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Get Off the Bank: Catching Bass & Panfish from a Kayak

A kayak allows you to leave the shoreline vegetation and muddy bottoms to access water you could never reach by fishing on shore.

Get Off the Bank: Catching Bass & Panfish from a Kayak

Modern kayaks are wide and stable for standing, and they are customizable to adapt to any fishing situation in still or moving waters. (Ryan Lilly photo)

Warmwater fly fishing has never been as popular as fly fishing for trout. Perhaps it is the environments in which these fish live. Most trout live in streams, which are easy to walk or wade. While some warmwater lakes and ponds may have open shorelines friendly to fly casting, the banks of most stillwaters and other bass and panfish waterways are often impenetrable jungles. Wading is not usually an option, as thick aquatic vegetation often lines the shore, and the lake bottoms are regularly soft and muddy, making wading impossible. However, a kayak allows you to leave the bank behind, and access water you could never reach by fishing on shore. It’s the ultimate fishing freedom.

Modern Kayaks

My first kayak was a narrow sit-in touring boat that threatened to dump me every time I shifted my weight. There was no room to store gear, no rod holders, no tackle storage, and no way to mount accessories or an anchor. Despite all its shortcomings, that boat gave me mobility. With that kayak, I could fish water never available to me before, and I immediately started catching more fish.

A lady sitting in a kayak, holding a large smallmouth bass and a fly rod.
A kayak gives you the freedom to fish submerged midlake structure, as well as holding water along the bank that is often overgrown. A kayak also allows you to quietly get close to the fish and sight fish for them without being intrusive. (Guillermo Gonzalez photo)

The modern fishing kayak I fish out of today bears little resemblance to my first boat. Today’s sit-on-top, fishing-specific kayaks are stable, comfortable fishing platforms, steady enough to stand and cast without fear of tipping over. These boats offer plenty of storage for rods, tackle, a cooler, and anything else you may need for a day on the water. Some even have enough storage capacity for overnight camping trips. These kayaks can also be easily outfitted with fish finders and other electronics, anchor systems, and some have pedal drives or electric outboards that allow you to cover water effortlessly.

As fly fishers, our needs differ from those using spin- or bait-casting gear. Most fishing kayaks are designed with those anglers in mind. Fly fishing requires a boat specifically designed for that purpose, or at least one that can be modified to fit your needs. What makes fly fishing so different from other forms of angling? Two words—line management.

When you’re casting, you strip line from the reel in preparation for the cast. For anglers waist deep in a stream or standing on the bank, the line falls harmlessly into the water or on the ground. However, in a kayak, the line snags on everything. Anything that can grab or tangle a fly line will do so, often at the worst possible moment!

If you already own a kayak designed for conventional fishing, you may be able to modify it to make it more fly friendly. For example, you may be able to remove or reposition objects in the cockpit that can snag fly lines. What can’t be removed should be covered with a towel or duct tape to keep fly lines from getting caught. The towel trick also works great for kayaks with pedal drives.

You should also strongly consider using a stripping basket of some type to control and contain loose coils of line. I use the Ahrex Flexistripper in my kayak. The ECOastal Stripping Basket from Scientific Anglers has a similar open design with flexible spikes to prevent tangles and help your line shoot cleanly. Both are lightweight, and the ECOastal Stripping Basket uses Velcro to attach to a waist belt. You can use the Velcro to attach it just about anywhere on a kayak.

Safety First

A kayak gets you much farther from the bank, and often to where the fish are, but with that come inherent safety concerns. The first priority is a personal flotation device (PFD). This piece of safety equipment is often required by law. A PFD should be worn and not tucked behind the seat, strapped to the deck, or stashed in a storage compartment. In addition, a signaling device such as a whistle is also often required. A whistle blast carries much farther than a human voice and requires much less effort. An air horn is even better.

I also strongly recommend a tow rope or throw bag—a throwable rope used to assist another kayaker or yourself. Whitewater kayakers always have a throw rope, and while the waters where we fish are more benign, anything can happen out there. You may use it to save a complete stranger.

Paddle floats and re-entry ladders can assist you in getting back in the boat should you capsize or fall out. A bilge pump and a large sponge help get unwanted water out of your kayak. A spare breakdown paddle is always a good idea should you lose your own paddle.

Also, consider bringing a first aid kit and signaling devices such as flares or a strobe light. A bright headlamp can signal for help, but is more commonly used just for personal navigation after dark.

I always have a knife or multi-tool with me, even on dry land. On a kayak, I also keep a quick-release safety knife within reach to cut away a snagged anchor line or free myself from an entanglement, usually a fishing line left behind by a careless angler. When you have your own anchor rope on board or you are paddling anywhere there might be other boaters in distress, carry a knife.


