Kayak Fishing

Kayak Fishing

No water is too remote, too rugged or too wild for a kayak

  • By: Rob Lyon
There is nothing like the silent glide of a small boat across the surface of still water or, for that matter, the porpoise-like bound through bouncy chop and rolling swell. In either case, our shoulders and arms link to twin blades that propel us across a liquid landscape… Believe me, if you haven't paddled a kayak yet, you're missing something. An experience unlike the beamy stroke-and-glide of the drift boat, and light-years from the brassy roar of the outboard, it is similar in a way to the intimacy of the float tube, and certainly akin to the canoe-yet undeniably unique and different.Kayak fishing has always reminded me of a cowboy riding the range with his gun in a saddle scabbard. While we scout around for fish, our rod rides neatly at the hip. A crowd of raucous gulls on the horizon spells fish, as does an enticing cloud of emerging Blue-Wing Olives. We close quickly on the action and our rod comes smoothly to hand. This "loose in the saddle" feeling, more than any other single factor, is the greatest gift of the fishing kayak. Great for fishing and a joy to paddle, a fishing kayak provides a wonderful feeling of independence and adventure together with a liberating ability to access water once thought to be the exclusive realm of power boaters. While the Whaler crowd lines up at the boat launch many miles from the action, we kayakers button up and paddle out through the surf and are fishing within minutes of launch. And while a drift boat wends steadily down a 30-mile length of river, we hustle our boat down a rip-rap slope to float that crème section of canyon. These little boats ride easily on the car top and are manageable to carry around-this new ability to fish water that your otherwise didn't, or couldn't, is a pretty nifty thing. They are also the ideal craft for that dream-caliber fishing trip. The tour de force of kayak fishing is the salt-chuck version of an inland, wilderness canoe trek. For a fly-fishing kayaker, a week-long coastal fishing odyssey is a pilgrimage to the kayak's ancestral waters and is guaranteed to put the adventure back into fishing, as most saltwater venues teem with game fish. This is often a subsistence-style trip, with a fish or two grilled each night over a driftwood fire. In fact, no coastal waters are too rugged, too remote, or too wild for a savvy kayaker in a forgiving boat. But whatever your taste for fishing adventure, there is a boat for every type of fly-fishing water: consider the sweet 16-foot beauty that shined on my own 200 mile open ocean, salmon fishing odyssey recently-or if your taste runs a bit less edgy, have a look at a handsome little 17-pound darling that would do Rohan Innish proud. The Fishing Kayak What exactly is a "fishing kayak," and what makes it different from a regular kayak, not to mention a canoe or kick boat? From the popular lineage of roto-molded recreation kayaks, the fishing kayak was born. Key elements embodied in the design are simplicity, portability, maneuverability and a stable foundation upon which to wave one's arms about in the air. And don't forget the price. Most fishing kayaks are open-decked, polyethylene boats. The open kayak-or Sit-on-Top, is what I call the Macintosh of kayaks. Not only is the learning curve short and painless for one of these boats but, as with my favorite home computer, the refreshing ease of use does not limit the sophistication of our application. Imagine a hollowed out long board with hatches to get at your gear, and a comfortable molded seat to sit on. You can go just about anywhere on one, and should you get in trouble and capsize (which is highly improbable), no worries-simply flip the boat upright again and flop back aboard. Water will drain out through the scuppers, and within seconds you're good to go. The open style of kayak is not only a logical choice to convey fly fishermen to the action, but its stable double hull insulates the angler from cold water, raises him or her a bit and naturally lends itself to the design and installation of rod holders, console hatches and tackle wells. Another nifty thing about these little boats is the maintenance factor, or non-factor, I should say. Hose 'em off, let 'em dry and they're good to go next time you get the itch. Linear polyethylene is tough as rhino hide, but if cracked or punctured it can be repaired as easily by melting a drop of plastic in the divot. Sea anchors, or drift socks for saltwater