Battling an angry, powerful fish from a kayak can be a nerve-rattling experience. Anglers must first contend with the thrill of the fight and the steps required to land the fish. Those steps include adjusting the drag setting on the reel, preventing the fish from running into and being wrapped on underwater structure, and any number of other movements (such as holding the rod in one hand while using a landing net with the other). In some cases, a large fish can haul a kayak into dangerous water.
Small, less bruising fishes such as Bluegill, Crappie or White Bass may not prove a great test of strength or kayak management but the motions required to land the fish remain the same. My topic here is how larger sport fishes – Alligator Gar, Muskellunge, Steelhead, giant Largemouth Bass or Bowfin – amplify the mechanics of landing a big, angry fish by requiring added strength as well as attention to detail. And all these movements are amplified, sometimes to deafening volume, by a tangible risk of physical harm to the angler and the fish.
What will happen when I pull this large fish into the kayak, and its powerful jaws, teeth or tail are in my lap?
When you watch the video embedded below, you will hear me repeat “Please don’t jump on me, please don’t jump on me.” The Bowfin had already made several runs and dragged my kayak about 75 feet out toward the middle of the lake. It had jumped plenty of times, too, clear out of the water. I never tire of that site. So what I really meant with my pleas was “Please don’t jump on me while I am sitting in the kayak.”
Now, why is that? In the first place, a Bowfin is a hard fighter. In fact, they never stop fighting. What they really do is play possum. This fish had been fighting me for about 2 minutes and getting nowhere. The hook set was true. So it slowed down, as you can see after the initial thrashing I caught, and prepared to relent. This was the moment of truth. After catching hundreds of Bowfin, I know better. The fish still had a few good runs left in it. That is why I don’t have the net. Why? I don’t want a thrashing Bowfin in my lap before I can release it from the hooks. Why? Because I don’t want to remove those hooks from my legs, arms, or head. Or to pay someone else to do it for me.
So the thing to do is wait. What happened next, off camera, is as follows: I brought the fish close, with my drag set loose. It saw the kayak and ran 20 yards. I repeated the action, but the next time it only ran 10 yards. Repeat. When the fish was truly tired, I netted it, careful to scoop it from the tail end. It jumped out of the net and ran again.
I netted it one last time, with pliers at the ready. This time, I placed the rod in the holder, and inserted the pliers in the fish’s mouth. It bit down, hard. I leave them there and slip a wet hand under the fish’s gills (make sure your net is attached the kayak, or three hands). Fish in one hand, I put it on my wet ruler board and strap it down with an old wet belt. Then, and only then, I open the pliers the Bowfin has in its bear trap/jaw vice. Why? Because when you force its mouth open with one pair of pliers, you should have a second pair of pliers at the ready (or a spring wire to hold the mouth slightly open – I didn’t have mine that day). Now, remove the hook.
This particular Bowfin still had plenty of fight. She measured 27.5″ and probably weighed 6-7 lbs. She’d been eating lots of frogs. She arched her mid-section and popped the board from my lap. The belt loosened just enough, and she went over the side of the kayak. Fortunately, she was no longer hooked or she might have punched a treble hook into my thigh or taken a rod on the way out (or snapped the line with the lure in her gullet).
Landing a Bowfin in a kayak requires thought, patience and practice if it is to be done effectively. Bowfin do no cooperate – ever – with human beings, or with anyone or anything for that matter. Should you hook one unintentionally, keep these steps in mind, and should you target Bowfin, as I do, be sure to practice safe landing and release techniques as often as possible with other species. In this way when you do land one, you will be ready for whatever happens. And it will.