Tips From the Pros

How to Win the Mangrove and Oyster Bar Wars

Ever wonder why professional backcountry guides usually use light tackle in the 6 to 8 pound class most of the time? Two main reasons: First, there's no question that lighter tackle will draw more strikes. Species like snook are very wary, indeed. My typical rig is a Shimano Stradic 2000FE or a DAM Quick MDS 630 loaded with Bear 8 pound test blue florescent line tied to a 30 pound shock leader of about 18" and terminated with a 1 or 1/0 short shank Mustad bait holder hook. Why? Minimum visibility to the fish and maximum ability of the bait to swim about naturally, completely unencumbered by things like swivels, beads, and splitshot sinkers. Second, the live baits we use are small and light, and simply can't be thrown an acceptable distance with heavier gear. We're usually fishing in clear, shallow water, and casting distance is extremely important. I have long said that he who casts farthest will catch the most fish. And, it's almost always true. Having said all this, light tackle fishing around mangrove root systems and oyster bars creates a serious problem that the angler must learn to overcome if he is to have much success with the larger of the species like snook and redfish; keeping the fish out of the cover.

Actually, it's not as bad or hard as it might seem. As with most things, it's all in knowing how. There are a number of little tricks that I always try to teach my clients as the morning moves along. The landing to hookup ratio always goes up dramatically as the angler learns and becomes more comfortable with the techniques I teach. Before we get into that, we should spend a minute on the basics, because I'm always surprised at how many seasoned anglers tell me they didn't know this or that until I showed them.

It may seem elementary, but probably the very first thing you should do is check the most used part of the line for nicks and abrasions. The slightest little nick can cause your line to part under the pressure that you will learn to put on big fish. Sometimes it doesn't even take a big fish. A small fish with a big pull can break you off just as quickly. While you're checking the line, make sure it's not all twisted up. I know, you're wondering why your line would be all twisted up. We'll get to that. And, if you're a typical weekend fisherman, you might be very surprised at the cause. But, the effect is twofold. If your line gets too twisted it will cause you problems when you cast and is weakened and could break under the rigors of a fight. So, either replace the front end of the line, or clip the hook off and put the line out behind the boat at idle speed and let is pull through the water for a while. Then when you reel in, pull the line through your thumb and forefinger to pull out any remaining twist. Now you'll have a lot less line related problems.

After you're satisfied that you're line is OK, check your line-to-leader knot, and your hook termination knot. I use an albright special for the line to leader connection most of the time because it is extremely clean and strong, and isn't prone to picking up trash out of the water. I use an absolutely fail-safe knot tied with a TieFast Tool for all my terminations. It makes the job of knot tying very quick and easy. That's important because during our summer snook run I may tie more than 40 hooks and leaders in a morning. The last, and perhaps most important and least understood basic is setting the drag. With light tackle the recommended drag setting is 25% of the line test. That means that if your using 8 pound line, your maximum drag setting should be 2 pounds. To properly set your drag, attach your line to the end of a quality scale via the hook. Have a friend hold the scale while you pull against it through the rod bent as it would be during a fight with a fish. Remember, everything that touches the line adds drag on the line, including the water. Above the water, it's primarily the reel drag and the line guides on the rod. With this last basic out of the way, I think we are ready to start learning the finer points of beating big fish with light tackle.

I should probably take a minute to talk about the rods used for this light tackle fishing. The rod is extremely important because it must have a soft enough tip to throw a small, delicate bait a long distance without slinging it off, and it must have enough backbone to put lots of pressure on a hooked fish. My first choice of live bait rods is the Shimano 7' Senslite. You can load the tip well with a light bait and cast it a great distance, and it has plenty of backbone. They're also extremely light, and a 4000 size reel gives it near perfect balance in your hand, and the combination won't fatigue you.

