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Kayaking for Big Fish in Small Bayous

Pay attention to those tiny coves and tributaries. With a little research, a lightweight boat and some effort you could uncover a gold mine

Kayaking for Big Fish in Small Bayous

Cool winter morning might see this angler catching bass and seatrout in same waters.

I’m slowly making my way in my kayak up a tiny unnamed bayou which feeds into Ochlocknee Bay, but my little adventure was not a planned fishing trip.

I didn’t intend to fish this Northwest Florida bayou, and I didn’t even know it existed; instead, I was just driving along in the truck scouting for future photo opportunities. But when I saw the bayou with a good tidal current flowing at roadside, I just had to pull over for a closer look. And then when I saw that big, broad tail of a black drum as it stood on its nose and grubbed along the bayou bottom digging up food, I just had to slide the kayak out of the truck bed and go fishing.

Looks too good for fish not to be there? Don’t be in a hurry to leave. Work the area carefully.

Kayak, canoes, john boats and such are the only craft that would fit on this little bayou. The stream is only 50 feet or so wide in most places, but there is deep water, and there is good current. This is paddle fishing heaven.

And there I could see that big broad black drum tail waving at me from the edge of some weeds as the fish worked along looking for food. I made a cast with a soft-plastic grub on a jig head, and I let the jig settle toward the bottom. The tail flicked, and then my line went tight as a strong fish struck and made a rapid run downstream.

flounder camouflaged in the sand
Small Gulf Coast bayous can hold some very big redfish and black drum, as well as flounder and speckled trout.

But this wasn’t right! The drum tail was still waving at me, and it hadn’t moved at all from its feeding location. How can that black drum be tailing in one place and also running like a scared deer at the same time?

Well, it can’t. But a nice seven-pound redfish that had been following the tailing black drum and grabbing small food things that escaped from the black drum could.

The main point is this: Small Gulf Coast bayous can hold some very big redfish and black drum, as well as flounder and speckled trout. But anglers fishing these small bayous whether from kayaks or other craft have to up their game to make it work.


bayou kayak fishing
Both reds and black drum get very sensitive to noise disruptions when they are feeding in shallow, small waters.

When fishing any of the coastal mini-bayous and creeks, anglers must try to eliminate all sources of noise. A sinker or jig head dropped carelessly in the bottom of a kayak or aluminum boat can be enough to spook a red or black drum into a high-speed escape. Both reds and black drum get very sensitive to noise disruptions when they are feeding in shallow, small waters. Think slow movements, and think quiet presentation when fishing small water drum.

Paddle or pole quietly. Outboard engines are for sure fish-spookers, but banging a paddle or pushpole against the hull will also cause drum and other fish to flush. Sloppy paddle handling in the water will do the job of spooking them, too.

When moving a small boat down a narrow bayou, try to keep the paddle out of the water as much as possible, and slowly dip the blade into the water only when a course correction is needed. Try to not let the paddle blade hang in the water—it creates a noise as the water moves over it.

And use the paddle to silently hook onto vegetation growing along the bayou to hold a position. With the paddle secured and a leg placed over the paddle, a kayak will stay where the angler wants it to be, and it will hold there quietly.

If you are using an electric motor, and you feel like you must use it, try to keep it on very slow, steady speed. Try hard not to bump bottom.


redfishing in a kayak
Long casts often will help the angler see drum that are feeding but that have not given themselves away by tailing or pushing a wake.

When fishing little bayous, it can often be very effective to make long casts down the length of the bayou shoreline. Whether the angler is using spin gear, levelwind, or even fly gear, the farther the cast can be made, the better.

This long distance presentation allows the angler to work the lure or bait along the strike zone without putting the boat too close to the active fish. Also, long casts often will help the angler see drum that are feeding but that have not given themselves away by tailing or pushing a wake. If you see a bulge in the water off a pocket or point far up the bayou as a fish responds to a long cast, even if the fish doesn’t take, there’s a good chance it will still be at that position and it might take another cast.

