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January 04, 2007

Self-Propelled Adventure

Paddle-Happy Anglers Do It on Kayaks

Fishing from a kayak appeals to an angler's sense of adventure. Some folks enjoy it because they can traverse shallow or tight spots to explore quiet areas that powerboats can't reach. Others thrive on the challenge of going solo in blue water, drifting baits for dolphin, sailfish - even marlin.

No matter what their motives may be, more and more anglers seem ready to hop on a kayak and start paddling toward their favorite fishing hole. "We've seen kayak fishing grow quickly over the last five years because it represents a whole new sport, not just the same old angling from a different vessel," says Tim Krane, Western U.S. sales rep for Hobie Cat. "For instance, you can use lighter tackle in blue water, and large fish can actually tow the kayak around."

Chrystal Murray helps feed the growing trend at the Sol y Luna Kayak Fishing School (239-691-7284;, based in Matlacha, Florida, near Fort Myers. She accepts students from all walks of life; however, many of her pupils work as full-time fishing guides. "Guides see kayak fishing as an addition to their charter business," she explains. "They can carry kayaks on the boat and launch them at the mouth of a creek blocked by a sandbar, giving their clients access to new fishing opportunities."

Sit On It
If you plan to use a kayak for saltwater fishing, forget about those sit-inside models frequently seen shooting the rapids in swift rivers. Though highly maneuverable, they offer little comfort or stability as fishing platforms. Sit-on-top kayaks typically boast a wider beam, which translates into greater stability - an important quality in any fishing vessel. They also feature a generous amount of storage space on the deck and in compartments accessed through hatches.

When outfitted for fishing, the tankwell (the storage area behind the seat, so named because kayaking divers carry air tanks here) may hold a cooler, portable baitwell and/or large tackle box.

Open-air seating allows anglers to hop on and off a 'yak (to wade-fish, for instance), and it often leads to the temptation to stand on the craft. Murray warns that only those in good shape, with quick reflexes and steady balance, should attempt the trick of standing on a kayak.

Randy Beckum says differently, as long as you're in a Freedom Hawk kayak. Vice president of sales for the company, he explains that these kayaks look and act like any other until you pull the levers that spread the Freedom Hawk's "wings." The kayak's rear section features two pontoons that open to transform the vessel into a Y-shaped, trustworthy platform for stand-up fishing.

Weight For Me
Murray, who also works for the Paddle Sports division of Johnson Outdoors (maker of Ocean Kayaks), says reputable manufacturers make sit-on-top kayaks out of polyethylene rather than harder plastics.

"Hard plastic is less forgiving than polyethylene," she says. "Polyethylene kayaks won't crack if you drop them, and scraping over an oyster bar will scratch but not cut a hole in the hull."

Besides withstanding abuse, polyethylene allows manufacturers to produce relatively thin-walled yet rigid craft. Rigidity assures a kayak will carry a payload without sagging, which would make it more difficult to paddle and maneuver. Thin walls reduce the vessel's weight, and lighter kayaks prove much easier to handle both in and out of the water.

"As displacement hulls, kayaks actually move through, not over, the water," Murray says. "It takes less effort to paddle a lighter, stiffer model. Any kayak in the 12- to 15-foot range that weighs less than 60 pounds would be considered a lightweight model by industry standards."

Factor in a kayak's length and weight, as well as your fishing style, when choosing a 'yak. Shorter watercraft (11- to 13-footers) maneuver more handily in tight spots, while longer ones perform better in open water. Can you handle and load the kayak by yourself for car-topping on solo trips?

A PFD and a paddle are essential equipment when kayaking. Murray recommends suspender-style, auto-inflating PFDs from Mustang Survival because they offer protection and comfort without restricting a paddler's range of motion. Check local laws: You may not have to wear a PFD at all times, but it must remain accessible. That means you can't stow it in a hatch.

Paddles come in many shapes, sizes and materials. Optimum paddle-shaft length depends on a kayak's width and the user's arm span. Shafts may consist of aluminum (least expensive, performs adequately), fiberglass (more costly, good performance) or composites such as Kevlar or carbon fiber (lightweight, cost $200 and up).

Paddle blades also come in a variety of styles and materials to meet different demands and budgets. The advantages of plastic blades include low price and durability - important when pushing off gravel or oyster bars - but may flex and sacrifice efficiency during the power stroke. Stiff composite blades transmit power very well and remain durable.

"I often see people in very nice kayaks using cheap paddles that don't suit them well. A paddle represents your power source, so seek professional advice, try out several models, and choose one that fits you, your kayak and your paddling style," Murray says.

Hobie Cat's Mirage Drive system lets anglers use leg muscles to power a kayak. Pumping the foot pedals causes two "wings" to flap beneath the hull and propel the craft forward. "Mirage Drive works on the same principle that makes a penguin 'fly' underwater," Krane says. "Anglers love the hands-free propulsion because if they're paddling, they're not fishing."

Seat backs provide welcome support when paddling a sit-on-top, so many kayakers see them as must-have items. Other accessories, either included on specific models or available as aftermarket items, will turn a kayak into a formidable fishing machine.

Rod holders - either flush-mount or above-deck styles - keep your weapons handy and even allow for trolling. Savvy anglers use homemade or over-the-counter rod tethers to prevent tackle losses!

Live-baiters can buy a baitwell or make one from a cooler and strap it in the tankwell. Manufacturers such as Ocean Kayaks include dedicated deck space for mounting electronics on some models, but inventive anglers find ways to custom-fit fish finders on nearly any kayak.

Paddle clips and paddle keepers (elastic cords) hold the "motor" safely out of the way while anglers make casts; they provide more peace of mind than resting the paddle precariously on the front deck.

A rudder controls the craft for precise drifts and helps paddlers maintain a true course on windy days. An anchor holds the boat in position once you locate a school of fish or parks it securely for wading excursions. Manufacturers offer dollies for transporting kayaks on land, and these wheels can save time and effort when single-handedly launching and retrieving 'yaks.

Murray strongly recommends seeking professional help before buying a kayak. "Take classes or fish with a guide who conducts kayak trips," she says. "Check the manufacturers' websites to find authorized dealers. Reputable salespeople give sound advice because they want to put you in the right boat."

Test-drive different brands and models, and try out various paddles to make sure you're in the perfect kayak before paddling off toward the horizon.


Cobra Kayaks
Gardena, California

Emotion Kayaks
Berks County,

Freedom Hawk Kayaks
Brighton, Michigan

Heritage Kayaks
North Carolina

Hobie Cat
Oceanside, California
Malibu Kayaks
Malibu, California

Ocean Kayak
Ferndale, Washington

Perception Kayaks
Easley, South Carolina

Wilderness Systems Kayaks
Easley, South Carolina

Also look for information and reviews on many of these brands at