Choosing a Fishing Kayak E-mail
Wednesday, 23 September 2009 20:57

Like many kayak fisherman, my first fishig kayak was a mistake and I only used it a few times.  There wasn’t a lot of information available.  Things have changed.  Kayak fishing is a major force in the kayaking world and there are lots of models to choose from.  There are dozens of websites with interactive forums to ask questions and read about models.  Since my first kayak I’ve personally fished from 50 different models in a variety of environments ranging from the flats of the Caribbean to the hike in ponds and rivers to vast expanses of Alaska’s Prince William Sound to name a few.  I’ve learned a lot along the way and I’d like to share some observations with you.

The first thing you’re going to need to become a kayak fisherman is a kayak.  There are a lot of choices out there and it can get confusing.  One thing that’s nice is kayak fishing is now a large part of the kayaking world and because of this there’s a lot more information available.  Even so don’t just walk into a kayak shop and expect to get what you need for your purpose.  While fishing is the second largest recreational outdoor pursuit in the world there are still many more people who don’t fish than those who do.  Also even if you go to a business that specializes in kayak fishing you’re still the person who is going to be using the kayak.  So you’re the one who is responsible for what you’re going to end up with.

If this is your first kayak keep in mind there’s a wide array of models and uses.  Kayaks vary from long ocean going expedition or touring models to short little white water and surf kayaks.  They all have their purpose.  Most models are not going to work well as a kayak fishing vessel.  I highly recommend not being an experiment.  By this I mean buy a model that has a fishing pedigree.  It’s a model that’s currently being used by a lot of fishermen.  The reason being it works.  There are easily hundreds of models available but the sport is dominated by a couple dozen models.  By restricting your decision to one of these models you’ll simplify greatly your decision.  Then it becomes a matter of choosing the attributes that best suit your needs.

Before I discuss attributes lets quickly cover kayak types.  There are essentially two designs.  Sit in Kayaks (SIK) or Sit on Tops (SOT).  The names are self explanatory.  A SIK is the traditional type of kayak that one thinks of when they envision a kayak.  You sit inside the kayak.  It is a lot like a canoe.  Any water that comes over the side must be physically removed.  To prevent water from entering the kayak an accessory is available called a skirt.  It is basically a lid in the form of a membrane that goes over the opening of the kayak that has a hole for your torso.  It is a required accessory for white water kayaking.  SOTs are big hollow tubes that you sit on rather than in.  Any water that ends up on the kayak drains through holes that run from the top to below the water line.  These holes are called scuppers and they eliminate the need to remove the water as the properties of the designs does this.  While SIKs dominate the kayaking world, SOTs dominate the fishing world.  I’ll let you determine which type is best suited for your purpose.

YOU - The first criterion to consider is you since you’re the one who’s going to be using it.

Personal Criteria - Important considerations are your height, weight and inseam measurement.  Other than your weight the rest are constants (unless you’re a child).  I’m 5’9” and weight 200 pounds.  I can use almost any kayak, however if you’re 6’5” and weigh 350 pounds there are going to be only a few models that’ll accommodate you.  Also you could be really tall and while the weight capacity of the kayak won’t be important the amount of legroom will.  Same with weight, you might be 5’9” but weigh over 300.  Not only would the weight capacity come into play but also the width of the seat area.   You might not fit.  Besides how you’re built, your physical age and conditioning matter too.  That’s because you’re the motor that propels the kayak.  More on this later.

Transporting – You need to consider how you’re going to get the kayak from where you’re going to store it to the water.  The only time this won’t matter is when you live on a body of water and that’s the only place you plan on using the kayak.  Otherwise it has to factor into your choice.

Storage – Where the kayak is kept might be an issue.  If you only have space to store a 12’ kayak than buying one that’s longer doesn’t make any sense.

Fishing Use – Finally we’re considering fishing.  How are you going to use it?  What environments will it be used in?  What methods do you favor?  If you fly fish having a clean cockpit so the line doesn’t tangle or the ability to stand and sight fish may matter.


