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Kayak Fishing: Getting Started

By Bill Schultz - August 8, 2019
I began fishing from a kayak 15 years ago and have enjoyed it over the years. Sure, I love getting out in my fishing boat, but there are areas that just aren't appropriate for a bigger boat. And, there are times when being out in one of my Jackson kayaks is just what my mind, body and spirit need.

When giving my kayak fishing talks at shows and fishing clubs, the first thing I talk about is what kayak and paddle are right for "you". There are two primary types of kayaks. One is the traditional sit-in kayak and the other, the sit-on-top kayak made popular over the past decade or so for angling. Fishing from a sit-in kayak can fun, but you are limited on space for gear and are sitting very low in the kayak. Also, the lip of the cockpit can impede casting and reeling. Some kayak companies have hybrid sit-in kayaks that have a very large cockpit opening offering more storage and rigging options than a traditional sit-in kayak.

Most kayak anglers prefer a sit-on-top kayak, which, offers many advantages over a sit-in. The seat is on top of the deck, so you will be sitting higher, an advantage for fishing, plus many can be adjusted even higher during fishing. Today's fishing kayak seats are extremely comfortable, offer great back support and several adjustments. They remind me of small lounge chairs. In fact, I've seen anglers use their kayak seat for sitting around the fire after a day of fishing A very important feature of sit-on-top kayaks is how much easier they are to get in and out of compared to sit-in kayaks. Most of us get in our kayaks in shallow water and with a sit-on-top, just sit on the seat and swing your legs in. I, like most have flipped a sit-in while trying to get in or out. This is not an enjoyable way to start or end an outing. At many of the paddle sports shows, I've talked with non-anglers who have knee or back problems, or just getting a little older and don't move quite as well. Sit-on-tops are perfect for this group who still want to kayak.

Storage is always a concern for an angler with all that gear. With a sit-on-top there's storage in the tankwell in front and behind the seat. Popular with anglers is putting a milk crate style storage unit with extra rod holders attached in the storage area behind the seat. Most sit-on-top fishing kayaks have flush mount rod holders on each side behind the seat, another very nice feature. Almost all fishing kayaks come with a track system to attach a plethora of optional items like extra rod holders, locator, anchor trolley, camera mount and more. RAM Mounts and a few other companies have developed many great accessories for fishing kayaks. I use their external rods holders to compliment the flush mount rod holders that come with my kayaks.

What length kayak to get is always a big question. In my experience, I feel many buy fishing kayaks that are too short. My suggestion is if you are only going to be fishing small rivers, something in the 10' to 11' range is ok, but, if you plan to fish rivers and lakes, I would highly suggest looking at kayaks in the 11' to 13' category. If you are only going to do lakes, you can even think longer, up to 15'. The shorter kayaks will be more maneuverable, but slower. Longer kayaks are faster and track better. Personally, I prefer longer sit-on-top kayaks, with my favorite being the Kraken 13.5, which is only 30" wide, yet very stable. This boat will handle every situation I fish, with the possible exceptions of that very small creek. On the waters I fish, I don't want to, or need to stand for my fishing. However, many anglers do want to stand to sight fish and most kayak companies have developed kayaks that make standing very easy and safe. These sit-on-top kayaks will have a pontoon style hull and will be wider, in the 32" to 35" range. The higher seats I talked about earlier make is easy to push yourself up and get your legs under you for standing.

The more recent fishing kayak twist that has become extremely popular is the self-propelled kayak. Again, most of the top companies have added one or two such boats to their line-up. Most have a pedal system that turns a propeller situated below the hull. I wrote an article on this subject a few years ago and noted the Merriam-Webster definition of a kayak, "a long narrow boat that is pointed at both ends and that is moved by a paddle with two blades". Well, I guess the new self-propelled kayaks would qualify, as an angler still needs that paddle for quicker movements while fishing. In that article I noted that I'd decided to be a "paddle" kayak angler, with one of the benefits being the "exercise" component to my kayak fishing. I still love paddling for most of my kayak fishing, but more and more I'm seeing a place for the self-propelled boats. Especially when having to cover several miles of water to get to a favorite spot, having to paddle longer distances to get to a variety of spots and when paddling into a stiff wind. Also, if you enjoy trolling, as many of our Lake Michigan salmon anglers do, or slowly fishing a shoreline as you would with a trolling motor. All things a self-propelled kayak allow you to do. I've also talked with people with arm and shoulder problems who can now give kayak fishing a try with the self-propelled boats. I plan to continue to paddle for much of my fishing but plan to give a self-propelled kayak a try.

