What Makes a Kayak a Fishing Kayak

The following article was published in the October Citrus County Villager Newspaper.
Pent up stress caused by long bouts of hunkering in our bunkers has led to paddle-mania in Citrus County.  Several paddlers have emailed me wondering how to integrate fishing into their new found sport, and asking how to convert their recreational and touring kayaks into fishing kayaks.
Sure, you can fish out of any kayak, but, no, you can’t convert just any yak into a fishing kayak.  Traditional plastic vessels creatively equipped with features normally found on their fishing cousins (rod holders, anchor trolleys, etc.) can be made serviceable.  If a kayak designed for fishing is preferred, here’s what to look for.
Fishing kayaks are shorter and wider to provide improved stability and maneuverability, at the expense of speed and tracking.  Find one made of abrasion resistant roto-molded polyethylene that’s stable (a flatter, broader hull), comfortable (think dry and warm) and fishable (more on that later).  You can buy one for a few hundred dollars, or spend thousands on one with all the bells and whistles.  It should have a carrying capacity 80 pounds or more than your combined body weight and gear, need not weigh more than 60 – 80 pounds, and have grab handles to facilitate loading, unloading and transporting to and from the water.
Sit-on-Top, Sit-Inside or Hybrid?  Focus on the roomier, open deck, self-bailing, easily accessible and conveniently customizable Sit-on-Top (SOT) models.  Sit-Insides are too confining and uncomfortable for most.  Also check out the super stable tunnel hull and twin-hull hybrid models that allow for stand-up sight fishing (I wouldn’t own anything else).
Paddle, Pedal or Power Propulsion?  Paddling kayaks without rudders or skegs can negotiate super shallow water, a real advantage.  Leg driven pedal models (either push-pull or rotational types) are becoming more popular; they allow for hands free operation and extended ranges but are heavier, more expensive and have lower units that are not shallow water friendly.  If you want a power assist, some kayaks are designed to accommodate a small electric or gasoline motor.  If transporting a yak in your vehicle is problematic, check out an inflatable model.
Deck Layout, Storage and Organization.  You’ll want a kayak where all your fishing gear can be located within easy reach; a place for everything and everything in its place.  Covered hatches are generally available for your keys, wallet, etc.  Bungee cords and eye pads help secure items in place.  Most SOT yakers use milk crates to store gear in tank wells behind them, but they can present challenges in reachability.  Gear tracks for attaching accessories without drilling holes work well.
Fishability Features.  Superior stability and user friendliness while sitting, standing, casting and fighting / landing fish is a must.  Adjustable / reclining padded seats with back support add comfort.  Scupper holes ideally positioned to drain accumulated water from the deck will help keep you dry.
Rod Holders.  I recommend having one for each rod on board, ideally, out-of-the-way flush-mount holders positioned behind you but reachable.  Versatile clamp-on types are available as well.  Some can also be used to hold drinks and accessories.
Anchoring.  You’ll want a trolley system running along one side or your yak for attaching and moving a small anchor or anchor pin fore and aft, thereby securing your kayak in a desired position while fishing in place.
Electronics.  My depth finder is my paddle and my fish finders are my eyes, but higher end yaks have consoles for mounting electronic versions of each, if desired.
Color.  Yellow if you want to stand out (especially by power boats) and green if you want to avoid detection in your secret fishing spot.
Paddle.  Make sure it conforms to the height and width of your yak and can be easily and securely stored while casting.
Finally, understand that fishing adds a whole new element to the paddling experience.  Staying safe is a learning experience, so do your homework before starting to fling hooks around.
Peaceful Paddles, Bracing Battles and Happy Landings
Nature Coast Kayak Fishers  (http://fishingkayaks.us)

