May 20, 2016
Edward Abbey once said if you want to see the desert, get down on your knees and start crawling. Kayaking is the boating equivalent, with fish and other wildlife only inches away. With shrimp skipping around us, we paddle vigorously up a winding creek near Matanzas Inlet against the tide, hugging the banks to avoid the main current. Tom Derringer from Jacksonville makes it look easy, while I gamely keep up or even pass him. After seven years without paddling a kayak, this isn't so hard: The loaner 'yak is responsive and scoots along. We follow a winding marsh where regular boats fear to go when the tide is falling. Just behind us is Tom's son Todd, recent winner of the Jacksonville Kayak Fishing Classic Tournament, paddling with three-year-old Kristen wedged in. Three generations of Derringers making the dawn patrol. Can this family fish kayaks or what?
Stopping to cast, I look up and notice both boats are landing flounder. These guys prefer a slow, twitchy retrieve with a baitfish-shaped, scented Gulp! lure. The redfish and flounder certainly favor it, as we're about to find out, even in a murky, falling tide. Flounder hang on to it while thoughtfully chewing; a count of 30 before setting the hook earns this father-and-son team consistent hookups. Often they land a dozen flounder per trip. Keeper fish—12 inches or better, within the 10-per-person bag limit—are stashed in Todd's bow compartment, where an insulated icebag waits.
They move on, paddling onto a broad flat in only a foot of water that continues to drop, oyster reefs appearing here and there. Hard country for an outboard motor. We continue to fish, staking out each boat with old golf clubs that have their heads removed. Just shove it in the bottom on a short leash, and the kayak stops even in this brisk west wind. Pitch up against the shoreline, twitch that bait slow and bang! Two more flounder. Baked flounder in lemon pepper seems only hours away.
As the tide drops and slows, we move out into a broad lake in two feet of water, virtually cut off from the outside world. It's time to bait up for redfish. Earlier during our creek passage, mullet and shrimp had jumped around us in the shallows, with a 2-pound mullet landing with a smack where my open camera bag had been just moments before. I fell on him with a club, and we used him for cutbait. Using bait is enough to make some kayak purists shiver like a hound dog passing peach pits, but at low tide when the water is murky and restricted, you can't beat a chunk of mullet for bigger redfish. On the last trip, Todd caught a 34-inch red during low-tide siesta.
It's just common sense for local kayakers to stake out the center of a flat where remaining water gathers, and sit there with baits set out. In a kayak, you don't pick up and run miles to another spot that has more water. These guys stay out there during most of an entire tide cycle—the most vigorous tides in Florida except for Fernandina. In warm weather, an umbrella and nap is practical here while waiting for that sudden bite. We settle into a stupor, waiting for the water to return, with Kristen sleeping sitting upright, wedged between her dad's feet, padded by a swimming vest. (That sweaty three-year-old is a natural for the outdoors, part of a dying breed these days. Nine hours in a kayak and nary a complaint).
A big gafftop catfish, a few blue crabs, then a call on the small walkie-talkie. It's Tom, a dot on the horizon, probing a creek where the first of an incoming tide is pouring in. He's found the redfish. Crossing this big flat seems dubious after pulling up our golf club stakes, but we skate across the wind, watching Tom's boat slowly grow bigger. Is he unhooking another redfish? Yes. New, cleaner water is gushing in from the Atlantic around his 'yak. The scented plastic baits fly left and right, catching more redfish and flounder, while the trout elude us. This is game time. A smaller, unfamiliar spin reel with braid line whips my plastic bait a good distance. Why is it unfamiliar? Time to give witness.
Kayaking is low-tech, low-cost fishing, but tough duty for rods and reels. Even in this shallow water, it's easy to lose a fishing rod. With a lack of inboard space, you have to keep each rod jutting over the water. Shore vegetation or even a rocking motion might make a rod disappear, unless properly seated in a rod holder. Earlier that morning, my rod holder couldn't be reached without my leaning way forward in a jackknife position like a yoga-person. So, I unscrewed the 8-inch stern hatch behind the seat and laid the rod butt inside, within easy reach. After stowing the rod and paddling 300 yards to the next spot, I was shocked to see my spin outfit (veteran of five countries!) missing. My beloved travel rod and Cabo reel lay in a foot of murky water that perfectly concealed it, even though two of us backtracked my exact route on foot through mud and occasional oysters. A sad loss.
The Derringers are well-equipped with extra rods per 'yak and lent me another, and allowed as how they'd lost several in past years. The lesson here is that ‘yak fishing can be tough on equipment at times, with occasional losses. Indeed, my camera bag was splattered with mud and drying salt, barely protecting an expensive camera. The waterproof, rubber bag underneath it was too much hassle to use when the action got hot.
More lunch for the paddlers, even cold fruit and half-frozen water bottles. It's isolated out here without a boat in sight. But there is a pine tree shoreline with solid ground in the near distance. “We try to paddle to areas that boats simply can't go,” says Tom. “A lot of new kayakers go to the same spots they fished with their boats, but the big advantage here is the ability to fish skinny water where bait and predators meet. Because our local bays often have a soft, muddy bottom, wadefishing is difficult, too. Kayaks offer the chance to fish muddy bottom, where redfish root around for their dinner.”
That explained the lack of wade fishermen on a Saturday.
After a long day we retreat back toward civilization, fighting an incoming tide but aided by our umbrellas, which act as a sail.
Back on the ICW shoreline of Highway AIA, I clamber out and drag the light 'yak higher up the beach before another boat wake arrives. Miss Amy is parked close by after an excellent day at the beach, and plies me with Advil and “cold pop with foam on top,” as they say in Louisiana. Soon enough, all the world is right. We both ease toward the fish cooler, checking up on that flounder dinner.
Hotspots Around St. Augustine
The Derringer kayak family prefers Pellicer Flat, which has about eight creeks that wind their way in from both the ICW and the main feeder creek, which is called “Porpoise Creek” or East Summer Haven River. Many flats to the west of the ICW, south of nearby Road 206, are too shallow at low tide for most boats to go. But kayakers can portage across sandbars that may entirely block an entrance to deeper water on the other side. Mullet are trapped in these small ponds and that's where redfish feast on them. And kayak-equipped anglers feast on the redfish. Later that night, anyway.
The 206 flats (visible from the ICW bridge) and Devil's Elbow area are full of redfish and a favorite spot for kayakers and tournament anglers. The dozens of creeks around Matanzas Inlet hold bounties of flounder, trout and redfish. Most redfish will be in the 15- to 24-inch range. Sometimes they locate a bonus school of 30-inch redfish in there.
Even farther south near Palm Coast, Bing's Landing is a great launch spot. Directly across from the ramp is an area known as Long Creek that winds through the area and has reds, trout, flounder, occasional snook and some tarpon roaming the shallows. These fish feed on an abundance of mullet, blue crabs and shrimp. FS
First Published Florida Sportsman April 2008