Why fly fish from a kayak? Think back to when you started kayak fishing - the attractions are similar. It’s easy to find peace on the water in a kayak, especially with a flyrod in hand. The reward is tremendous: the rhythm of casting, the thrill of fooling a fish into eating fur and feathers that you may have tied yourself, and the fight are just a few reasons to take the plunge and pick up the fly rod.
If you’re already a flyfisher, you’ll be fine with your current rods and reels, matched to your kayak quarry of choice. I have 9’, 10’, and 11’ rods in various weights that I use depending on circumstances. A longer rod (9.5’ or 10') is nice for keeping line off the water, but certainly not essential. There is conversely the short rod school of thought, to which my buddy Jeff introduced me: If you're not making long casts, it's easier to land fish and you're less likely to break a short rod high sticking a fish next to the boat.
Starting out in freshwater, a 6wt or 7wt is a good compromise rod: it’ll throw bass bugs just fine, but won’t be too exhausting to cast all day. In the salt, an 8wt is a good overall choice for the range of lines and flies you’ll throw in most areas. These are just generalizations, however, and it’s best to head into a local flyshop to get some advice. A fly outfit is a major purchase, and it’s important to cast a few rods before you buy, just as it’s important to demo a handful of kayaks before you purchase the right one. Rod, reel, line, leader, and fly selection are articles in and of themselves; your local flyshop and/or an experienced flyfisher can point you in the right direction based on your area and target species.
Fly gear isn’t cheap; make sure you have the means to secure your rod in the event you turtle your kayak. I use a Scotty Fly Rod Holder, and I make every effort to ensure that the rod is in my hand or the holder at all times. Some flyfishers use a rod leash, but I find them cumbersome; it seems everything gets tangled as is.
For most kayak flyfishing applications, I’m looking for a wide and stable boat: something good for standing. If your kayak doesn’t have a standing strap, seriously consider installing one. A clear deck is pretty much essential; your fly line will find every exposed protrusion on your boat and foul. I know this all too well, as it seems I always violate the clear deck rule. With a clear deck, the fly angler can strip line down into the boat, and have confidence that it will shoot clear when needed, either for a cast or the run of a good fish.
I keep my flies in waterproof containers (boxes and sleeves) so I don’t need to worry about rusted hooks - odds are your boxes will get wet at some point. I keep a foam drying patch inside my vest for smaller flies and another behind my seat for the big boys. Essential gear (pliers, hook sharpener, Boga-Grip, etc.) is stowed or connected so it won’t foul my line.
Casting (and standing--my favorite):
This is probably the largest adjustment for fly anglers starting to kayak fish. Casting from a sitting position can be a challenge at first, as your line is substantially closer to the water. Even experienced flyfishers tag the water on a backcast from time to time when they try to keep too much line in the air. If you concentrate on keeping your line speed high and shooting line for distance instead of carrying it, you'll be much happier. Fortunately, in our kayaks we can often sneak closer to the fish than boat-bound fly anglers, so shorter casts aren’t too much of a handicap. Casting technique is, again, worthy of its own article.
Of course, standing will help alleviate the distance problem, but it presents a few issues of its own. It's a good idea to practice standing under controlled conditions, without your gear. After you're comfortable getting up and down, it's time for fun. Find a buddy and some deep water to test the limits of your boat's stability while you're standing. Lean out, sink the gunnels, fall out, and get some practice re-entering your kayak. Much better to go for a swim now than when you're standing over a pod of working fish. Once you’ve perfected standing, it’s time to practice standing and casting - do it in shallow water where you can recover that outfit if necessary. Standing, paddling, and casting will eventually become second nature.
Stripping and Fighting:
To retrieve, I ordinarily tuck the rod under my armpit and strip with both hands. This gives plenty of room to vary the length and speed if my strips, whether I’m sitting or standing. I don't typically use a stripping basket or mat, but if you're going to be sight fishing where long casts are required, and your boat is rigged such that you’re prone to foul the line, bringing one is a good idea. I prefer a clear deck, but each setup has its place.
Fighting fish with the fly rod from a kayak requires a bit of adjustment. I don’t like to just strip my fish in, leaving a pile of line of the deck. Instead, I try to put all my fish on the reel, unless they're absolutely tiny, to avoid tangling a flopping fish in my line. To get a fish on the reel, pinch the line under your middle finger to maintain pressure on the fish, while using your pinkie to keep pressure on the pile of line as you reel it in. Larger fish will take out the entire pile of slack line as they run; your job is just to keep the line flowing through the guides until the fish is on the reel and taking drag. This process takes a bit of practice. The important thing to remember is: Keep pressure on the fish.
Once the fish is on the reel, use the leverage of the longer rod to work the fish and listen to the drag sing. The amount of pressure on a fish increases as rod angle decreases, so get down and dirty when you need to really work a fish. The added length of a fly rod is great for reaching around the front of your yak when a big fish makes a surge and runs under your boat.
Landing fish is simple enough, but the added rod length and line/leader connection of a fly outfit can be a pain. Minimize issues by using a line/leader connection that will slide through your guides with relative ease, and use as heavy a leader as possible. When you hook a decent fish, don’t bring it too close; grab a wrap of leader, lip the fish with a gripper if you’re so inclined, and use the leg scoop to bring it aboard. If the fish makes a last-minute surge, the smoothness of your line/leader connection may be put to the test as the fish tears it back through your guides. There’s always the net option if you’re so inclined, but I find that it’s just another piece of gear to snag your line and/or lose.
Easing your kayak into a secluded spot where boats fear to tread and sightcasting in inches of water is what it's all about. If you’ve ever thought about picking up the long rod, find a local shop or experienced fly angler and start developing another fun and useful technique in your kayak fishing repertoire.