Kayak Fly Fishing in Chesapeake Bay Tributaries

Kayak angling is very popular where I live near Annapolis, Maryland. The Chesapeake Bay and its many rivers and creeks provide an active striped bass fishery for most months of the year, from the early spring to the late fall. Indeed, fisheries scientists believe that nearly 70 percent of the striped bass on the east coast of the U.S. originate in the Chesapeake Bay. In the summer, white perch, a feisty smaller cousin of striped bass forage in the Bay’s rivers and creeks. They too are targeted by kayak anglers. And then in the cold months, pickerel can be caught in those same waters.

Kayak angling in the Chesapeake is a mostly a light tackle activity. Not many here fly fish from kayaks but it is gaining in popularity. This article briefly presents the basics of kayak fly fishing in the mid-Chesapeake Bay region.

Kayak fly angling is not much different from wading a stream. In fact, I view my kayak as an extension of my waders allowing me to reach places on the water I could not reach on foot.

I keep the process simple. A single fly rod, or maybe two, and a small box of flies will provide hours of enjoyment on our tidal waters. This is in sharp contrast to many other Chesapeake kayak anglers who have rigged their boats to carry multiple spinning and baitcasting rods, electronic fish finders and heavy boxes of tackle.

As for the kayak itself, almost any kayak will suffice to fish the Bay’s creeks. A sit-on-top (SOT) or sit inside (SINK) kayak will be fine. Certainly, any fishing kayak will work. Even a canoe makes a good fly fishing platform for most tidal creeks.

My criteria for a kayak are comfort, transportability and trackability. I want a comfortable boat because my sessions on the water may last three or four hours. The seat is critical. It must provide ample back support. I must also be able to fully extend my legs, again for comfort on a long outing. Transportability is an issue because I car-top my kayak. I need to be able to lift it, remove it from the rooftop of my vehicle and get it to the water. How it maneuvers on the water is another factor. Is it easy to paddle and does it glide straight?

I own three fishing kayaks including one that is pedal driven. But my favorite for fly fishing is my smallest and lightest. It’s a 12-foot paddle boat that weighs 49 pounds.

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The author in his kayak at a launch site on Weems Creek, Annapolis.

One question I am often asked by people who inquire about my kayak fly fishing is this: “Don’t you have to stand to cast a fly rod?” The answer is absolutely not. I have a theory about standing while kayak fishing. Three things can happen and two of them of them are bad! You may indeed catch a fish. That’s a good thing. But eventually you will either fall into the water or at a minimum by standing you will spook the fish you are seeking.

Rarely do I need to throw more than 40 to 50 feet of line when kayak fly fishing. The kayak itself allows me to stealthily approach a shoreline or some other structure to target. Even though my particular kayak is stable enough for me to stand, I feel no need to. With proper casting technique and a balanced outfit, I can easily cast while seated.

For most of my kayak fly fishing I use a 6-weight, 9-foot rod with floating weight-forward line. Occasionally I may carry a second rod, an 8-weight, 9-foot rod with intermediate line, especially in the fall when striped bass are thick in tidal creeks. But by far a 6-weight rod will suffice for most of my catches. None of the fish I target are leader shy. A regular tapered bass leader with a 10-pound tippet will suffice or even a straight piece of 10 or 12-pound mono will work in a pinch. I prefer 8 to 9-foot leaders, especially when I fish streamers because I want to get them down. However, I rarely fly fish waters more than four feet deep. I work the shorelines of creeks for most of my catches.

Line control is an issue that kayak fly anglers must contend with. Since I most often use floating line, I simply drop my stripped line overboard with my left hand. It floats along the side of my kayak in the same way it would float near my legs if I was wading.

One of the truths of kayak fly fishing is that if your line can find something to snag in your boat, it will. For that reason, I keep the left gunnel of my kayak completely clear. I cast right handed and my casts most often are directed to the left of my bow. I have nothing protruding from the left gunnel that may intercept my line. Instead I connect any attachments, such as a paddle holder on the right side of my boat. You can see what I mean in the photo below.

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A nice Maryland pickerel caught on a black foam popper.

When it comes to flies, I keep that basic too. A foam popper, Clouser Minnow, crystal bugger or wooly bugger will catch any of the fish I target. I use various colors and sizes and of these flies but generally my hook sizes range from 6 to 2.

I must admit that I also use conventional tackle while kayak fishing. In addition to my paddle kayak I troll jigs and crankbaits while covering miles of water in a single outing with my pedal-driven kayak. But by far, my most enjoyable time kayak fishing is when I am in my paddle kayak slowly working shorelines in tidal creeks with a fly rod. It’s analogous to wading a quiet trout stream. It’s incredibly peaceful, relaxing and very rewarding. The action may be continuous like catching white perch one after another on a Clouser Minnow with an occasional striper mixed in. Or it may be a sunrise session to entice a pickerel to attack a foam popper.

Even if you do not live near the Chesapeake Bay, kayak fly fishing as I have briefly described above transfers easily to other bodies of water – impoundments, mill ponds, rivers, etc. You may not have tidal striped bass but largemouth and smallmouth bass, crappies and bluegills will strike the same flies using essentially the same techniques. To me, kayak fly fishing is the perfect union of kayaking and angling. I urge you to give it a try.

Written by Mark Bange from Anne Arundel County, Maryland

After a lengthy career in the U.S. Department of Defense, Mr. Bange retired to his native Anne Arundel County, Maryland which has 500 miles of shoreline along the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. It’s a wonderful place to live for an avid fly angler. He has been married for 39 years to Linda and has a son and a daughter and four beautiful (of course) grandchildren.

Note: The author is president of the Free State Fly Anglers (FSFF), an Annapolis based fly fishing club which offers its members many guided outings each year, including kayak fly fishing trips. For more information about the FSFF please visit its website, or its Facebook page.

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One thought on “Kayak Fly Fishing in Chesapeake Bay Tributaries

  1. Mark

    I have done some of the same as you. Got a striper on creek off South River yesterday and a few in Severn on top water a couple weeks ago. Have also caught pickerel in the creeks in the fall and winter. I would be interested in swapping stories about the where and whens of bay fishing.


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