Name: Craig Shelton
Nickname: Big Red
Location: Navarre, FL
Kayak: Malibu Stealth 12ft
Favorite Target: Red Fish, Trout
I was able to get a fishing trip in with Captain Shelton, and during our trip I was able to ask him a few questions about his beloved sport. The following story recounts our trip.
The surface of the water shows a perfect mirror image of a large orange globe to our east. There is barely a ripple on a tranquil grass flat somewhere on the inter-coastal waterway in Northwest Florida. A loon at the edge of the channel dives quietly in search of breakfast, which seems a difficult task with the only visual disturbance coming from a few random mullet performing their usual skip-jumps. “Well?”, I ask in a quiet voice so as not to disturb the local inhabitants. “Probably trout chasing ‘em”, a gruff voice replied. A calculated paddle stroke moves the red Malibu Stealth across the water in total silence, living up to the vessel’s moniker. The sun is fully over the horizon now, and with it the water itself appears to come to life. The stout angler turns toward me, pointing across my bow. “Over there”, I hear him mutter but barely see his lips moving behind a large red goatee. Captain Craig Shelton has been kayak fishing skinny water for well over 10 years. On first sight, his rugged looks and tattoos can be intimidating. Intuition tells you no matter what kind of fishing you get into today that this isn’t his first rodeo. His weathered red skin gives you a confident feeling you are with a true outdoorsman. Before you were even told you already wanted to call him by his nickname, Big Red.
Red got his start in kayak fishing far from the gulf coast, as a fishing guide in a small mountain town in Wyoming. Eight years ago, he relocated to Navarre, Florida and his experience fishing the cowboy state was a direct translation to stalking the flats for his favorite targets, Red Drum and Spotted Sea Trout. As we slowly glide over the shallow grass no more than waist deep, Red prepares to cast out over an area he suspects is holding fish. “What should I be using for bait?” I ask eager to offer up the correct entrée. “Whichever one he wants to eat.” My guide says behind a light chuckle. When asked his favorite bait he earnestly replies “I use shrimp to see what kind of baitfish is in the area and then I match up my lure.” “Genius idea.” I mutter under my breath in a self-deprecating tone for not employing this method in past fishing trips. The result is nearly fail-proof. Work your way up the food chain. If you catch a pinfish or a croaker you put them back out, and both reds and trout can’t resist a nice shrimpy snack if they happen by. Whatever bait you are most productive with for your target, switch to the artificial equivalent. It’s good math.
A slight breeze picks up creating a rippled wind line on the water, as several pelicans in formation glide effortlessly just above the surface. “You have to pay attention to the birds. They know where the fish are.” Red says as he watches the formation attentively to see if they might expose some activity below. While waiting for the bite to turn on, I ask red to recall the catch he is most proud of. Smiling slyly he begins, “There was a 49 inch redfish I hooked up with in two feet of water. Looked like a submarine approaching the pin fish I was free lining. All I fish with is 12lbs monofilament and 20lb leader. Fight took about 1 hour 20 minutes to get it. He dragged me all over the sound.” Pausing with a reminiscent stare and a light chuckle Red says, “I will never forget this one.” I asked why he used monofilament with all of the advantages of braid. He pointed to one of my braid wrapped spinning reels. “If you have several hundred feet of that braid out and it breaks, it’s there forever. I don’t like the effect on the environment. If I lose mono, I know that in about a year it will be disintegrated.”
No sooner had he finished his sentence, there is a subtle but evident disturbance just under the surface 25 feet away from our kayaks. Craig’s reel begins to sing that pleasingly familiar tune of drag being peeled from the spool. As he begins his methodical process of fighting the fish by making subtle adjustments to the drag, I hook up also. The fight is on and our kayaks get underway via raw fishpower. We both land good looking specimens right in the slot. “These are the best eating size,” he says as we both measure a 20 and 23 inch redfish. “I don’t agree with harvesting Bull Reds, not only are those our breeding stock but they don’t taste that good.” I nod in agreement as we employ a conservation method known as CPR (catch, photo, release). Even these slots will live to fight another day as we get them back into the water and on their way.
As Red preps his line to put it back out, I ask him to tell me about the one that got away. “During an early morning trip I caught a 12 inch croaker and had planned on eating my breakfast so I hooked him under a popping cork and threw it out in front of me. Before I could take my first bite the whole kayak took off sideways. I popped my anchor loose and the fight was on … about an hour into the fight he bowed up out of the water and as soon as I saw his tail I knew I was about to break my personal best. Moments later the line broke. But I know one day we will meet again.” Personally, I believe that they will.
Captain Craig and I caught many more fish that morning, and as I thanked him at the end of our trip I asked him to give me one piece of advice for the novice kayak angler and his thoughts on the best kayak. “ I can’t stress the importance of safety equipment enough. Wear a life preserver every time, even in shallow water. Watch your surroundings; birds, baitfish and any movement in the water. This will help you target trophy fish. As far as the best kayak, well, it’s the one that you can afford. Whatever gets you on the water.”
Captain Craig Shelton owns and operates Big Red Kayak Fishing Adventures in Navarre, FL with his wife Patty. If you are in the area looking for one of the best inshore guides around, find him on Facebook or call (850) 461-4495.