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Slow & Stealthy: Making the Case for a Midlife Kayak

Wobble-free seamless transitions from positioning the boat to fishing, and more.

Slow & Stealthy: Making the Case for a Midlife Kayak
There are many reasons to fish from a kayak, but perhaps the most important is stealth. Kayaks are quiet and sit low in the water. They allow you to get close to the fish without alarming them. At times, this helps you catch more fish, and it helps you observe things that you’d likely never see in a larger craft. (George Daniel photo)

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As I evolve from a trout snob into a fish bum, I’m beginning to explore countless new waters close to home, which hold healthy numbers of warmwater species. Compared to my trout waters—where walking and wading opportunities are endless—these larger warmwater fisheries are better accessed using watercraft. As a result, I’ve gone down the rabbit hole that threatens all fly fishers wanting to take their fishing to the next level—purchasing a fishing boat.

This notion of finding the perfect watercraft is like searching for the perfect fly rod. It’s a fool’s errand. Speaking personally, I’ve purchased ten boats during the last seven years (johnboats, jet boats, drift boats, rafts, stand-up paddleboards, and now kayaks) as I searched for the one that will check off all the boxes. In many ways this has become an unhealthy obsession, trying to find my one true floating Excalibur. I know I’m not alone in this quest. My friend and author Henry Cohen once said to me, “George, I’m not just the president of Boats Anonymous, but I’m also a client.” The struggle is real.

I have yet to find (and likely never will) my one and only floating fly-fishing vessel. However, I’ve incorporated a modern fishing kayak into my current system and can say it’s quickly becoming my favorite.

Why A Kayak?

When I read about the rising popularity of kayak fishing, I began researching. They carry hefty price tags, so my initial thought was, “Why not just buy a cheap johnboat?” I hung onto that attitude for years. This took a sudden turn while I was watching a spin fisher work a section of water on a local river. While drifting in my jet boat one foggy morning, I watched him stand upright in his kayak and work a topwater lure. He was picking bass off my favorite logjam. Curious, I anchored and watched him closely.

A fly angler holding a musky next to a kayak.
Kayaks are most appropriate for stillwaters and for wide, low-gradient rivers where you can cruise slowly or anchor. This opens up a world of fly fishing for smallmouth bass, carp, and muskies. Kayaks are not great for swift, rocky trout streams. (George Daniel photo)

I saw that he moved around on the tiny vessel with absolutely no wobble, even as he switched rods and changed lures several times. The boat’s performance was impressive. More important, he looked like he was having a great time on his small but stable watercraft.

I crossed paths with this angler several more times that day, and every time I watched him, the more interested I became in getting a kayak for myself.

The biggest selling point for me was observing his seamless transition from positioning the boat to fishing. He was standing up, moving around, and bending over to land fish or reach for his tackle box, and never once did I see the kayak come close to tipping over. I couldn’t get over how stable this kayak appeared. Watching him easily cart his kayak down a walking path and launch it from the riverbank sparked a long list of river and lake locations I could access with this setup. Instead of using the crowded lake launches with my jet boat and having to motor several miles to fish, I could easily cart my kayak 40 yards down a trail and launch immediately. A kayak could check off a lot of boxes for me.

I soon purchased my first kayak for solo missions. I own several rafts and jet boats and enjoy using them when fishing with friends and family, but not when I’m fishing on my own. I wanted a watercraft that I could easily launch myself, required little setup time, and had enough space to carry my essentials. I eventually purchased a second kayak for my 13-year-old son. It’s ironic that I bought a larger jet boat several years ago so my family could fish together, but now my son wants to do his own thing. I get it.

At his age I was no different. The kayak allowed him to operate his own program. He was previously stuck fishing where his dad wanted to fish. With his own kayak, he controls his own destiny and wants to fish more now than he ever did. In many ways a fishing kayak is like a kid’s first bike—a tool capable of creating confidence and independence on the water.

