Kayak angling has been among the fastest growing recreational sports over the past decade. You hear a lot about the increasing (and to me, mystifying) popularity of stand-up paddle-boarding, but in reality kayaks designed for fishing have outsold SUPs 10-to-1 over the past 5 years. The reasons for the kayak angling trend are threefold: 1) The best fishing is found in places that cannot be easily accessed from shore; 2) Traditional fishing boats are expensive to own and maintain, and difficult to store, transport and launch; 3) Relatively inexpensive kayaks designed especially for angling are readily available in nearly every sporting goods store.
If you are thinking about taking the plunge into kayak angling, there are a few things you need to know and consider. The first and most critical decision you’ll need to make is sit-on-top (SOT) or sit-inside. SOTs are the more popular choice for fishing because they offer a lot of on-deck storage for ready access to equipment and allow the angler to move around a bit more and cast from a wider variety of positions. Many would contend that SOTs are more stable and more difficult to swamp or flip. On the other hand, sit-insides tend to be drier, and quite honestly I think “swampability” is hugely exaggerated. I have fished for years on large lakes and rivers from a sit-inside and have never had more than an inch or two of water in the cockpit from a rogue wave. Conversely, I’ve paddled SOTs and been soaking wet the whole time. To put it bluntly, if you paddle a SOT, you are going to be wet… very wet, so if you tend to fish in areas where the water is colder or if you simply don’t like being wet all the time, then the sit-inside is probably a better bet.
Once you’ve decided between SOT and sit-inside, you still have a few more things to consider. Because of the popularity of SOTs for angling, many manufacturers offer purpose-built designs which incorporate rod holders, tackle storage and even live wells incorporated into the hulls. You don’t necessarily need to buy one of these specialty boats, but if you plan on using the kayak primarily for fishing, the added options are very nice. It’s a little harder to find a sit-inside with these features, but they do exist, and let’s be honest… adding a rod holder is a 10-minute job. Sit-insides do, however, come in several types and some are better for fishing than others. Recreational kayaks are wider for better stability and have a more open cockpit. In fact, some recreational kayak cockpits are so open that they resemble canoes. Touring and ocean kayaks are sleeker and have smaller cockpits, sometimes just large enough for a person to slide in, making access to equipment more difficult and restricting the ability to move in all directions. Some people also have an issue with the “closed in” feeling they get with these boats, something akin to claustrophobia.
Another consideration is length. Being fishermen, we tend to think longer is better, but that’s not always the case with kayaks. One of the great things about kayak angling is the ability to throw the kayak on top of the car at a moment’s notice and head off to your favorite fishing spot. Most kayaks sold today are roto-molded plastic. This technology produces a very durable boat at a very low cost. The trade-off is weight. Plastic kayaks are heavy, and once you get beyond 12 feet, difficult for a single person to carry and lift up onto a car roof. My 12 foot Perception sit-inside weighs about 40 pounds and after a full day of paddling it’s all I can do to get it on the roof rack of the Blue Bomber. Longer kayaks do tend to be faster, track better (go in a straight line) and handle better in chop, so if you need to cover a lot of rough, open water you might want a 14 foot boat or longer. Some SOTs are stable enough to stand in, and you might even be able to cast from that position, but you’re not going to be able to play a fish of any size. A couple of manufacturers have come up with deployable outriggers for added stability, and those designs might be a consideration for the hardcore bass angler.
Taking all of these factors into consideration, I initially bought a 10 foot Perception sit-inside which served me well for several years. (By the way, the lifespan of a roto-molded boat is probably going to be 9 or 10 years for the average fisherman, unless the boat is stored in the sun. UV rays tend to turn the plastic brittle over time and eventually it cracks.) When I replaced that boat last year I did move up to the 12 footer, primarily because I wanted a dry storage well and a little extra room in the bow. In North Carolina, we fish year-round and the water in December and January is just too cold for comfort in a SOT… for me, anyway. I paid around $700 for my boat and that’s probably where most entry-level kayak anglers will want to be, give or take $100. Of course, you can spend as much as you want on a fishing kayak, with the top-of-the-line models coming in just south of the price of a low-end bass boat.