Florida Keys Kayak Fishing – The Basics


Kayak fishing is one of my favorite ways to get out on the water and spend an afternoon. It’s great exercise, you have an opportunity catch a wide variety of fish (especially here in the Florida Keys), and best of all- it’s inexpensive!

You don’t have to dig into your wallet to fill up your kayak with gas and oil every time you want to go fishing, and, aside from a quick rinse with the hose, there’s virtually no maintenance or repair bills!

Plus, you don’t have to deal with those yahoos who flock to the public boat ramps on the weekends. All you need is a few inches of water to slide your yak into the water, and you’re on your way to great fishing.


Of course, kayak fishing does have its restrictions; none greater than the limited fishing grounds you are able to paddle to, and the amount of time it takes to travel from one fishing hole to the next.

But if you know where to find the fish, and know how to target them, I guarantee that you’ll keep the rod bent, and have a chance to catch a number of trophy species, just like the guys you see out there poling around on their flats skiffs.

Over the past two years I have caught bonefish, permit, tarpon, redfish, snook, grouper, snapper, sharks, barracuda, and more from my kayak. And I’m determined to add a few new species to that list this year, including sailfish!

Below I have compiled a list of the basic equipment and gear that you will need to begin your new pastime as a kayak angler.  Please check back to FromtheYak.com often to read my latest kayak fishing reports, as well as tips on how to rig your kayak and how to target specific species.


The ultimate kayak fishing goal- catching a Florida Keys permit.

The Kayak

You don’t need an expensive kayak to catch fish in the Keys. A basic 10 to 15-foot sit-on-top kayak will handle the job in the waters you will be fishing. Just about any Florida Keys kayak rental will have this type of kayak available to rent if you don’t have your own.

I have two Perception kayaks that I bought used off Craig’s list (a 12′ Swing, and 13′ Prism), and they more than handle my fishing needs; both inshore, and when I’m feeling a bit daring and head a few miles out into the Atlantic.

I installed rod holders on both my kayaks which allow me to carry multiple rods at a time. While the rod holders are a luxury, it’s not necessary to have them on your yak. You really only need one rod and reel outfit to catch fish, and you shouldn’t have any problems finding room for it (just lay it across your lap facing the bow of the boat).


The Tackle

If I could take only one rod and reel combo kayak fishing with me, it would be a 7′ medium action spinning rod, spooled with 15-lb. monofilament line (or 10-lb. braid), and a 20-30 lb. splice of fluorocarbon leader.

This set-up will allow you to fish the docks for snapper, snook, jacks and more; and the flats for bonefish, small sharks and barracuda. Small resident tarpon can also be fought and landed on this setup.

On nearly every one of my kayak fishing expeditions (unless I’m fishing for tarpon or heading out to the reef) I take the same three outfits with me.

  • 7′ medium-light, fast action spinning rod, with Shimano 4000 series spinning reel, spooled with 8lb. braid line, and 6 feet of 20 lb. fluorocarbon leader.
  • 7’6 medium, fast action spinning rod, with Shimano 4000 series spinning reel, spooled with 10 lb. braid line, and 6 feet of 20 lb. fluorocarbon leader.
  • 7′ medium-heavy spinning rod, with Shimano 8000 series spinning reel, spooled with 30lb. braid line, and 6 feet of 40lb. fluorocarbon leader).

key_west_kayak_fishing Note that using a splice of fluorocarbon leader (4 to 7 feet attached directly to your mainline) will help your chances of catching fish- but is not mandatory. Fluorocarbon line is almost invisible underwater and thus helps when targeting line-shy species such as bonefish, permit and tarpon.

If you don’t want to spend the money to buy a spool of fluorocarbon (it can be quite expensive!), a monofilament leader will do the trick. The heavier the leader the better when you’re fishing around docks or pilings where your line is likely to get frayed.

