How do you navigate fast, shallow water in a fishing kayak? And how do you fish that water? It isn’t always simple or easy. Prior to a recent tournament on Falls Lake in North Carolina, I consulted the USGS gauges for the rivers on the north end of the lake. There had been some rain, but not too much, and I wondered if some of the resident fish might be active due to food and oxygenated water flowing downstream. So I decided to give it a shot.
I prepared for some expected obstacles and eventualities, and improvised along the way. The result? A 7th place finish in a field of 57 anglers. Afterward, I made a short post about it on social media. The response was extensive and positive so I decided to expand the post in order to share more details about the effort, problem solving and safety tips involved in fishing this particular type of water.
As for the fishing, my experience in fly fishing, reading water and listening for clues helped me overcome a slow bite. But I had to keep a low profile, travel far to find the right water, and trust my instinct, even when I was tempted to turn back.
There is some mixed media, including screen shots and a video. I hope readers will find it useful.
I. Preparing for the Trip
The river in question is narrow. It has some high banks, and plenty of shallow riffles. In summer, when water is low, there is a lot of dragging and wet wading to pass through shallows. In spring, however, the water level can be slightly elevated and the water runs very clear. Because the main channel narrows in places, any obstruction can create a swift rapid. One of those rapids was the primary challenge to overcome.
But first, these were the preliminary steps I took before the trip….
Step A: Check stream gauge data
I checked USGS stream height and flow data. In this case, the flow was at 180 fps and falling, a good sign. The water level was also falling, and within a very reasonable range. In sum, the river was not blown out.
Step B: Choose the right rig
I own two kayaks: a Jackson Bite FD, which is the rig I use for most lakes. It has a pedal drive, fish finder, etc. I can stand in it, and fish from an elevated seat. It’s a boat for bigger water, and it is heavier, well over 100 lbs when fully loaded.
My other rig is a simple one, a Jackson Cruise 10. I got it on a whim, because I missed a paddle-only experience. I had Get Outdoors Pedal & Paddle add some gear track and I modified an old milk crate to old 3 rods and a small Ram Mount for my video camera. That’s my river boat, and I have been using it more over the past year. In some ways, it is my favorite rig: simple, easy and light. Fully loaded, it may weigh around 70 lbs, but it weighed a little more on this day because I brought extra gear (see step D)
Step C: Create a float plan
I always leave a float plan behind with friends, fellow competitors or family. You never know. My float plan included an address where my vehicle was left, description of the launch area and the direction in which I would paddle.
Step D: Pack for Trouble
Moving water always presents paddling challenges and some safety hazards. I always carry a spare phone battery charger, a basic first aid kit and a PFD, which I wear at all times.
Spring rains can bring down new obstructions, even on familiar water, creating strainers or blocking channels. In some cases, I will go so far as to pack a folding saw if I know where a blockage might be. This time, I only carried some folding garden shears, which came in handy when high water brought rods close to low hanging branches while I dragged my boat through shallow water.
I also thought it best to bring extra straps to tie down gear, a dry bag with extra clothes; the bag came with me, in case I spilled or slipped. Finally, I brought a pair of hip waders. I just had a feeling. If I hadn’t brought them the cold water and current would have prevented me from portaging around a rapid, as illustrated below.
II: Problem Solving in swift, shallow water
I had fished and paddled through slow water for about one mile, without a bite. But when I reached the first shallow riffles, an older angler was bank fishing for White Bass. He shared with me that he had landed a Largemouth Bass, my target species, in the riffle. That was my clue to push upstream, to where I would find more similar water.
In doing so, I had to navigate some fast, shallow water. In some places, the river has a gravel bottom, and the water is only 5”-6” deep. It was just enough water to paddle through, but not without effort. After a quarter mile or so, the channel is braided by a few small islands. That was where I met my match.
There, the channel narrowed along an old rock wall. A laydown created a funnel effect, diverting water into a small rapid. I tried to paddle through it but it was impassable. I sat on the next island downstream, and studied the situation. I also made a cast into the fast water, and caught a small bass, thereby confirming what the old man said. I knew I had to get around that rapid.
Step A: Survey the Problem
In photo 1 below, notice the wading stick. I made it from a branch I found on the bank. Because the current was too strong to paddle through a small gap that I have paddled through before (red arrow), I had to scout a small side channel on the right (green arrow). Before I could circumnavigate the island, I had to test the water depth. Paddling was not an option, as there were strainers behind me and ahead. So I used the wading stick to do a walk through while my kayak was beached.
