September 21, 2021
By Jay Nichols
This article was originally titled "A Hunter's Boat" in the June-July 2021 issue of Fly Fisherman magazine.
Kayaks were first developed by indigenous hunters of the subarctic (Inuit, Yup’ik, Aleut) for the inland lakes, rivers, and coastal waters of the Arctic Ocean, Bering Sea, North Atlantic, and North Pacific oceans. Because of kayaks, these people could survive and even thrive in the frigid climates. These craft gave them access to and an advantage over their ocean quarry, and they built a range of different styles of boats for different purposes.
Though the modern definition of the word has stretched from a small, human-powered boat propelled with a double-bladed paddle to include a wide category of boats that can be poled like a skiff, paddled by a partner, or powered by a trolling motor, one thing has stayed the same. Kayaks are still “hunter’s boats” (from the Yup’ik qayaq) and provide the ultimate stealthcraft for fly fishing. Jackson Kayak pro Alex Tejeda fishes for some of the wariest fish in the world—Florida Keys bonefish—and finds kayak fishing’s challenges worth the end results. “Saltwater flats fishing is a Rubick’s Cube. And fishing from a kayak isn’t easy, because you have to do at least five things right before you can even cast to a fish. You have to spot the fish, approach it, put down the paddle or pole, pick up a rod, and then cast. But with a kayak, you have such a small footprint. This gives you a better opportunity of getting closer to fish, and the closer you get, the better your chances are of casting to it and getting it to eat.”
You only have to spend an afternoon paddling down a river to get a keen sense of how kayaks allow you to get extremely close to fish and other wildlife. You become part of the river’s environment. But stealth is only one advantage. Shorebound anglers know that the farther you walk from the access points, the more fish you tend to catch. Kayaks allow you to float regions of rivers or lakes that shorebound anglers can’t reach, and also to areas where other boats can’t go—at least not as easily. And once you are on the water, you can portage a lot easier than with larger craft, which means that no side channel, or mangrove creek, becomes off limits. Both Alex Tejeda, who guides in no-motor zones in the Everglades, and Christi Holmes, who fishes Maine ponds and lakes where motors aren’t allowed, cite this as one of the most important advantages of choosing a kayak. Yes, the same can often be said of a pontoon boat or other personal watercraft, but I’d rather be in a kayak when I have to make tracks because it’s almost dark, and I’m 2 miles from the launch.
Picking the Right Boat
Whether simply used to float to the prime spots or as highly mobile fishing platforms decked out with enough gear to make a bass boat blush, the new generation of fishing kayaks offer anglers a wide range of options to suit their needs, and accessories to customize their craft. When an Inuit built his hunting boat, he built it to fit and ride to his own dimensions. I have read that when a hunter fell into the water or died while hunting, tribespeople said that he must have borrowed someone else’s kayak. True or not, this strikes me as a pretty good example of the “personal” in personal watercraft. While anglers today can buy complete fishing packages and be ready to roll, many kayakers prefer to customize their craft to suit their particular needs. DIY still runs strong among the kayak contingent.
Before purchasing a boat, it is important to understand some of the different characteristics so that you can make an informed decision about the best craft for your needs. The first step is to realistically assess those needs.
Before you buy, try as many different makes and models as you can. While you should read through the manufacturers’ specifications, nothing substitutes paddling and fishing out of a particular craft to make sure that it offers the comfort and stability, and other features such as speed, maneuverability, and storage (both closed and open, with bungees to hold your stuff) that you need. A test drive offers you the opportunity to evaluate the big things such as whether the boat is designed for the type of water that you fish in the most, but also things that might at first seem inconsequential, but ultimately make all the difference in the world, to you—can you pick the boat up to put it on your car? Is the seat comfortable? Can you get in and out easily? Can you stand in it? How does it actually feel to paddle? Do all the accessories and mounts serve your needs, or are they just there waiting to bite your fly line?
