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Choosing a Kayak
by Jon Shein

How do I choose a fishing kayak?
Which one and what type?

re you confused about which kayak and what type to buy? All of us who fish out of kayaks have gone through this initial confusion and made a decision. I, like everyone else had to eventually make a decision and purchase a kayak to become a kayak fisherman. You will too. The first kayak I owned I used three times and then sold it. I knew within the first five minutes that it wouldn't be the right kayak for me and the type of fishing I planned on doing. I was fortunate that I knew someone in the industry and got a terrific deal. It's this reason that I didn't lose any money when I sold the kayak. Most mistakes don't work out so well and I've met several fisherman who bought mistakes and either lost a substantial amount of money or don't fish from their kayaks. That's a shame because fishing from a kayak is such a marvelous way to fish. It has given many others and myself some fantastic experiences.

The gentleman I purchased the kayak from wasn't a fisherman and so he didn't know or understand the requirements of a fisherman let alone the needs of someone fishing from a kayak. He designs great kayaks but his perspective is that of a paddler and is very different than mine.

This usually happens when you go to a kayak shop to purchase a kayak for fishing. The sales people are clueless. The sales person is either a distance paddler or a white water enthusiast. They don't fish and are really no help in making a selection. They usually recommend a short Sit In Kayak (SIK). Considerably more fisherman choose Sit On Top (SOT) designs because they're more versatile. SOT's allow fisherman to fish many different environments and only someone who fishes from a kayak would understand this. Fisherman use kayaks for a purpose these sales people seldom, if ever do. They fish.

Jon Shein There are basically two (2) types of kayaks. They are Sit On Tops (SOT) and Sit In Kayaks (SIK). Each type has models that fish well and ones that don't. Before we discuss the merits and differences of each type let's first discuss kayaks for fishing in general.

What makes a kayak a good fishing kayak? Fishermen have very specific needs that are different than someone who is out to paddle. I've taken many beginners out for their first paddle and I've put many people into the sport. Here's what I've found important. Generally we value stability, storage, maneuverability, etc. However there are many factors to consider. You need to answer some questions to better narrow down the kayak models that are most appropriate for you:

  1. First - What are your height, weight, inseam measurement and general condition? If you're a big man, there are certain kayaks that you need to look at. If you're a small person getting a kayak that's big and has a 600-pound capacity probably isn't your best choice. Some kayaks suit different body types better than others. So these factors are important.
  2. What vehicle are you going to use to transport your kayak? If you're using the bed of a pickup truck a heavier kayak isn't a problem. If you have a large SUV, like a 4WD Suburban, you have to be conscious of the weight. This is especially important if you're not a big strong person. Wrecking your back isn't any fun and will significantly cut down on fishing time.
  3. Where do you plan on using the kayak? Is it strictly going to be used in freshwater, if so where? Lakes, ponds, small rivers and creeks and large impoundments? Will you be fishing large, open bodies of water? Do you plan on using it in saltwater? Do you plan on fishing in the ocean and launching through the surf? How are you planning on getting the kayak to the water? Can you simply drive it to the water and launch or do you plan on going into more remote areas where you can't use a vehicle for the final leg? All these factors are important when choosing a kayak.
  4. What fishing methods do you like to use? Do you only use one type? Do you use artificials, bait or both? Do you use a variety of methods? If you're going to use bait, do you want to use live baitfish or dead bait? Do you plan on anchoring and chumming? Do you fly fish? The type of gear you plan on attaching and taking along is going to affect your decision. The way you fish affects which kayaks will better suit your needs.
  5. What type of fisherman are you? Are you strictly a catch and release fisherman, do you like to take the occasional meal home or are you regularly taking fish home? Which category you're in is important in choosing a kayak.

So now we get to the SOT, SIK debate. However we're not going to debate them. We'll simply discuss both types and provide information so you can make your own assessment as to which is the better choice for you.

Sit In Kayaks (SIK): These are the traditional type of kayaks. When the layperson thinks about a kayak this is what comes to mind. They are similar to canoes in that you sit in the kayak. Current Designs Pachena - 'SIK' TypeThey offer more initial protection from the elements however they are more exposed in rougher conditions and can fill with water. In adverse conditions they're usually used with a skirt. A skirt is a covering that goes around you and the opening in the kayak that prevents water from entering. When a skirt is used you don't have access to the items that are in the kayak.

Cobra Navigator 'SOT' Type

Sit On Top (SOT): These are the new breed of kayaks and were originally brought to market by Ocean Kayak. They're essentially modified surfboards and you sit on them rather than inside. They have what are known as scupper holes, which allow water to drain from the kayak compartment. So when water washes over the kayak it briefly floods the cockpit and then drains. This is especially beneficial in places like the surf.