My other suggestions would be to carry a dry bag with a spare set of clothes, a towel, a warm jacket, and anything else that needs to be kept dry. This is especially important in the spring and the fall, when the weather can be unpredictable and the water is cold.

If you are paddling in wilderness areas or just unfamiliar waters, carry a phone or VHF radio to call for help, GPS device, or compass and nautical charts.

A fishing kayak pulled up on a lakeshore.
(Bart Lombardo photo)

Rigging for Fishing

I consider a few pieces of equipment essential on any fishing kayak. The first is an anchor system. In a kayak, you will quickly discover that you are at the mercy of the wind. In the time it takes you to pick up your fly rod and strip enough line to make a cast, you can find yourself blown out of casting range or, even worse, right over the spot you intended to fish. Success in fly fishing depends not so much on just covering the water, but making accurate casts to productive water types.

I use two anchor systems to hold my position while fishing: an anchor trolley, and a Power-Pole Micro Anchor. The anchor trolley allows me to anchor the boat from the bow or the stern of the kayak. In wind or current, these are the best positions for the anchor, but on a kayak they are normally out of arm’s reach. With the trolley system you can easily place the anchor in the front or the back. The Micro Anchor sticks quickly, which is helpful when I spot a fish or sometimes when I’m fighting a fish. When I use them together, I can precisely position the boat even in the windiest conditions.

A one-handed paddle can be handy. With it, I can quickly change the position of the boat while drifting along a shoreline or in calm conditions, using it to move the kayak along a stretch of shoreline while I fish. It is quicker and easier than picking up my main paddle whenever I need to tweak my  position.

Fish finders help you locate fish, and they display underwater structures and bottom composition. Modern products also have GPS capabilities for marking hot spots so you can return quickly to the same location on another day. Some come preloaded with maps and charts, which is helpful when exploring new waters.

A quality carbon fiber paddle is a worthwhile investment. They are lightweight, strong, and designed for efficient paddling. Make sure you use a gear leash to keep from losing it if you drop it overboard.

With today’s modern, wide kayaks, standing is not difficult, but getting to the standing position can be a challenge. For fly fishing especially, you should have a stand-assist strap. This strap attaches near the bow of the kayak, and you pull on it to help you stand up or lower yourself back into your seat. It helps keep you balanced and spreads the load so your legs don’t have to do all the work. Switching to standing position helps keep you comfortable through the day, and makes spotting fish and casting a little easier.

Kayak Strategies

Warmwater fish often orient themselves to structures along the shore. In many cases, it is impossible to fish these places properly from the bank. A kayak allows you to effectively fish the shoreline structures as well as deeper, offshore areas.

Trolling flies can also be a very effective way to cover the water. I often troll flies when I’m  moving from one spot to another, often catching fish as I travel. If your kayak has a pedal or electric drive unit, you can hold your rod in your hands. Otherwise, you need a rod holder to secure the fly rod while paddling.

When the wind is blowing in the right direction, you can use it to help you drift along a shoreline or over midlake structures. A hand paddle is useful for minor changes to the boat’s position. If your kayak has a rudder, you can use it to improve  the boat drift. Good kayak anglers know how to use the rudder to set up efficient drifts so they can concentrate on the fishing.

A kayak can also transport you to shallower areas where you can get out and wade. This happens a lot in salt water but can also happen in warmwater fisheries like slow-moving streams where there is a hard, cobble bottom. I frequently get out and wade; and when I do, I tether the boat to my waist with a short rope, and pull the kayak behind me as I fish.

Landing a fish takes some consideration as well. Smaller fish like panfish are simple, merely lift them over the side. But what about a larger fish? Where is your net stored? Can you reach it easily while still battling a fish with one hand?

I learned my lesson the hard way when I stowed my net on the right side of the boat, and being a right-handed caster, I fumbled around trying to reach the net while I was hooked to a big fish. I now store it on the left side of the boat, where I can easily access it. If you fish for large toothy predators like pickerel, pike, and muskies, a Fish Grip or a BogaGrip are musts for handling them within the small confines of a kayak.

Large bluegills can move my 150-pound kayak with 230 pounds of fisherman sitting in it. When fishing shoreline cover for larger fish like bass, I often anchor my boat before casting. This prevents the fish from dragging me toward the shore as I apply pressure to move it away from the cover.  

