Live Bait Tactics for Kayak Anglers

Close-up of hand holding reel

On the East Coast anglers slow troll live menhaden for king mackerel. In Florida it’s goggle eye, blue runners, and pilchards for sailfish and tuna. In the Gulf they use cigar minnows, threadfin, and blue runners. And, West Coast anglers drag Pacific mackerel and jack mackerel for California yellowtail and sea bass. Wherever saltwater anglers go, the best bait is live bait.

Kayaker fishing

Of course, catching and keeping live bait on a kayak isn’t easy. But, that doesn’t stop intrepid paddle anglers from getting in on the fun.

The first problem is storing live bait. Some baitfish will survive in a bucket with a battery-powered aerator. For more delicate fish, install a store-bought livewell or rig up a three-gallon bucket or small cooler with an in-flowing water line and overflow drain. Use a small bilge pump attached to a lithium-ion battery to run water into the livewell and let gravity carry it out.

Sometimes baits can be stored in a minnow bucket or a bait tube dangled over the side of the kayak. This tactic isn’t practical for paddling long distances, as pulling the bucket through the water will cause too much drag, but a bait bucket can be a good solution for live bait that can be caught on location.

The hardest part of the day can be catching the bait. Live bait fishing is actually two trips in one: first, catch the bait, then catch the target species. To reduce stress on the bait, bring it to the boat quickly. To keep the bait lively and frisky, choose a light rod with backbone and a reel with smooth drag.

Penn Fathom reel

A PENN Battle II reel features HT-100 carbon fiber drag to quickly pull bait to the boat. The PENN Battalion Inshore spinning rod is built from a tough 30-ton graphite blank with reinforced Fuji® aluminum oxide guides, and a solid reel seat to back up the reel’s cranking power.

Bringing the small fish to the boat quickly keeps it healthy. Using a dehooker and bait net will keep the bait pretty. For best results, don’t overload the tank and occasionally change the water.

Hooking a predator with live bait is one of the toughest challenges in sport fishing. The little baitfish is swimming along, minding its own business, when something higher on the food chain attacks from below. But, what seems like chaos is actually a calculated attack.

Fish swimming at the top of the food chain aren’t mindless beasts, they’re really smart. Instead of trying to attack and eat at the same time, millions of years of evolution have taught alpha predators to first stun their prey and then return to pick up the pieces.

Penn Battalion rod

Sailfish whack the bait with their bill, king mackerel slice and dice, California yellowtail run with the bait and then eat it. To fool the fish, it takes lightning-fast reactions and fine-tuned tackle.

In the East, Southeast, and Gulf, anglers carry a conventional set-up for trolling and a spinning rod that will double as a sight-casting rig. On the West Coast, anglers prefer conventional combos for casting and trolling.

Live bait anglers are especially particular about their rod and reel combos. First, they look for a rod with a light tip and strong backbone. On the spinning side, a PENN Battalion seven-foot, heavy rod has a fast action tip to let the bait swim naturally and absorb the initial strike. Then, a rubber gimbal, super strong Fuji guides, and a Fuji reel seat have the power to bring in a big fish.

As the predator plays with the bait, the angler must let the big fish eat. When the trophy turns to run, it’s time to put on the pressure. PENN’s Spinfisher VI Live Liner spinning reel has a unique feature that allows the angler to take the spool out of gear without opening the bail. When the fish hits, engage the Live Liner and feed the bait. Once the fish commits, turn the handle and let the HT-100 carbon fiber drag go to work.

Live bait anglers geek out about drag pressure. On the bite, the fish should feel no resistance. When the fish runs, the drag has to be light and smooth to absorb the smoking power without pulling the hook. A PENN Fathom Lever Drag reel allows the angler to disengage the drag while trolling, then precisely and reliably adjust the pressure to respond to attacks and runs.

Hands on reel

Nothing can match the raw excitement of live bait fishing the open ocean in a kayak where the explosive hook-ups and aerobatic battles happen at eye level. As a man-sized fish drags and spins the kayak, the angler is at a definite disadvantage. Then, the end game inevitably requires hand-to-fin combat as the angered predator comes aboard.

For big water and big fish, anglers choose a big kayak with enough capacity to carry a ton of gear. A long water line makes it easier to cover distance and absorb unpredictable seas. Offshore fishing is the perfect application for a pedal kayak. Powering the boat with pedals and a propeller or fins is easier than paddling and leaves hands free for fishing. This allows the angler to continue trolling while enticing an interested fish. A boat over 13-feet-long makes it easier to cover miles of rough, open water carrying the gear necessary to target big game.

Close-up of reel

Kayak fishing the open ocean for big fish invites serious risk with high-stakes consequences. The first step in safety is wearing the correct life vest. Offshore anglers choose a foam personal flotation device to stay afloat miles from shore in rough seas. Foam PFDs also have pockets on the front to hold essential safety items like VHF radio devices, signal strobes, whistles, and personal locator beacons needed if the kayaker becomes separated from his kayak.

Live bait anglers cover miles of water, suffer hours of sun and wind, and work hard to catch and keep bait. Live bait fishing is a delicate balance between power and finesse. It takes a light touch to slow troll a live bait with a natural presentation. Then, live bait anglers pull out the big guns to put the hurt on a big fish. To even the playing field, kayak anglers choose the toughest tackle with the highest level of performance.

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