Baidarka means “little boat” in Russian, but it was the Aleuts who developed the little boats to chase seal, catch fish, harpoon walrus, that kind of thing. Most modern day kayak design is less pragmatic, designed primarily for travel and sport, but with the gaining popularity of kayak fishing in recent years, kayak design has returned to its utilitarian roots. Fishermen have influenced kayak designers to create a boat ideal for their purposes. Today’s typical fishing kayak is portable, fast (relative to float tubes, kick boats and most row boats, at least), surf-launch capable, sufficiently comfortable, affordable, efficacious to fish from and fun. Then there’s the attractive, intangible appeal for some of the more adventurous men and women a pseudo-heroic, archetypal hunter/predator type of thing, brought on by the idea of paddling out alone in a small boat looking for something big to subdue and possibly eat. If you can’t relate, surf ashore at the end of the day with a heavy sea bass curled in the well among the bull kelp fronds and you’ll know what I’m talking about.
Many of us have been fishing out of our kayaks for years already. We’ve mounted a rod holder on the hull, appropriated an old mesh onion bag to stash our catch in and carry a small container in our seat pocket to hold our lures or flies . . . and called it good. And most of us would rather keep the boat we’ve got than buy a wider, slower one just for fishing. But if fishing is your raison d’ etre, you might want to consider a boat designed specifically for the purpose.
For hard core anglers their kayak is their rig, their pony, and the amenities, the little things, the ergonomic customizing, the attention to details that only a fisherman can appreciate, are huge. Things like tank wells and flush mounted rod holders, a convenient console hatch, not to mention the console itself, where the electronics mount, are important features. The stereotypical hard core kayak fishermen might pull up at his favorite SoCal beach after work, slide his boat down to the water and pop out through a line of five foot breakers and only the threat of darkness or storm will finally shoo him back ashore, perhaps with a prize aboard big enough to feed the family for a week.
Nutshelling what you get with most kayaks designed expressly for fishing, you have kayak performance traded against fishing utility. There are no free lunches when it comes to kayak design (like anything else) and any boat manufacturer that claims to do everything as well as any other boat does doesn’t have their teeth in straight. The inverse relationship between speed and initial stability define the spectrum of fish kayak design. Some boats are designed to travel fast, increasing the striking distance for the day, or to travel longer on sustained, multi-day, multi-week fishing expeditions, but most are drawn up as day boats with moderate speed, excellent maneuverability, plenty of stability to fish without feeling unbalanced, a comfortable seat and plenty of convenient places for all the fishing accoutrement. A word on the balance issue: if you frequently find yourself in lumpy seas, doing things requiring a close focus, like say tying on a fly or changing lures, you will want a stable boat, fishing kayak or otherwise.
Fishing in a Kayak
Frankly, a kayak is not my favorite boat to fish out of; a Whaler or a McKenzie river dory would be much more to my liking. If casting from a sitting position with your legs sticking straight out is your mug o’ beer, you might like a kayak for fishing. That said, what a kayak has going for it is largely the kayaking part, the custom fit, good trolling capability, the quick strike edge that the boats have going for them and, of course, the inimitable experience of the kayak itself. No matter how wide or slow or tricked out a boat might be, the essential experience of the kayak remains.
Light enough to throw on the roof and huck around by your self, kayaks weigh in with float tubes, the lighter class kick boats and canoes for portability. Portability being the quickest route between you and the fish: a school of salmon sporting just out past the surf along the highway with no launch for miles around, or a killer Hex hatch on a lazy Michigan river where you carry your boat across a farmer’s field to launch.
The three main things to consider when buying a kayak for fishing, then, are:
- An easy feel for the balance
- the convenience of a layout that supports your style of fishing
- A degree of basic kayaking performance to allow you to effectively troll and maneuver the boat as needed.