Also remember that your gear is destined to get drenched with saltwater in your kayak. Therefore it’s wise not to take your best gear out with you- and always make sure to thoroughly rinse your rod(s) and reel(s) with fresh water after each trip. It’s a good idea to frequently clean them (properly!), or take them to a tackle shop for maintenance as well. Saltwater will deteriorate your equipment quickly and proper reel maintenance is a must when kayak fishing.

The Bait

I prefer to fish with live bait or fresh dead bait over artificial lures- simply because I have more success with them. Live shrimp, blue crabs, pinfish, and even small pilchards will survive for a few hours (or more) in a flow troll style bait bucket.

To keep the bait alive as long as possible, I will attach the bait bucket to my kayak using a six-foot piece of rope, and keep it floating in the water whenever I am drift fishing or during breaks from paddling. If I am paddling to or from a location, or kayaking quietly across a flat trying to remain as stealthy as possible, I will place the bait bucket in the stern of the kayak and refresh the water every ten or fifteen minutes.

Live shrimp is my bait of choice for nearly all types of kayak fishing, and nearly every species, including bonefish, tarpon, snapper, snook, redfish, and more, will eat a live shrimp, or fresh piece of shrimp tipped on a jig head.


Artificials can be very productive and a lot of fun.

Artificials can be very productive and a lot of fun.

When trolling channels or bridges; casting baits into the mangroves; and when targeting wintertime barracudas on the flats, I like to break out the artificial lures.

For trolling, I prefer to drag diving plugs, such as Rapalas® or Yo-zuri Minnows; or soft baits, like a D.O.A. Bait Buster or TerrorEyz.

For casting to hungry barracuda on the flats, soft-plastic jerk baits and top water lures (such as a Mirrolure® plug) can be loads of fun. Despite not having a reputation of being a glamorous game fish, big barracudas (especially from a kayak) can be an absolute blast to reel in.

Other artificial lures, such as Berkley® Gulp baits, crank baits, spinners and spoons all have their place in a kayak angler’s tackle box depending the species you are targeting.

Mustad 2/0 baitholder hooks are great for keeping live shrimp on the hook.

Mustad 2/0 baitholder hooks are great for keeping live shrimp on the hook.

I like to rig one light-weight rod with a size 2/0  baitholder hook (for hooking a live shrimp or small crab on), and my other light spinning outfit with a 1/4 or 1/8 ounce jig head, or skimmer jig, tipped with a piece of shrimp (the extra weight helps me to cast to fish that are further away).

For my larger rod I usually rig it with a Size 4 or 5 live bait hook (with no weight), and keep it ready with a shrimp or crab to pitch to a passing tarpon or permit.

Where to Fish

There are endless miles of  fishy waters surrounding the Florida Keys that are accessible to the kayak angler.

My favorite places to fish are around docks, mangrove islands, small bridges and passes (with a minimal amount of tidal flow), channels, deep water basins, shallow grass flats and flats with a hard bottom.

I advise starting out fishing around docks- either on the bayside, the Atlantic side, or on one of the many canals. Any number of fish can be caught around Florida Keys docks, including: snook, tarpon, grouper, snapper, jacks and more.

Fishing around small bridges can produce a variety of fish, including an occasional cero mackerel.

Fishing around small bridges can produce a variety of fish, including an occasional cero mackerel.

If you are unfamiliar with the Keys waters, just look at a marine chart, or use Google Earth, to map out a few flats, mangrove islands, and deep channels to fish. Find a spot that looks interesting, and give it a try.

One of the best parts of kayak fishing is finding your own unique honey holes that you may never have discovered if you were fishing from a motor boat.

Kayak Accessories

You will see  kayaks online and on the water that are rigged for some serious fishing. Some are equipped with built-in live wells, gps navigation devices, fish finders, outriggers (for fishing offshore), and I’ve even seen one with a miniature tuna tower on top.

Drift sock and flow troll bait bucket.

Drift sock and flow troll bait bucket.

Frankly, you don’t need any of these things to catch fish from your kayak- especially in the Florida Keys! All you need is a rod and reel, a dozen or so live shrimp, a bait bucket, a few #2 or #3 size hooks, a life jacket, a pair of pliers or dehooking device, a knife (or other line cutting tool), a paddle, and a desire to catch fish.