Generally speaking, kayaks designed for fly fishing are typically from 9 to 14 feet long, relatively wide for stability, have large cockpits for easy entry and exit, and offer plenty of storage. Within these general parameters, however, there is variation and increasing specialization as kayak fishing becomes more popular and more manufacturers create boats for specific fishing niches and water types.
Length. In general, the shorter the boat, the more maneuverable it is. The longer the boat, the harder it is to turn, but the better it tracks (stays straight). Longer boats, though they weigh more, also have more storage and are more efficient for covering distances.
Width. The wider the boat, the more stable it is, as long as it is flat on the water (narrow boats offer more stability at an angle, something called secondary stability). What you gain in width, you lose with extra weight and slower speed. If you plan to stand in your boat for casting and sight fishing, and this is one of the game changers in current kayak design, look for a beamy boat—every manufacturer has boats in their lineup with 33" or greater width, and most can be fitted with lean bars for added stability while standing.
Being able to stand up and fish is critical for sight fishing—everything from spotting to feeding fish—and also makes it easier to cast. However, it is also a great aid to your overall comfort during a long day on the water to be able and stand up for brief periods to stretch your legs. Though modern kayaks are very stable platforms, different people have different comfort levels with this, so it makes sense to work on your balance and core if needed to get the most out of the experience.
Donald Dehm, who operates Floating Feathers Kayak Fly Fishing School in Foley, Alabama, teaches people of all skill levels and ages how to get started fly fishing from kayaks. On the subject of standing up in a boat and maintaining balance, the first thing that he mentions is to not lock your knees. “Use your legs to move with the boat, and use your core to help maintain your balance. If you lock your legs, you are surely going to go over the edge of that kayak.”
There is no substitute for experience and time on the water getting your sea legs, but Dehm recommends the following exercise to condition your balance. “Balance on one foot, and put your other leg in front of or behind you. Then bend a little bit forward at the waist with your eyes open. You’ll feel a little bit of rocking back and forth as your natural balance takes over, and then when it does, close your eyes. This removes the brain focus point that it usually relies on for balance, and forces you to use your core muscles and relax your legs.” Yoga, pilates, and other similar activities are also very good, Dehm explains.
Weight. In general, the more a boat weighs, the higher its weight capacity (the load it effectively carries). A heavier boat is harder to transport, especially if you are cartopping it; however, Thule and Yakima both make accessories that make loading heavier boats easier. And on pedal-drive models or boats such as the Old Town kayaks with the trolling motors, these items come in/out fairly easily so you can subtract their weight from the actual handling weight of the boat.
On average, fishing kayaks are fairly heavy as kayaks go (from 60 to 80 pounds) because of their longer length and width, but the trade-off is stability and tons of extra features. Many kayak anglers use small utility trailers, and fully loaded kayaks can be transported to the water with a dolly/transport cart.
Paddle, Pedal, or Power?
Whether you prefer the simplicity and clean, hassle-free platform of a more traditional kayak or one fully rigged with the latest tech, there have never before been so many options for fly fishers to choose from.
Crescent Kayaks, based out of Carrolton, Georgia, got its start making kayaks primarily for recreational boating, which is primarily why paddle performance is at the heart of its designs. In July 2018 a fire ravaged their factory, and owner James Derbecker, with help from friends and colleagues, had to rebuild the company. The boat they launched the year after that fire was their flagship fishing kayak, the LiteTackle, and it has been gaining accolades from experienced anglers.
Dehm loves his LiteTackle for its paddle-ability, which is a mouthful often used in kayaking circles to describe how a boat feels and handles on the water under paddle power. He loves the boat for its effortlessness: “It is very reminiscent of the paddling performance you would get with a high-end recreational kayak. It glides, and turns, and maneuvers exceptionally well, yet offers everything that I need to effectively fly fish from.”