Stability - This is the first thing I’m always asked by fishermen looking at getting into the sport of kayak fishing.  They want to know if the kayaks are stable.  The most popular models used for fishing are but everything is relative.  If you go to a kayak fishing event you’ll see a wide array of people fishing from kayaks.  The first thing you’ll notice is most of them don’t remind you of elite athletes. There aren’t any specialized physical skills needed to fish from a kayak.

Basically the wider the fishing kayak the more stable it is going to be given all other things is equal.  However the design of the hull does factor in.  There are two types of stability when we discuss the subject.  They are initial and secondary stability.  Initial is how much the kayak wobbles on the water.  It’s important but not nearly as much as secondary stability.  Secondary is how far a kayak can tip or lean until it dumps you in the water.  Some kayaks have tremendous secondary and it takes a lot to dump one while others have a very abrupt point where either you’re in the kayak or in the water asking what happened.  Both are important but the secondary is more so.

Fishing KayaksHulls of 2 fishing kayaks - which do you think will be faster?

The most stable kayaks allow you to stand.  In some environments this is important.  After stability the second most asked question I’ve heard is can I stand in it.  This is especially important to fishermen who fish shallow flats and sight fish.  Fly fishermen want to stand.  I’ll discuss this further later.

Speed and stability are adversaries in kayak design.  That’s because the wider the fishing kayak the more surface area there is and this creates friction.  Friction is what slows things down.  I’d be rich if I had a dollar for every time I read or heard ‘I don’t care how slow the kayak is as long as it’s stable’.  Many of these people who purchased a super stable wide kayak, that I affectionately call barges, sold them soon after to get a narrower, faster kayak.  The narrower and longer the kayak the faster it is going to be.  So it’s important to find a balance between the two.   This is probably the most common mistake first time kayak buyers make when getting a fishing kayak.  They err much too far to the side of stability.  They forget a very important factor.  If we compare kayaks to cars the less efficient the vehicle the more you’ll spend on gas.  I get about 18 mpg in my truck on the highway and my brother’s car gets 30.  If we both drive to town or another state it’s not going to be much different in either vehicle.  However in a kayak you’re the engine.  Your physical ability and conditioning are the primary attribute that’ll determine how much, how far and where you can use the kayak.  Whereas my less efficient truck uses almost twice the gas as my brother’s car to go somewhere we both get there at the same time.  That isn’t the case with kayaks.  A less efficient hull could take twice as long to get somewhere and might never arrive.  That’s because a less efficient kayak might require more energy to go somewhere than you can expend.  That will limit where you end up using the kayak.  That’s what happens to most people who purchase a barge and go fishing with more experienced kayak fishermen using more efficient hulls.  They find they have to work much harder to keep up or can’t.  When propelling the kayak against a strong wind it is often too much to overcome in a barge.
The fastest kayaks are slim touring hulls that are also very long.  They’re great for covering a lot of water but not very fishing friendly.  They’re best suited to be used as transport where you would then fish from shore or wade.  A super wide barge is great in protected areas or for short runs but is simply too much kayak for some forays.  Most of us who fish from kayaks compromise somewhere in the middle and our choice is determined once we assess all our needs.

Length is obvious.  We generally categorize kayaks into three groups; short, medium and long.  Short fishing kayaks are those under 11’.  Medium 11 to 13’ and long are 14’ and above.  The longer the kayak is the faster it is but also the more sea worthy.  A long kayak cuts through chop and waves whereas a short one gets tossed about and tends to ride over the rough water.  If you’re always fishing small protected waters, rivers and such then a short kayak makes a lot of sense.  If the majority of your time is spend in large bays, lakes or the oceans then you’re going to be best served with a long kayak.  If you fish a variety of places then compromise in the middle.  Length also affects our next attribute.

Maneuverability is how the fishing kayak handles.  If you fish in close quarters like a small river or tight areas it’s important.  In open water situations it isn’t.  A shorter kayak is going to maneuver better than a long one but there’s another factor.  That’s the amount of camber the kayak has in the design.  Camber is the curve from bow to stern (front to back) of the kayak.  The more there is the easier the kayak will maneuver and handle.  However the less the faster the kayak will be too depending on the water conditions.  A kayak with less camber will handle better in smooth conditions and the rougher it gets the more camber will help with reason.  Too much camber in too short a kayak takes away a lot of speed.  Generally increased camber also makes the kayak perform better in rougher water and is something else to consider.

