Jul 10, 2018

Kayak Fishing

From type of kayak to paddle and gear, a guide to the basics you need to get started

By Bill Schultz

I began fishing from a kayak 14 years ago and have enjoyed it over those years. Sure, I love getting out in my Yar-Craft with Mercury Verado engine, but there are areas of water that just aren’t appropriate for a boat like that. 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 is the sit-on-top kayak made popular over the past decade or so for angling.

Fishing from a sit-in kayak can be great, but, you are limited on space for gear and sitting so low in the kayak that the lip of the cockpit can impede casting and reeling. Some manufacturers do have sit-in kayaks with a large cockpit opening like the Jackson Kilroy. This style kayak offers more storage and rigging options than a traditional sit-in kayak.

Most kayak anglers prefer a sit-on-top kayak, which offers a number of advantages over a sit-in. The seat is on top of the deck, so you will be sitting higher, an advantage for fishing. Seats like the Elite and Ergo designs from Jackson are adjustable and allow anglers to sit even higher. At the end of the day, these seats also double as a comfortable chair as you relax by the fire and reflect on the day of fishing.

Along with more comfort and back support, these seats enable the angler to stand up easily on the boat, according to Damon Bungard, product development manager at Jackson Kayak, and the higher seat position enhances the fishing experience as well.

“Early sit-on-top kayaks weren’t made for standing and sight casting, with getting up from a seated position that low is challenging and straining on the back and legs,” Bungard said. “By raising the seat up to a more normal chair height, you are more able to engage the powerful muscles in your thighs to transition from seated to standing.”

Another 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. Like many, I’ve 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 don’t move quite as well as they get a little older. 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 of you and plenty of accessible storage 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 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. I’ve especially liked using a RAM Mount unit for my camera to get nice pictures of those big smallmouth bass. Along with the many kayak accessories that RAM Mounts has developed, I use the external rods holders to complement the flush mount rod holders that come with my Jackson kayaks.


Considering length

What length kayak to get is a question I hear often. In my experience, I feel many buy fishing kayaks that are too short. If you are only going to be fishing small rivers, something in the 10- to 11-foot range is alright, but if you plan to fish larger rivers and lakes, I would highly suggest looking at kayaks in the 11- to 13-foot category.

If you are only going to fish lakes, you can even think longer – up to 15 feet. 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 Jackson Kraken 13.5, which is only 30 inches wide, yet very stable. This boat handles every situation I fish, with the possible exceptions of that very small creek. When I’m on the bigger waters of Door County, I use both the Kraken 13.5 and 15.5.

On the waters I fish, I don’t want to – or need to – stand for my fishing. However, many anglers do want to stand while fishing and most kayak companies have developed kayaks that make standing easy and safe. These sit-on-top kayaks have a pontoon-style hull and are wider, about in the 32- to 35-inch range.


Self-propelled kayaks trending up

A more recent twist to kayak fishing that’s become popular is the self-propelled kayak. Most such boats have a pedal system that turns a propeller situated below the hull. An angler still needs to paddle a self-propelled kayak for quicker movements while fishing.

I personally prefer to be a “paddle” kayak angler, with one of the benefits being the exercise component to my fishing. More and more, though, 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 – slowly fishing a shoreline as you would with a trolling motor is just as easy in a self-propelled kayak.

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 I’ve become excited about the Jackson Coosa FD self-propelled kayak, which I plan to use for the first time this season on Lake Michigan and Green Bay.

The kayak manufacturer’s newly developed Flex Drive System offers both forward and reverse operation of the kayak, and includes a unique articulating system for deep and shallow water navigation. A daggerboard protected tri-blade propeller combined with the articulating system provides increased performance and helps keep the system clear of obstacles and easy to clean. In fact, the Jackson Coosa FD is expected to introduce a new motor drive system later this year.


Finding the right paddle

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 one can enjoy time on the water longer and feel less sore at the end of a day, noted Andrew Stern, marketing director for Bending Branches and Aqua-Bound paddles, both based in Osceola, Wis.

“The formula is one ounce savings in a kayak paddle equates to 100 pounds per hour you don’t have to pull around,” Stern explained. “So, a 3-ounce lighter paddle saves you 300 pounds per hour.”

From my own experience, I use the 30-ounce weight as my limit and am 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 for a paddle with an oversized blade to push your kayak even better. Two paddles I’ve recommended over the years for kayak fishing are the Aqua-Bound Manta Ray and Manta Ray Hybrid at $189 and $139, respectively, with the weight just under and just over 30 ounces. 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.


Transporting your kayak

When I talk with potential kayak anglers about what type of fishing they plan to do and where they plan to fish, I always ask how they plan to transport their fishing kayak. Many have thought about this aspect of kayak fishing – but many have not.

Most traditional sit-on-top kayaks weigh as much as 65 to 90 pounds without the seat. Self-propelled boats can weigh closer to 100 or more pounds.

With the growth in popularity of kayak fishing and kayaking in general, many manufacturers have developed effective roof-rack systems, some with assisted lifts from the side of a vehicle. If you have a truck and your kayak is longer than the truck bed, attach an extension that fits in a trailer hitch. There’s some product out there for nearly every vehicle.

In 2010 I began using the Malone MicroSport trailer. This has made transporting my fishing kayaks extremely easy, and in many cases, it’s nice to just back the trailer into the water at a ramp and slide the kayak on the water. A few companies make a nice kayak trailer that even a small car or SUV can pull.

Many times you can get relatively close to the water, but then still need to move the kayak from the vehicle to the water’s edge. This is when using a two-wheel cart like the Malone Nomad is a solution.


Tackling safety 

When it comes to what tackle to use when kayak fishing, it’s often an individual decision based on the type of fish you 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 powerboat, just not as many.

Fishing from a kayak will teach you to downsize and narrow your lure choices to those that work the best. Just like rigging your fishing kayak, each angler needs to figure what works best for them.

Safety is vital for all kayakers – always wear your personal floatation device (PFD). 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 last year, 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 comfortable while fishing or just paddling for fun.

Also, if you’re kayaking alone, be sure to let someone know where you are and when you plan to return. 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.

Take it from me, fishing from a kayak is a great time! I hope this article will help you select 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.


Bill Schultz lives in New Berlin and Sturgeon Bay and is a popular speaker at sports shows and fishing clubs throughout Wisconsin and Northern Illinois. He is a smallmouth bass enthusiast having caught and released over 21,500 smallies since 1994. His focus has been the big waters of Green Bay in Door County, along with rivers and streams throughout Wisconsin. He is on the pro staff for Mercury Marine, Yar-Craft Boats, Cedar Lake Sales, Kalin’s, St. Croix Rods, Jackson Kayaks, Bending Branches/Aqua-Bound Paddles, RAM Mounts and Malone Auto Racks.