As told to Paul Lebowitz
This winter, when the bass were in near suspended animation most everywhere else in the country, Kayak Fish busted out to northwestern Florida. In St. Marks, where remote crystalline rivers bubble up front the low-lying ground at a most temperate 72-degrees, and largemouth and the rare Suwanee bass feed aggressively year round, we met with pro angler Drew Gregory. Gregory is a man synonymous with river kayak fishing and, in particular, Jackson Kayak’s pioneering river rigging which is largely his brainchild. We wanted to see what Gregory sees when he rolls down a river chock full of eel grass and lily ponds, firing off cast after cast.
Northwest Florida’s spring fed rivers are wild. Except the Wakula, they’re very remote. They vanish underground, come back up and go back down again. There isn’t a lot of boat traffic. I go to fish techniques I can’t normally fish in the rocky rivers at home, where we don’t have thick grass and lily pads.
Frogging and pitching, techniques for thick vegetation, apply to any thick vegetation. In hydrilla, coontail, eel grass, lily pads, water hyacinth, among cypress trees and mixed with standing and downed timber.
Wherever I’m fishing, I don’t want to fish slowly. I want to cover water faster, make more casts, and generally catch more fish. Search baits are those you can wind in fast.
If you can catch them on a frog or buzz frog, it’s more fun. Once you see where they’re coming out of the grass, you know there will be more fish there. You can go back to that clump of weeds with a soft plastic to flip and pitch.
In clear water, the good news is they can’t see the line. With a frog, bass just react. They don’t care, you could use 200-pound test. Look for structural features at the heads and tails of the grass mats. These are the hot spots. The edge of a grass mat is like the bank, you want to put your boat in position so the bait runs parallel, to stay in the strike zone as long as possible. If you’re casting to the grass mats and reeling away, the bait’s only in the strike zone a couple of seconds.
You can paddle up to where frog landed; if anything were there it would have bit. Then start the next section. If you get bit, you could throw frog again, then try underneath the grass mat flipping or pitching. You can throw weedless frogs right onto the bank. It’s amazing and not uncommon; big bass will sit in 10 inches of water waiting for something to come off the bank.
What is the best place to build a house? On top of a beautiful hill where you can see long distances. Or maybe it’s a deep valley between tall mountains. It seems like all animals including humans are drawn to differentiating features in the environment. Fish like to live there too—usually the biggest, baddest bass. Move fast past the straightaways and focus on the points.
Where wood meets grass there’s usually an opening. That gives the angler a chance to get the bait past the weeds. And often bass are holding. Out of all the elements in the water, decaying wood is the most dense with life. Plants and algae grow on the wood, attracting insects. They attract small fish. The small fish attract the big fish. Wood is key.
When pitching plastics, you want to be standing with the sun at its best vantage point to see the holes in the grass mat. Often, they don’t reach the surface. Pitching to holes in the grass mat is close-quarters combat. A ten-pound bass could be waiting under the grass. You’d never know it.
I like to use crawfish the most. Crawfish are candy to a bass. I’ll look around the shoreline and along the banks. If I can see any sort of crawfish remains left by raccoons, such as the big claws, it’s a real big tip a lot of them are around. You want the pitching lure to blend in with the environment. Use a dark color under a darker mat.
Choose a lure the same width as your weight. The weight creates the hole for the bait to slide down. If the plastic is wider where it butts against the weight, when you give the rod some action you’ll be moving the weight up and down, not the lure.
When eel grass is bent over, throw heavy one to 1.5-ounce tungsten weights to bust through it. It is so dark underneath those mats, the bass don’t give the lure a close look. If they don’t react quickly when something drops on their heads, it will get away or another bass will get it.
When you flip and pitch on a bass boat you can stand any angle. On a kayak, you have a 45-degree cone from the bow so you’re setting your hook backwards instead of to the side. If the hook pulls, you could fall out if you don’t know what you’re doing. It’s wise to think about before you do it.
To stop in gentle current, shove yourself into the salad. In heavier current, use a drag chain. It isn’t a big deal to rig. I make my drag chains out of 20-to 24-inch lengths of chain link. Connect it to your kayak using a retractable dog leash. Jackson’s Coosa and Cuda come rigged with deck loops and a leash spot.
The drag chain should come from the center of the stern. In moving water you don’t want to anchor off one side or the other. Deploy it to come to a stop, or allow it to just tick the bottom to slow and straighten your drift. Up north where the river bottoms are rocky, we wrap the chain with Gorilla Tape or bike inner tubes to keep it quiet.