A short-handled gaff comes in handy for subduing an eating-size king mackerel. Lip grippers should also be on board, for other species.

Most kayak anglers learn very quickly that handling big fish at boatside is risky business. We are sitting, and don’t have full use of our legs and backs to help control a fish. We’re very close to the water and the fish, and we can’t jump out of the way.

Tools are what we need. Simple, dependable tools to make the operation safer for both angler and fish.

Lip Grippers

Lip-gripper landing devices (and there are many kinds) work to help subdue fish that are to be re- leased unharmed. A good pair of grippers should be on the kayak for every saltwater fishing trip. Fresh water, too, produces its share of toothy mudfish and pickerel.

Grippers control the head of a caught fish and help you keep the fish from dropping into the boat and onto your body.

I’ve used a wide range of grippers, and my favorites are the ones that float. Metal grippers with scales and pull-down weighing features are nice, but I tend to drop stuff overboard, and the metal grippers don’t float. (Yes, you can tie a cork float to the handle. I didn’t. Goodbye gripper.)

Lip grippers work well for big redfish, kings and even deepwater snapper. Gripper devices keep fingers away from teeth, and with the head of a big fish controlled, a kayak angler can deal safely with the rest of the fish.

And lip grippers work well for hardhead catfish. I once landed a fat, 3-pound hardhead, and I brought the slimy thing into the kayak so I could remove the hook and cuss the catfish. Without using a lip gripper, I couldn’t control the fish, and it dehooked itself and fell onto my leg. It was an interesting moment when the dorsal spine of that nasty old catfish punctured my knee.

Of course, it could have fallen into my lap, so things could have been worse, but that painful episode would not have happened if I had used lip grippers.

Kill Shots

Going after big, potentially dangerous fish you plan to eat? Get a gaff. When a gaff is applied properly, the fish experiences shock and internal damage that tends to quiet the fish down immediately.

For kayak use, gaffs need to have short handles with non-slip grips, and the business end needs a good protective guard. A long-handled gaff can become dangerous to the angler in a kayak if a big fish is not gaffed properly.

Cobia are popular targets when they migrate along the coasts of Florida, and kayak anglers are getting proficient at hooking and playing these fighters from the small boats. Cobia to be kept should be gaffed, and then when brought alongside, a whack with a club or fish bat should be applied to the head. This might need to be repeated.

Cobia are very strong. They have sharp and stout spines on their backs. They are known for being difficult to manage when brought into a boat of any kind.

Big king mackerel might also require the gaff and bat combination, but kings usually quiet down pretty quickly. Or, if you’re not going to eat them, keep them in the water while unhooking them or cutting the line.

Don’t Land That Fish!

Now, not be a killjoy to certain ambitious and courageous kayak anglers, but in my opinion, there are some fish that should not be landed with any kind of tool.

Tarpon: Full-grown silver kings are strong and unpredictable. Having a 150-pound tarpon come aboard a kayak is not a good thing. I feel that tarpon should be played to the kayak, taken by the jaw by a gloved hand, and the leader cut close to the hook or the hook worked free while holding the leader.

Sharks: I recommend that no shark—of any size—be brought into a kayak by either gaff or lip grippers. These toothy critters can twist and turn and snap in a heartbeat, and there’s no room for an angler to dodge or get out of the way on a kayak.

Get Mr. Tooth as close to the kayak as is comfortable, cut the leader, and wish it good luck and long life. FS

First published Florida Sportsman April 2018

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