Kayak Fishing, Part I

Catching the kayak craze.

Field & Stream Online Editors

Like many other sports, kayak fishing has its extreme fringe. Consider guide and outfitter Jim Sammons of La Jolla, California, who has tangled with both thresher sharks and striped marlin off the southern California coast from a kayak. And there are a few anglers in Florida who think wrestling with big tarpon from a midget plastic boat is the ultimate thrill.

But for most people, kayak fishing means slowly cruising a small pond or lake in search of trout or bass. Shallow redfish flats in Texas or salt marshes and bays for northern stripers are also common kayak areas. In these cases, kayaks and fishing go together like bread and butter. The trick is learning enough about kayaks to keep your bread butter-side up.

Kayaks are not uncontrollably tippy, no more so than canoes. In 10 years of inland and coastal kayak fishing, I've yet to accidentally tip one over. And unlike most canoes, kayaks are designed for solo paddling. Then, too, kayaks offer much greater mobility and comfort on the water than you'll get with a float tube or kick boat. They're a great and inexpensive way to fish almost anywhere, including waters that are too shallow or tangled for larger boats.

The new popularity of kayaking comes in part from new manufacturing techniques that have allowed the production of rotomolded polyethylene hulls at relatively low cost. The best of these plastic boats run close to $1,000, but many are priced at half that or even less. They are easy to carry on top of a car or in the back of a pickup truck, relatively maintenance-free and durable, and infused with a ready-made sense of adventure. There are other hull materials, of course-notably composites of fiberglass, carbon-fiber, and/or Kevlar-which are lighter in weight, more rigid, often have sharper lines, and generally sell for about $2,500 and up. But polyethylene hulls are by far the most common.

Kayak Types
There are two basic types of kayaks; each is well suited to fishing, though for different reasons. So-called sit-on-top designs are like tricked-out surfboards. You sit in a molded open compartment on top of a flattened-hull shape. These are longer and usually wider than surfboards, however, and much more stable. The other style is called sit-inside, a more conventional design in which the paddler sits on a molded seat on the bottom of the hull and is surrounded by a cockpit. This is what most people think of when they envision a kayak.

The sit-inside design takes two equally popular forms: Touring kayaks, sometimes called sea kayaks, are generally long and slim (roughly 14 to 18 feet long and 22 to 25 inches wide) with a fairly small cockpit opening; deck hatches fore and aft give access to storage spaces. So-called recreational kayaks are aimed at more casual users. They tend to be shorter and wider (roughly 10 to 14 feet long and 26 to 30 inches wide) with larger, more open cockpits.

Touring kayaks are faster and thus better for long distances. The wider (and therefore more stable) recreational boats are slower and better suited for short trips.

Choosing a Fishing Yak
Sit-on-top designs offer several advantages in fishing, but they aren't perfect. They're much easier to get into and out of than enclosed-cockpit versions. If you're paddling to a distant flat and then wading-common in coastal Texas, for example-sit-on-tops are perfect. Tether the boat to your waist for wade fishing. When you're done, just sit down and paddle home. In the unlikely event of a dunking, it's much easier to pull yourself back on top of these boats than it is to reenter an enclosed cockpit from the water.

On the downside, most sit-on-tops are relatively slow because they tend to be wide in proportion to overall length. And sit-on-tops usually mean a wet ride as surface chop or boat wakes slop against the open sides, or as a little water enters up through the self-bailing scupper holes in the hull itself. For that reason, sit-on-tops are most popular in warm southern areas, though many northern anglers do use them while wearing protective gear such as a wet suit if the water is cold. Popular sit-on-top brands among anglers include Ocean Kayak, Cobra, and Wilderness Systems.

Enclosed-cockpit touring kayaks have a different set of advantages. They are generally longer, slimmer, and faster than sit-on-tops and offer ample dry storage. My family and I use them on extended camping trips for those reasons. And unlike sit-on-tops, the enclosed cockpit provides a dry ride, especially when used with a waterproof spray skirt.

On the negative side, it's a little harder to get into and out of the narrow cockpit if you're not at all agile, and self-rescue after capsizing is more difficult. Entry and exit for alternately wading and paddling will also be more difficult. Boats by Necky, Perception, and Wilderness Systems are popular touring brands. Recreational kayaks with their larger cockpits are a compromise adopted by many anglers, with boats such as Wilderness Systems' Pungo or Old Town's Loon series being widely used. Here, the open cockpit allows easy entry when launching, and it's easier to stow extra rods and tackle boxes around your legs in the larger space. With these wider hulls, initial stability is often greater than with touring kayaks, but this comes at the sacrifice of speed. For casual users, such boats are probably the best choice.

Buying Your Kayak
Kayaks have been described as a boat that you wear, rather than merely ride in. A proper fit to your physical build is essential. There are numerous dealers within easy reach of most metro areas where you can at least sit in-and often test paddle-a variety of kayaks.

Even if you're new to kayaking, you should be able to tell simply whether you're more comfortable in one maker's seat versus another's. And remember to wear a personal flotation device during your testing, since cockpits and seats will necessarily accommodate both you and your life preserver. While you're looking, don't forget to check for general build quality in comparing brands, which again should be self-evident.

Next month: Rigging kayaks for fishing.