drift fishing, are an option to help control drift, and a little mushroom or Danforth style anchor is applicable for fresh or shallow salt. Some fishing kayaks, like Hobie's Mirage, even have a cleat and track for the anchor. I generally don't bother with either but instead tie up to a bull kelp stipe in salt water or similar structure in fresh (keep a short hank of line near the cockpit for this). Use a paddle leash to attach your paddle to your boat, and if you ever go over in strong wind or current, hang on to the paddle (not the rod…what am I thinking, hang on to both) to keep the boat from drifting away. Kayak Fishing Your typical fishing kayak provides a seat in a molded depression in the top hull, where you ride about three to six inches from the water, insulated from the chilly depths. A longer fly rod-say, 10 feet or longer-can help keep your loops airborne and comes in handy when playing fish. A rod that will reach around the bow and stern of the boat is a plus. Unless you're in a long sea kayak though, this shouldn't be a problem. Rods you would use in a float tube will work well in a kayak. And if you have a shorter rod, or prefer a shorter rod, you can make it work. I had a seven-footer on a two-month expedition and relied on short casts and a specific fish-playing trick. The trick is to use the boat to your advantage. Because a kayak is long and narrow and you are sitting facing forward in a non-swivel seat, a fish will put you at a disadvantage if he calls the shots. Therefore, if you have a fish that is hefty enough to pull you along, angle the boat to provide the optimum pressure on the fish, kind of an "Old Man and the Sea" type of thing. If you have a rudder, you can adeptly follow along, veering off when he threatens to cross under the boat, and trying to keep him in the optimal quadrant of the boat-bow to directly abeam on right or left, depending on which arm you use to fight the fish. When he runs under the boat, follow him with your rod, meanwhile pivot the boat on its axis to come up with a direct pull to the fish. In situations like this I sometimes keep a paddle under my arm and scull the boat a few strokes to jockey into position when need be or, more subtly I will let the fish spin the boat for me by pressing my rod against the side of the boat. The main thing is to try and play the fish abeam-or directly off the long axis-of the boat, and as soon as you detect him veering toward bow or stern, begin that gentle correction. Most fishing kayaks have high initial stability, but you can tip one over if you try really hard. When playing a big fish, or trying to free up a snag, do your heavy lifting parallel with the long axis of the boat. Do not pull for all you're worth directly to the side; if the line were to break suddenly you might make a splash. IGFA criteria notwithstanding, trolling a single, unweighted fly can be a very productive technique. A couple of years ago on Vancouver Island's west side, I even took a 15-pound king on top trolling a single bucktail streamer. Although trolling is anathema to some fly fishermen, the hull speed of the kayak is an ideal trolling speed, and it is oftentimes just as easy to leave your fly in a productive search mode for fish as it is to clip it in the holder between casts. On an extremely stable kayak in calm water you can actually stand up to cast, although sitting on the console hatch with your legs dangling over the side is more realistic. Slipping on and off is a snap; the shallower the cockpit, the snappier the slip…perfect for flats fishing, stalking bonefish or reds, or working shallow lake shores for cruising trout where you get out, tether the boat to your waist and stalk fish. Fishing with a buddy works well in a double kayak. I had my nine-year-old grandson out the other day in one and we took turns fishing and jockeying the boat. And of course, the tactical advantage of keeping one guy at the sticks while the other guy hammers the water, is not small. What's the downside to fishing from a kayak? First off, we're sitting, albeit comfortably, and can't easily move around. Of course, casting from a kayak is little different than from a float tube or a canoe. In addition, rudders are the bane of a kayak angler. Catch your fly in the rudder and you've got a problem. Gear stowed in either a bow or stern hatch is difficult to access while on the water, but it can be done. Ric Hawthorne, designer at Malibu Kayaks, tells me how he slips his one-piece rod in the bow hatch when he punches out through