On my kayak trips I also like to bring along a drift sock as well, which I will throw into the water to slow the boat down if I am fighting a big fish, or if I am drifting too fast in the wind or current. When the drift sock opens it fills with water and creates a nice drag against the boat.

Other common kayak accessories include stake-out poles (for remaining stationary in shallow water),  rear and center-mount rod holders, anchors (I simply use a brick tied to a rope), and padded kayak seats, which are a must if paddling long distances.

What Else to Bring

I never head out in my kayak without taking a digital camera, a cell phone, a pair of polarized sunglasses (not only will they protect your eyes but they will help cut down the water’s glare and help you spot fish), and plenty of water. I enclose my camera and cell phone in a small water-tight fishing bag, which I tightly secure to my kayak seat to make sure it doesn’t fall into the water.

It is also smart to put your camera and phone into a Ziploc® to further prevent them from getting wet. After breaking my last digital camera (I dropped it in the water), I purchased a water-proof Pentax®Optio W60 camera that I don’t have to worry about getting wet. Plus, it takes great underwater shots.


I also suggest bringing along a ruler or tape measure to measure the fish you catch. That way you can to tell your friends just how big the fish you caught were, and if you plan on keeping any fish, you’ll know if they are of legal size.

I release all the fish I catch from my kayak, but if you plan to take a fish or two home, you may want to attach a cooler filled with ice to your kayak. A small, soft-case cooler, tied down with rope and bungee cords, should do the trick.


These tips should give you a good jump start for pursuing trophy Florida Keys fish from your kayak. Just remember to always be safe, keep it simple, and fish with a partner as often as possible.

Please check back to FromtheYak soon to read more about kayak fishing in the Florida Keys.

Tight Lines and Good Fishing!

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4 comments on “Florida Keys Kayak Fishing – The Basics

  1. Jay Biddle on said:

    Thanks for the clues. I am new to Florida, just got a kayak, have owned a canoe for a long time…


  2. Interesting read re kayak fishing. I’m headed to Key West Feb 1 for a week.
    I’d love to do this but I’m a bit chicken.
    I’ve only kayaked once and can’t imagine being able to keep my balance while reeling a fish in esp if it has any size at all. Lazy dog Outfitters in Key West rents the rod,bait and boat for kayak fishing and i have a friend that would go w/me but she knows little about fishing. Can a tourist’s eye find good fishing grounds?
    I love the silent peacful beauty of kayaking but i feel abit more secure sticking to head boat fishing. What do you suggest? I really don’t have the dough for charter boat fishing. Thanks.

  3. will you have a vehicle that can transport a kayak? There’s some neat places to go in the lower keys but you would have to drive to them. I’ve haven’t kayaked much in key west so there may be some nice trails around there, but up the road a little bit are some nice and calm shallow areas to go exploring. You don’t want to kayak right off key west by the pier and mallory square- the current can really rip through there and its not a real peaceful paddle.

    My wife and I did a kayak tour years ago- I can’t remember the name of the company- but they picked us up at our hotel in KW, drove us up to boca chica key and then took us on a kayak tour. The price was really reasonable. Don’t get to fish, but it was nice.

    As for fishing, it takes some time to get used to fishing out of a kayak. So your best bet may be to go exploring without your fishing gear, and then, like you mentioned, going out on a head boat. I live in Marathon and the head boats up here do catch some fish- nothing great- and nothing near chartering a boat- but itis more affordable.

    I have a book with some great kayak launches and trails throughout the Keys. Shoot me an email if you need some recommendations on where to go.


  4. Jim Stephens on said:

    This information has been so helpful and has really excited us. We love fishing off our kayak in myrtle beach. We r planning a trip to explore the keys and we are debating on bringing our two person kayak. (don’t know how you lock it up?) Thank you so much for this valuable info. If u have any info or know good areas to launch from and fish in the keys we would appreciate it so much. We aren’t interested in the typical tourist stops, we want to explore and fish.

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