A Guide to Inshore Kayak Fishing

Fishing Expert Christian Nelson knows that inshore kayak fishing can be intimidating, but it's also a great time, so this handy guide aims to make it easier.

The photo is taken from above and looks down on a man kayaking in dark blue water.

Photo by Tim Foster

Of all the types of fishing I’ve done, inshore kayak fishing is hands-down one of the most fun. Whether your dream is hooking into a massive snook deep in the mangroves or hearing drag scream while a bull redfish pulls you around the flats, kayak fishing is a great way to make it happen.

From my experience, it can be extremely daunting to get started with inshore fishing. The transition from freshwater to inshore fishing was very bumpy for me. I found myself stumped for a while, so I’m hoping to help you avoid some of the mistakes I made along the way to help get you on some fish faster!

Where to Start

When I decided I wanted to start doing some inshore fishing, my first issue was figuring out where to go. All my previous fishing experience was in lakes, ponds, creeks, and rivers at the time. Looking at the different bays in my area was overwhelming; I didn’t know where to even begin to catch my first redfish, which was my goal at the time. I’m fairly sure I’m not alone in this either—trying to do something new and foreign by yourself can be tough. My advice: start small.

Your first trip isn’t about catching a ton of fish, it’s really about having a good trip and building some experience. When planning that first inshore kayaking trip, find a place not too far from home that you know holds fish. Maybe you’ve seen people catching fish there or a friend fishes there sometimes. Once you’ve found that spot, that should be the only place you fish for a while. In a sense, you want to declare a “stomping ground” for yourself. Anywhere relatively close by with a suitable launch for your kayak will work.

For me, this helps in a ton of ways, but the main benefit is that you’re forced to actually fish. Instead of scouring maps and thinking of hundreds of different places to go, you’ll already have a predetermined place to fish. Your kayak will only carry you so far, so you’ll learn that area very well. You’ll also learn which spots in that area are productive for fish.

This strategy helped me learn to break down an area and eventually understand inshore fishing in a broader way. Recognizing what productive water looks like in an inshore environment is a skill set that can be easily applied to new areas as you branch out as an inshore angler. I have a great article on saltwater fishing lures, so check that out for some advice on what to throw to get you started on the right track!

Having one specific fishing area is also going to help you understand the limits of your kayak as well as yourself as a kayak angler. You want to grow accustomed to how stable your kayak is. Stability is a big deal when it comes to standing and fishing and even in handling a fish. Start off fishing however you feel best, and your comfort with your kayak will grow over time.

At first, I would try not to pack a lot of gear. While your front hatch, or any other hatch or internal storage on your kayak, is a great storage option, I recommend you pack light. You never know when something may go wrong; I flipped a lot out of clumsiness when I first started. Sealed hatches are, in most cases, not actually watertight, so avoid having valuables there if you're not quite comfortable on your kayak yet.

On the Water

Water winds through a marshy area on its way to the sea.

Photo by Brian Sumner

Inshore kayak fishing can be really frustrating at times because there’s only so much water you can cover while paddling. Being in a kayak, you can only travel so fast, so you need to maximize your fishing by targeting high-yield spots. These spots vary a lot depending on where you’re fishing, but they could be anything from a dock to a small creek dumping out and creating a current. Personally, I try to find a spot that offers several of these things. A dock is great, and a small creek is a good spot as well, but a dock right next to a small creek is much better.

Try and apply this principle to your area and really dial in on which spots are best on paper. When you fish these spots, take your time. I usually make long fan casts and fish fairly slowly. Doing this allows you to pick a spot apart. The most important part of this, though, is learning and gathering information. Maybe your spot looked great but you didn’t catch any fish, why not? Ask yourself these questions, because figuring out the answer means you’ll be a lot more productive in the future!

Some other things to look for on the water are natural indicators of life. This could be birds diving or mullet jumping, for example. One thing I look for and see often is called a “fish slick.” This occurs when a lot of baitfish are schooling together and rub slime from each other. This creates a slick, oily shine on the water that can be noticed rather easily once you know what you’re looking for. Whether it be big or small, pay attention to signs of life on the water and orient yourself to take advantage of any feeding fish that may be around!

Inshore Kayaking Must-Haves

Obviously, there are some differences between freshwater and inshore fishing, and there are a few must-have items you might not be too familiar with yet. This gear is what I highly recommend you take inshore with you, just to make sure the experience goes smoothly.

