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Safety in the Surf:

  Outfitting a Kayak for Florida Beach Fishing


The coastline of Florida stretches 1350 miles, more than any other state in the lower forty-eight.  Picturesque beaches cover 825 miles of that distance, including almost the entire Atlantic coast and a large portion of the Gulf coast as well.  Our beaches are an invaluable economic resource, drawing millions of tourists each year.  Where public access is available, the sandy shores also provide outstanding fishing opportunities year round.  Surf fishermen in Florida have always enjoyed consistent fishing for bottom feeders like whiting, pompano, and redfish, as well as seasonal residents such as jack crevalle, bluefish, and spanish mackerel.  Except for an incidental catch, most large migratory species cruising within a mile of our beaches have remained inaccessible to fishermen who don’t own offshore-capable boats.  This has changed dramatically with the growing popularity of “offshore” kayak fishing. 


For many years, big game shark fishermen have used simple kayaks to carry enormous baits into deeper water off the beaches.  It’s unlikely that many entertained the idea of actually fishing from their small crafts.  With the evolution of sit-on-top kayaks specifically designed for fishing, anglers who were once confined to the surf or piers can now safely venture beyond the breakers in search of tarpon, king mackerel, cobia, little tunny, huge jack crevalle, and even dolphin and sailfish along the southeast coast.  These species are bigger, faster, and stronger than most encountered inshore, and targeting them safely and effectively takes a great deal of additional preparation. 


We’ll start with the most important piece of equipment- the kayak.  With the exception of the occasional slick calm morning, a day of beach fishing always begins with the obstacle of paddling through the surf.  The surf conditions are certainly more of a consideration on the Atlantic coast than the Gulf.  For a paddler of average skill-level, a 10-13ft kayak handles both exiting and re-entering the surf more easily than a longer boat.  Shorter kayaks are more responsive to the quick paddle strokes necessary to maintain a perpendicular heading to oncoming or following waves.  Fishing kayaks in the 14-17ft. range can certainly handle surf launching, but timing the sets is much more critical.  Longer boats have a much greater tendency to bow-steer, which can instantly cause a kayak to turn parallel to the waves.  Attempting to surf a wave in a long kayak can quickly lead to a hazardous situation.  Sit-on-top kayaks are definitely preferable for fishing off the beach.  Most popular fishing models are designed to be self-bailing, which is very important for surf launching.  It’s a good idea to remove any scupper plugs before launching.  In this case, the ability to quickly drain water from the cockpit or tank-well takes precedence over staying dry.  Regardless of length, the beach is not the place to fish out of a touring-style kayak.   Drifting, casting, or fighting large fish in a combination of swells and chop can be very uncomfortable in a kayak less than 26” in width. 


Rigging a kayak and choosing gear for fishing off the beach requires careful attention to both safety and fishing-oriented features.  A good quality life jacket is a critically important item.  Manually inflating vests like SOSpenders are ideal because they lack bulk and can be worn comfortably even during the hottest part of summer.  Whether negotiating the surf or fighting fish with heavy tackle, a seemingly harmless situation can turn scary with one rogue wave or unexpected movement that causes the kayak to overturn.  By wearing a life jacket, a potentially dangerous loss of balance becomes just an embarrassing moment.  In fairly windy and choppy conditions, I also tether myself to the kayak with an 8-10ft rope.  Before fishing off the beach, it’s very important to be well practiced in executing a deep water re-entry.  An excellent source of information for surf launching, re-entry, and rescue techniques is David Seidman’s book, “The Essential Sea Kayaker:  A Complete Course for the Open-water Paddler”.


Other necessary safety gear includes a handheld GPS, a compass, a submersible VHF radio, and a paddle leash.  Sea fog is a real concern during the calm mornings of summer.  It can roll in from offshore in just minutes and reduce visibility to only several yards.  I’ve been enveloped in sea fog less than ¼ mile off the beach, and without navigation equipment, determining a proper heading to reach shore would have been impossible.  The electronics can stay tucked away in a dry bag or hatch 99% of the time, but having the security of instant communication and precise navigation is invaluable should a problem ever occur. 