Paddling still offers advantages over pedals or power for some fly fishers. Not only does it require fewer moving parts, and that kind of simplicity is what drives many to fish from kayaks, many argue that a paddle is the stealthiest tool to get close to fish. The simplicity also means less to get in the way in the front of the boat, which is key consideration for fly fishing. On the other hand, having your hands free is invaluable.
California-based Hobie pioneered the first pedal-powered kayak in 1997 with the Mirage Drive, and has continued to push the envelope with pedal-powered technology. Today, other manufacturers such as Wilderness Systems, Perception, and Old Town offer pedal-powered boats as well. Some oft-cited advantages of foot-propulsion boats are that they are more efficient (both in paddle power and using your larger leg muscles), faster, and of course you can approach your quarry and control the boat with your rod ready. Many anglers report they are also more comfortable—sort of like riding a recumbent bike. Christi Holmes hails from Maine, where trolling streamers in freshwater lakes is part of tradition, and loves how easy this effective technique is with her pedal-driven Old Town Sportsman PDL. You can hold the rod in your hand and feed out or reel in line as you propel the boat with your feet.
Some pedal-powered boats, such as the Old Town or Jackson models, spin actual props under the boat. If you want to go backward, you simply pedal backward. Hobie’s Mirage system consists of two paddles that move under the boat as you pedal. One of the advantages of the paddles is that the blades flip up if you hit an obstruction or run shallow, and then reengage as you pedal forward. In shallow water, you can use partial pedal strokes to “flutter” the fins or push one crank arm forward so that both fins automatically fold up flat against the bottom of the hull, which also allows you to easily beach the boat or move through extremely shallow water.
Older versions of the Mirage required that you pop the drive out and reverse it to go backward, but the MirageDrive 180 allows you to go in reverse simply by pulling a shifter on the front of the drive. Hobie’s latest model, introduced in 2019, is the MirageDrive 360. The paddle system rotates in a complete circle on a set of gears controlled by a handle on the side of the boat, so when you pedal it moves the boat that way, allowing you to go sideways, forward, and reverse. Combined with right and left rudder controls (rudder is retractable by pulling a cord with a T handle), you can spin this boat on a dime if you need to, and you don’t need to pull any levers to move in reverse.
Adding a motor takes the speed and functionality of a kayak into high gear. Aside from the functionality and thrill of a personal-size bass boat, adding a trolling motor to a kayak is a real game changer for those who may have trouble pedaling or paddling. Anglers have been adding trolling motors to kayaks for some time now, either DIY or via a mounting package, but Maine-based Old Town’s latest model is the first to offer a fully integrated trolling motor system with the latest tech.
Their AutoPilot series of boats feature Minn Kota trolling motors with an I-Pilot remote and Spot-Lock, a GPS-based anchor that automatically keeps your boat in position where you set it. This helps combat currents, wind, and drift that can take you out of range, and allows you to focus on the presentation instead of controlling the boat. “Spot-Lock basically eliminates all of the difficulties associated with fishing from kayaks,” says Tyler Hicks, who fishes remote lakes in northern Washington from his Old Town AutoPilot. These boats are more expensive, and heavier. And, adding a motor adds a layer of complexity to your once-simple craft and one more thing to fail. However, Minn Kota’s reputation as a leader in trolling motors is without question, and you can always take the motor and battery out and cover the hole with a hatch, which offers lots of versatility.
Pump It Up
If storage or maximum portability are important, consider some of the new inflatable kayaks from Hobie, Outcast, and Scadden. Hobie’s new Mirage iTrek 9 Ultralight weighs only 20 pounds (approximately 35 with the seat and pedal drive) and rolls up into a rolling storage bag that is light enough to check as luggage. You can remove the MirageDrive HD (no reverse), pick up the three-piece paddle, and you have an almost-instant SUP that you can fish from. And if you think these are just gimmicks and not as functional as other boats, consider that Jim Czarnowski, head of engineering and design for Hobie, has fished for tuna on the iTrek 11. “Though the boats are light, you have a lot of control on the water with the drive and rudder system. We’ve tested them in some tough conditions, including surf launches and offshore fishing for tuna, where we launched these from a mothership and they performed great.”