There’s another aspect to maneuverability.  That’s the ease at which the kayak can be moved about on land.  Some kayaks have handles in great balance points and therefore they’re easily to load and unload, etc. while others are always awkward and difficult.

Weight is a very important factor.  If the kayak is too heavy for you to move about on your own then you’re not going to use it.  In most instances you’re going to need to load the kayak onto the roof of your vehicle unless you transport in a pickup truck bed or use a trailer.  There are times you’re going to need to man handle the kayak on the water too.  You might need to move it through shallow sections of a river, etc. by dragging it around obstacles or over rocks.  If the kayaks too heavy you might not be able to.

Weight Capacity is another consideration.  If you’re a big person or bring a lot of gear along you need to have a kayak that’ll handle this.  All manufacturers have stated capacities.  Some of these are accurate while some aren’t.  I recall a model that had a capacity of 375 pounds but I at 200 with some gear would cause the cockpit to flood water over the center hatch rendering it useless.  If your weight is near the maximum of the kayak you’re considering than you shouldn’t get that model.

Color – is an often asked question.  I have not found that it matters to the fish so the only consideration should be visibility to others.  Obviously if you wish to be seen a bright color is best.  I’ve found, in my unscientific way, basically through observation on the water, that the most visible colors are orange, mango, lime and yellow.  Colors like white and red while considered bright aren’t.  White looks like a wave curling and red disappears too easily at distance of lower light.  Drab colors are hard to see.  So it depends on where you’re fishing and your goals.  I favor dull kayaks because I can make a dull kayak much more visible by putting an orange flag on it and wearing bright colors.  The flag is much more noticeable then the bright kayak hull.  Also I can’t make an orange kayak dull.  Why would you want a dull kayak?  I often fish places where I don’t wish to be seen.  There can be any number of reasons but I’ll give one.  I might be in a shallow bay adjacent to a larger body of water and I’m catching fish.  There can be boats buzzing in the larger body of water and I don’t want them to notice me and see me catching fish.  If they came into the shallow bay they might put the fish down and ruin my fishing.  There are more examples, but when I want to be seen I just put my flat up.

Accessory Friendly – some fishing kayaks accept accessories more readily than others.  They have nice surfaces for mounting things like rod holders, fish finders and such.  Some fishermen are content with taking one rod and a box of lures but far more turn their kayaks into fishing machines that incorporate a wide array of accessories.  You’re going to want a kayak that can easily accept these additions.

Fishing Logistics - we are all individuals and conversely we all use kayaks differently for fishing.  Sometimes it’s a regional thing.  For example the way southern Californians rig and use their kayaks is very different than someone fishing the inshore waters of Texas of Florida.  Bait tanks are commonly used in southern California but not nearly as much other places.  Here in the northeast I rarely take a bait tank and when I do so it is in freshwater.   The bait is shiners and my elaborate plumbed system isn’t necessary.

If you’re going to be fishing shallow areas where sight fishing is advantageous then a model that accommodates standing is a major feature to consider.  Some kayak models allow you to effectively fish shallow flats better than any other means.  The best places to fish are always those where nobody else can effectively do so and I’ve had some spectacular fishing in such places in a kayak that affords easy standing and the ability to maximize my experience there.

Seating and Comfort – you’ve got to be able to sit comfortably in the kayak since you’re going to be spending a lot of time in the kayak.  In environments like a large lake, bay or ocean you’re not going to have the ability to get out regularly and stretch either.  Most kayaks allow you to choose any seat you wish.  I recommend getting the best you can afford but money isn’t the only determining factor.  We’re all different and it has to work for your anatomy.  Some kayaks come with integrated seat systems.  This is common with SIKs and less so with SOTs.  If it’s a fixed system make sure it’s comfortable and works for you.  Even SOTs that have seat systems can accommodate an aftermarket seat with a little work.  Usually it’s as simple as connecting them or adding a couple deck loops.