In this photo, I begin walking my kayak across the fast water. Always use a wading stick to test depth and maintain balance against current. When I stepped into that hole, I needed the stick to steady myself. Some anglers may attach the kayak to their belts, too, in order to have both hands free. The practice is not without risk – if you slip and fall, the kayak can drag you downstream. Here, the relatively shallow water had a strong current, so I opted to hold it. If it got away, I could fetch it downstream against the next laydown.
Step B: Make Your Move
Photo 2: Here, I bypassed the obstruction, but first I secured my kayak. Note that I kept the nose close to me, to avoid the losing the boat to the current. I lifted that tree to pass my kayak through, carefully, with my rods down and other gear secured. I briefly re-entered the kayak and paddled about 20 feet, because the pool before me was deep. Thankfully, the downstream current created a counter-current here, flowing into the pool, so I had current had my back. When I reached shallows again, I got out and prepared to drag the boat.
Step C: The Shallows
Photo 3: I dragged my kayak around a small island (about 40 yards) through 3″-5″ of water. A small channel allowed me to keep the boat moving without having to drag it on dry land .
At this point, I returned to the main channel, where I checked my gear to make sure I hadn’t dropped any, and resumed paddling.
III. Resume Fishing
As I noted earlier, I was determined to reach certain types of water. I was sacrificing valuable fishing time, however – bypassing the rapid around that island involved 15-20 minutes of work.
I was betting on a hunch: the active fish were in faster water upstream. Sure enough, I had another clue moments later.
Step A: Be Opportunistic
I knew I would have limited bites, so I had to be prepared to make them count. Fortunately, I tied on a topwater lure, a Livingston Popper, that casts far and lands with a minimal splash.
Photo 3: 100 yards upstream, I noticed a fish chasing bait. On my second cast, I landed a white bass. A few casts later, I landed my first keeper largemouth (note the blow up splash). At this point, I knew I had to keep moving upstream. Hopefully, there would not be any more impassable rapids. There were not, but I did have to get out and drag through a few shallow water areas, and continue paddling.
Step B: Keep a Low Profile and Fish your Way In
It took my roughly 2-2.5 hours to reach the area I had in mind. I had wasted an hour fishing my way through dead water and used another hour to portage and paddle to my destination, fishing a few areas along the way.
Once I reached my destination, I fished my way in. I had my first reward within minutes, a 17.75” Largemouth smashed a crankbait. The fish was in relatively shallow water, about two feet deep, near rocks. I began fan casting my bait. I had to work my way in, but I had two keepers and about 2 hours to fish the area before I headed back.
My third keeper came from a similar area. A healthy fish of about 16”, it also hit the crankbait in about 2” of water. But this fish was in fairly fast water, below an impassable rapid. The water was crystal clear. Rather than fish my way up the main channel, where I would have to paddle and risk spooking fish that could see me, I paddled to a shallow flat. I let my kayak come to rest on a gravel bar, and began making diagonal casts upstream across the channel, in the fastest water.
Photo 4: Note the blue arrow: the splash beneath it is my lure hitting the water. I was aiming for that current seam, on the far side, below the rapids. I knew there were fish there, based on what I had seen beforehand, because this was as far upstream as they could go. I hooked a 19″ bass on that very same cast, as soon as the lure entered the seam between the current and the eddy. It was my best fish of the day, and my 4th keeper.
Look at the water beside my kayak – it is 2-3″ deep and crystal clear. I decided to stay in my boat because in that clear water, the fish can see you. If I stood up and waded with the kayak attached to me, I risked spooking fish. That is also a lesson from years of fly fishing: keep a low profile in clear, shallow water.
Here is the complete video of my fifth fish, from cast to catch:
I landed the next keeper from the same spot. I had a five fish limit, and continued fishing the riffle and eddy without a bite. I slowly worked downstream. With the wind and current at my back, I had an easy float, but without any additional bites. On the way back, I paddled through the rapid that had blocked me on the way up stream, without incident.
Kayak fishing is an art, and every year I learn something new. Last year, I learned that simplicity, combined with safety, would allow me to reach water where other anglers could not and would not go. It is hard work sometimes – I paddled/portaged for about 3.5 hours yesterday, without fishing. This strategy has resulted in 3 top 10 finishes in the course of the last year, including one 2nd place finish that covered costs for all 3 tournaments. But the end results are not the goal. It’s the journey that matters most. Learn to fish shallow, moving water – if you do it the right way, you won’t regret it.
© Henry Veggian 2022