Sooner or later, you will encounter a large fish that swims under the boat as you attempt to land it. The easiest solution (if your kayak is not too long) is to swing the rod around the bow and bring it to the opposite side. Of course, this is impossible if you have an anchor positioned off the bow. Performing the same maneuver around the stern of the boat is often tricky because rods may be stored behind the seat or, in my case, a Micro Pole system. A quick-disconnect system and a float on your anchor line is one solution; the other is the trusty hand paddle. If I don’t have two anchors dropped, I can pivot the boat, so the fish and my rod are back on the same side of the kayak.

When landing fish, it’s crucial to keep your center of gravity over the kayak’s centerline. I once watched an angler battling a sizable largemouth bass, and he flipped his kayak as he reached out to lip the big fish. Even though he dumped his kayak, he never let go of that fish!

Kayak Hazards

There are a few hazards to be aware of when fishing from a kayak. First and foremost is the danger of falling out of or capsizing the boat. If you find yourself in the water with your boat upside down, do you know how to right the kayak and get back on board? If the answer is no, you should practice re-entry techniques under controlled conditions in warm weather before you head out on the water to do some real fishing. You don’t want to have to figure it out for the first time in an emergency situation. Many resources are available to help you learn the proper techniques for getting back in your boat. A quick search on YouTube is a good place to start.

Always check the weather before heading out, as you don’t want to be on the water during a thunderstorm. Wind can also be a problem. On more than one occasion, I have had the wind pick up or change direction, making paddling very difficult. Wind can also generate dangerous waves on larger bodies of water.

Powerboats can be a problem in some bodies of water. A low-floating kayak is difficult to see on the water. A brightly colored flag on a tall pole may help boaters see your kayak. In lakes and rivers where there is a lot of high-speed boating, it’s  best to stick close to the shoreline and other areas where motorized boats don’t go.  

Moving water offers its own hazards, including rapids, midstream boulders, sweepers (an accumulation of logs and other debris that can trap you and your kayak), and low-head dams, to name a few. Unless you are already an experienced paddler, it is best to start with flat water. Navigating currents, dodging obstacles, and trying to fish simultaneously make a recipe for disaster.

Choosing a Kayak

When you’re selecting a kayak, the first choice you have to make is whether you want a sit-in or a sit-on-top style kayak. A sit-on-top model is the best choice for fly fishers. They are stable, comfortable to fish from, and are designed for stability. Here are some of the features I look for in a kayak designed for fly fishing:

  • A wide, stable sit-on-top model that maneuvers well. A stable kayak often sacrifices some paddling performance, but several manufacturers have made great strides in this area, combining stability and ease of paddling.
  • An elevated, comfortable seat. Look for a seat that allows you to adjust the height. Dropping the seat will lower your center of gravity, making the boat more stable and much safer when paddling in rough conditions. A high seat position is generally more comfortable for all-day fishing and helps you see down into the water.
  • A kayak designed for fly fishing may have storage features designed for the fly fisher, such as rod holders specifically designed for fly rods and dry storage for fly boxes and other fly-fishing accessories.
  • Watertight storage areas for extra clothing, raingear, and equipment
  • A cargo area to store a cooler or tackle storage systems.
  • Compatibility to mount fish finders and anchor systems.
  • Track systems for mounting fishing accessories.
  • A clear open deck that keeps your line clear of obstacles. I can’t stress the importance of this feature enough!
Jackson Coosa X
Jackson Coosa X kayak
$1,899 |
  • Length: 11'8"
  • Width: 36"
  • Weight: 98 lbs.
  • Capacity: 425 lbs.
  • Material: Rotomolded polyethylene
  • Propulsion System: Paddle

Ideal Applications: Adventure river trips, kayak camping, river fishing, or exploring small creeks and tributaries. This is one of the newer categories of fishing kayaks expressly designed for moving water, with a bit more rocker in the hull and volume in the bow. The 36-inch width makes it easier to stand than narrower kayaks.

Overview: The Coosa has adjustable high/low seating, and a bow and stern designed to accommodate electric motors. It has adjustable footbraces and paddle clips. For electronics, there is a channel in the middle of the forward deck to run wires, and the scupper is well positioned to accept a transducer. It has adjustable rod stagers to secure your rods while running rapids, and two flush holders installed behind the seat. There are ample gear tracks in logical points around the hull, including two small tracks at the bow for cameras or anchor accessories, plus Jackson’s TriTrak multi-functional top-load track port and starboard in the cockpit.  

Noteworthy Features: With added volume in the bow for river running and moving water, and a deck laid out to meet a variety of rigging needs, the Coosa X is Jackson’s premier river and small-water fishing kayak. It’s equipped with a molded “drift chamber”—a channel for drag chains/anchors to be used smoothly without installing any additional parts. It is designed to easily adapt to an Anchor Wizard.