Water Temperature – A Hot Topic

The following article was published in the September 2020 Citrus County Villager Newspaper.
I had planned to write this column weeks ago before inshore water temperature reached the level enjoyed by my wife in her bathtub, but got sidetracked with other issues.  Better late than never, here’s a few tips for keeping your rod bent when the weather is hot but the fishing is not.
First and foremost, no matter the season, but especially in summer, fishing success is 90 percent being in the right place at the right time and 10 percent lure selection and presentation.  In other words, the when’s and where’s trump the how’s.  It’s why 10% of anglers catch 90% of the fish.  If you want to return home to a fresh fish dinner instead of leftover hamburger, believe it.
The right time to fish is EARLY morning when water is coolest and fish are most active.  Water movement or tidal current (the aquatic conveyor belt bringing tasty morsels past the mouths of lethargic predators) is also important, so, as they say, go with the flow.  Best fishing currents occur around the mid point of incoming tidal cycles (see smartfishingtides.com) when cooler, better oxygenated water from the Gulf rushes inshore.  Summer incomings also bring lots of floating grass with them, so be sure to pack a few weedless lures, including, if you’re a topwater addict like me, those hollow body plastics to facilitate weed-free walk-the-dog presentations.
If you can also arrange your outings around new and full moon periods (when the conveyor belt moves fastest), just before approaching storms on falling barometers, under cloud covered skies with a slight breeze and on less crowded weekdays, your timing will be perfect.
The right place is around mangrove shorelines or other structure at first light.  Later on, move to areas a bit deeper than the surrounding water, and, hence, a bit cooler, with seagrass covered bottoms that release dissolved oxygen.  Google, Bing and other online satellite maps are invaluable for locating such places.
As far as the how-to’s go, soaking live or dead bait may get you a few more fish.  If, like me, you prefer the phony critters, a 4 or 5 inch soft plastic jerk bait, rigged weedless and bounced slooooowly over the bottom, or a slow moving paddle tail fished just above the weeds are good choices.  As far as colors go, I like matching the hatch, so to speak, so usually choose something that looks like a mullet, pinfish, shrimp etc.
A headlamp is essential for launching in the dark and viewing the compass mounted on the front of my kayak, allowing me to paddle uninterrupted to where I want to be at first light.  Don’t try this if you’re not familiar with the area.
I still haven’t adapted to the heat down here, so dressing for success involves the lightest moisture wicking shirt and shorts I can buy, along with a wide brim hat, a good pair of polarized sunglasses and slip-on crocs.  That’s it.  Wetting and ringing out my shirt and hat before pushing off helps.  I don’t pack sunscreen because I’m paddling back by 9 or 10, but do bring along a can of DEET for when it gets buggy.  Unlike up north where you can see the no-see-ums, here you really can’t see-um.
Early morning put ins also allow me to escape the throngs of newbie paddlers who’ve invaded our area lately, looking to relieve stress from prolonged periods of hunkering in their bunkers.  There’s nothing more annoying than having a few of them paddle up to ask how I’m doing, scaring all the fish away in the process.  They generally don’t arrive until it’s light enough for them to see what they’re doing, long after I’ve escaped to a secluded fishing spot.
If you can’t handle getting up long before sunrise, fishing around sunset and into the night, especially on a full moon, on an incoming tide and after one of our cooling afternoon rains, is the next best time.
Whenever and wherever you go, do stay safe out there.
Peaceful Paddles, Bracing Battles and Happy Landings
Nature Coast Kayak Fishers  (http://fishingkayaks.us)

August 18, 2020. The following article was published in the August Citrus County Villager.

Water Warriors Wanted Gary Rankel, the PackerYaker    

I’ve been a big fan of The Waterkeeper Alliance (www.waterkeeper.org), a worldwide organization headed by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., comprised of more than 300 grassroots groups involved in patrolling and protecting over 2.5 million square miles of rivers, lakes and coastal waterways on six continents.  It includes 13 groups of dedicated community stakeholders in Florida (www.waterkeepersflorida.org) engaged in efforts to restore and maintain drinkable, fishable and swimmable water on the Indian River Lagoon, Suwannee River, St. Johns River, Apalachicola River, Lake Okeechobee, Biscayne Bay and other waterways.       