A graphic showing a kayak and paragraphs of description.
$4,999.99 | https://oldtownwatercraft.johnsonoutdoors.com/us

Kayak Types

This is not a sales pitch for a certain brand—there are many wonderful kayak options out there for fly fishers. I ended up purchasing the same make and model I saw my new friend using—the Old Town 120 AutoPilot. I wanted a platform with lots of open room to move comfortably, along with ample space in the rear to carry additional gear. Second, the boat needs stability for casting when standing up, and for repositioning my body in case I suddenly need to switch casting sides.

Stability is a must if you plan to stand up while fly fishing. Most modern fly-fishing kayaks allow you to rock your body while casting, or lean over to release a large fish without creating the sensation of tipping over. These craft feel rock solid, reducing my fear of tipping over while fishing. While I don’t recommend this for everyone, I regularly use my kayak during the winter. I don’t worry about tipping in these kayaks! You will sacrifice some speed by choosing a stable kayak, but I’m in no rush when fishing in kayak mode.

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Along with the stability, another selling point was the AutoPilot’s trolling motor positioned near the bow. I’ve only used the trolling motor to get back upriver to my truck or against a strong downstream wind. Other than that, I use the paddles to get me to my general fishing location—and I enjoy the exercise. The remote-controlled Minn Kota trolling motor allows me to make micro-adjustments in boat position while drifting. The Spot-Lock option is fantastic anytime you want the motor to hold you in a specific spot. Between the stability and room to move and store gear—it was the kayak best suited for my needs. And I paid full price for it.

A young man holding a small bass standing on a kayak.
Kayaks give you independence. You can get out on the water when your friends are not available. You can also split up on the water. For the author’s son, a kayak gave him the opportunity to test his own theories, explore his own water, and catch his own fish. (George Daniel photo)

I wanted a kayak with rudder control. Rudder control is my first choice for positioning the boat in moving water, since it’s the stealthiest. A trolling motor and paddle make noise and create movement in the water, which risks alerting spooky fish. I’ve witnessed smallmouths, largemouths, and many carp spook when I applied even the quietest paddle stroke to the water. This is the most important reason I decided to purchase a kayak—it’s stealthy even in extremely shallow water. Compared to small rafts or drift boats, kayaks have less surface area, and I believe they create less sound and movement when moving through the water.

Last summer I drifted within a rod’s length of countless bass and carp, allowing for short and accurate casts. I could never achieve this level of stealth when fishing from any other type of watercraft. A rudder allows me to make minor adjustments to my drift with little or no noise or vibration. Again, using just the rudder to change the boat direction allows for the stealthiest drifts, but I use my paddle and trolling motor in other situations. It’s good to have multiple options for positioning the boat.

And the rudder is a must when retrieving large streamers and heavy fly lines. For example, big muskie patterns and fly lines have a large surface area, which creates a heavy anchor on the water. Think in terms of the fly line and muskie flies pulling you toward them. The larger the pattern and heavier the line, the greater the anchor they possess to pull you toward their position while you’re retrieving the fly line.

I was surprised how obvious this concept was last fall when I began to use my kayak for muskie fishing. Without the rudder turned in the opposite direction, the large muskie streamer pulled my kayak off my drift line and directly toward the bank with the second retrieve.

I position the rudder in the opposite direction to counter this movement. Other variables will dictate rudder position, but if you plan to retrieve large patterns with heavy fly lines, the rudder is an essential tool to keep you drifting properly instead of getting pulled toward your pattern. The rudder is also useful for dealing with light crosswinds. Boat-positioning skills are just as important as fly-fishing skills. Having multiple options for positioning your boat will increase your success rate and bring more strikes.

