Illustration of a fly fisherman demonstrating a kayak fishing technique called strip setting

9 Essential skills for Kayak Fly Fishing

Fly fishing is in many ways the toughest way to fish and can also be the most rewarding. When you take to the kayak, you are upping the ante considerably. All of a sudden that beautiful 70ft. loop of line looks more like an EKG reading gone mad. With a little focused practice on kayak-specific fly fishing skills, you can be up and running in very short order.

Before we get into those skills, I have two bits of advice. First, you need to practice on the grass. 15 minutes a day is perfect. Practice each task while sitting on the ground – don’t worry, your neighbors will get over it. Second: Leave your spinning rod at home. Going out with only a fly rod will force you to figure it out. Many times I have had students tell me “Well, I tried it for a while, and then I saw some fish, so I grabbed my spinning rod.” View your next few trips as character-building experiences and you will improve greatly.

Essential skills for the Fly-aker

1)The Pick-up

This skill is perhaps the most important because it is the first move you make. If the pick-up is jerky, the remainder of the cast will likely follow suit. Commonly, the line is “ripped” off the surface, leaving a trail of froth behind. Start with your rod tip on the ground (or in the water), then slowly lift the rod nearly on the horizontal until only the fly and leader remain on the surface letting the wrist give slightly. Next, simply “pluck” the fly from the surface by snapping the arm and wrist into the upright position. If you are using a cork-bodied popper, you will see only a slight exit splash from the popper.

2) Build a better Back Cast

Fly casting from a kayak will surely test your casting skills and most noticeably the back cast. Because you are much closer to the water, your timing will simply need to be better. A fly rodder can usually get away with a slightly sagging back cast when standing on the deck of a flats boat or even wading, but sitting low in a kayak will make you very aware of your shortcomings with every “slap” of the water. In general, the back cast is the energy-storing phase of the cast. Most of the power should be applied here. By stopping the rod very briskly in the upright position, you will be sending the line directly behind you with the line unrolling at head-level. Once the line straightens completely the forward stroke begins. Practice your back cast by placing a lawn chair behind you at 30 feet. Now, sit on the ground and make a series of back casts, making sure that the line hits the chair before it touches the ground. If the back cast straightens out at head-level behind you, it should straighten out at head-level in front as well.

3) Roll Cast Pick-up

Think of the roll-cast pick-up as an escape plan when you have a mess of line on the water. If you have slack line outside of your rod-tip, it will be very difficult to make a cast. A roll cast is made by placing the line behind you, raising the rod to the upright position, and then driving the rod-tip forward in a very straight path. For a roll cast pick-up, you will not let the line hit the water, but rather allow the line to straighten in front of you and then make a false cast. This is also the way you would execute a “Fly-in-hand” presentation. For an accurate cast, the line must be placed behind you 180 degrees from your target.

4) Retrieving the fly and “Strip-Setting” the hook

The most common reason for not getting a proper hook set is that the rod tip is in the air and not in the water. In other types of fishing, the rod is held at a higher angle (that’s why it is called angling), but because fly line has weight and mass, it will sag and cause slack. Oftentimes, a strike is not detected and the fly is not moving through the water in the way we would expect. After the stop on the forward cast, the rod tip should be lowered to the surface and not moved until the next cast is made. The fly should be retrieved only by stripping the line- not by moving the tip of the rod. This way, you are moving the fly through the water with no slack and when a strike occurs, you can just make a harder strip to drive the hook home. 

5) Landing a fish and freeing snags

This is where most rod tips are broken. The tip sections of most fly rods are very fragile. They are intended for casting not prying and yanking. When we battle a fish by raising the rod tip, we weaken our position- the closer to vertical the less pressure we put on the fish and more pressure on the tip. Play your fish with a deep bend in the rod and when the fish gets close to the kayak, pull out some extra line, grab the leader, and take all tension off of the rod tip. When snagged, do not bend the tip to free it. Point the tip directly at the snag and pull. If you have to go in to get the fly, pull out an ample amount of line, lay the rod down, and “hand-line” your way into the brush.

6) Wind Casting

Dealing with wind is a given, but it shouldn’t keep you from enjoying your fly rod. Two Simple adjustments in your cast can help you overcome even a stiff headwind- the one most anglers dread – but if you learn to deal with it, staying downwind of your fish allows you to get closer without spooking. First, change the trajectory of the line so that it straightens out at an upward angle in the back and lower angle in front. This will use the wind to your advantage on the back cast, allowing the wind to add line speed and keep the line suspended in the air longer. Next, rather than placing the emphasis on the back cast, extra power will be applied to the slightly downward forward stroke, making sure to stop the stroke abruptly in the direction of the target. This is exactly the same as an accuracy cast. 

When dealing with a tailwind, the opposite will work. Keep your back cast low by making a side-arm back cast and then switch to an overhead cast on the forward stroke, sending the line in an upward trajectory and allowing the wind to carry your line outward.

Crosswinds can be the most difficult for accuracy. Wind on the casting arm side will tend to blow the line and fly into the caster’s body. The common approach is to make a cross-body cast by bringing the arm in front of the face, but if you keep your arm in the normal casting position and tilt the wrist inward, this will place the rod tip over the opposite shoulder and keep the fly and line downwind of the caster. You may also choose to turn your back to the target and simply deliver the fly on the back cast, although this is not easily done in a kayak. Wind to the non-casting side poses no difficulty, as the line naturally stays downwind of the caster.

7) Equipment 

The equipment that you choose for kayak fly fishing may be different from other situations. If you are navigating narrow, twisty creeks, a shorter rod that doesn’t stick out beyond the confines of the boat may be a better choice. In open water, a longer rod will make for easier casting and perhaps add a little more distance to your cast. Choose a line with a shorter head (front section) for quick loading to help eliminate false casting.

8) Rigging

Like most, when I bought my first kayak, I installed every attachment and gizmo that I could. One by one, I took them off until I had only the essentials. Rod holders, anchor trolleys, rudders, brackets of all sorts can just become “line catchers”. Most kayakers that primarily fly fish will end up with a pretty well stripped-down vessel. If you don’t need it, leave it.

9) Shoreline approaches

Positioning your kayak is as important as the cast you make. Kayakers have a real advantage over other boaters in that we can go places and position ourselves in ways that they can’t. One of my favorite approaches to a brushy shoreline is to place my non-casting side right next to the brush. I will usually have a tree branch in one hand and my fly rod in the other. Now, I can just work my way down the shoreline keeping the fly tightly tucked up next to (and sometimes under) the brush. This way, I am covering 100% of the shoreline, rather than just a few spots. When a fish is hooked, it will almost always run opposite the direction that it is pulled and will often run down the shoreline or into open water. 

To achieve the same thorough coverage from an outward position in moving water, make your cast at the shoreline, and allow the line to move downstream ahead of the fly. Do not mend the line upstream, but rather keep the rod tip pointed at the line, and strip. The fly line has considerable mass and will provide resistance should a fish strike.

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