Not long ago, kayaks floated far from the mainstream fishing scene. But today they're the fastest growing segment in angling vessels. Many manufacturers have become involved. Here's a look at the allure of kayak fishing and how to get started.
The exponential growth in kayak fishing is due in part to the use of rotomolded polyethylene to produce low-maintenance, impact-resistant craft at a reasonable price. These durable kayaks can be produced at a fraction of the cost of high-end sea kayaks made from fiberglass, Kevlar, or carbon-fiber. In addition, manufacturers have responded to the needs of anglers by making kayaks more comfortable and efficient fishing tools. Stock models include rod holders, tackle storage areas, and decks that allow customization by anglers.
For fishing, kayaks offer advantages over other boats. Consider their stealth in approaching fish; their extremely shallow draft to get through impossibly skinny water; and their light weight and small size, which allow them to be launched in areas far removed from boat ramps. In addition to those functional traits, kayaks offer anglers a sense of tranquility and connection with the environment that cannot be attained by rocketing across the water at 70 mph.
The Joys of Kayak Fishing
Michael Ernst is a diehard fishing transplant from Minnesota. He grew up guiding for muskies from a Ranger Z20 Comanche and now plies the rivers and reservoirs of Tennessee in his Jackson Big Tuna kayak for everything from muskies and stripers to crappies and trout. "In all my years of guiding from my Ranger," Ernst says, "I was never able to spot a big muskie, target it with a lure, and make it bite. They can see you or are affected by the vibration of the trolling motor, and your odds of connecting with a trophy fish are reduced. But I've often spotted muskies in clear Tennessee rivers, paddled close enough to make a good cast, and watched the fish eat the lure. The paddle strokes associated with a kayak seem like a natural splashing sound to fish that doesn't register as threatening. They continue their feeding routine, even though you're only a couple yards away."
In addition to the stealth factor, Ernst says the ability to get into skinny water and fish slower has made him a better fisherman. "Some waters in central Tennessee harbor double-digit brown trout and monster stripers, but you need to drag a boat across rock shoals to get to productive holes. These fish are wary to begin with. And in these confined settings you can kiss them goodbye if you run a jetboat over them or drag an aluminum jonboat across rocks.
"In addition, since your range is reduced, you learn to slow your approach. You spend more time at each lay-down tree, and fish structure from all angles and with multiple lures. I think you become a smarter and more thorough angler, not catching only fish that are willing to pounce on the first lure through their territory. Finally, your reward is heightened in a kayak. This year I landed a 44-pound striper from my Big Tuna. While it would have been exciting in a boat, the feeling was indescribable in the kayak. I still have a small aluminum boat that I use occasionally for longer distance outings but every time I use it, I find myself wishing I was in my kayak."
Several factors come into play when entering the realm of kayaks, beginning with your budget and storage. Kayaks retail from $300 to more than $3,000, but used ones can be had for considerably less. As with most purchases, if you're committed to the activity, it pays to spend a little more and get a better product. If your interests shift or you intend to use the kayak sparingly, one in the lower range may be more appropriate.
Storage and hauling are important with any boat purchase. If you're a college student in a one-bedroom apartment, a 17-foot tandem model isn't for you, but a 10-footer like the Jackson Cruise Angler 10 might work. Anglers with limited space may want to consider an inflatable model like the Hobie i9S, which can be stored and packed almost anywhere.
Equally important is the ability to load and haul your kayak. Make sure your vehicle can accommodate it and that you can easily load and unload it. Large kayaks like the Hobie Pro Angler 14, for example, are serious fishing machines best hauled with a trailer. But I can easily load my 12-foot Hobie Outback on top of my Tahoe. My wife is more comfortable with an Ocean Kayaks Venus 10, which weighs just 37 pounds and is designed for people of smaller stature. Wheeled hand carts like the Ascend Cart with its 10-inch inflatable wheels and the C-Tug Cart with puncture-proof solid wheels are great options for getting your 'yak to the water.
Other considerations include your style of fishing and type of water to be fished, and whether you want to fish from a seated or standing position. Recreational kayaks can be divided into two categories: sit-inside and sit-on-top. For anglers fishing frigid conditions, sit-inside models keep you drier and your lower body more protected from the elements. But for most anglers, a sit-on-top model is more appropriate as they're easier to get on and off; they're self-bailing with through-hull scupper holes; and are less confining, allowing the user to sit higher or stand for a better vantage while fishing.
The type of water you fish is important in choosing a hull design and length of kayak. Are you fishing moving water or still water? In faster currents, a 10- to 12-foot kayak with a flat bottom and an upward curvature (rocker) at the bow and stern is preferred. These attributes make it more nimble and allow you to quickly steer around boulders and downed logs, and through changing current seams. With a flat bottom and less of the hull on the water, the kayak can quickly pivot to change direction. A wider hull (about 31 to 35 inches) increases stability in fast turns. While such stability is beneficial in rivers, it reduces speed and increases weight.
At the other end of spectrum lie large still-water fisheries that demand covering water. Here, a long narrow kayak in the 14- to 17-foot range, with less rocker, is best. Extra length and V-shaped hull or sharp keel line allow the kayak to track (hold straight line) better in wind and waves. This keeps it from spinning like a top on big water and makes it more efficient for paddling long distances. These kayaks are narrower as well, in the 26- to 30-inch range, for less resistance and greater speed. Kayaks in this category include the Ocean Kayaks Trident 15 Angler, with an optional rudder system for maneuverability, and the Wilderness Systems Tarpon 140 Angler.