Gear and Accessories
Kayaks outfitted with rail systems around the top and sides of the craft offer the greatest flexibility, as you can easily move and remove accessories—everything from cup holders to fish finders and GoPro mounts—depending on your needs that day. And, with a track system in place, you can move your gadgets to where they are least likely to catch your line. You can purchase a rail (or track) if your boat doesn’t already come with it.
Many fully rigged boats are not ideal for fly fishing, and veteran kayak anglers do everything possible to keep a snag-free boat. Captain Alex Tejeda likes a simple, no-frills boat that is stable enough to pole into position, and also has bare bones with nothing to snag his fly line. “I like a clean, open deck. No fish finders, no leaning poles. Nothing to get in the way of the fly line and nothing to get in the way of my focus, which is on my target, 20 to 30 feet in front of me.”
In addition to a boat, you’re going to need a paddle and a personal floatation device (PFD). Everything else is an option. Paddles are a whole subject unto themselves, but longer paddles are generally better for the wider fishing boats. For instance, for a boat that is 29" to 33" wide and an angler under 6 feet, a 90.5- to 94.5-inch paddle is a good place to start (some paddles are telescoping). You will need to have a plan for your paddle when you are fishing, and paddle holders range from brackets to bungees, depending on the boat and your preference. Bending Branches (bendingbranches.com) makes a paddle with a tape measure and built-in hook retriever specifically for anglers. Accent’s Transformer paddlecan be used as a SUP paddle, kayak paddle, and push/stakeout pole.
PFDs. A personal floatation device (PFD) is a critical item, and one that most states require you to have. Spend your money on a good one, and wear it first while sitting in your kayak chair and paddling and casting to make sure you are comfortable in it; then, wear it all the time.
Many PFDs have easily accessible storage, much like a fishing vest. NRS, MTI, Kokatat, Stohlquist, and other manufacturers make designs for kayaking (pick one designed to accommodate the high back of your kayak fishing seat) and plenty of storage for fishing. Attach a safety whistle to your PFD.
If you wear waders when you are kayaking, use both a wading belt and a PFD. While you will float when wearing a PFD, wading belt, and waders, successfully self-rescuing while you and clothes are sopping wet in moving water is another issue. The added water weight in your clothes may be enough to prevent you from being able to climb back in your boat. Speaking of self-rescue, practicing this maneuver, as well as basic paddling, or poling, fundamentals, are as important as practicing your casting before getting into a kayak.
Anchor/stakeout pole. Since I tend to use my boat mostly as transportation from spot to spot on rivers, I don’t often use an anchor. However, many kayaking fly fishers consider them essential for fishing in slow-moving rivers or stillwaters.
The most common anchors are folding models with grappling arms. For faster water, use a heavier anchor; for slow water, a light one is fine. Make sure you have enough anchor rope to allow the anchor to find purchase on something along the bottom.
You should mount the anchor in the bow or on the stern, never on the side of the boat. An anchor trolley is basically a ring on a pulley system that runs from bow to stern. Your anchor line (or tether to stakeout pole) attaches to the ring, which you can move to stern or bow depending on where you want to anchor.
In addition to using an anchor, you can also use other means of slowing down or stopping your boat, including a wind sock (chute), drag chain, bush clamp, or stakeout poles. Stakeout poles offer several advantages: They are lighter than an anchor, you can stop on a dime, they are stealthier than throwing an anchor, and they double as a pole for a super-stealthy approach.