Besides the construction of the seat there are other factors that come into play; the ergonomics of the kayak.  For me I find if a kayak doesn’t have a nice slope to support my legs at a nice angle my sciatica goes nuts and I can’t sit in the kayak very long.  It doesn’t matter what I do.  I can’t use the kayak after a half hour or so.  Nothing else is going to matter if you can’t get comfortable in the kayak.

Wetness is sometimes a big issue to some folks with the most common complaint being water in the seat area.  Some models have drainage in the seat while others don’t.  When I’m wearing dry wear it really doesn’t matter but in transitional times when it’s too warm for dry wear but isn’t warm enough for shorts and a t-shirt I don’t want to be sitting in a puddle.

Storage – fishing is a gear intensive sport for some.  Most serious kayak fishermen take a serious amount of gear with them.  The kayak needs to handle this gear.  There are basically two types of storage in a fishing kayak.  I call them initial and secondary.  Initial is anything that can be easily reached while in the cockpit without help.  That means if you need to get out of the kayak or a buddy needs to access it while on the water, then it isn’t initial storage.  All other storage is secondary.  Most popular SOTs used for fishing have an area behind the seat called a tank well.  This space was originally designed for transporting dive tanks on the kayak as a SOT makes a great dive kayak.  The tank well is a great place to store items too.  Many kayak anglers use milk crates in the well and then put their gear in the crate.  There’s a variety of things you can use besides crates but you have to have the space.  Many designs utilize hatches.  A hatch in the cockpit of the kayak is easy to use and gives you access to the interior of the kayak.  Hatches vary from anemic little 4” diameter circles to cavernous rectangles that can handle a small child.  I love a center hatch and like at least an 8” round.  There are also pouches and such that can be added to the seat backs and straps to store commonly used items.  Some seats have add-on pouches and such.

Most kayaks have a hatch in the bow.  Most aren’t accessible while on the water but some are.  I love a front hatch I can access while on the water by myself easily.  I use easily because I could get into the front hatch of a Tarpon 16 while on the water but it was precarious and conditions had to be very calm.  Conversely getting into the front hatch of a Hobie Revolution is easy.  While on the subject of front hatches, sometimes bigger is better.  If you live in a place where people don’t respect personal property this can be important.  I spend a lot of time in the NY metro area.  When I launch off the beach I’m often far from my vehicle.  To launch a kayak in the surf I need to transport it across soft sand.  The tires needed on a cart to roll across the sand are quite large.  Often the beach is quite wide.  I don’t want to leave my kayak unattended with a lot of valuable gear on it.  There’s a possibility some of it won’t be there when I return from taking my cart back to the truck.  It is best to store the cart inside the kayak.  The hatch has to be large enough to allow wheels to pass through.  Besides wheels you may want to store rods in the front hatch.  It’s the best way to protect them in surf launches.

If you’re an angler who likes to bring fish home with you then you need to keep them somewhere.  A tank well is the best place but that depends on the size of the fish and how many.  Again it’s best to consider this before buying the kayak rather than after.

Pedal Driven Fishing Kayaks (PDR) - fishing is a hand on sport and paddling a kayak is too. So there’s a conflict of physical requirements of your hands.  PDRs solve the conflict by using your legs to propel the kayak.  This works extremely well in current or wind and utilizes the largest muscles in the body, so they increase range too.  About the only environment they don’t work is shallow water.   When the depth starts nearing a foot they’re out of commission but you can still paddle them.

Electric Fishing Kayaks (EKs) – while anglers have been attaching electric motors to kayaks for years it hasn’t been until very recently that they’ve become an important option.  In the past you either had to attach a boat trolling motor via a mount or be an engineer.  That’s all changed now as Hobie, Legacy and Ocean Kayak each offer EKs and there are two add on systems available from Bassyaks and Torqueedo.  You might think why not just get a boat, but an EK is still a kayak with more versatility.  Anywhere you can fish a regular kayak you can take an EK.  The motor gives you increased range and the ability to fish in wind and currents.  I can tell you from experience I’m already doing things with my EK that have expanded my fishing and have resulted in more fish caught.