We're finally on the water and we've just set up on the first hole. Here's the typical scenario for the first timer. The bait landed just a foot or so from the edge of the mangroves. A moment passed. Tap! The line snatches tight. My angler sets the hook with a violent upward sweep of the rod and the drag sings that sweet fighting song. Adrenaline takes over. The angler furiously cranks on the reel to the ever more demanding sound of the drag. This scene usually ends in one of two ways; either the snook makes it the foot or so to the oyster covered mangrove roots and cuts the line, or the line parts on its own. In this little scenario I set up, my hypothetical angler did just about everything wrong. Don't misunderstand! It's not because he's dumb, or something. Rather, it's because he's never been exposed to fish with such big pulls using such little tools.

Here's how it should have gone. Tap! As the slack line quickly disappeared, the angler struck the fish down and away toward the left side of his body toward the water. carefully reeling into the fish at the same time. He masterfully angled the rod making the tip section as straight as possible, and putting as much bend in the butt of the rod as possible. He then carefully, but quickly made his way to the back of the boat either scooting down the gunwale, or along the cockpit. As he reached the rear of the boat, he began a series of quick, but deliberate pumping and reeling motions with the rod still pointed down, tip near or maybe even in the water. The angler was very careful to never cause the drag to click as he reeled. The only time the drag was heard was during the pump. The snook was far to big to subdue with a mere 2 pounds of drag and made a lunging run for the mangrove roots. My angler was ready, and masterfully applied enough pressure to the lip of the spool skirt with his left index finger to stop the snook's run right at the base of the roots. The angler immediately went back into the pump-and-reel. In short order the big snook was a safe distance away from the trees, and couldn't muster enough strength to make it back again. Soon the snook was at boatside. The angler was careful to leave about 7 feet of line between the rod tip and the fish. He raised the rod, lifted the fishes head, then steered it to the boat, where he grabbed the snook by the base of the tail and lifted it safely into the boat.

Notice any differences? I'm sure you did. First, the angler struck down and to the left to set the hook. Why? Because you have much more strength in a pushing motion with your arm than you do making a pulling motion toward you. Second, it puts the rod in the most desirable position for the first part of the fight. The angler then tried to put most of the bend in the butt of the rod. Why? Because, that's where the power is. Remember, the tip section of the rod is for casting. It's unlikely that you can put more than a couple pounds of pressure on a fish with just the tip of the rod. Unfortunately, that's where most of were taught to fight the fish.....on the tip. If you can move the bend back into the butt, you can increase the pressure on the fish dramatically, probably even exceeding the line test. The next thing the angler did was to carefully but quickly make his way to the rear of the boat, rod bent and pointed at the water. Why? Because you can do with your feet what you can't do with the rod and reel. What do I mean by this? The alternative is to stand where you are and try to frantically pump and reel the fish out away from his cover. With a lot of practice and everything going according to Hoyle, this can be done much of the time. But, it is far easier to walk the fish away from the trees. There's no shocking the line, no twisting against the drag, no Murphy's Law. Just think, even with some drag slippage, if you've got an 18' boat you'll probably move your fish a good 10 feet away from the trees with this one simple trick. I firmly believe that you win or lose the battle with a big fish in the trees, rocks, or oysters, in the first few seconds. You will no doubt catch lots of smaller fish where these techniques may not be necessary to land the fish. However, you will rarely know in the first few seconds whether it's a big or a small fish. The alternative is to treat every fish as a big fish from the point of the strike until you know whether he is or not. If you practice doing that with every fish, when the big ones do hit, you will have the odds in your favor, and are much more likely to win the battle at the treeline. Once you have those first few feet on the fish, you can begin to fight using the pump and reel.