Making good accurate casts when fishing small bayous is very important. There’s nothing more frustrating than to make a cast which goes just about 2 feet too far and hangs up in the spartina or other shoreline vegetation. The lure or bait will hang up solid, and when we try to free the hang up, the hungry redfish below the hang up will become a scared red and escape quickly.

No matter how long or short the casts, make sure they are accurate and land in a point where the fish has a chance to see and approach the bait.


kayak fishing in shallow water bayous
Whenever a small bayou location is found with current moving—either tide or wind generated water movement—stay there!

Perhaps the biggest point to keep in mind when fishing in small bayous: It’s not a race. These small water fish are there to feed, and they will feed—given a fair chance.

When you come across a place that looks too good for fish not to be there, don’t be in a hurry to leave. Work the pocket or drop-off carefully, and watch. Many times feeding fish will be working in parts that we don’t expect them to be.

And whenever a small bayou location is found with current moving—either tide or wind generated water movement—stay there! Water movement in small bayous is crucial for the best fishing. Moving water shuffles baitfish and crabs, and the fish will hold on that current and let the food come to them.

Another important point to keep in mind about fishing these small bayous: The fishing doesn’t stop when the weather cools. Some fine chilly weather speckled trout fishing happens when paddle anglers find and slowly fish the deepest pockets of water in the bayous. The specks stack up in these deep holes, and anglers can have a ball catching them in cold weather.


fishing st.marks national wildlife refuge
St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge has some gorgeous bayous holding flounder and reds.

This is one of those angling virtues that pays off both before and after we get on the water. Anglers who drive the Florida coasts—particularly along the northern Gulf Coast—should pay attention to every little creek and water flow that they pass. Quite often these little flows gain more water as they near the coast, and these bayous can be very productive. It may take some back road driving and exploring to find put-in spots for small, unknown bayous, but these voyages of discovery are a good use of time.

Then, once on the small bayou water, anglers need to pay attention to what is going on in the bayou. Every movement in the water just might be a good redfish or black drum working bait. What made those shrimp jump? What is making that wake coming up the far shore? Why are those finger mullet jumping? Of course, sometimes being observant is easy as when the big black drum waved its tail at me from the little roadside bayou. By casting to small, seemingly insignificant disturbances in a small bayou, an angler can sometimes get into some great fishing.


kayak fishing for redfish
Redfish needs only a little water to reach a backcountry pond; kayak angler needs only a place to park the truck.

I’M LIKE MOST SMALL BAYOU ANGLERS—I won’t tell you where my best spots are. You can look and find them on your own.

But I will give some advice for really good areas to start a small bayou search. First, the St. Marks National Refuge area off Highway 98 just 25 miles south of Tallahassee is a wonderful maze of small bayous and creeks. Some of them are accessible from the road or with a short kayak carry. Some of them, like Stony Bayou, are a long way off the road. But there are some great small bayous for anglers in this protected area.

There are some very nice small bayous around Panacea, Florida that anglers can slide a kayak into and find fish. Most of these marsh areas can be seen from Highway 98, and there are some great areas that adjoin the public access spots at Panacea.


Of course, there are fantastic bayous near Ochlocknee Bay, but these are my secret spots, and you won’t hear a word from me about where they are located.

Elsewhere around Florida, the marshes around Talbot Island State Park and within the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, in East Central Florida, are among places with labyrinthine collection of interconnected bayous, many loaded with redfish and drum. A little south of there, along the barrier island side of the Indian River Lagoon, you’ll find countless “mosquito ditches” inaccessible to powerboats but holding all kinds of secrets for intrepid paddle fishers. Down around the Everglades, tiny runs under the Tamiami Trail open to salty bays leading to the Gulf, and many such waters can be uncovered on up the Gulf Coast: Tributaries of Tampa Bay, Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge and more. FS

Published Florida Sportsman Magazine October 2021

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