For most lakes, ponds, small impoundments, and rivers with moderate to slow current, a kayak with intermediate characteristics often performs best and is most versatile. Such models range from 10 to 14 feet long, with widths from 28 to 36 inches to match an angler's size, fishing style, and personal preference. If you like to stand and cast, a wider kayak is more stable. You also need to decide if you want to paddle, pedal, or use power as your mode of propulsion.
Anglers looking for a hands-free option favor Hobie's Mirage series that range from the light and nimble 9-foot 7-inch Mirage Sport that weighs less than 55 pounds and is ideal for small rivers, lakes, and ponds, up to the 17-foot Pro Angler Tandem (designed for two anglers) or the Pro Angler 14. The Mirage series uses a removable drive system that consists of a pair of underwater fins linked to pedals.
Native Watercraft kayaks offer another option, a bicycle pedal drive system that turns a propeller. Pedaling with your legs from a reclining position, the mechanism resembles a recumbent bike and is designed to use powerful leg muscles. Steering with both systems is done with a hand-control lever that directs a rudder at the stern.
If you prefer an exercise-free experience or need to extend your range beyond your paddling or pedaling capability, several electric motor options are available. The first is the Hobie eVolve, a removable compact electric motor that slips into any Hobie Mirage kayak and is powered by a lightweight lithium-manganese battery with running time of more than 8 hours. Other options include Ocean Kayak's Torque, which has an integrated motor, wiring, and battery compartment built into the kayak; and Old Town's Predator XL, which includes a 45-pound-thrust saltwater-grade Minn Kota motor and foot operated rudder system. No rigging or special customization is required with either of these systems.
For those looking to add power to an existing kayak, the Bassyak is a 12-volt Minn Kota motor adaptable to most hulls. It can be customized with a remote control and lift kit for ease of operation. Another after-market option is the line of energy-efficient Torqeedo lithium-powered motor that can be installed on most kayaks without the weight of traditional marine batteries.
After you've selected a kayak, it's time to outfit it. Avid kayak angler and tournament winner Rob Wendel offers ideas on rigging. "A comfortable personal flotation device (PFD), a pair of rod holders, a crate for storage, an anchor pulley system, and a simple sonar get you started," he says. One of the more innovative new sonar systems is Vexilar's Sonar Phone T-Box, which provides WiFi sonar transmission to your smartphone. This eliminates the need to mount a unit. A compatible smart phone is your display.
RAM makes a flexible transducer-arm mount for kayaks, which is compatible with the Smart Phone T-Box. Other sonar options include the Humminbird 385ci (sonar/GPS combo that comes with a kayak mounting kit and battery dry bag) and the Lowrance HDS-5 GEN2 (sonar/GPS combo with transducer kayak scupper-mount kit and skimmer transducer).
"I also recommend a paddle leash, a whistle for safety, a dry bag, and a waterproof box like Plano's Guide Series or Pelican's Micro Case for your wallet and phone," Wendel says. "No matter where you fish, keep gear simple and within reach." Kayakers live by the motto of leash it or lose it. Simply put, anything that doesn't have a leash attached is susceptible to being knocked overboard and lost if your kayak flips.
While most fishing kayaks have ample latched storage compartments at the bow or stern, they can be difficult to access on the water. For this reason, anglers often secure a milk crate behind their seat to keep essentials within reach. For those looking for an upgrade, Jackson Kayaks has designed the Jkrate Elite. It has two built-in Ram Tough Balls and Rocket Rod Holders for adjustable rod storage, a removable lid with two YakAttack tracks for adding accessories, and a waterproof interior that accommodates several Plano Stowaway 3700 boxes.
For more advanced rigging, Scotty and YakAttack make gear tracks that make it easy to remove or reposition rod holders and other accessories like a GoPro camera. Many new accessories are designed to mount on Scotty bases or Gear Head Track Adapters so anglers can modify 'yaks to fit their changing needs without drilling holes in the hull.
Wendel says that a comfortable seat is essential for long days on the water. "Hobie recently mounted Vantage CT seats in all their kayaks," he says." They feature an adjustable height setting — a low position for easier pedaling and a high position to give anglers a better vantage point." Other seat options include the Skwoosh Big Catch High Back with lumbar support and the Danuu Pacific Angler Fishing Kayak Seat, which has pockets and storage built into the back.
He spends a lot time trolling offshore for salmon on Lake Michigan in his Hobie Pro Angler 14, and suggests anglers who fish big water add the following items: a VHS radio to communicate with the Coast Guard and other boaters; flares to signal for help; navigational and running lights when operating in low-light conditions; and a safety flag to make your vessel more visible to other boats from a distance and in choppy conditions. Consider a YakAttack Visicarbon Pro Safety Light and Flag combo to keep you visible on any body of water.
No matter your budget, body size, or targeted waters, there's a modern fishing kayak to suit your needs. To test various models, I recommend taking part in "demo day" offered by dealers. It's a great way to try out a kayak and learn how these innovative vessels open up a whole new realm of fishing opportunities.