March 21, 2022
Some rides are too fun to pass up. Years ago, the Jamaicans grabbed headlines with their Olympic bobsled team. It was a feel-good, fish-out-of-water story. What was not to love about a bunch of guys taking an unorthodox route for the ride of their lives.
Justin Johnston of East Tennessee won't be competing in the Olympic Games in South Korea this winter, but he does enjoy the thrill of a modified Tennessee toboggan run whenever possible. His kayak is his sled, the Tennessee River is his course, and an angry blue or flathead powers his rides.
Johnston got his first taste of kayak fishing about 10 years ago while on vacation and thought about how to rig one to tangle with catfish on Fort Loudon and Watts Bar impoundments of the Tennessee River. For Johnston, there's no better rush than hooking into a monster fish in a kayak. "When a big catfish slams your bait, you feel it throughout the whole kayak," he says. "As your rod doubles over, it starts to take the side of the kayak with it. That uneasy feeling you get until the secondary stability of your kayak kicks in is excitement like no other. Then you're fighting the fish while it's pulling you and the kayak wherever it wants to go. Kayak fishermen call it a sleigh ride, and it's better than any amusement park ride out there."
Like many anglers new to kayaks, Johnston went through trial and error in selecting, rigging, and fishing from a kayak. Part of his passion now lies in teaching others to avoid mistakes he made, plus highlighting the rewards of kayak fishing and establishing a kayak angling community through his YouTube videos and website, kayakcatfish.com.
According to Johnston, there are three common mistakes people make when purchasing a kayak. The first is buying a $300 kayak from a big box store because it's on sale. Kayaks are like most other things in life—you get what you pay for. Cheap kayaks are typically less durable, less stable, and less comfortable than quality brands.
The second mistake is not trying a kayak before you buy. Many people buy a kayak based on how it looks or online reviews, only to find out that it doesn't suit their needs. Brian Swingle operates Five Mountain Outfitters, a kayak shop on the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania, where anglers target channel catfish and flatheads. Swingle says that everybody's body type and personal preferences are different. "We carry full lines of Old Town and Ocean Kayaks," he says. "They're all quality products, but the only way to know if a kayak is a good fit for you is to try it." Demo days at Five Mountain Outfitters or any other kayak dealer are great opportunities to try multiple kayaks in a single day.
The third mistake is equating a kayak to a poor man's boat. Often anglers settle for a kayak because they can't afford the larger boat they want. Boats and kayaks are different fishing platforms. If a larger or different boat is what you want, you most likely won't be happy in a kayak.
Consider the following important factors in selecting an appropriate model. Johnston says there are five major considerations when buying a kayak for catfishing.
1) Comfort: "Catfish anglers spend long hours on the water," he says. "Select a kayak that is sized for your body and that has a comfortable seat. If you aren't comfortable, you won't use it."
2) Stability: "A stable kayak for catfishing is important and maybe more so than for a lot of other types of fishing. With catfish, we're often tangling with fish over 30 pounds. A stable kayak is necessary to safely land them without fear of tipping. Also, having one stable enough to stand in is a bonus for several reasons, including the ability to throw a cast net and 'when nature calls.'"
3) Speed and Propulsion: "Speed is the most underrated consideration," he says. "A faster kayak expands your range, decreases fatigue, and allows you to be more efficient. Speed is also a safety factor to get off the water before bad weather arrives, or when current increases and you need to get off the water in a hurry. As a general rule, the longer and narrower the kayak, the faster it is. The shorter and wider, the slower it is."
Adding to this from my experience, there are three primary options: paddle, pedal, or power. Having a fair amount of experience with all three, pedaling is more efficient than paddling most often, and in big-water settings, a battery-powered motor is a game changer. My original pedal kayak didn't have reverse. This meant constantly using the paddle to move in reverse, eliminating hands-free operation. It also had a range of motion like climbing stairs—not the greatest on aging knees.
Pedal kayaks that are on par with pedaling a bike (like the Old Town PDL or Hobie Mirage Drive 180°, which you can pedal in reverse) are well suited for anglers. Otherwise, the optional drop-in 45-pound-thrust Minn Kota trolling motor for my Old Town Predator XL expands my fishing range. It allows me to fish more spots throughout the day, precisely control my drift speed, and gets me off the water quickly when needed.
4) Storage: Kayaks have less storage than a boat, so kayak anglers pack judiciously. Larger models have more storage, including latched bow storage with a click seal cover. If your kayak has limited or unreliable dry storage, dry bags or a waterproof case like those made by Pelican can be invaluable for protecting items such as phones, wallets, and cameras.
5) Weight: Fishing kayaks range in weight from about 65 to 130 pounds before adding accessories and gear. Consider how you plan to transport your kayak. A kayak over 100 pounds may be a great fishing platform, but it can be back-breaking to lift onto a car-top rack or drag a long distance to the water. Fortunately, kayak carts ease the burden of transporting kayaks from vehicle to water. Lift-assist devices also can help with car-topping, and trailers are another option.
Customizing kayaks to your fishing style takes planning and time on the water. Learning from other peoples' experience is invaluable. "When I first got into kayak catfishing, I applied what I was doing in the boat to the kayak," Johnston says. "I primarily anchored the boat so that's what I did in the kayak. Fortunately, the section of the Tennessee River where I live generally has slow current, so I can safely anchor here, but I don't recommend anchoring in fast-flowing rivers. Anchoring a kayak in fast current is dangerous and shouldn't be attempted. Things can go bad quickly and no fish is worth risking your life. My techniques have continued to evolve since those early days. Today I drift and fish for suspended fish 80 percent of the time. It's not only safer, it's more efficient and effective for kayak catfishing."
