Kayaks are the fastest-growing segment of the boating industry, in part because fishermen have so taken to them. In a kayak you can paddle across shallows that block all other boats to reach back channels holding fish that have never seen a lure.
Or you can tie your kayak to your belt and wade and cast for miles on flats no one else can approach. Or you can slip through narrow sloughs into backwater areas that are rarely fished.
In the spring, when smallmouths spawn in the shallows and are sensitive to the sounds and wakes of motorboats, I drift the rocky flats and cast to fish undisturbed by my approach. And on Florida's West Coast I once paddled my kayak across a milewide flat in 6 inches of water and found a back channel full of 2- and 3-pound seatrout. Then I drifted back across the flat until I saw fins twinkling in the sunlight. I dropped my anchor and watched a large school of 30-inch redfish approach. One cast, with the rod held low to avoid spooking them, dropped a gold spoon with a pork-rind tail 30 feet ahead of the leaders. As they closed, I began a jerky retrieve. An 8-pounder hit and took my kayak and me for a sleigh ride to deep water.
It's not surprising that kayaks are such excellent fishing craft-after all, the kayak is the original stalker's boat. Modern kayaks adhere to the basic shape and structure northern natives developed to stalk and spear seals, walruses, and large fish.
Today's kayaks are constructed of space-age materials with watertight hatches; many models feature rudders operated with foot pedals. The paddler sits on a comfortable seat mounted close to the bottom for maximum stability. The cockpit can be sealed with a waterproof spray skirt that fits tightly around the paddler's chest to keep out water in heavy chop.
I regularly cast directly from my drifting kayak when fishing for species of 5 pounds or less. But if there's a chance something bigger may strike, either I anchor the kayak so a large fish can't take me on a ride into waters I want to avoid, or I get out to wade and cast.
When I began fishing the flats with a 161/2-foot sea kayak several years ago, I worried that the frail-looking boat would be tippy and wouldn't carry enough gear. My worries were unfounded. Fishing kayaks are relatively broad abeam and flat-bottomed. Moreover, your weight is centered at water level, which equates to remarkable stability.
I have loaded my kayak with a tent, sleeping bag, stove, fuel, clothing, camera gear, and a week's worth of food and fresh water-and I still had room for a tackle box, a 9-foot fly rod, a 7-foot spinning outfit, and whatever fish I kept to eat.
Safe kayaking does require some special equipment and training. Because of their covered decks and low center of gravity, however, kayaks are comfortable in waves, wind, and turbulence that would be intimidating in any other kind of light open boat, including canoes.
Choosing Your Kayak
The best way to choose a kayak is to paddle several models (paddle-sports stores often have demo days). Sea kayaks or touring kayaks are best suited for fishing. These are larger and more stable than the highly responsive whitewater models and have storage hatches and, often, foot pedals and rudders.
Sit-on-top models, in which the paddler sits in a hollow on top of the kayak, allow the paddler to get on and off easily. They are especially useful for anglers who frequently wade, and sit-on-tops are popular along the inshore Texas Gulf Coast for that reason. Sit-on-tops are fine for quiet, protected water, but if you plan to use a kayak for extended open-water crossings, you'll want a closed-cockpit model.
Kayaks are manufactured of rotomolded polyethylene or laid-up composites of fiberglass or Kevlar. Rotomolded polyethylene kayaks are least expensive ($600 to $1,500) but are heavier (50 to 60 pounds) and slower. Fibergllass models cost about $1,000 more, are 7 to 12 pounds lighter, and are more rigid, making them faster and more responsive. Kevlar models run $350 to $500 more than fiberglass but are 5 to 10 pounds lighter still. Touring kayaks are typically 12 to 17 feet long. Several manufacturers now offer kayaks in camouflage colors. Of these, my choice for fishermen is the Aqua Design camo on Wilderness Systems kayaks, which replicates the patterns and colors reflected on the water's surface as seen from below. Kayaks with white hulls also blend nicely into the surface glare.
Kayaks are designed to perform best when carrying specific loads. Choose one that is rated for your body weight plus the weight of the gear you will be carrying. For casting stability, pick one at least 22 inches wide.
Kayak paddles come in a variety of shapes and materials and range in price from $40 to $350. Choose one that feels good in your hand and is light enough for strenuous use over long periods of time. Kayaking is most enjoyable when you love your paddle.
You'll need a special life preserver that is shorter than regular boating models. Always wear it when crossing deep water. A hand-operated bilge pump is handy for keeping the cockpit dry without having to flip the boat.
A paddle leash (a short length of Bungee cord) prevents the paddle from getting away if you drop it or set it aside while fishing. A spray skirt keeps water out of the cockpit in rain or waves. Full skirts fit tightly around the paddler's chest and attach under the cockpit rim. Mini skirts, suitable for most fishing, cover only the front half of the cockpit.
A paddle float and rescue line are emergency items in the event that you capsize. You will need to be shown how to use them.
A 11/2-pound folding anchor will hold a kayak. Attach 15 feet of nylon line to the anchor and tie a brass snap to the running end. Roll the line around the anchor and carry it wedged under the deck cord. If you plan to remain in the kayak when anchored in calm water, snap the line to the cord at a point close to the cockpit. This will cause the kayak to hang crosswise to the wind or current and will make casting downwind easier. If you plan to leave the kayak to wade and cast, snap the anchor line to the bow loop. The kayak will then ride bow-to-the-wind or -current.
In all cases, carry a small compass, a map or chart, and also a rescue whistle, which is louder and easier than yelling if you need help.
Stowing Fishing Gear
Most kayaks come with elastic cord on the forward and rear decks, which is helpful for stowing fishing gear. I mount a waterproof deck bag on the forward deck; it holds a box of spinning lures, a box of flies, and a box of hooks, weights, leaders, swivels, and snaps. I mount a sharp knife in a sheath on one side of the deck bag and a pair of fisherman's pliers on the other.
Rods go on top of the deck bag with the reels held down under the cord. A rod holder can be mounted behind the cockpit to hold a rod for trolling.
Most anyone can get in a kayak and make it go, but doing it right and safely requires instruction. You probably won't capsize, but if you do, you'll need to know how to get back in. You'll also need to know how to help a capsized fellow paddler. All good paddle-sport stores offer instruction. Take it.