I’ve often wondered why no Waterkeeper Organization exists in our area to assist in addressing concerns associated with our precious underground aquifer and to help restore and protect our outstanding surface waters.  Recently, I decided to investigate what it would take to create a Waterkeeper Group for the Nature Coast.    I reached out to Alliance officials and was advised that approval of a Nature Coast Waterkeeper Organization would make sense providing it could meet a number of established criteria.  Chief among them is the requirement for a full-time (40 hours or more per week) paid person serving as the group’s Waterkeeper who also would have access to a Waterkeeper patrol boat.  The group would have to establish its own 501 (c) (3) non-profit organization or be sponsored by one, and the Waterkeeper’s salary would have to be derived solely through donations or grants to the group.  Like the other groups, it would operate autonomously within the Alliance.        

Should such a formal Waterkeeper Organization and Waterkeeper Position not be readily feasible, an optional Waterkeeper Affiliate Group could be established comprised of one or more paid employees and / or volunteers who would be expected to put in at least 20 or 30 hours per week.  Such a group would also have to establish its own 501 (c) (3) organization or be sponsored by one.  Its members would have to adhere to all Waterkeeper quality standards and guidelines, including attending Alliance meetings and training at least once a year, and, importantly, have a desire to eventually become a fully licensed Waterkeeper Organization.     

Should persons be found agreeing to assume the roles and responsibilities of one of these organizations, the next step would be to direct a Letter of Intent to Waterkeepers Florida for approval.  Among other things, the letter would include the biography and resume of the person who would serve as Waterkeeper or Affiliate, the area of proposed jurisdiction, and a financial plan, annual budget and fundraising strategy.  If approved, the application would be submitted to the Waterkeeper Alliance Recruiting Committee for further review.   

I had initially thought about perhaps applying to become a Watekeeper for the Nature Coast, but found the process and requirements a bit too much to take on.  Any thought I entertained about following up on the idea evaporated after learning about the time commitment involved and the lead role I’d have to play in establishing / participating in a 501 (c) (3) non-profit organization.  For one thing, I’m retired and certainly not looking for anything approaching full time employment.  And, I don’t think my kayak would qualify as a Waterkeeper patrol boat.  Even the time requirement relative to serving as a volunteer Affiliate would seemingly cut far too much into my fishing time.   

So, I decided to contact a few environmentally oriented folks I know around the Nature Coast seeking suggestions for good Waterkeeper and Affiliate candidates.  I got a few names, made some calls, and had no takers.  Most of the folks I chatted with seemed to have little interest in assuming a Waterkeeper role with salary totally dependent on donations, especially given our current economic climate.  

The requirements for a new Waterkeepers program may seem imposing, however, much time and effort goes into conducting meaningful waterway protection programs.  I assume the Alliance wants to ensure that any new program will be properly staffed and effective.   I encourage anyone willing to take on such duties and become a water warrior for the Nature Coast to contact Florida Waterkeepers (www.waterkeepersflorida.org) for further information.         

Peaceful Paddles, Bracing Battles and Happy Landings. Nature Coast Kayak Fishes (http://fishingkayaks.us)  

Paddling Possibilities

July 19, 2020. The following guest column was published in today’s Citrus County Chronicle

Plentiful Paddling and Put-in Possibilities to Pursue  

Gary L Rankel

I’m sorry!  I didn’t mean it!  I take it all back!  I apologize for the columns I’ve written encouraging y’all to buy a plastic vessel and take up paddling and kayak fishing along the Nature Coast.   

Kayaks are hard to paddle.  They’re cramped and uncomfortable.  They’re tippy: you can roll over into shark infested water.  You could get lost and forget how to get back to your launch site.  It’s buggy out there – the no-see-ums will eat you alive.  You can get sunburned. 

Please leave your plastic vessels at home, or, better yet, sell them.  Take up hiking or biking instead.  Leave us stressed out kayak anglers alone to fish in our usual spots without 10 or 20 of you paddling over to ask us how we’re doing while scarring all the fish away.

Seriously, it has become increasingly impossible for paddlers to maintain social distancing on Kings Bay.  Hunter Springs Park has become a zoo.  Kudos to the City of Crystal River for proposing to move kayak rental operations to Kings Bay Park.  Still, paddlers should recognize that scores of other great put in points exist along the Nature Coast.