A graphic showing a kayak and paragraphs of description.
$1,999 | scheels.com

Water Types

When considering any watercraft purchase, a good question to ask yourself is: “What water types do I plan to fish?” I say this because I don’t often use my kayak for my local trout waters, which are typically fast, shallow, and zigzagging. My fishing kayaks are designed for solo operation—and the dynamic nature of my trout waters makes it challenging to maneuver and fish at the same time. This is not to say it can’t be done, but it’s not ideal, given the amount of time and effort needed to properly position the boat before presenting the fly. For this reason I use my raft more than my kayak on my local and regional trout waters.

If you’re using the kayak simply to transport you from spot to spot, any kayak will do. However, if you plan to fly fish while drifting from a kayak, the nature of most trout waters makes it challenging to maintain excellent boat position, especially if you plan to stand up. Countless exposed boulders, shallow water, and nonlinear currents require constant work with the paddle—providing little time to fish between maneuvers. I divide my fishing time evenly between warmwater and trout, so I justify (in my warped mind) owning both a raft and kayak. I bought the kayak to fish for bass, muskies, and other warmwater species in slower, calmer water than you’ll find on many trout streams. I have attempted to fish trout rivers with the kayak and simply found it to be ineffective for fishing while on the move.

A woman paddling a kayak.
$1,350 | kakukayaks.com/ (Photo courtesy of Kaku Kayaks)

I was hoping these kayaks would handle all my fishing needs, allowing me to part ways with my other watercraft and create more space in my garage. This attempt was a failure. This isn’t to say that I wouldn’t attempt to fly fish for trout from a kayak—I can think of numerous trout streams and lakes around the country that would be well suited for a kayak. For example, all the trout lakes I’ve fished in the West and in the Adirondacks are excellent candidates for a stand-up kayak. But the kayak just doesn’t meet my needs for the shallow, twisting trout waters near my home.

Slow Down

I don’t fish out of a kayak because I feel it’s always the most efficient watercraft—although in some cases that may be true. The truth is every watercraft has its strengths and weaknesses. I fish from a kayak to a great degree because of the experience it provides. It’s a slower pace, requires physical activity, and provides a more intimate experience on the water.

As I get older, I’m intentionally trying to slow down and not be in such a rush. A kayak forces me to fish deliberately and simply enjoy the process more than I do when fishing from a jet boat. I’m also at the age where you begin to “use it or lose it,” and I enjoy the physical demands associated with kayak fishing. Good health and fitness are the greatest gifts we can receive, and I’m trying to maintain my level of fitness for many years to come. This isn’t to say that rowing a raft or drift boat isn’t great exercise, but after a season of fishing from my kayak, I feel as fit as I’ve ever been.

A graphic showing a kayak and paragraphs of description.
$1,249 | bonafidefishing.com/

Maybe one day I won’t have the drive or physical fitness necessary for kayak fishing. Until that time occurs, I plan to spend more time on the kayak and less on my jet boat. This small boat is great for my health, my fishing experience, and increasing the time my son wants to fish with me. Kayak fishing is not for everyone and is not meant for all fishing scenarios, but I’m enjoying the experience these boats provide on my local warmwater fisheries. Some people buy a sports car when hitting middle age. I went the opposite route and bought a fishing kayak.

Fishing Kayak Setup and Accessories

I maintain a tidy boat compared to many of the decked-out watercraft—packed with gizmos, gadgets, and toggles—I see in YouTube videos from professional and recreational kayak fishers. Fly fishing involves casting and retrieving line, so I feel the fishing area needs to remain clear of potential snags and hang-ups. This is another reason I opted not to go with the pedal drive, because during test drives, it was constantly snagging my fly line.

A graphic showing a kayak motor and paragraphs of description.
$999 | newportvessels.com/

Rod holders. I have tried carrying several strung fly rods while casting from a kayak. But despite my best efforts I’ve had a few accidents, snagging the rigged rods while casting in windy conditions. This happens with all rods, whether they’re standing straight up or angled away from my casting position. Having multiple rods at the ready makes sense for spin fishing, but not when you’re rolling line back and forth through the air. This is why I keep only one rod strung up at a time when fly fishing. I do use a rod and reel carrying case to carry an additional one or two four-piece rods.