the surf. Once past the breakers, he shimmies forward, extracts the rod and installs it in its holder, then scoots back amidship and casts sitting on the console hatch with his legs in the water. As a fishing craft, the kayak is a light packer, make no mistake. Not only must your needs be planned ahead, but this is an active, intentional style of boating, in the same way that fly-fishing embodies a conscious approach to fishing. The parallel between a wading angler and a kayaking fly fisherman repeatedly comes to mind. Mini-Boat Reviews A fishing kayak is a boat you can haul places, paddle on the high seas and chase fish for miles in any direction. Some boats in this category are faster than others, some more stable, some lighter and some more comfortable. As the cockpit of this boat is kind of like the original Sputnik, finding a good comfortable fit and layout is half the battle. Choose your boat by the kind of fishing you expect to do. A day-fisher will be typically run about 10- to 14 feet, with perhaps a single hatch and no rudder. A weekender will push the upper end of length and necessitate some storage capability, and a month-long cruiser will require nothing less than a full-blown sea kayak, 16-foot minimum, complete with rudder. Travel Kayaks: Pakboat Puffin Kayak 12: The Kayak 12 model is technically a "kayak" because it has a removable covered deck. If the Kayak12 is anything like its little brother, you're going to be impressed. While assembling the boat I did not once have to ask my wife for help; it's that easy. Aluminum and ABS plastic components snapped together with a satisfying clip and the finished product was taut as a stuffed tummy. On the pond, the boat tracked very nicely, accelerated instantly and maneuvered well, all of which, with the exception of tracking, was to be expected from a boat this size. Even hand paddling was a viable option. Absolute basics here, no amenities, just a surprisingly pleasing little boat that would perform nicely on lakes and ponds. Pricing of boats dropped dramatically this season while quality actually increased. Specs: 12 feet; 22 pounds; $795. www.pakboats.com. NRS MavreIK II: A nifty double, inflatable kayak. A clever seat arrangement allows it to be paddled single or double simply by spinning the boat around. Double keel design aids tracking and a couple of stainless D rings help secure a load. A good choice for rivers, streams and short saltwater venues. For calm-water fly-fishing applications, John Bales, their general manager, told me you can order new models with a solid, or slow drain floor (keeps your ass dry). NRS is a dedicated water sport company (35 years in business) and the guys are serious fly fishermen. Specs: 12' 5"; 45 pounds; $1205. 800-635-5202; www.nrsweb.com. Day/Weekend Boats: Malibu Pro Explorer: Some kayaks have surf board in their genes and the Pro Explorer is one of them. These boats are popular in Southern California for short forays to kelp beds and coastal destinations. There's plenty of deck room, excellent stability and mobility, major hatch (largest hatch I have ever seen) storage in bow. It also includes a tackle well, and a roomy, deep cockpit with plenty of leg room. The Pro Explorer is an all around good choice for a fishing kayak at an attractive price. It has flush mount holders. The center console hatch is excellent; you want one of these. Malibu is a small company with excellent customer service and a good value for the money, comes as a fully loaded package. Specs: 12' 6"; 52 pounds; $699. www.malibukayaks.com. PaddleYak Kingfisher: The only boat listed here offered in a variety of set-ups. Johan Loot, the designer/manufacturer from South Africa, tells me about the fishermen of Malawi paddling hollowed out trees and cracking big smiles when he paddles past in his noveau dugout. His Kevlar model is the Ferrari of the lot. Fast, clever, seaworthy and stable, the Kingfisher has a wave-deflecting bow to help keep you dry. A center hatch is ideal to access gear, and an optional hatch pod (very nice) for smaller items is available. Boat comes stock with rudder, tackle well in stern and two flush mount rod holders. An attractive, high-end boat. Specs: 55 pounds or so depending on material. Length is just under 15'; $1350. www.seakayak.co.za Ocean Kayak Prowler Angler: Long an industry leader in open kayak design, the Prowler is the leaner, faster evolution of their popular fishing kayak, the Drifter. A pleasure to paddle, the Prowler is a stable, comfortable design with good