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Skiffs and center consoles are ubiquitous on the saltwater flats and bays, but a fishing kayak can be just as effective for getting to the fish. In certain situations, it may even be more effective. With the right gear, and the right boat, you can rig up your saltwater fishing kayak as if it was the ultimate lightweight skiff.
All you need is the right kayak and the right planning when setting it up with gear. Changing tides, weather, and wind means a kayak has to be versatile enough to do everything you need to fish how you want. On my local waters, that means it has to do everything a lightweight skiff could do.
Choose a saltwater fishing kayak capable of these three fishing styles:
- Cruising the saltwater flats
- Casting topwater plugs in the marsh
- Jigging and trolling the bay
A Versatile and Stable Saltwater Fishing Kayak
When you imagine the ideal lightweight skiff, the shape that likely appears in your mind is minimalist, skinny, stable, and shallow drafted. The ideal saltwater fishing kayak is the same way. I always look for a boat with low gunwales that make it easy to hop in and out of the cockpit for wading, or for getting back in the boat if I fall in. Just like when setting up a freshwater fishing kayak, you also want plenty of storage for essential gear, safety equipment, and a cooler so you can stay energized all day long. Just as important: it should be stable enough for standup fishing, paddling, and sight fishing.
The Wilderness Systems ATAK 140 checks all the boxes. The ATAK is long and skinny enough to paddle well, and even though it weighs 95 pounds, it somehow feels light on the water. Well balanced and designed with carry handles in all the right places, the boat is also easy to handle while getting it off your truck and carrying it to the water. I’d rather pick up this boat than other kayaks of mine that weigh twenty pounds lighter.
The open design gives you plenty of space and options to rig up gear wherever you need it, but the standard features are just as helpful. A paddle holder keeps your propulsion secure while battling fish, the soft deck foam feels comfortable under bare feet all day long, and the AirPro MAX seat is comfortable enough to sit through multiple tide cycles. The ATAK even helps with electronics. The Flex Pod OS electronics console keeps your battery and wires stored away, while placing your transducer under the water line without drilling a single hole in your kayak’s hull.
On Drilling Holes in Your New Kayak
Even though you don’t need to drill into the Wilderness Systems ATAK 140 to install your fishfinder, you may decide to drill some holes anyway. I rely on flush mount rod holders on all of my kayaks, for simple rod storage, to hold my landing net, and of course for trolling with my rods at least partially in view. They’re a cheap and easy piece of gear, and widely available. To install a flush mount rod holder, you need to drill.
Before grabbing your drill, make sure to carefully trace your rod holder tube with a marker onto your hull. I tend to make the marker line a little smaller than I end up needing, but that’s on purpose. It’s always easier to make the hole bigger––making it smaller is a little harder. A hole saw is the easiest way to cut a perfect circle in the deck of your boat. After, secure the rod holder with a rivet gun so your line doesn’t catch on exposed nuts or bolts. Also, don’t forget the marine sealant.
A Paddle That Can Beat Strong Tides
Every time I mention paddle choices, my advice is always the same: the best you can afford. You’ll never want to paddle against a strong tide again if you go out there with a cheap paddle. Instead, get one that feels light in the hands, is sized correctly for your fishing kayak’s width, and is stiff enough to translate all the power from your paddle stroke directly into the water.
The Kalliste: Hooked (2-piece) paddle from Werner Paddles is my new best friend––I’ve been guarding it with my life around all my paddling buddies. This full carbon, low angle paddle is designed for all day cruising. If you ever want to stay out for more than one tide, a low angle paddle blade helps conserve your strength and spread power across multiple strokes, instead of you straining to get power into every stroke.
Don’t balk at the $415 price tag. Not only is the paddle designed to withstand a lifetime of abuse on the water, it’s also an investment in your enjoyment of the sport. Every dollar will feel validated each time you get back to the launch and your muscles feel fine, while everyone else starts to complain.
A Sturdy PFD With Plenty of Gear Storage
The best way to get into the habit of wearing your personal flotation device (PFD) every time you get in a kayak is to make it an essential piece of gear. I’ve loaded up my PFDs with flies, snacks, a dive knife, more snacks, nippers, leader, and a marine VHF radio. That way, every time I start wading a flat from my kayak, I still have everything I need to keep fishing, instead of running back to my kayak every time I break off or catch a fish. That means you need to choose a PFD with pockets and tether points to spare.
The Kokatat Leviathan PFD was designed to be the ultimate fishing kayak PFD and it succeeds. With fourteen pockets, a number of tether points for tools, two foam pads for storing flies or lures, and a comfortable high-back design, you’ll have everything you need to keep fishing longer. The vest is comfortable, and even on a 90 degree summer day, the thought to take off the PFD to cool down never even crossed my mind. When the seasons start to change I’ll still keep wearing this PFD, keeping my hands warm in the fleece-lined hand warmer pockets.
Advanced Electronics to Find Fish Across the Ocean
Fishfinder and navigation electronics keep getting better and better. Some are starting to say the latest innovations are almost too good, but when you’re looking for migrating fish that could be anywhere in the ocean, you’ll take all the firepower you can get. When selecting your saltwater fishfinder, you want one that can do everything: traditional sonar, side scan, navigation, and more.
