Pedal Power

Leg-driven kayaks allow anglers to effectively fish waters once thought off-limits.

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Only the lights secured to our foreheads and kayaks showed the way as we pedaled toward the shadow lines spanning the DuPont Bridge. It was approaching midnight, and our five-man procession powered toward the deep-water pilings that cross East Bay near Panama City Beach, Florida. “They’re here,” said our guide Nathan (Nate) Chennaux, in a hushed tone. “Just wait until they start blowing up on top.” Nate wears a baseball cap and a scruffy beard like a uniform, and he’s been fishing the bridge since he was a kid. A massive redfish shattered our growing anticipation after it slurped a crab at the surface. That grabbed everyone’s attention, even with reverbs from the jets taking off at nearby Tyndall Air Force Base.Jeffrey Bruce Fortuna
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“That wasn’t even a big one,” quipped Chennaux, referring to the drum not aircraft. “The big ones hang out at the old DuPont Bridge rubble, away from the new bridge. But you can’t target them like you can here, at the bridge lights and shadow edges.” _ (Pictured here is Nate Chennaux releasing a red drum.)_Jeffrey Bruce Fortuna
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Morgan’s fish looked pretty big to me. He hooked up after casting a gigantic jerkbait-and-jig combo into a boil left by an attacking redfish. Morgan Promnitz, a blonde-haired Californian with a South African accent, is the Fishing Product Manager at Hobie Cat Company. He spends plenty of time in Hobies, fishing wide-ranging waters across the US. Torpedo-sized red drum hunt at night near the surface for eels and crabs that are sucked out of the bay into the Gulf of Mexico, says Chennaux. It’s not typical skinny-water, flats-style kayak fishing. Here, water depths range anywhere from 30 to 50 feet, plus the current rips hard underneath the bridge.Jeffrey Bruce Fortuna
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Promnitz's fish took off down current away from bridge, both a blessing and a burden. Then I hooked up on a mullet wakebait made by Live Target Lures. If you don't put the hammer down during the hookset, these reds usually fight away from the structure. The two fish strained our medium-light tackle, but Morgan and I soon came together to take a couple photos of our 30-plus-pound fish. I’ve experienced catching tarpon and snook near South Florida bridges from a boat, but this was something completely different. My guess is not many kayak anglers have been able to target fish in this scenario until now—it just hadn’t been possible with traditional paddle ‘yaks. Anchoring in deep water with a kayak can be restrictive and dangerous, so it wasn’t an option. And if we had traditional sit-on-top fishing kayaks, we would have needed four arms to paddle and cast at the same time. To stay in the strike zone, we had to continually foot-pedal into the current.Jeffrey Bruce Fortuna
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Flat-Out Functional Earlier in the day, our group of anglers fished St. Joe Bay in Gulf County, to target seatrout, redfish, flounder and Spanish mackerel. The pristine grassflats this part of Florida harbors were off-color from recent deluges. Some of us had never kayak fished, so it was a chance to familiarize with the pedal drive system.
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The morning sunrise from our launch spot on St. Joe Bay in Northwest Florida.
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Anglers Jeff Dennis, from South Carolina, and Dustin Catrett, of Orlando, Florida, drifted the flats, casting 10- to 15-pound spinning and baitcasting tackle rigged with soft-plastics or plugs. They stood and cast to get better views of the surrounding flats. Chennaux, SWS Field Editor Dave Lear and I hopped out and waded near the mouth of the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW). The Highway 98 bridge easily identifies where the ICW empties in to the bay.
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"I’m on!” yelled Dustin, as a redfish snatched his plug from the surface. He fought the fish standing, finally kneeling to release the fish. Soon Nate hooked up, and then my topwater got popped. _ (Pictured, at left, is Nate Chennaux releasing a redfish.)_
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The reds faced into the current, waiting for baitfish to flush from the ICW out over the flats. For those wading and casting, the kayak trailed behind us with a simple lanyard. Others pedaled slowly in place to stay in one spot while casting walk-the-dog Rapala plugs. In either scenario, no mushroom or stick-anchor was necessary.
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Without really noticing it, our flotilla covered about three miles of shoreline. I think we would have tired much earlier if we had paddled instead of pedaled—the pedal kayaks noticeably trump a traditional kayaks’ fishing range.
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Jeff Dennis, from South Carolina, reels in a redfish he hooked on topwater.
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Jeff Dennis had no problem leaning over the side in the Hobie Mirage Pro Angler to release his redfish--these kayaks are stable platforms for those who like to stand.
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Dustin Catrett, of Orlando, hooked this slot redfish while wade-fishing.
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Ultimate Test The ultimate test for these pedal-powered kayaks came when most of our group launched off the beaches at Panama City. Within a mile of shore the bottom ascends to 50 feet, and healthy live bottom and artificial reefs attract benthic and pelagic species. More artificial reefs exist about 30 miles east at Mexico Beach. The Mexico Beach Artificial Reef Association adds to or creates new reef sites each year. "With the popularity of kayak fishing increasing everyday," says Bob Cox, President of the MBARA, "more emphasis is being put on the inshore reef sites for kayakers."