The first thing that I always have on board for an inshore trip is a quality set of fish grips. When fishing from a kayak, you don’t always have a lot of room to operate, and holding a big fish in your lap with your bare hands is a recipe for disaster. Whether it be a toothy fish ruining your day or a large fish threatening to flip your kayak and sink your new rods to the bottom of the bay, the issue can be prevented with a good pair of fish grips — this is a lesson I learned the hard way. Being able to control and secure fish will make you much more confident handling fish and while you’re kayak fishing as a whole. Paired with fish grips, I highly recommend having some easily accessible rod holders mounted on your kayak. This is super handy for getting a fishing rod out of the way to remove a hook from a landed fish, and it’s just convenient in general.

Some of the biggest staples of a good inshore kayak are fish finders. These allow you to move further off the bank and fish nearshore and inshore reefs that would be difficult to locate without a fish finder. This opens the door to catch a variety of fish like snapper, sheepshead, and even grouper. It's often very easy to mount a transducer on a kayak, but accessories like a transducer arm can be used on mounted gear tracks if you don't want to permanently mount it.

Two people sit in their own kayaks on the open water. They both wear PFDs and have a fishing setup.

Photo courtesy of MaxPixel

This one is fairly straightforward, but for anyone who doesn’t have one already, go get yourself a high-quality, Coast Guard-approved personal flotation device (PFD). I can’t begin to stress enough how important it is to have and wear a PFD while inshore fishing. Take it from someone who had to be rescued by the Coast Guard on several occasions; you never know what’s going to happen out there! If you can be one thing, be prepared. By having a PFD as well as some other gear I mention in this article for rigging your kayak, you’re stacking the odds in your favor for a great day on the water!

When to Fish Inshore

Almost any day is a good day to go hit the lake, but this couldn’t be less true for kayak fishing inshore. When you’re fishing in any kind of inshore situation, the weather is a much bigger deal than it is in a freshwater situation. Wind, waves, and tides all play a big role in the water conditions.

For me, I avoid fishing any conditions above a one- to two-feet swell when possible. This is fairly easy to do inshore by selecting your fishing spot based on the wind forecast for the day. You want to avoid any wind-blown coastlines and instead focus on protected areas. I usually aim for the protected sides of bays that I know are productive. Inshore fishing requires you, as an angler, to do more planning around the weather conditions than freshwater fishing does. A lot of anglers don’t have success early on because they ignore things like the tide and wind, but focusing on these details allows you to use them to your advantage and have a great day.

For tides, a general rule of thumb is to fish when high tide is rapidly rising or falling. This situation is ideal because it creates a current and moves bait, which means fish are feeding. I like fishing just as low tide starts rushing up to high tide, but when the high tide begins to fall is my favorite time to fish.

The wind is much easier to work around—it’s just a matter of looking at direction and speed. With wind under five miles per hour, I pay it very little attention. Anything over that, I follow a simple rule: If the wind is blowing from the East, you want to fish the east side of whatever bay, cove, or flat you’re on. As the wind blows across the water and hits the west side, it will be much stronger and create greater swells. This may not seem like a big deal, but it can make for some sketchy days on the water! In general, to guarantee a safe trip, always check the weather, wind, swell, and tides beforehand to ensure nothing looks too concerning!

If you’re a kayak fisherman and you haven’t tried inshore fishing, I would highly encourage you to give it a shot. There aren’t many freshwater fish that can compare to the fight of a redfish, snook, tarpon, or big speckled trout. It may take a little while to really get the hang of things and feel confident while fishing, but that’s just the nature of learning something new! Most of the battle is going to be learning to find the fish. Catching them is easy, as they’ll take almost any decent bait presented to them. There’s no substitute for time on the water, so get out there and get to ripping some lips! If you have any questions or want to find the perfect gear, reach out to a Fishing Expert here on Curated for free personalized recommendations!

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Written By
Christian Nelson
Christian Nelson
Conventional Fishing Expert
I have been fishing for pleasure for over 10 years, fishing tournaments and doing some guiding as a side gig along the way. ​ I have caught 50+ species of fish, from rainbow trout to giant sharks, and from bass to monster bull redfish. ​ I have a wide array of knowledge to put you on fish, no matter...
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