Large towel. A large towel has quickly become my favorite boat accessory. It serves two main purposes. First, in the summer months the floors on any watercraft get warm, sometimes significantly warmer than the ambient air temperature. The core of a fly line lying on a hot boat floor (especially a plastic kayak) becomes limp, often sticking to itself and causing constant tangling issues. Laying your stripped fly line on a wet towel instead of a hot floor reduces the overheating of the fly line’s core. For a while last summer, I thought I’d gotten a batch of bad fly lines, only to realize that it was the floor overheating the fly line core. Problem solved.

A graphic showing a kayak paddle holder and paragraphs of description.
$15 | fishusa.com

Another advantage of the towel is covering potential line snags. I place a large towel over my floor-mounted trolling motor and another towel over the side of the boat to cover up any potential snags. Murphy’s Law says that if there’s anything for a fly line to catch on, it will. This has worked so well in my kayak that I now use towels for the same reasons in my SUP, raft, and jet boat. The number of tangles and snags has dropped dramatically.

Finally, fly lines take a beating anytime they’re on boat floors, which always collect sand and other small abrasive particles. I feel that boat floors cause the greatest damage to line coatings, because the line is always dragging along the floor. A clean, damp boat towel keeps the line slick by reducing abrasion on your line’s coating. Given the high cost of fly lines today, an inexpensive towel is a smart investment that will add years to your fly line’s life—and reduce your frustration while you’re fishing from any boat.

Paddle holder. Most fishing kayaks feature a paddle holder on one side of the hull, which can be convenient for anglers who need to insert and retrieve the paddle when fishing from a seated position. However, I like to fish standing up, and I use my paddle to quickly reposition the boat while drifting. I want the paddle out of the way but still accessible when I need to make a quick change. So I don’t want to bend over and reach to grab my paddle every time I need to reposition the kayak.

A detachable YakAttack RotoGrip paddle holder positioned on my seat allows me to stow an idle paddle out of my way, but it’s still easily accessible when I need it. My personal fishing kayak has an integrated trolling motor for boat positioning, but I only use this option when fishing fast currents and in strong winds. With low to normal flows I use the paddle for propulsion and boat maneuvering, and leave the trolling motor and battery at home. The waters I use my kayak on are slow and steady, so once the watercraft is positioned in the correct seam, only a few occasional paddle strokes are needed. If I suddenly need my paddle, I want quick access without having to move far for it.

A graphic showing a fishing PFD and paragraphs of description.
$254.99 | mustangsurvival.com/

Although modern fishing kayaks are incredibly stable, less movement while standing decreases the chances of accidentally falling overboard. There is little room for error as you’re standing in a relatively confined location.

Fishing PFD. No matter the time of year or location, always wear a PFD when kayak fishing. I prefer easy access to all essential fishing items while standing up. This is why I spent money on a good fishing PFD years ago for my raft. A fishing PFD allows me to store and have access to my whistle, pliers, small fly box, tippet, and other accessories. I found one to comfortably fit over a T-shirt during the summer months, and it’s adjustable to fit comfortably over winter clothes as well. I had to try several PFDs before finding the right one, but I’ve been fishing my current one for three seasons and feels like a comfortable piece of clothing. I consider myself to have a good sense of balance on watercraft, but accidents happen, and I would never consider fishing from any kayak without wearing a PFD.


George Daniel is the author of Nymph Fishing: New Angles, Tactics, and Techniques (Stackpole Books, 2018). He is a Fly Fisherman contributing editor and owner of Livin’ on the Fly, an edu-cational/guide company in Pennsylvania. He was a coach for both the U.S. Youth Fly Fishing Team and Fly Fishing Team USA and is now the director of the Joe Humphreys Fly Fishing Program at Penn State University.




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