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Back at Panama City, local kayakers Hannes Venter (pictured) and John Ritchey lead us to some bottom fishing areas. The morning launch was relatively easy, with seas and surf calm enough to knife through. But we knew that afternoon sea breezes across the open waters of the Gulf would increase swells, chop and surf. Bring me the Horizon The plan was to head west and let the current sweep us east, back to our launch area. In this part of the state, currents and wind change frequently enough that it can be hard to predict exactly which way the drift will occur. We hit it right this day. Early on, we started looking for cobia. “I landed one the trip before this,” recounted Hannes Venter. “I wasn’t actively sight-fishing; I just got lucky. He hit a dead Spanish mackerel that I was drift-fishing for kingfish.” Tower boats have the best shot to spot the dark-bodied fish against the sugar-sand bottom, and we realized pretty quickly it was futile to sight-fish in the choppy conditions. It was time to move on to other targets.
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Pedaling with purpose, we set off to some natural reef sites. The anglers without bottom machines kept close to those who had them mounted to their rigs. Fishfinders are a basic necessity off the beaches, and companies such as Lowrance and Humminbird market specialized units specifically for kayak anglers. (Pictured is fishfinder unit marking a school of bull redfish holding away from the bottom.)
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I tossed out a lipped plug on a 20-pound spinner with 30-pound leader and started trolling half-heartedly. The spinning rod sat in the starboard rod holder with a light-set drag. A rod leash secured at the butt added extra safety. The drag soon sizzled, and I stopped pedaling twice to land a false albacore and a kingfish. Somehow the king’s teeth managed to miss the leader. Ritchey takes trolling a bit more seriously. At the end of the day, John almost always has a kingfish in his fish bag to take home for dinner. “I like to use a duster rig, pinned with a frozen sardine,” says Ritchey. “It’s a great way to catch kingfish while heading from one bottom spot top the next.” He uses a basic wire rig, with a skirt and two trebles, though he admits any number of duster-rig variations will likely work. Make sure you attach the rig to a swivel, so your line doesn’t twist. Pictured is Ric Burnley with the author's kingfish.Jeffrey Bruce Fortuna
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Jigging Jackpot Soon, we found some lively bottom holding a number of species. The chart plotter lit up like Ursa Major on a star map. Something that felt like a Humvee immediately unloaded on my speed jig. I was woefully unprepared for the strike, but at least we learned they were biting our metal jigs. Most of us were using models made by Williamson Lures weighing 3 to 5 ounces to counter the current.
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Morgan hooked up first with a red snapper. Then, veteran kayaker Ric Burnley (pictured) got in on the action by landing two red snapper in a row, each over 15 pounds—pretty nice catches considering we were fishing within earshot of beachfront condos.
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Ric Burnley landed and released this full-size red snapper in 50 feet of water off Panama City Beach.
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Morgan followed up with his first-ever gag grouper. All the snapper and grouper were released due to closed seasons.
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Various other fish attacked the metal jigs including triggerfish, grunts, grouper (pictured) and flounder. Hannes used a bullet-head jig tipped with squid to land a couple keeper flounder. He used his fishfinder to mark jagged bottom and dropped the jig down, all while pedaling to stay right on top of the mark.
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It didn’t take long for Jerry McBride’s rod to bend arch-shaped as he set the hook on a hefty bottom-dweller. The longtime South Florida kayak angler fought hard and finally saw red struggling midway in the water column. Earlier in the day, he remarked how he wanted to land a red grouper to take home for dinner. But this fish was the wrong kind of red, and when he pulled up a monster redfish close to 40 pounds, he actually looked disappointed.Jeffrey Bruce Fortuna
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Jerry’s redfish started a string of other redfish catches, none quite as big as his first one. A massive school of bronzy reds were moving slowly across the bottom, and we were relying on our bottom machines to keep track of their location. When Morgan would spot them on his finder, he yelled to everyone with their jigs ready to drop—this lead to more than one double-hookup. **Pedal Proves Mettle ** The amount of fish we totaled was proof to how lively the fishery is in Florida’s northern Gulf, both inshore and offshore. But all the fish caught—whether it was trolling or jigging—we can credit to pedal power. Allowing our legs to do the grunt-work freed our hands to fish, and because of that, we could do both simultaneously. Pictured is the author with an oversized redfish.Jeffrey Bruce Fortuna
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Over dinner, our collection of kayak anglers from across the country chatted about the day's events. Located right on St. Joe Bay, we stayed at WindMark Beach each night of the trip. WindMark is a beautiful mix of homes, condos, nature, and even a village center with shopping and restaurants. Someone asked lightheartedly why Hobie hadn’t figured out a way to steer without having to use your hands. “We’re always working on new ideas and prototypes, and sometimes it’s years before they ever reach production,” said Morgan, with a grin. “Some don’t ever reach production. But we hear your ideas loudly and clearly, and I can only say there’s plenty more to come.” I can only imagine what’s next in the world of kayak fishingJeffrey Bruce Fortuna