Kayak fishing in the winter

Kayak fishing in the winter

The conditions might be cooler, but keen kayaker Stephen Tapp stays warm by paddling great distances and hauling in lots of big fish as he goes!

The calm clear days we get between bouts of heavy wind and rain can offer spectacular fishing to kayak fishers who persevere through the winter.

This is especially true in some of the more remote locations, with the dedicated kayaker able to explore areas for unwary fish that may not have heard the sound of an outboard for months.

Another great aspect of winter kayaking is the ability to take advantage of both the day’s prime change-of-light opportunities without the session becoming a major endurance event. That said, the lure of chasing hapuku and kingfish on deeper structure can sometimes see the truly dedicated covering considerable distances.

With a day-long window of calm winds forecast for the Far North, a plan was hatched for a survey of fishy structure north of the islands off Cape Karikari. The idea was to check out the local kingfish population using live baits and jigs, and, while cruising around, look for any new structure with potential for spring hapuku trips. (Windy spring conditions make it important to have target locations sorted, as the shorter weather windows don’t leave enough time for paddling search patterns.)

A call to Kaitaia-based Kerry Flowers sorted another highly experienced kayaker for the offshore mission. Our plan involved launching in the dark and trying to get a dozen live baits into the tank before beginning the long paddle north.

Despite a perfect launch under starlight and finding bait on the sounders, we couldn’t entice a single jack mackerel or koheru. Baits, lures and flasher rigs were simply not good enough; the only fish willing to play were snapper, which came aboard in all sizes. A prospect of all the usual baitfish spots up the Cape failed to improve the situation either, although the snapper kept getting bigger and bigger.

We persevered after sunrise at the islands off the top, but now the kahawai were awake. Unfortunately, on a day when small specimens were the target, only the big bruisers wanted to play. Eventually we had to give up – everything was at least twice the size we needed and the contour lines several kilometres away were calling.

Perfect conditions allowed us to explore and mark new structure as we travelled. We even had a big school of winter skippies leaping almost within touching distance, the worst kind of torture for a light-tackle tuna addict. (There were momentary thoughts of bridle rigging one to see if it was possible to tempt any big predators lurking about, but the focus on finding new structure meant ignoring this temptation.)

A mixture of soft-baits, dead baits and jigs were used to check out each location in the near windless conditions, with all fish hooked being played with care to ensure the best opportunity for release. This meant we could cover the kilometres of paddling without adding significant weight to the kayaks.

By the time the call was made to head back towards land the wind was picking up, but we had several significant new marks for spring hapuku missions. It was also time to add a few fish to the kayak for icing down.

Paddling back to the shallower waters around the islands, it didn’t take long to get amongst solid snapper and rat kings.

It’s always intriguing watching another kayak angler use a sounder to hunt fish, and Kerry is no exception. We all have the same body language: leaning forward, peering at the screen, digging in the paddle to move and reposition the kayak, then backing up to stop over the marks. It’s then a brief grab of the rod to send the bait or lure on its way before picking up the paddle again to stay on the mark. Now the screen is watched even more intently as the offering descends. Will the fish mark move to intercept it or not? This is truly hunting fish, and adds a dimension that can be hard for boaties to understand.

The mobility of kayaks and our sounders’ superb performance makes this exciting style of fishing possible. It’s not simply picking a location, dropping something over the side, then waiting to see if anything happens. We’re actively finding the fish first, then specifically targeting them, based on what we see on the screen and how we’ve position the kayak.

This is why I like to do these big missions from a kayak rather than a boat or ‘ski. The effort is considerably greater, but the sense of satisfaction is massive. In addition, taking the time to search out new structure on the good days makes it easier to have plenty of spots for ‘hunting’ fish on those days later in winter and spring when the conditions aren’t as favourable.

Fortunately, the wind didn’t arrive until late in the day for this trip. And being back at the islands and Cape Karikari meant the slog back along the coast and through the chop to Matai Bay wasn’t too bad either. The final run onto the beach was done in starlight, just as the day had begun – the classic end to another fantastic Northland dark-till-dark mission!

Navigation lights

If looking to be on the water before sunrise or after sunset, it’s critical to make yourself as visible as possible, and having adequate navigation lights is an easy way to do this. Since we’re in paddle craft less than 7m long and not capable of more than seven knots, the preference is for an all-round white light (visible through 360°). Maritime regulations call for a minimum of a torch or similar to signal your presence, but that relies on another craft being heard in time and shining a light in their direction.

There are a number of options available to give all-round visibility, but two of my favourites with a proper two-nautical-mile USCG rating show how easily it can be done:

Navisafe 360: I’ve been wearing this light on top of my head for many years. The two-part magnetic base allows me to wear it on top of a cap or beanie, and since my head is usually the highest part of the kayak, it’s easily visible. While my mates give me a bit of cheek about wearing a lightbulb on my head, it does make switching on and off easy.

RailBlaza Illuminate i360: I’ve mounted this navigation light on a pole at the stern of my kayak to free up my hats and caps for a head-mounted camera. The ability to run it on larger AA rechargeable batteries is a real plus for me, enabling me to switch it on before launching and to leave it running for the duration of the session, even if fishing from dark to dark. Since the batteries are rechargeable, the running cost is negligible.

There are times when you can be caught out though, especially when fishing into the evening. Aside from always carrying a torch or headlamp when kayaking, I also wear a small unobtrusive dome light on the shoulder of my PFD. This little light is inexpensive (around $30) and visible over a considerable distance. If I don’t have my bigger lights with me, this is easy to flick on and goes a long way towards making me more visible in low light on the water.

I occasionally hear the comment, “There’s no other traffic around – I don’t need a light” from kayakers fishing in more remote locations. Personally, I consider it every bit as important to have a proper navigation light in this situation: just as you’re not expecting to see anyone, neither will a boat expect to encounter a kayak. Consequently, the other skipper may not be as alert as he should be, making them even more likely to run you over than in a high traffic area! 

   This article is reproduced with permission of   
New Zealand Fishing News

August 2016 - By Stephen Tapp
Re-publishing elsewhere is prohibited

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