Have a better practice for kayak tournaments

The beauty of kayak fishing to many is simplicity. But the simplicity comes with plenty of challenges, particularly when preparing for kayak bass tournaments. Without a big outboard motor to scoot around the lake, breaking down a body of water in a short piece of plastic can be intimidating. 

Arkansas’s Cody Milton began his fishing adventures from a bass boat before switching to full-time kayak fishing seven years ago. 

“I fished my first tournament when I was 8,” Milton said. “Then from 9 to 11 I was fishing a tournament with my dad pretty much every weekend. All of my family vacations involved going to tournaments, which was cool to grow up in those meetings and has felt a little more normal to me.

”While there was a bit of an adjustment period switching from a boat to a kayak, Milton has formulated a successful practice strategy that has helped him achieve top finishes in multiple national kayak events on a variety of different fisheries. 

Same goes for Mark Edwards, who finished third in the 2022 Bassmaster Kayak Angler of the Year standings, and Dakota Lithium pro Casey Reed. 

“I’ve been more successful in a kayak (than in a bass boat),” Edwards said. 

So how should anglers approach practice for a kayak event? Well, there isn’t a right answer, but there are several different strategies to potentially employ and different ways to make prefishing more efficient. 

Research makes the dream work

There are a couple things that have changed in the kayak rules in the last couple of years, particularly when it comes to the adoption of designated launches. While he still does a lot of research ahead of time, the adoption of designated launches by Bassmaster and the other national trails has cut down some of the off-the-water research. 

“It has changed more in the last year than it ever has,” Milton said. “Certified launches changed a lot of the prep work. I used to feel like if you weren’t putting in three or four hours researching ramps before you got there, you were already wasting a half day of practice. Now, you have a good idea of where you are going to be launching and the possibilities.”

Google Earth is an angler’s best friend. About four weeks before any given tournament, Milton will begin looking at the forecast for the lake he’ll be fishing and try to figure out where the water level might be when he arrives for practice. 

From there, he will use his Google Earth computer app to find past water levels that match the situation.

“I solely use Google Earth at this point,” he explained. “You can only use historical data on a computer, but you can go back all the way to the late 60s and see the water levels. So I try to find the lowest water level and then find one comparable to what I think the water will be during the tournament. It gives me a good sense as to what backwaters you can and can’t get into.” 

Edwards focuses on the time of year he is arriving at the given lake. During the spawn, he tends to look for areas away from the current while during the summer, current plays a big role. To get a grasp on what a new fishery could be like, Edwards watches past tournament coverage from Bassmaster events.

Reed takes a similar approach.

“Watching any tournaments that have been on that body of water before is important. You can watch all of the old Bassmaster videos if they have been to that place before. Searching YouTube and forums gives you a lot of information you can learn from. It will tell you the season patterns and what lures and colors people are throwing.”

Studying the Humminbird One Boat Network app also gives Reed a good idea of what features an area has and what he can target once he arrives.

“You can start looking three or four months in advance and really get to know that area,” he said. “Then you can take that to Google Earth.”

Strategy 1: Treat it like a boat

Transitioning from a bass boat to a kayak was pretty easy for Milton, mostly because he tended to treat practice in a kayak like he was in a bass boat. That requires packing up his gear and moving from launch to launch in his vehicle.

“I probably approached it a lot differently than most people did,” he said. “The first several years I was in a kayak, I tried to act like I was in a boat. I would regularly launch five or six times a day. You do that two or three times in a week, you really covered a lot of water. Maybe not as efficiently as you could have in a boat, but you got to see the extremities of the lake and see the water color changes and all of the things you think could play in the event. The more I get in the back of my head, the more I can use.

“Drew Gregory (2022 Angler of the Year) talks about it a lot, but one of the best things you can do is drive around a lot in your vehicle, especially seasonally, and it is amazing how much the lakes vary in the early parts of the year. It can be 8 to 10 degrees a lot of the time.”

Efficiency is key in this effort. Reed has his system down, and if he does need to move, he can exit the area in a hurry.

“If I’m in a hurry, I can get everything loaded up and packed away in 10 minutes and be on my way,” the Old Town pro said. “Being able to do that quickly is a huge benefit not only in the tournament, but in practice too. If you aren’t seeing what you like, being able to make a decision and move quickly is a huge benefit.”

When given several days of practice, Reed likes to employ this strategy and see what the whole lake has to offer.

In an effort to see as much of the lake as possible, Milton will still launch several times a day during his prefishing time. Most times, he will launch the kayak and investigate the area, but every now and again Milton will park the truck and determine from dry land if it’s worth fishing or not. 

With certified ramps, we know the ramps we can legally launch in a creek or tributary, and you need to go check out some of that stuff,” Milton said. “Is there water coming in? Is it stagnant? Is it really dirty? Any information you can take like that can help you figure out if they are in the main part of the lake or in some of the tributaries.” 

As he is practicing, Milton is making note of several things. First, do areas fit his strengths? Although he fished offshore from the boat often, Milton has found his comfort zone in a kayak is in the shallows. 

