TARPON SPRINGS, Fla. Kayak fishers are a stealthy bunch.
They've been known to skim across the thinnest of waters areas increasingly off-limits to powerboats or available only to the most determined of shore-based anglers.
Small inland lakes or saltwater tidal flats. The tangled edges of mangrove forests or narrow trout and smallmouth bass streams. All are prime habitat for kayak fishing.
''Kayaking is a healthy way to exercise and have fun doing it,'' says Darry Jackson, vice president of Bill Jacksons Shop For Adventure, a large sporting goods store in nearby Pinnellas Park. ''A kayak can go where power boats can't and sneak up on fish.''
Whether kayakers are becoming fishers or fishers are becoming kayakers isn't entirely clear. What is known is that the demand is booming.
Old Town Canoe Co., a century-old operation in Old Town, Maine, built its name manufacturing quality canoes but now attributes two-thirds of its sales to kayaks.
''Kayak fishing is growing exponentially,'' says Chris Jacobs, Old Town director of marketing. ''Many of our boats are rigged or are capable of being rigged for fishing.''
Canoeists still outnumber kayakers, Jacobs says. But that may not be the case for long. ''Kayaks nationally are outselling canoes seven-to-one.''
Saltwater use is growing faster than freshwater use, says Michael Collin, a spokesperson for Wilderness Systems USA, in Trinity, N.C. ''As a ballpark figure, there has been a 30 percent increase in (kayak) participation year over year. Kayak sales have been stronger in the fishing market as they are easier for one person to paddle, are lighter and are easier for one person to load on a vehicle than a canoe.
''Midwestern and inland anglers tend to use shorter boats for ponds that bass boats or others can't access,'' Collin says. ''Coastal anglers use larger boats so they can cover longer distances faster and for more storage capacity.''
Just what is it about kayaks that make them such good fishing platforms?
For starters, the price is right. Figure spending about $700 for an angler-rigged kayak, another $100-plus for a strong but lightweight twin-bladed paddle and $50 or so for a personal flotation device. You may want to shell out another $100 for a rooftop carrier.
Kayaks are sized anywhere from 8 to 16 feet, with weights ranging from 45 to 70 pounds. That makes them great for car-topping or throwing into the bed of a pickup truck. No need for towing a trailer.
Kayaks are simple to launch. Some of the larger, narrower boats provide all-day comfort after speeding you through the surf to prime fishing grounds at muscle-powered speeds averaging 4 mph. They come equipped with shelves for maps and charts; hatches for cameras, coolers, rain gear, food, water and tackle boxes; recessed wells for live bait and tie-downs for securing paddles, anchors and fishing rods.
The word ''tippy'' once was synonymous with ''kayak.'' But many of the smaller, wider boats, though a bit slower, are amazingly stable. Wilderness Systems produces a sit-on-top model (Tarpon 140) with a flat-floored cockpit that a brochure describes as ''perfect for standing and casting.'' That's right, standing. In a kayak.
Standing gives you a greater vantage point for spotting the silver shine of tailing fish on the flats, or for that matter, fish swimming beneath the boat or around the tangles of mangrove roots.
Stability is an extremely welcome design feature for fly-fishermen, who like as much elbow room as possible when flinging their lines. If you've already bought a narrow kayak, built for speed over fishing, consider adding outriggers for stability. They're available as accessories.
Most kayak fishers rig rod-holders specifically for trolling. A good trolling speed in a kayak is any speed that's comfortable. One thing is certain about trolling in a kayak: It's quieter than trolling from a powerboat. That means fewer spooked fish.
''I was back at Fort DeSoto (County Park, St. Petersburg) recently and every trout I caught was while trolling,'' says Jay Brewington, editor of the Internet magazine Paddle-fishing. com. ''Many paddlers will throw out a lure and troll while they are heading to a different spot.''
It isn't uncommon for manufacturers to mount rod-holders behind the seats. That keeps them safely away from your paddle stroke although they're out of sight and occasionally out of mind if you're trolling.
The newer sit-on-top (SOT) models often are described as little more than modified surfboards. But their silhouettes are smaller than traditional Eskimo or sit-inside models, which is important when trying to track a straight course across windy waters.
''SOT's are more popular than sit-ins for fishing,'' Wilderness Systems' Collin says. ''They have an easily accessible work area. In warmer climates, they are easier to jump out of if you need to when landing a fish in a shallow area or flats. Especially for fly-fishers.
Expect to get wet with a sit-on-top, however, especially when encountering breakers, surf and the occasional swell.
With a kayak, you can:
n Maneuver easily around bays and guts and estuaries, casting or trolling as you go. And you can do all that while ignoring the ''No-Wake'' signs, or those saying ''Power Boats Not Allowed.''
n Launch at or near prime fishing in-shore zones rich in mangroves, turtle grass and reefs. Those are magnets for foraging fish. That includes snook, bonefish, seatrout and redfish, among others.
n Wade fish, slogging your way slowly through clear, hip-deep water in the saltwater flats, towing your boat effortlessly behind with a line tied around your waist.
n Use your own freshwater gear and tackle, saving shopping time and gear money.
n Bring your own kayak or find an inexpensive rental. The local (Pinellas County) Yellow Pages lists eight kayak outfitters. The going rate for kayak rentals is $35 for a half day; $55 for the entire day.
You may want to keep a few things in mind when choosing the color of your kayak. 'Camouflage is more important on inland waters and estuaries,'' says Old Town's Jacobs, whose company makes several fishing/hunting kayaks in a subtle camouflage cast. ''A lot of duck hunters use them.
''(But) when you go out on the ocean, you want visibility,'' he says. ''Then, something like yellow is good. Or choose bright accessories. Put reflective tape on your paddles. Wear a red PFD (personal flotation device). That provides a margin of safety in crowded waters.''
There are some things, of course, that anglers can't do well in a kayak. Kayaks aren't built for hauling large sailfish or sharks, although kayak fishers have been known to hook their share.
Despite the size limitations, you can carry your catch covered and iced in a kayak, tie it from a stringer or place it in a mesh net drifting alongside.
Kayak fishing is increasingly popular on the inshore waters fronting California, New Jersey, New England, the Gulf Coast and Florida particularly the St. Petersburg-Clearwater area. The latter is an accessible launch area halfway down the West Coast of Florida, where tidal currents join to create terrific habitat for many varieties of inshore fish.
It also is the northern boundary of the mangrove forests, a string of attractive barrier islands and the gigantic Tampa Bay Estuary, where fresh water flows into the sea.
On the Web:
Florida Sea Kayaking Association - http://www.fska.org/fska5.htm
fishingkayaks.net - http://www.fishingkayaks.net/directory.html
Paddle.Fishing.com - http://paddle-fishing.com
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