My jaw went slack when I first turned on the Raymarine Element 7HV and cycled through the app-like screen view options designed for different fishing styles. You can stick with traditional sonar and a navigation chart, or switch to casting mode and look at DownVision and SideVision at the same time. Want to switch to trolling? The Element’s HyperVision 1.2 megahertz sonar technology lets you see fish in RealVision 3D. No more guessing what’s on your screen. Get precise information on structures, vegetation, and even fish species passing beneath your boat.
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A Kayak Crate That Stores All of Your Gear (and More)
There’s only one rule for a saltwater fishing kayak crate: no metal zippers. You still want a lot of the same features you’d see in a freshwater fishing setup, but saltwater gear gets more abuse. You also want a way to separate and organize your gear for easy access so you’re crate isn’t open and vulnerable to a big wave. The reality about fishing from a kayak in saltwater is that you’re more likely to flip. Choose a crate that offers easy access to common gear, but one that can also be tightly secured to the deck of your kayak.
The Wilderness Systems Kayak Krate offers plenty of tie down points to keep it rock solid inside your kayak’s rear tankwell. It also comes standard with four rod holders, and features a two-tier system for organizing gear. The clear lid on top lets you see the essentials stored within easy reach, and the interior storage is vast. I was able to fit my giant tackle boxes inside, with plenty of room for containers of bait, soft plastics, and large swimbaits. The Kayak Krate also comes with brackets that allow you to raise the position of the rod holders, helping your rod butts to clear narrow tankwells, or for making it easier to grab a rod that just had a strike while trolling.
A Powerful Stakeout Anchor System to Stop Fast
Anchoring is tough with strong tidal currents. I often fish in areas with twelve-foot tides, or bigger, which means I can tear across a flat without ever dipping my paddle blade into the water––whether I want to or not. That means my anchor choice needs to be strong if I want to leave my kayak while wading a flat or when taking photos outside of my boat. A stakeout pole is often easier, and faster, for securing your boat to a certain spot than a traditional anchor. Certain models can also fit inside a rod holder, and double as a push pole for sight fishing.
If you don’t want to drive a stakeout pole into the sand yourself, or if you’d rather just focus on the fish ahead of you and stop your boat with the push of a button, then look to the Power–Pole Micro Anchor System. With the double-press of a button on the remote control hanging from my neck, the Micro Anchor dug into the sand and stopped my boat immediately. This made it more stable to stand and cast to cruising fish, but it also made my fishing partner extremely confused. “Why are you moving so fast in the other direction?” he said. “I”m not,” I said. “You’re just heading out to sea.”
A battery pack easily clicks into the Power–Pole unit so you don’t need to find room for a second battery, or it’s wiring. There are multiple mounting options for securing the Micro Anchor to your kayak, including a kayak-specific mount, or you can drill straight into the deck of your kayak. The entire unit is lightweight and compact.
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Essential Gear to Keep You Visible and Safe
Sometimes the simplest solution is the most important for keeping you safe and seen on the water. You always want to make it back to the launch, and cruising power boaters, whale watching boats, and jet skiers don’t always look out for a kayak on the horizon. Instead of getting run over, secure a simple orange flag to the back of your boat.
The YakAttack VISICarbon Pro is designed to keep you seen and attaches right to the geartrack that comes standard with the Wilderness Systems ATAK 140. The entire unit is collapsible and can be stored away easily in a small hatch. The flag and mast are designed to be low drag in the wind, and I never even noticed a difference while paddling with or without it. The
Always Double Check the Coast Guard Regulations
While these pieces of gear are essential for catching fish from your saltwater fishing kayak, the United States Coast Guard (USCG) has their own list of boating regulations that you need to follow to stay safe and legal on the water.
Read the full list of recommendations on the USCG website. In the meantime, here are some of the items you need to carry with you at all times:
- A USCG Approved Life Jacket
- Sound Producing Devices
- Visual Distress Signals
The Biggest Landing Net You Can Use One-Handed
Now that you can get on the water, stay safe, and find fish, you need a way to land fish once you hook up. Some anglers prefer the leg-sweep method (lipping the fish and swinging a leg under the belly and up onto the kayak’s deck) for landing fish like striped bass or redfish, but when the fish has teeth you need a landing net. Landing nets also make it easier to revive fish and keep them secure in the water. Just make sure you can swing the net and land fish one-handed, as your other hand holds your fishing rod or paddle.
With strategically places hand grips and a curved shaft designed for one-armed use, the YakAttack Leverage Landing Net (20” x 21” Hoop) is the ultimate landing net for saltwater kayak anglers. You can either stick the landing net in a rod holder to keep it secure while you’re paddling and fishing, or you fold it in half to secure it behind your seat. The net is easy to flip to full extension with one hand, and it snaps into place immediately. It’s comfortable to use, and more comfortable for the fish to be unhooked inside the net while underwater, rather than rolling around between your legs. Toothy bluefish writhing around your crotch is no fun––get a landing net.
Rig Up a Versatile Saltwater Fishing Kayak to Fish Your Way
We all fish differently, and after years cruising the saltwater flats, trolling the bay, or tossing plugs in the estuary in your own style, it’ll be tough to switch. That’s why you want a kayak setup versatile enough to do it all, and do it your way. Rig up the ultimate saltwater fishing kayak like your own lightweight skiff and follow the tides wherever the fish go. No matter how skinny or how deep the water gets, you’ll be there with a lure in hand, ready to catch them.