It was opening day of the spring snook season in 2008 on Tampa Bay in West Central Florida. The weather could not have been better. Air temperature was in the high 70s, and the water temp was an unseasonably warm 70 degrees.
As you might imagine, every boat ramp was busy, but the fish were safe because the tides were less than ideal. A minus tide at 2 a.m. would not peak until 7:59 that same evening. A two-tide day is bad enough for snook fishing — a long, slow incomer is worse. Nevertheless, it was simply too nice for this time of year to stay indoors, and fish or no fish, I had to get out.
I thought about taking my skiff, but the tide was so low I couldn’t get it off the lift. However, I have another shallow water weapon — a canoe with a rowing platform and a pair of aluminum oars. It rows great in either direction and I can get it in and out of the water with 56-year-old arms with no harm done. I lay a couple of pieces of carpet over the concrete sea wall and it slides in and out of the water easily.
The range of the canoe is not as great as my outboard powered skiff, but it’s still considerable. Three miles in any direction from my home at the mouth of the Little Manatee River is going to put you in some pretty good snook and redfish habitat — Little Cockroach Bay to the south, and Simmons Park to the north. Either location offers excellent shallow water backcountry fishing that is mostly inaccessible by any thing heavier than a canoe or kayak. As long as the wind isn’t blowing too hard, access is fairly easy. My guess is that 20 minutes of rowing will take me about two miles.
Rows The Canoe
When I bought the canoe, I thought it would be a great way to gain access to some great wading spots. But what I found was that I could cover a lot more water by staying in the canoe, and getting much closer to fish because of the low profile. To get where I’m going, I row the canoe in the conventional manner as you would row a boat — pulling on the oars with my back facing the direction of travel. But once I get to the area I want to fish, I reverse the direction of the canoe and push the oars forward. I’m not concerned about speed here — this is about looking for fish — working the troughs, swash channels, edges of sandbars, oyster bars and potholes. I also keep a small anchor handy. If I see some fish I like to maintain some casting distance between us. I can hold the oar handles under my knees, put the anchor out and pick up a rod in a matter of seconds. It’s important to have enough room to allow the fish to chase the bait for a few feet without getting too close to the canoe. The distance is much shorter than what you would expect from a flats boat, but then again so is the range of sight from the canoe seat.
I keep two rods at the ready, one rigged with a white jerk bait on a worm hook, and the other on a weighted keeper hook with a new penny-colored jerk bait. I set the rod handles on the dry box I use to carry my cell phone and my camera and an assortment of tackle — it sits out of the way between my feet. When I see a fish or want to make a cast to a likely looking spot I simply put the oar handles under either knee. In general I throw white at snook and the new penny at redfish. But if I have to make the longest possible cast, I will toss the weighted bait. Many a snook has fallen to the darker color.
My custom-built flats rods are perfect for fishing from the sitting position because the butts are an extra short 5 inches. I find the short butts easier to maneuver — not only in the canoe, but also on the poling platform of the skiff. These rods are an extra long 8-1/2 feet and slightly whippy, which also makes them ideal for casting light lures or freelining live baits. They won’t pull many fish away from mangrove structure, but that’s not where I look for fish on a low tide. I want a rod that will make long casts with light lures and baits.
Uses Inflatable Life Vest
When fishing out of the canoe, I wear a manually inflated life vest because the law requires you to carry one. It’s simply easier to keep track of when I have it on, and after a while, you never even know it’s there.
If the wind comes up and the canoe becomes hard to control with the oars, I have the option of putting the anchor out, or tying a rope around my waist and dragging it behind me as I wade. With nothing in the canoe, but the dry box and the anchor, it follows along with hardly any resistance at all. Like the inflatable life vest, after a time you never know it’s there. And if I get into an area where it’s easier to leave the canoe behind, I simply put the anchor out.
It’s also a good idea to carry something to bail water. Power boaters are going to wake you, or the wind can come up and knock you off balance. An empty bleach bottle with the bottom cut out makes a good bailer, and if you tie the jug handle to the seat, it will always be ready.
My 16-foot fiberglass canoe is light enough for me to get it in and out of the water by myself and it will float in a couple of inches of water. That will get you into a lot of places where no flats skiff can go, with less effort than paddling.
Captain Fred Everson has been a licensed fishing guide on Tampa Bay in Florida for 13 years. He has also written three books, and is a 20-year active member of the Outdoor Writer’s Association of America. You can visit his website for more information at http://tampabayfishingguide.com/
Be sure to visit Sportsman’s Guide for a variety of fishing gear.