Tandem Kayak FishingTandem Kayak Fishing

Tandem and Multiple Seat Kayaks – have their place too.  A tandem refers to two seats whereby the two people propel the kayak and multiples more or alternative seating might have a jump seat or more than seating for two.  The ability to take another adult or a child or two along is nice especially for families but it’s not restricted to a compromise.  Sometimes a tandem is preferable.  Two adults can use a tandem kayak like a flats boat.  The person in the bow can stand and sight fish while the person in the back propels the kayak.  I like tandems that have a dedicated center seat option so when used alone they act and feel like a single seat kayak. 
Multiple seat kayaks can be used alone, as the case with a rear facing jump seat for bring a child along.  They’re limited by the age of the child and your height because their feet and yours will occupy the same space.  A triple would make a great two person kayak.  Having a person sit in the bow and the other in the stern would add a nice amount of space between two people fishing simultaneously.  A child in the middle of a triple works well with two adults.  A quad is a big kayak but you gain lots of room too.

Demos – there’s a lot of discussion about demoing or trying out kayaks online.  Some people will tell you to try as many as you can.  I’m not of this genre.  If this is your first kayak you don’t have a point of reference.  In my experience most beginners at a demo end up purchasing the most stable kayak and end up selling that kayak within a month.  That’s a more expensive way to get into the sport.  If you learned how to ride a bicycle as a child you probably had training wheels to start.  You didn’t use them very long.  The learning curve was fast and it’s even faster with a kayak.  Also when demoing models where’s your point of reference?  You don’t know what to look for yet.  It’s like test driving a car before you learned how to drive.

Used Fishing Kayaks – are a great way to join the sport.  If you shop wisely you’re going to be spending about half of what a new fishing kayak would cost you.  It’s a great way to learn the sport and determine what you want from it.  The great thing is if the kayak model you buy isn’t the kayak you see yourself with long term you can basically sell it for what you paid.

Sit-Inside Fishing KayakSit-Inside Fishing Kayak

SOT and SIK Fishing Kayaks – I haven’t really discussed the attributes of these two designs.  I’m a big fan of SOTs.  They’re a lot more versatile.  Often people who buy SIKS do so because they say they want to be protected from the elements.  The problem is though should you have a problem you will have a much bigger issue than with a SOT.  Recreational kayaking for most participants is a fair weather sport.  The majority of the kayakers do so in nice warm weather.  Fishing encompasses a much wider range of climactic conditions because the fishing is often excellent when the weather is cool.  When fishing in such circumstances you need to dress for the water temps and the false security of a SIK could spell disaster if you aren’t properly attired.  In a SOT you will be more in tune and in contact with the water and because of this better dressed and prepared.  Also SOTs because of their construction allow you to launch through the surf and fish the ocean.  They’re easier to get in and out of since you’re getting off and on.  They’re much easier to get back on should you have an issue in deep water.  They are my preferred kayak choice but in some situations a SIK is the better choice.  Anglers running fast flowing rivers prefer larger white water kayaks for example and in protected mangrove backcountry I like a hybrid SIK.

Conclusion - I’ve tried to outline some things to consider when choosing a fishing kayak.  It is much better to consider these things before purchasing rather than once you already have the fishing kayak.  This isn’t an exact science.  As I stated earlier go with a kayak that has a fishing pedigree for your first kayak.  Don’t be an experiment.  Don’t fall in love or get a kayak that nobody is using to fish from.  The reason is probably it’s either to new a design or it hasn’t worked well.  In either case you’re not in a position to evaluate it and make a good choice.  If you take advice qualify where it is coming from.  If the person offering the advice doesn’t fish then why listen.  Kayak fishing is not a kayaking sport.  The kayak is a piece of equipment just like a rod or reel.  If the person offering the advice is a kayaker and doesn’t fish I wouldn’t bother.  I would only listen to a person who fishes and preferably does so from a kayak.

Good luck and see you on the water.


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