Rod holders. One of the advantages of fishing from any boat is the ability to easily carry multiple rods, rigged and ready, so that you don’t waste any time changing things up. Having several rods rigged with streamers, nymphs, and dry flies, or even different styles of the same type of fly, can save you a lot of time during the day. Hobie’s boats come with their mounting systems for a wide range of accessories, but companies such as YakAttack offer adapters (YakAttack Mighty Mount) as well as mounts for rail systems that allow you to attach everything from rod holders to paddle holders to GoPros. Anglers use the rear cargo areas for a variety of things, but common options are small, lighter-weight coolers such as soft-sided options from Yeti, or additional storage crates such as the BlackPak (yakattack.us).
Keep in mind that the more mounts you have and the more stuff, in general, that you have in and on the boat, the more things there are to grab your fly line. Try to keep your mounts behind you where they won’t catch your line. Dehm recommends using a wet towel to cover foot pedals, and Juan Veruete often brings a removable tape such as black gaffer’s tape to cover up anything that might snag his line. “If you just remove the amount of line entanglements that are going to create a hassle for you,” Dehm states, “you’ve already improved your ability to fish.”
Kayak Experts and Their Craft
Captain Alexis (Alex) Tejeda
Captain Alexis (Alex) Tejeda is on the Jackson Kayaks pro staff and operates Bone Collector Kayak Fishing, a South Florida guide service specializing in fly fishing from kayaks.
Water: South Florida, Miami area, from Biscayne Bay to the Keys and west through the Everglades.
Fish: Snook, redfish, tarpon, bonefish, permit, and a host of other species, from peacocks to snakeheads to Lake Okeechobee largemouths.
Boat: Jackson Big Rig. “It’s a slower-paddling boat because of its size, but the size makes it more comfortable to fish out of, and it handles bigger water well. I can do a 360 in the boat and not worry about falling in, and it is easy to pole. My clients also feel very comfortable standing in it.”
Christi Holmes is an ambassador for Old Town kayaks and a registered Maine hunting and fishing guide.
Water: Stillwaters in the Portland, Maine area, as well as Casco Bay for stripers.
Fish: Brook trout (favorite species), bass, and striped bass.
Boat: Old Town Sportsman Salty PDL and Old Town Sportsman AutoPilot. “Both of these boats have a super stable hull design that allows me to stand up and fish comfortably, even in the ocean. The pedal system on the Salty PDL is intuitive, and learning to fish from it comes naturally. The new Autopilot has an open deck, which is great for fly casting, and the Spot-Lock feature on the Minn Kota keeps you in the zone without the need for an anchor.”
Juan Veruete is on the Wilderness Systems pro staff and has over 40 years of fishing experience in Pennsylvania. He is an American Canoe Association certified kayak instructor.
Water: Susquehanna and Juniata rivers.
Fish: Smallmouth bass.
Boat: Wilderness Systems A.T.A.K. (available in 12' and 14’ foot lengths). “Love this boat for river fishing. It has plenty of storage, it’s fairly snag-free in front, and is stand-up stable, which makes it my go-to boat for fly fishing. It has really good initial stability, which means that, as you go to stand up, it feels very stable and safe with little wobble.”
Donald Dehm operates Floating Feathers Kayak Fly Fishing, a school specializing in teaching the basics of fly fishing and fishing from a kayak.
Water: Inshore waters around Gulf Shores, Alabama, such as the Bon Secour River and Mobile Bay, as well as the Pensacola, Florida area and Louisiana.
Fish: Redfish, trout, flounder, as well as beach fishing for pompano and kingfish.
Boat: Crescent Kayak LiteTackle. Dehm has paddled hundreds of boats and loves how this one handles on the water: “This is not a fishing kayak that you paddle; this is a paddling kayak that you fish from. The paddle performance is just unparalleled. Not only does it handle exceptionally well, it just feels good and effortless. I feel like I am getting every ounce of energy back out of that boat that I put into it. I also love its simplicity. There aren’t a lot of bells and whistles on the deck to get in the way of fly fishing.”
Jay Nichols is the Northeast Field Editor for Fly Fisherman, owner of Headwater Books (headwaterbooks.com), and author of Keystone Fly Fishing.