Both kayak styles allow you to fish and obviously within each style there are models that do this better and worse than others. Let's now discuss important fishermen needs, why they're important and how each of these types of kayak addresses them.

Disclaimer: It has been my experience that the majority of people who decide to get a kayak for fishing have never or rarely been in a kayak. They are fishermen, who like both Joey and I, recognized that a kayak would expand their fishing. This article is based upon this premise and is discussed from this perspective.

Stability: Fishermen do things in a kayak that most people don't; they fish. Having a stable platform is very important, especially to the person who is new to the sport and kayaks. When kayakers discuss stability they talk about 2 types, initial and secondary. Initial stability is the side-to-side wobble that you feel when you sit in a kayak. Secondary stability is when the kayak is nearing its point of flipping and how much forgiveness it has before you flip. Many recreational kayaks that are used for fishing have tremendous initial stability but have a very abrupt secondary. When they reach their secondary limit you're literally dumped. Conversely there are kayaks that wobble like mad but are very forgiving when they come to the dump point. Since you sit on or near the floor of a SIK they tend to be more stable. In SOTs you sit on the kayak and since it has a double hull you sit higher. This higher sitting position obviously makes a SOT less stable. If you have 2 kayaks that are the same length and width the SIK will almost always be more stable. So SOT designers tend to make their kayaks wider to compensate for this. As with anything you get extremes and different approaches. Ocean Kayak uses one of the lowest sitting positions of any SOTs. This allows their kayaks to be narrower. There is a trade off though. Because you're lower you end up sitting in water. Cobra conversely has a very high sitting position. This results in a drier seat area and more hull storage. To compensate for this higher and less stable position Cobra makes their kayaks wider.

Initial stability is more important to beginners and secondary stability is more important to seasoned kayakers. It makes sense. The beginner hasn't developed a sense of balance yet. It's a lot like learning how to ride a bicycle. Once you're become accustomed to balancing its done unconsciously. When you start out its new so you think about it. After a while it becomes second nature and you don't think about it. Shorter wider kayaks tend to be more stable, but there is a trade off and that brings us to our next characteristic.

Speed: Generally, the longer and narrower a kayak the faster it is. SIKs are usually faster however there are also fast SOTs. Speed is only important if you need it. If the majority of your fishing is close to shore or in small, protected areas, than sacrificing maneuverability for speed isn't the way to go. However if you're fishing a big reservoir, bay sound or offshore the ability to cover distance is often very important. A SIK will usually be faster because it is narrower for the same length because of its lower seat position. There are many fast SIKs and a few SOTs. The faster kayaks, used for fishing, are generally known as touring kayaks.

Maneuverability: If you're going to fish in small, tight places you need to be able to maneuver. Some kayaks do this extremely well. Getting back into a small creek or pond and fishing often requires this ability. I fish many places where a touring kayak would be impossible to use. Both kayak types have models that do this well. Generally the shorter the kayak the better but design does matter.

Weight: This can be extremely important in a few ways.

  • Transportation: You need to be able to transport your kayak. Many of us who are fishermen drive SUVs or trucks with caps. So you're going to have to be able to get the kayak on the vehicle. For example, what if you've determined that the best choice for you is a touring kayak because you live near a large open body of water. You're 150 pounds and 5'8" so purchasing a 70-pound kayak doesn't make sense. Kayaks of this type are going to weigh more because of their length. So once you've determined that you're going to be best served by a touring kayak you'll want to look at the lightest members of this group that still fish well.
  • Fishing Logistics: I fish all kinds of environments from large bays and sounds and even the open ocean, but I often fish some very small waters too. A small, shallow river is best fished with a small, light kayak. Not only will it handle the environment better, sometimes you will encounter obstacles that you need to negotiate. Obstacles like logs, log jams, rocks, waterfalls, fast water and shallows to name some. So there's going to be times when you need to carry or drag the kayak around, over or through places. A lighter kayak is not only easier to do this with but in some situations too heavy a kayak will prevent you from accomplishing this. Just getting to the water in some places presents challenges where weight could be important. Often I fish places that I can't simply drive up to and launch. Again weight or lack of it becomes important. There are many places where I can't fish a heavier kayak. In these situations the lighter the kayak is the better.

