MATLACHA, Fla. — Fishing in 3 feet of water from a kayak on what broadly could be considered an ocean isn’t a thought I had previously entertained. Kernon Bast was similarly a stranger to the idea until he bought a winter place down here a few years back. Then he learned to fool redfish in mangrove backwaters with small spoons and 30-pound braid that stiffened against the pull of these powerful fish.
Now he often leaves his flats boat on its lift in favor of a two-ended, self-propelled craft he launches at an isolated beach.
Which is what we did the other day in what could be considered Old Florida.
“You can pedal, you can paddle, however you want to do it,” Kernon said.
We had dropped the kayaks into a stretch of shallow blue water that suggested the nighttime passage of low-riding boats carrying high-priced contraband.
Outlined by a tangle of mangroves, the water bore the small chop of a head wind. Just over the horizon, on Sanibel Island, tourists jockeyed nervously in long parades of rental cars, while to the north was Boca Grande, where everyone hereabouts with a boat and a pair of sunglasses chases tarpon in May.
“Getting the hang of it?” Kernon asked.
We pedaled about an hour, perhaps a little more, quartering progressively into calmer water. Then, in the lee of a long archipelago of mangroves, we settled into a rhythm of launching Johnson Silver Minnows from spinning rods.
As we did, an osprey that was perched high atop a nearby mangrove eyeballed the water for its next victim. Sting rays moved effortlessly through the clear water beneath us, undulating among sea grass. And mullet went airborne as if launched from cannons, jumping for no good reason, shaped like big sardines.
Our intent, Kernon said, was to cast as far from the kayaks as possible.
“You can spook these fish easily in shallow water,” he said.
Specially set up for fishing, with places for rods and even electronic do-dads, our kayaks were stable enough to support us sitting, leaning over a gunnel, or even standing.
As a bonus, the pedals allowed us to move effortlessly while casting to new water.
These same types of craft are used regularly in vast kayak fishing tournaments along Florida’s west coast, where they slither in and among estuaries, carrying anglers not only to redfish but to sea trout, lady fish and flounder, among other species.
“Use your anchor when you stop,” Kernon said. “If you don’t, and you catch something big, you’re going where the fish goes.”
Matlacha has been a good fit for Kernon and his wife, Donna. A village of only a thousand or so people, with mandarin- and orchid-color clapboard shops lining its main drag and not a Starbucks in sight, it’s definitely high-rise free.
Back in Hudson, Wis., where they live most of the year, Kernon and Donna work in real estate. So the carnival barking of the Florida housing trade didn’t take them completely by surprise. Still, when they waded into it, they did so in a low crouch, with Kernon’s right-to-carry permit close at hand.
“There’s Old Florida and New Florida, and Matlacha is definitely Old Florida,” Kernon said. “It’s great because I’ve got access to a lot of good fishing water, and I fish just about every day. And Donna can kayak right from our house.”
As Kernon and I cast, a brown pelican dive-bombed the translucent water. The tide had turned, and the water was incoming. Kernon had us at the right place at the right time.
“When I first came down here it took me awhile to learn, but these fish don’t move in slack water,” Kernon said. “You have to fish the tides.”
Spraying casts in the carefree manner of a kid on a beach, I had my eyes peeled but my feet up. I certainly sought action. But the sun and breeze and soft lapping of water against my kayak felt good enough.
Then Kernon hooked a fish.
“That’s a pretty good one,” he said, his rod bent in a long arch.
His line zigzagged through the shallows before the fish succumbed to its fate alongside Kernon’s kayak.
The redfish limit is one, and Kernon kept this one for dinner.
Prospects for sight fishing for redfish with surface lures or even fly rods improve in southwest Florida as spring approaches. But for now, we were blind-casting to individual fish, or two or three at a time, tossing our spinning rigs to likely-looking holds in the sandy bottom.
Soon enough, my line went tight as well.
Then Kernon’s again.
Too shallow even for flats skiffs, this water, a vast sea of it, and its fish, were ours alone.
After dinner, we lowered Kernon’s boat into the canal in front of his house. This was a 24-footer rigged for shallow running. The night was as black as any. We would be looking for snook.
On Florida’s Gulf Coast, snook can’t be kept. But you can fish for them. Placing their population at particular peril is their attraction as table fare. Delicate and white, the snook’s flesh tastes like no other. Additionally, they’re difficult to hook and they fight hard, a trifecta of attractions for the angler.
“When I came down here I spent a lot of time trying to catch a snook, but I couldn’t do it,” Kernon said. “Not on bait, not on a fly. Nothing worked.”
Then one night he and Donna hired a guide who said he could get a snook for Kernon on a fly. “Cracker” is a term that describes — sometimes pejoratively, but mostly not — native white Floridians whose ancestors predate the Civil War.
This guide was a cracker.
“He didn’t have any lights on his boat, I remember that, and he ran wide open through waters I know have navigation posts that have no lights,” Kernon said.
But true to his word, using a fly tied with white fox fur tainted with urine, the guide got Kernon a snook.
Now we had those same flies tied on 10-foot-long leaders, and with 8-weight fly rods in our hands we were cruising dark canals, pulled along by a bow-mounted electric trolling motor.
Peering intently, we looked for shadows finning against underwater dock lights, or snook lights as they’re called.
We saw mullet and catfish. Then a snook appeared in the margins of a light, and I looped a good length of line into the darkness. False casting once, I gave it a shot, guessing a bit where the fly might land.
A fast strip is best, Kernon said, and when that didn’t produce, I picked up the line and cast again, and again.
The day had nearly ended, but the night was young. We really couldn’t get enough of this, and we moved further up the canal, then another canal and another still, casting and casting again.
The next day would bring another incoming tide, more shallow water and, with luck, more fish.
“There,” I said finally, and I had my first snook.