When I talk with potential kayak anglers, after asking what type of fishing and where they plan to fish, I always ask them how they plan to transport their fishing kayak. Many have thought about it, but, many have not. Most traditional sit-on-top kayaks are going to weigh 65 to 90 pounds without the seat. And, self-propelled boats will weigh closer to 100 or more pounds. With kayak fishing and kayaking in general taking off, companies have developed great roof rack systems, some with assisted lifts from the side of a vehicle. If you have a truck, you're all set and can put the kayak in the bed and if your kayak is longer, attach an extension that fits in a trailer hitch. There's something out there for everyone. In 2011 I began using the Malone MicroSport trailer. This has made the transport of my fishing kayaks extremely easy, and, in many cases, it is so nice to just back the trailer to the water at a ramp and slide the kayak into the water. A few companies make a nice kayak trailer that even a small car or SUV can pull. Many times, you can get close to the water, but will then need to get the kayak from the vehicle to the water. This is when using a two-wheel cart, which, again, many companies make.

After the kayak itself, the next big question relates to your paddle. For years I have recommended buying the lightest, most expensive paddle you can afford. Lighter paddles are less fatiguing, meaning you can enjoy your time on the water longer and feel less sore at the end of a day. From my own experience, I use the 30-ounce weight as my limit and I'm using paddles in the 25 to 28-ounce range. For those of you using a sit-in kayak a traditional sized blade is fine, but, for the wider, heavier fishing sit-on-tops, look to getting a paddle with an oversized blade to push your kayak even better. Two lighter paddles that I've recommended over the years for kayak fishing are the Aqua-Bound Manta Ray and Bending Branches Angler Ace, both at $199. Paddle length is also very important and is based on your height and the width of your kayak. Most outfitters can help you with this.

When it comes to what tackle to take when kayak fishing, that's a very individual decision and based on what type of fish we are trying to catch. When I kayak fish, I'm chasing smallmouth bass, so, I take the same type of rods, reels and lures that I'd be using in my boat, just not as many. Fishing from a kayak will teach you to down-size and narrow your lure choices to those that work the best. Just like rigging your fishing kayak, each angler will figure out what works best for them. Fishing from a kayak has become so popular that St. Croix Rods has come out with a line of kayak fishing rods specifically for kayak fishing, the Mojo Yak series spinning and casting rods.

Safely is vital for all kayakers and wearing your Personal Floatation Device (PFD) is critical. Sadly, each year, we hear of accidents where a tragedy could have been avoided had the kayaker just been wearing a PFD. For me, comfort is important, and I don't want much padding on the back of the vest, which pushes my torso out from the seat. Starting a couple of years ago, I began using the Astral Ronnie. This affordable PFD is fully adjustable, has a few pockets on the front and almost no flotation material on the back making it very comfortable while fishing or just paddling for fun. Also, if you are kayaking alone, be sure to let someone know where you are and when you plan to be back. Also, for those of you fishing early and late in the season, be sure to wear proper cold-water apparel that will keep you warm and dry, just in case you have an accident and end up in the water. Be sure to take your phone in a waterproof bag. I use a simple zip lock bag.

Take it from me, fishing from a kayak is a great time! I hope this article will help you in selecting the right fishing kayak, paddle and other items related to getting into this type of fishing. When kayak fishing, even if you aren't catching a bunch of fish, you will love being out in nature and on the water in your kayak. And, as I said earlier sometimes this is just what the mind, body and spirit need.

Author Bill Schultz

Bill Schultz
Bill Schultz lives in New Berlin and Sturgeon Bay, WI, and is a contributing writer for several magazines and web sites. Since catching his first smallmouth bass in 1994, he has caught and released over 26,700. His focus has been on the big waters of Green Bay in and around Sturgeon Bay, along with rivers and streams throughout Wisconsin. Catching and releasing smallies and sharing his recipe for success has become a passion for him. Bill is on the Pro Staffs for St. Croix Rods, Mercury Marine, Yar-Craft Boats, Jackson Kayaks, Bending Branches/Aqua-Bound Paddles, Kalin's, Keitech USA, RAM Mounts, Cedar Lake Sales and Malone Auto Racks/Trailers.
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