While targeting aggressive and unpredictable species like tarpon, cobia, or king mackerel, it’s imperative to have an extremely sharp knife immediately accessible.  If a reel malfunctions, a shark attacks a hooked fish, or a seemingly tired fish goes ballistic next to the kayak, cutting the line instantly removes the angler from any danger.  Such incidents that might be considered minor in a boat are much more serious in a kayak with no freeboard and no room to take evasive action.  Life jackets and electronics aside, the most essential safety measure is fishing with an experienced partner.  Fishing alone off the beach in a kayak is a recipe for disaster. 


The risk of overturning a kayak is obviously much greater off the beach than inshore.  To protect your fishing gear and accessories, it’s a good idea to secure anything of value.  With a zippered top and closed-in sides, a Crate Mate is the best solution for securing tackle and gear.  Another alternative is to carry small items like leader material, sunscreen, gloves, and soft plastic baits in a drawstring mesh bag tied to a milk crate.  Other accessories such as a Boga Grip, pliers, or a knife can be secured to pad eyes with brass clips and a 2-3ft length of shock cord.  A small hand gaff is very useful for subduing and de-hooking large fish.  However, a gaff should not be tethered to the kayak and certainly not to the angler.  A better alternative is to attach a large float to the gaff.  If a fish flops uncontrollably, simply let go and the fish will quickly shake the gaff.  The tool will rise to the surface for easy retrieval.



After hooking a large fish, the famous kayak “sleigh-ride” ensues.  While being towed down the beach is fun, it’s not in the best interest of the fish or angler to extend the fight any longer than necessary.  Smaller kayaks in particular place very little resistance against a strong pulling fish.  To slow down a running fish, deploy a sea anchor to provide increased drag.   A sea anchor designed for 16-18ft boats is ideal (typically a 30” diameter).  I keep my sea anchor clipped to an anchor trolley system, which allows me to instantly run the sea anchor astern of the kayak.  With drag being applied at the stern, the bow will always be pointed directly towards the fish.  With a sea anchor and a “down and dirty” approach in which the angler keep a low line angle to the water, it’s actually possible to land fish faster out of a kayak than in a boat. 




Rods and reels are usually the most expensive and fragile tackle items onboard a kayak.  Many kayak anglers have lost costly outfits in the surf and off the beach, all of which can be avoided with a few simple steps.  Unless there is absolutely no shoreline or secondary break, I always put rods inside the front hatch of my kayak before launching or returning to the surf.  If my kayak rolls, the rods are totally safe from damage.  Once outside the surf zone, my partner can easily remove the rods from the hatch.  Some kayaks can’t accommodate rods due to bulkheads or a small front hatch.  In this case, it’s best to utilize reel covers and secure rods horizontal to the surface of the kayak.  Rod holders made by Scotty and RAM allow for such adjustments.  While fishing, it’s advisable to secure extra rods with either individual leashes or bungee cords. 


Extremely large fish like tarpon often require a good bit of revival time before they regain strength.  In order to pass oxygenated water through a tarpon’s gills, it’s necessary to tow the fish through the water.  I have a rope permanently attached to a pad eye on the bow of my kayak that allows my partner to tow me while I revive the fish.  Rubberized fishing gloves work well for holding onto the bottom jaw.  The rope also serves as a handy kayak tether for wading when fishing inshore waters.


Surf and sea conditions are too rough for kayak fishing off the beach for much of the year, particularly on the eastern seaboard.  The warmer months from May-August provide the most good weather windows.  Most of the best fishing off the east coast beaches exists within ½ mile of the surf, and possibly slightly more on the southwest coast and Panhandle beaches.  Due to the close proximity of the Gulf Stream, kayak fishermen from Stuart to Miami might occasionally travel farther offshore in search of dolphin or sailfish. In the interest of safety, it’s wise to coordinate such a trip with a chase boat in constant radio range. With the rapid formation and severity of summertime storms, it’s not smart to venture much farther offshore.  Even at a mile off the beach, it takes 15 minutes to reach the shore with an average cruise speed of 4mph.   Offshore winds are basically a necessity to knock down chop and swells.  It’s possible to paddle comfortably off the beaches in fairly rough conditions, however, fishing and fighting fish is very difficult when the seas exceed a true 1.5ft. 


With the proper preparation, Florida’s beaches are excellent portals for kayak fishermen to target large, hard fighting fish not typically found inshore.  While hooking a full-grown tarpon or king mackerel out of any vessel is fun, the excitement of battling such formidable gamesters out of a kayak is simply unmatched.  Just remember to put safety first and keep the camera ready- any cast can result in the fish or memory of a lifetime.