth. I could hold that position without much notice, and I could present most any kind of bait in any way I wanted.
Tactical fine-tuning. I make it an obsession. It is essential to be able to make informed strategic assessments, and that can only be done if you know that your strategy is being implemented as perfectly as possible. These fish are illusive to begin with, and they are not easily pursued out of a kayak. The reward is great, but only because the challenge is as well.
In my next installment I plan to cover some of what I've learned about flathead behavior, and how I use that model to guide my strategy.