Why pump and reel, as opposed to reel. With light tackle and even lighter drag settings, a large fish at the end of your line becomes the immovable object. If you simply crank the handle of a spinning reel against the fish, something has to give, and the drag will slip, the spool spins at the same rate as the rotor, and you quickly twist your line to the point that it's weakened or useless. If you don't believe how quickly this happens, prove it to yourself. Pick a reel with some line you don't like. Anchor the hook to something that won't give. Put a bend in the rod like you're fighting a fish, then walk slowly backward. You'll see the spool start to rotate against the drag. This simulates a fish taking line. Now, carefully watch the spool, and as you walk backward, start turning the handle like you're trying to reel the fish in. Yes, you'll see that the spool takes off and spins at the same speed as the rotor housing. Keep on doing it for a while. Now relax and walk toward your hook. You'll be amazed as you line kinks up into tight twists. That's what you're doing when you reel against the drag. So, Rule #1 is: Never, ever, never, never, ever, reel when you hear the drag clicking. If the fish takes off on a run, don't panic. Enjoy the sound of the screaming drag and don't try to take back line until the fish stops running. Once he does, pump the fish toward you with bent rod. Try never to bring the rod past the vertical plane of your body (behind you). Once you do, you've lost your advantage (angle) on the fish, and if you go far enough behind you, you can collapse the rod, drop slack in the line, and lose the fish. Once you've finished the pump stroke, reel down to the fish, taking care to keep the rod bent, and not to reel against a slipping drag. And remember, be smooooth! 8 pound line is incredibly strong if you pull on it with even pressure. But, shock it, and it will part readily. Once of the most important parts of light tackle fishing is simply learning how to be smooth.

Now my angler had a big fish that was able to mount another hard run for the trees. He stopped that fish by using his left index finger as a brake on the spool skirt. Why? Look at it this way. If the fish is bigger than the drag alone can stop, he will cut you off when he reaches the cover he's in, whether it be mangrove roots, rocks, or oysters. That's a given.....a no brainer. He will cut you off! But, if you will practice applying a little extra braking to the spool skirt with every fish you hook, you'll soon develop a feel that will allow you to expertly apply anywhere from a little added braking to complete spool lockup. If the fish is going to the trees, and you can't stop him with the equipment as it's set up, then apply more and more pressure with the spool brake until he either stops and turns, or the line breaks. If the line breaks.....so what! He was going to cut you off anyway. With practice you will see that you can stop some mighty big fish with mighty light line. Sure, you might break a few while you're learning, but you'll land a lot more of the big ones after you've mastered the technique.

The last thing my angler did was keep the fish's head up once he was at boatside, and he kept about 7 feet of line between the rod tip and the fish. Why? Where the fishes head goes, so goes the fish. If you keep his head up, he can't dig and make another run. If he can't run, you can get serious about landing him. But, if you're trying to land a fish that's 2 feet from the end of your rod, you might as well be trying to eat with a 7 foot long fork. It just won't work. Picture that and I think you'll understand with nothing more said. There's another reason not to bring the fish to close. If you bring a large fish to the boat green, which, by the way is the preferred way to do it because it's less stressful on the fish, and you have him close to the end of your rod, you have no shock protection left if he makes a sudden lunge. That means that if the fish bolts at boatside, he'll either break your line, your rod, or both. Always keep some distance between the rod and fish, at least the length of the rod.

So, there you have it. If you'll practice and develop these techniques until they become second nature, you'll hook and land more and bigger fish. I guarantee it.

There's one more little tip I should probably mention in this piece. My clients, and I'm sure those of other guides, are constantly amazed at how we can cast a shiner and drop it within inches of the treeline, or even back under an overhang. Well, yes we do get a lot of practice, but there is a technique that will make this drill much easier. The problem with a spinning reel is that unlike a baitcast reel with a revolving spool, you can't use your thumb as a spool brake. But, you can use the index finger of your right hand as a brake against the lip of the spool. After the cast, if you see that you need to slow the flight of the bait to keep it out of the trees, simply extend your right index finger toward the lip of the spool. You will hear and feel the line slap the end of your finger, and as you get closer to the lip you will get more breaking, until you finally stop the bait by touching the spool lip if you need to. With practice you'll be able to absolutely amaze your fishing buddies with your deadly accuracy. And, as a result, you'll probably also have more hookups.

Now, get out there and practice. If you'd like some up close and personal instruction, call my toll free number 1-800-545-1853, to order my video or book a trip. I promise it will be a memorable one, indeed.

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