Milton keeps things moving in practice, and baits like buzzbaits, topwaters, jerkbaits and even a wobble head make him more efficient in practice. It isn’t until tournament day that Milton tries to find the perfect baits. His Newport Vessels NK-180 motor also gives him an uptempo pace. 

After that, Milton will evaluate how many people he thinks will be fishing around him come tournament time. If it’s a very crowded area, Milton said he may choose to fish his “B” quality areas. 

“If I visited one of these ramps once or twice and haven’t seen more than three people and that water is B water, it can be a lot better than where I got 10 bites in A+ water with 25 people around. And come the weekend that stuff multiplies. Knowing you can get a lot more out of an area that isn’t A+ water is really big. Over the years I feel like I have made a lot of money out of B-rated water. I just try to maximize what is in that area.”

With three or four days of practice, Reed doesn’t mind setting the hook on days one or two. As the official tournament days get closer, the less he’ll start to pull the trigger.

“It depends on what I’m doing. If I’m fishing a brushpile, I’m not going to sit there and see if I can catch a 20-incher. I’m not going to keep casting back to a brushpile if I’m catching quality bass. But if I’m covering water and just expanding on those areas, I don’t mind setting the hook.”

Strategy 2: Create a home base

Edwards employs more of a “home base” strategy, where he will pick a certain section of the lake and comb through that area for multiple days. But it isn’t always as simple as picking a ramp and fishing there every single day. 

“If I have a good first day of practice, I will usually commit to that area and try breaking it down. As far as a kayak goes, we can’t move around much,” Edwards said. “I look for areas with a lot of different options like bridges, steep banks, points, things like that. So if the bass are on points one day, and they aren’t there the next, you might find them on a bridge or something else.”

 If he has two or less days of practice, Reed agrees. 

“I try to find areas that have multiple options where you aren’t putting all of your eggs in one basket. Places you have rock, wood and a bunch of different options for you in case whatever you think is going to work doesn’t end up panning. If you have 50 marks on your graph where you think one fish is holding, you are liable to get a limit doing that. My best tournaments have come by doing that.”

The Virginia pro’s first move is to try to fish the patterns and areas the fishery is known for. His biggest strength is throwing a shaky head, which can be utilized in a lot of different scenarios. During practice, his greatest asset is side imaging.

“I’m going to start by trying the things the lake is known for and see if you can get that going. The biggest thing that helps me in practice is side imaging. I always have that up. I could be cruising a bank trying to get to a spot, but I’ll be looking for brushpiles or rock piles or stumps. Anything that stands out to me. I’ll make a couple casts to those things and you can get a feeling for if you can get bites and make a pattern out of it.” 

When deciding where to go, Edwards takes a lot of stock into the seasonal patterns the bass should be in during the tournament, not necessarily what suits his strengths. From there, he will decipher what the weather is going to do and then the water clarity. 

In these areas, Edwards likes to throw baits like glide baits that will get bass to show themselves, but not always attack. At Hartwell in 2023 for instance, Edwards tossed a glide bait down one particular stretch of bank and saw 90 inches of bass in 10 casts. When he comes back to a stretch like that in the tournament, he will throw something with a better strike and hook-up ratio. 

“I don’t try to catch many fish at all in practice,” Edwards said. “As long as I see fish I have confidence in the area. Tournament day is really when you need to figure it out because the day before is probably something a little different. Time of the year is also a factor. In the fall, the fish are grouped up better. You’ll have that in the postspawn and prespawn too. But in the late summer they will spread out more.”

If Reed knows a particular area is going to be productive, he won’t linger. He will exit the area and continue expanding.

“If I know a certain flat has bass on it, and I caught them the day before, I’m going to skip by it and keep moving,” he said. 

Applying strategies to tournaments

When tournament day rolls around, Milton will arrive at his chosen area and hunker down in that area for the entire day in most scenarios. The only times he will pack up and move is if there is too much fishing pressure or if the weather isn’t suitable. 

“I typically don’t leave an area in the middle of a tournament unless I have a strong morning bite and want to fish something else in the afternoon,” Milton said. “I’ll try to make myself figure it out in an area. But knowing at some point they are going to bite at some point and knowing you are in an area it is going to happen, if I have those feelings, I’m going to stay. The only exception is if the area I am in was affected by weather and there’s another area that isn’t affected by it.” 

“At a minimum, you are giving up an hour and that’s if the ramp is close by. Kayaks take a lot of time.”

For Reed, how he reacts on tournament day depends on how many people are putting in at the same ramp as he is. While he doesn’t mind fishing in crowds, he will adjust his approach if multiple people are around. He also reminds himself that he will be fishing his best stuff more thoroughly that he did in the warmup period. 

“If I think it’s a spot someone else found, I’m most likely going to head there as soon as possible,” Reed said. “If you think it will be an afternoon bite, it could be one of those things when you hold off, but most of the time for me if I find something I think is going to be good, I’m going there first thing. When you know there are bass there, you pick it apart and slow down.”

With any tournament, having a feel of the changing conditions will go a long way.

“It’s a fine line between knowing there are fish in the area, knowing you need to slow down and pick it apart and fishing unproductive water,” Reed explained. “Sometimes it is hard to know, especially when you get a bite or two. Tournament fishing is all about making decisions.”