speed and handling characteristics. I could go either way with a rudder on this one. Like the Explorer, it has one hatch and a tackle well, which is all you need on a day boat or weekender. Two flush mounts are set at either hip. The Prowler seat will handle a larger fisherman and there's leg room for even guys well over six feet, but it will still handle fine with a smaller person. Specs: 15' 4.5"; 56 pounds; $799. www.oceankayak.com, Heritage Fisherman: A handsome Greenland style boat, the Fisherman tracks very well with sponsons designed integrally along the hull to deflect waves and provide added stability when engaged. Speed is quite good and the boat glides well. The Fisherman is in essence a scaled down sea kayak and ideal for day or limited, multi-day, coastal fishing. We took its bigger brother, the Expedition, out for a month-long test and scored it well. Storage capacity is good for several days (providing you can get it in the shallow hatches), and we found it to handle well when fully loaded. No provision for small items in cockpit (use a deck bag), but clean, fluid lines in a well-designed craft. It has a comfortable, snug cockpit with adequate length for longer fishermen. Foam bulkheads bow and stern. Specs: 14' 2"; 61 pounds; $769. www.Heritagekayaks.com, Hobie Mirage Outback Fisherman: The Outback Fisherman is definitely the odd duck among kayaks. A clever leg propulsion drive is incorporated into the hull of the boat, leaving hands free for fishing. The drive is easily removed (comes with plug) and the boat can be paddled, but rudder control is by hand, making pedaling more attractive. This is a boat completely designed for fishing and is tricked out with a tackle well, a convenient tackle tray and several flush rod holders within reach of the cockpit. An anchor system is available and two small/medium hatches and bungees bow and stern will hold a lot of gear for a 12-foot boat. The Mirage is highly maneuverable and a lot of fun to pedal. The MirageDrive pedal system has no reverse and pedaling requires a slightly reclining posture that isn't ideal for casting. Comes with a handy paddle holder and a kick-up rudder. Specs: 12'1"; 57 pounds; $1499. www.Hobiecat.com Fishing Expedition Kayaks: Wilderness Systems Tarpon Angler: "Wildy" was one of the kayaks we took on a long ocean field test and it was a very popular boat. This kayak is ideal for loading up for a week-long fishing odyssey. Stability is such that we could actually stand up on it. Hatches are the biggest (excepting the Explorer) and best I've seen. Shallow, comfortable cockpit has the boat riding wet in rough conditions, but drains quickly. Excellent attention to detail; witness the recessions molded into hull for base of brass eyelets. Two rod holders at hip. Interested anglers ought to buy the rudder and backrest options: 16'; 58 pounds; $749. www.wildernesssystems.com Cobra Expedition: The Expedition is an ideal kayak for long distance, big-water fishing expeditions. Intrinsically not as stable as the shorter, wide boats; stability increases on the Expedition in direct proportion to the amount of gear (ballast) it carries. The Expedition has a low deck and a Venturi style drain system, which means you have to be under way to activate drainage. Very easy to get on and off, with several hatches including an optional console hatch. One of the fastest open-style touring boats that easily gets up to speed and makes for efficient paddling, plus plenty of spots to mount a holder. Go with the rudder option and a good backrest. Specs: 18'; 48 pounds; $990. www.Cobrakayaks.com Accessories for kayak fishing Transport: The typically wider fishing kayak works well with Thule's Hull-a-Port. Anglers can also use a kayak cart to get to some remote spots. Two models I can recommend are: Paddleboy's Scupper Pup, a simple, clever design designed for open kayaks especially. Roleez-their yeoman cart has hauled more than a few kayaks on and off ferries in faraway places. It now offers an extension, helpful for the broader open boat, and has enviro-friendly wheels that will roll anywhere. www.thule.com www.paddleboy.com www.roleez.com Lastly, but not least, is the personal flotation device. Most are bulky and inconvenient for fishing. Fly fisherman have long known about inflatable wading belts and vests and the inflatable World Class life vest by Sospenders, is the kayak version. You'll forget you have it on, unless the impossible happens and you need it. CO2 powered and inflates with a yank. www.sospenders.com