$1,899 |

Hobie Mirage Passport 12.0 R
Hobie Mirage Passport 12.0 R Kayak
$1,999 |
  • Length: 12'
  • Width: 34"
  • Weight: 73 lbs.
  • Capacity: 400 lbs.
  • Material: Rotomolded polyethylene
  • Propulsion System: Hobie MirageDrive GT pedal propulsion system with Kick-Up Fin Technology

Ideal Applications: This is for full-day fishing and long trips where you can take advantage of the speed and efficiency of MirageDrive propulsion. The Mirage Passport 12.0 R construction is suitable for all waters and can accommodate nearly any salt- and freshwater fishing tactics.

Overview: This is the new rotomolded edition of the popular Passport 12.0. A good entry-level kayak in Hobie’s lineup of MirageDrive boats, it’s a durable, lightweight kayak outfitted with all the basic features you’d need, with numerous points for customizing and upgrades. The rudder is included, and the control is positioned to the left side of the aluminum-frame, breathable mesh seat. It might be a good choice for your first boat, or to add to your fleet to bring a new fishing buddy. It’s available in seagrass green, slate blue, and ivory dune colors.

Noteworthy Features: This kayak has a transducer cavity for easy installation of a fishfinder, as well as under-seat and gunnel storage spaces. It has a Power-Pole Micro bracket indent, two rod holders, bow and stern bungees, two accessory tracks,  and an 8" Twist-n-Seal hatch.

$1,999 |

Old Town Sportsman PDL 120
Old Town Sportsman PDL 120 Kayak
$2,750 |
  • Length: 12'
  • Width: 36"
  • Weight (including drive): 116 lbs.
  • Capacity: 384 lbs.
  • Material: Single-layer polyethylene
  • Propulsion System: PDL Drive

Ideal Applications: The sportsman PDL 120 is ideal for anglers who desire true hands-free fishing with instant forward and reverse. The PDL drive is perfect for everything from working docks to open-water fishing and covering ground quickly.

Overview: Old Town Sportsman kayaks are designed with a lot of angler input from different fisheries, and like all the boats in the lineup, the Sportsman PDL 120 exhibits a wide range of useful and durable features. Flush-mount rod holders are sized right and positioned where you’d want them (two angled behind the seat, a third at your right hand). Storage compartments and cup holders molded into the hull cockpit contain essentials you’ll want close for immediate use, and space beneath the seat is much appreciated for frequent-use tools and tackle trays. There is ample space in the stern tankwell for any crate, and dry storage at the bow. EVA foam deck pads are included for secure footing while stand-up fishing.

Note Worthy Features:  The Sportsman PDL 120 features the award-winning PDL drive and is backed by a 5-year drive warranty as well as a limited lifetime hull warranty. It features accessory tracks, storage options, rod holders, dry storage, and the ultra-stable Double U hull design.

$2,750 |

BonaFIde RVR119
Bonafide RVR119
$1,649 |
  • Length: 11'9"
  • Width: 35"
  • Weight: 85 lbs.
  • Capacity: 425 lbs.
  • Material: Rotomolded polyethylene
  • Propulsion System: Paddle, capable of being motorized (torqeedo)

Ideal Applications: This river-specific hull has a uniquely designed skeg system to enhance tracking, maneuverability, and stability in moving water. The skeg retracts automatically if it contacts rocks or timber. You can fish from the hand-sewn, adjustable seat, or stand on the nonslip padded deck. Trout, smallmouth bass, stripers, muskies—any of the moving-water targets are on the hit list for this new rig from Bonafide.

Overview: The Bonafide RVR119 comes with bow and stern channels to accommodate a  bow anchor or stern drag chain. The stern tankwell is designed to hold a 13x13, 13x16 or 16x16 BlackPak. The deck is sloped to speed runoff through scuppers. There is a forward Boss Strap rod and paddle stager, and just behind it, the Triple Action Bow Strap, which can be used to pull the kayak, tie down bags, or organize rods for transport to and from the water. There are also fore and aft access plates if you need to get into the hull to install lights, wiring, or other accessories. The aluminum foot braces may be converted into steering for a stern-mounted electric motor. There are inserts pre-installed on the gunnel for a YakAttack RotoGrip or LockNLoad Track Base, and groove tracks astern of the seat for installing a Sidekick Wheel System for convenient transport from the truck or trailer to the water.

Noteworthy Features: There is a removable Dry Pod for installing a fishfinder, battery, and transducer (interchangeable with other Bonafide kayaks), as well as integrated Anchor Wizard pulley landings. It’s easy to install the anchors. There is no drilling required, and all of the internal tubing is installed at the factory.