Johnston suggests catfish kayakers consider the following rigging options:
Rod Holders: Several rod holders are made specifically for kayaks such as Scotty and Ram brands. "How many rod holders you add to your kayak and where you place them is up to you," Johnston says. "I have four rod holders mounted on my kayak and I adjust their positions based on the type of fishing I'm doing. Also make sure the butt ends of your rods fit into the holders and can be easily removed." Kayaks like the Old Town Predator XL have pre-installed mounting plates on the hull to install Yak Attack GearTracs, which allow convenient mounting and removal of rod holders and other accessories anywhere along the gunnel.
Anchor Trolley: An anchor trolley is a pulley system that runs along the side of the kayak from front to back. It allows you to easily attach things such as an anchor or driftsock, and adjust their position along the length of the kayak depending on how you want to be positioned in wind or current. If you plan on anchoring, install an anchor trolley on each side of the kayak. Doing so allows you to attach an anchor to one side while deploying a driftsock off the other. Driftsocks can be used to slow your drift speed in wind, and deployment off the front of the kayak while anchored minimizes back-and-forth swing that sometimes occurs when fishing in wind.
Anchor: Kayak anchors generally range in weight from 1 to 4 pounds. The most popular types are folding grapnel, claw, and slip-ring styles. If you use a grapnel or claw-style anchor, it's helpful to tie your line to the bottom of the anchor and then secure the rope to the top with a small plastic zip tie. If it gets hung, the zip tie breaks under pressure. You can then pull on the opposite end of the anchor to dislodge it. Check online videos for demonstrations.
When kayak fishing in shallow water, an alternative to a traditional anchor is a stake-out pole—a long pole that you can drive into soft bottoms. You can run the pole through your anchor trolley or a scupper hole to hold your position. If you're fishing an area with a lot of stickups or overhanging trees, a brush hook or similar type clamp can hold your position. Because you may have to detach from your anchor for safety purposes or while fighting a fish, it's a good idea to have a float attached to your anchor rope so you can easily return to it.
Fish Finder: Companies like RAM, Scotty, and Yak Attack have a variety of mounts to install and remove fishfinders. Many kayaks today have a dedicated scupper hole for mounting a transducer. This allows you to launch and beach your kayak without damaging it. Most kayak fishermen power their sonars with small 7- to 9-amp-hour batteries. Johnston uses a small, waterproof lithium battery from Nocqua Adventure Gear designed for powering them.
Storage Crate: Storage in a kayak is limited. There are several types of aftermarket crates available including the Jackson JKrate, but most anglers get started with a standard plastic milk crate. They fit nicely in the rear tank well of most kayaks for access to essential gear such as your cutting board, bait knife, pliers, fish grippers, tackle, and more. Attach sections of PVC to the crate to hold rods while not in use.
Lights: If you plan on fishing after dark, check regulations regarding nav-light requirements for kayaks. Many lights on the market meet regulations. I use the Yak Attack Visi-Carbon Pro. It's an LED light powered by AA batteries on a pole that easily breaks down for storage when not in use. Reflective tape added the hull also can make you more visible at night.
Bait tank: There are a few onboard livewell options for kayaks, and most are large, heavy, and expensive. A YouTube search reveals several do-it-yourself plans if you intend to keep live shad. An option for hardier baits is a flow-through bait container like a Frabill Flow Troll Bucket. They create drag but perform much better than stringers for baits like bluegills. To keep cutbait fresh, the best option I've found is the soft-side Yeti 12-Pack Hopper. If you vacuum-seal baits in individual bags and your lunch and drinks in another, it's a good option for even the hottest of days.
Floats and Leashes: It's a good idea to attach a float or leash to anything that doesn't float or that you aren't willing to lose overboard. Kayak cockpits are small and items can easily get knocked overboard. Experienced kayakers often say "leash it or lose it."
Nets: Nets are great tools but are cumbersome in a kayak. Consider a foldable net like the Frabill Power Stow, StowMaster Kayak Net, or a fish-gripping device like a Team Catfish Floating Grip, a Boga Grip, or even a rubberized glove for landing fish.
Safety: "Your top priority when kayak fishing should be safety," Johnston says, "especially on moving water. Again, never anchor in fast current. Even in slow current, if you don't feel comfortable anchoring, don't do it. If you do anchor, use a quick-release system so you can quickly detach from your anchor if necessary. This can be accomplished by using a caribiner clip if you're using an anchor trolley, or a zig-zag cleat if you're tying off directly to your kayak.
"Always wear a PFD. It's best to fish with a partner but if you go solo, tell a friend or loved one where you'll be and when you plan to return. You should also wear brightly-colored and reflective clothing to make yourself more visible to boaters."
Kayaks can be one of the most enjoyable and efficient ways to catch catfish. Their transportability and mobility to launch and navigate in areas not accessible to traditional fishing boats gives you an edge. Plus, there's an added level of simplicity and tranquility, and excitement when you're just inches from the water and battling catfish big enough to take you on a Tennessee sleigh ride.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Steve Ryan is an accomplished multispecies angler and contributor to all In-Fisherman publications.