West of Yankeetown are two nice launch areas: Bird Creek Park on the north side of County Road 40 has a large sandy beach, ample parking and a nice rest area.  Another beach (known as Redneck Beach by the locals) is located across the road along the Withlacoochee River. 

For those who really want to get away from it all, a kayak launch site is located at the western end of scenic Withlacoochee Bay Trail that parallels the southern side of the barge canal.    

Two kayak-only launch sites are located near the Archeological Park on the north side of the Crystal River, just west of Kings Bay.  One at Mullet Hole and another across from the State Preserve Visitors Center provide easy access to the Crystal and Salt rivers. 

At the west end of Fort Island Trail, I often drag my yak over the grass at the southeast end of the the swimming beach, or put in at a small sandy area next to the boat ramp.  Crystal River should really consider dedicating a portion of the beach / grass area for kayak use. 

Several places along Ozello Trail have put in spots including the popular Pirates Point Park at end of the road and the launch site off John Brown Road.  I’ve long pitched the idea of having the county acquire and develop the four acre piece of private property adjacent to Pirates Point Park into an outstanding paddling and outdoor recreation destination, which would greatly alleviate crowding at other put in locations.

For you nature lovers, it’s hard to beat the Chassahowtzka River: just know that it can get almost as crowded as Kings Bay. 

To the north, Cedar Key and the Waccasassa River are great paddling destinations, albeit, a bit of a drive.

To the south, Alfred McKethan Park, located at the end of Pine Island Drive north of Bayport, offers a swimming beach, kids play areas, a food stand and more.  Nearby Bayport Park west of Weeki Wachee offers another nice launch and rest area.  And, of course, Weeki Wachee Springs Park, with its mermaid attraction and kayak rentals, is also available.  

I don’t fish freshwater all that much, so please, gather all your friends and head over to the east side of the county.  There are several put in sites on the Tsala Apopka Chain of Lakes including nice ones on Hernando, Henderson and Floral City pools.  Scenic paddles along the beautiful upper Withlacoochee River await the more adventurous paddler with access points at Lake Townsen Regional Park, Wynnhaven Riverside Park, Wysong Dam, Marsh Bend Outlet Park, Rutland on Highway 44, Turner Camp Road and Spruce Ramp.  Just keep an eye out for those pesky gators; they’re usually more interested in smaller, bite-size morsels.  When you’re ready to put down your paddle for the day, there’s plenty of places to stop for a cold one and bite to eat before heading home.

Kayak rental operations at Wallace Brooks Park and other freshwater locations should be explored by the local jurisdictions.

Of course, numerous boat ramps along the Homosassa River and elsewhere throughout our area can be used as well.  Just don’t dilly dally unloading or you’ll hear about it from the boaters lined up behind you waiting to launch.      

Stuff happens out there, so stay safe.  Dressing to swim, and rigging to flip is good advice.  File a float plan with someone, especially if you’re going to be out in the boonies.  Pay attention to the weather.  Stay hydrated. Stay sober.  Wear that life vest. Don’t forget the bug spray and sunscreen.  And, remember that the most frightening creatures you’ll encounter on the water are of the two-legged variety, joyfully speeding along in their power boats, often not paying much attention to where they’re going.      

More information on these and other sites and paddles including maps, directions and photos can be found on my website (www.fishingkayaks.us/launch-sites/).  Please give them a try: the manatees will thank you, not to mention the property owners around Kings Bay.  

Angling for Social Distance

The following article was published in an April 2020 issue of the Citrus Country Chronicle

What to do when there is nothing to do

  • Gary Rankel Special to the Chronicle
  • Apr 11, 2020
0412 Gary 1 .jpg
Gary Rankel is an avid kayak fisherman.Special to the Chronicle

Another day in paradise. Got up early to get my morning run in and check the weather. All looks good for a paddle around our spacious backcountry, hoping to hook into a snook or two and maybe catch a nice trout for dinner tonight. What better way to lower my blood pressure and relieve pent up stress and anxiety?