$1,649 |

NRS Pike Inflatable Fishing Kayak
NRS Pike Inflatable Fishing Kayak
$1,395 |
  • Length: 12'8"
  • Width: 38"
  • Weight: 48 lbs.
  • Capacity: 375 lbs.
  • Material: PVC
  • Propulsion System: Paddle

Ideal Applications: The NRS Pike Inflatable Fishing Kayak is rigged and ready for adventure in remote waters. With thoughtful design elements for on-the-water performance, the Pike also features limitless rigging options to fit your fishing style.

Overview: With a bit more side tube diameter than the Kuda series (also from NRS), adjustable foot braces, and the rigid keel insert in the bow, the Pike fishes very much like a conventional kayak, paddling surely and smoothly alongside any rotomolded companions you may encounter on a trip. With options for different skegs (fins), YakAttack accessory mounts, bungee web, and numerous tie-down points, it’s easy to add what you need for a day of fishing. Upgrade to the Pro Package and get a paddle and five YakAttack accessories.

Noteworthy Features: The Pike combines a high-pressure 4" drop-stitch deck that inflates to 8 PSI with 10.5" side tubes to create a super-stable platform to sit, stand, or move around as you cast. A rigid keel insert in the bow provides enhanced tracking on flat water.

$1,395 |

Native Falcon 11
Native Falcon II Kayak
$1,049 |
  • Length: 11"
  • Width: 32.5"
  • Weight: 65 lbs.
  • Capacity: 325 lbs.
  • Material: Rotomolded polyethylene
  • Propulsion System: Paddle

Ideal Applications: Light and compact, this kayak can get into water off the beaten path. Perfect for rivers, lakes, and streams.

Overview: The Falcon II has high/low frame seating, a console for battery and transducer scupper access, stand-up pads, and ample groove track and dual flush mounted rod holders. This boat occupies the throw-and-go niche—sized for relatively easy transport on a truck bed or roof rack, outfitted with basic comfort and fishing features for fresh- or saltwater fun, and designed for a bit of customization that inevitably bubbles up as users get familiar with new fisheries.

Noteworthy Features: This boat has a bow hatch, adjustable foot braces, and a replaceable skid plate. Available in a vibrant shark blue color as well as orange and gray.

$1,049 |

Kushion Kompany Kayak Kushion
A Kushion Kompany Kayak Kushion in a kayak
$65 |

All-day comfort is something all serious kayak anglers should consider. The Kayak Kushion comes in square or round, and original or firm. A patented lightweight, non-collapsible, and breathable foam material keeps you focused on your casts, not on your aching back and rear end. Tactical straps with anti-slip metal cam buckles on the cover allow you to strap the Kushion to any seat. The zippers access the Kushion and are placed on the sides so your back and legs aren’t rubbing into them. The Kushions come in a variety of colors and fish patterns like rainbow trout, smallmouth bass, muskie, and a special-edition tarpon. Pair the Kushion with the KUSH-Bar lumbar support ($55) for even more comfort.

$65 |

Berleypro Side Bro
A Berleypro Side Bro tackle organizer on a kayak.
$59 |

Other than catching fish, the best part of having a fishing kayak is customizing it. Australian-based

BerleyPro offers storage solutions to keep your critical fishing tools at hand, while being safely tucked away. The Side Bro holds pliers, fish grips, and other tools in ergonomically positioned horizontal slots. A large pocket holds extra gear like a cell phone or fly box. The front lip has notches to hang gear or dry flies. Drain holes keep everything dry. A bungee is attached for small tool retention. The Side Bro can be mounted on any flat surface and comes in a left- or right-side configuration.

$59 |

Dakota Lithium Batteries
A Dakota Lithium battery
Price Varies |

Many kayak accessories such as fishfinders and trolling motors require the correct voltage to operate efficiently. Dakota Lithium batteries are at the forefront of kayak angler innovation. These condensed batteries are up to 60% lighter, have twice the run time (amp hours), charge five times faster, and last four times longer compared to traditional batteries. Lithium iron phosphate engineering is built to withstand harsh temperatures and environments. A smaller footprint in your kayak allows for customization and better organization. Offered in multiple voltages and amp hours, Dakota Lithium has the right battery to keep you confident and on the water longer. All batteries come with a best-in-class 11-year warranty and lifetime support, which reduces electronic waste.

Price Varies |

Bart Lombardo is the founder of the popular website He guides fly fishers through South Branch Outfitters in Califon, New Jersey and is currently working on a new book called Panfish on the Fly: The Definitive Guide for Fly Fishing for America’s Favorite Fish (Imbrifex Books, 2024).

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