Talk about social distancing; I’ll most likely not spot another angler during my entire day on the water. The morning news isn’t all bad: The smog has lifted in LA, CO2 emissions have been reduced and burglaries are way down with everyone staying at home. March Madness certainly took on a different character, but the NFL’s off season activities are still on, so I’m able to follow what my Green Bay Packers are up to in free agency and the draft. And yesterday, I even found an eight-pack of Angel Soft mega rolls at Publix, so no need to install a bidet or resort to baby wipes, newspaper, paper towels, napkins or coffee filters. To flush or not to flush is no longer a question.

Most boat ramps in Citrus County remain open, allowing folks like me to get outdoors to boost my physical and mental health in a way that doesn’t necessitate close contact with others, while also providing opportunities to secure fresh, high-quality food. Hopefully, our county commissioners won’t have to close them should we get too big an influx of boaters from neighboring counties, where many ramps have been closed. Of course, with all the wide spots on the side of the road next to water, those of us who fish in a kayak need not worry about closed boat ramps, parks and other areas and facilities prohibiting water access. The reduction in fishing pressure this year should allow overfished stocks to recover, resulting in better fishing next year than can even be had now with the snook bite on fire lately.

Gary Rankel with fish
Rankel says fishing is a good way to accomplish social distancing.Special to the Chronicle

Being retired, my wife and I have become true germophobes, and found it relatively easy to self-isolate and adjust to the new normal in the comfort of our homes. I still venture out to stand in some of the early morning senior lines at Walmart, Publix and Winn-Dixie to secure needed supplies, and greatly appreciate their employees and the many folks still needing to interact with others to make their livings, most especially our health care workers. We’ve reread most of our old books and just placed an order for several new ones on Amazon. Thanks to Spectrum, we’ve been able to watch lots of on-demand movies. In between the reading and watching, we Facetime the grandkids in Scotland most days, though they seem to prefer shorter conversations than desired by grandma and grandpa. And, of course, I check the network news daily attempting to separate fact from fiction and science from false news given the unfortunate degree of disinformation and politicization of the crisis, be it by the media, world leaders or our governmental officials at federal, state and local levels.

I don’t understand how the United States can have more COVID-19 cases and deaths than other advanced countries, and wonder how the more undeveloped countries like India, Nigeria, Venezuela and Libya, not to mention the refugee camps, with their high population densities, precarious economies, inadequate heath care systems and lack of clean water access can achieve social distancing and avoid catastrophic numbers of deaths. How can unparalleled political turmoil possibly be avoided? Experts don’t seem to know if this could be the first in a series of similar recurring outbreaks spreading throughout the world; not a pleasant thought with hurricane season around the corner. Given the limited degree of global cooperation and the mountain of public debt the world is accumulating, how are we going to muster the resources and will to win this battle? Cooperating with China and other countries in seeking a fix to this pandemic seems like a no brainer, but all we do is argue and point fingers.

Gov. Ron DeSantis finally joined other governors with his stay-at-home order. Glad to see that it provides for many outdoor recreation activities, including boating and fishing, as “essential activities” as long as social distancing guidelines are practiced. Unlike the state of Washington, which has outlawed all recreational fishing, Florida’s order provides for a more appropriate balance between public safety and allowing for water access and a limited degree of camaraderie for families and community members in these stressful times. And I’m glad to see that the Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security Act signed into law in March contains $300 million for fishing communities, charter fishery participants and other fisheries related businesses affected by the pandemic. Hopefully, that will help keep our hard working fishing guides afloat during this crisis. Fingers crossed, they’ll be able to lead scallop tours beginning on July 1.

I wish there was more I could do to address our problems. We don’t have a sewing machine and I wouldn’t know how to sew if we did, so thanks to all who are making and giving away facemasks; my idea of using heavy-duty, oversized storage bags was shot down by several folks on the Nextdoor network as setting a bad example for their kids and grandkids. The least we can do is continue to follow CDC guidelines and resolve to cast our votes in November for leaders who will place priority on science and common sense in addressing the problems we face.

But, for now, I’m off to Ozello. I look forward to getting some much-needed exercise, hope to come home with a fresh fish dinner, and expect to sleep reasonably well tonight.

Here’s hoping that April showers lead to May flowers, a rousing July 4 weekend and a Labor Day at full employment.