Accessory Friendly: We, as fishermen, take a recreational kayak and make it a fishing vessel. We do this by adding accessories. Some fishermen just take a rod and a few flies or lures along and others like to take lots of gear. At the very least simply adding a rod holder greatly increases the fishability of a kayak. Since a kayak always travels at trolling speed you should always have an offering in the water when paddling to your intended fishing area. Often times trolling turns out to be the preferred method for catching fish. Some kayaks accept accessories better than others. It's the addition of accessories that can often dramatically improve the fishing. Lots of flat surfaces are nice for mounting things. On some kayaks its simple and you have many choices of where you can mount accessories. You even get a lot of choices in the variety of what you can mount. Some kayaks require much more thought and limit what you can and can't attach.

Storage: Depending upon how you fish this can be important. You don't need much but a lot depends upon you and where you plan on going and what you plan on taking with you. I like to use both spin and fly gear. So I need to take accessories for both. Some items are universal and some aren't. If you're fishing a pond or body of water where you won't be venturing far, you don't need much since it's easy to go back to the vehicle. Conversely you may be out all day and have a major commitment in travel to get to the fishing. This will require you to carry more gear, food and water; extra clothing (for changing conditions) or you may even be camping. Its better to have too much storage then too little storage, after all you don't have to use it all.

So lets' get back to SOT and SIKs. Most people when they first think of a purchasing a kayak consider a SIK. SIKs have many models that fish well and for many fishermen make a great choice. Let's talk about different places and ways of fishing with kayaks and look at the practical uses of each type.

Flats Fishing: One of the best things about a kayak is the access to shallow flats that it provides. There are lots of these types of environments especially on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. Some flats are shallow and don't have much of a tidal differential. The farther north you go the more differential. Imagine that you're fishing a flat and you'd like to get out and wade fish. There are a few reasons why you may wish to do this.

  1. You've been sitting for a while in the kayak and its nice to get out to both walk and stretch. I take every opportunity that I can to get out of the kayak. It greatly prolongs the amount of time I can spend out in a day. My back thanks me for it.
  2. There's a breeze or wind and if you have to control the kayak with your paddle it makes it more difficult to fish with your hands semi occupied.
  3. By standing you can see better and sometimes this is an advantage.

So you've decided to get out of the kayak. If the water depth is only a foot or so this doesn't present a challenge in either type of kayak. Now lets see how things change in a couple feet of water with an incoming tide. There's a good chance when you decide to get back into the kayak it could be 3 feet deep. In a SOT you sit on rather than in the kayak so getting in and out is actually getting on and off. It's easy to do. Conversely in a SIK it isn't so simple and your chances of capsizing the kayak is much greater. It's also much more difficult to do. Now imagine that you're wearing waders which raises the degree of difficulty.

Surf Launches: When you fish the open ocean you often need to launch through the surf to get there. When a wave comes over the bow of a SOT the cockpit briefly fills with water and then it drains. You then get beyond the breakers and go to your fishing destination. Should a wave knock you off of your kayak you're just off. Conversely a SIK needs a skirt to go through even moderate surf. Otherwise it will fill with water and it doesn't have the ability to drain. So you go through the surf and you misjudge and a wave flips you. In or rather on a SOT you simply fall off and go retrieve the kayak. In a SIK you are in the kayak and should you flip none of the consequences are good. In the very least you have a kayak full of water and in the worst scenario you're upside down and still in the yak with your gear bouncing around in the surf. When a SIK flips the popular wisdom is to do an Eskimo roll. That's OK if you're in calm water's with a narrow kayak but a SIK that is used for fishing is often wider and doesn't roll well under optimum conditions, let alone in the surf.

Shallow Rivers: A kayak will take you into so many environments that are difficult if not impossible to reach via any other means. A shallow river is just such a place. Sometimes you can paddle and at times you need to drag the kayak up, around or through objects. These can be rapids, waterfalls, trees, logjams, and all sorts of things. You may be getting in and out of the kayak a lot. It's much easier to get off of a kayak rather than out of one if you're doing it a lot. In some situations it will be like our flats scenario and you need to get on or off in a couple feet of water or more. The more you find yourself leaving the kayak the more appreciative you'll find a SOT.

Keeping Fish: If you like to take fish home than you need a place to keep your catch. If its smaller fish this isn't a big deal but if the fish are big it is. In a SIK it's either in the cockpit or on a stringer. A stringer is OK in freshwater areas where you don't need to travel very far. A stringer full of fish provides drag and isn't good if you need to cover distance. In some places it can attract predators. In the south you have to be concerned with alligators and in the salt its sharks. Neither is a good way to encounter these animals. A tank well is the best place to keep fish. You can either place a cooler in the tank well or simply put the fish in it and cover them with a wet burlap sack. Many SOTs come with tank wells so if you regularly bring home dinner a SOT is a better choice.

Now you've got some things to think about that you may not have initially considered. Kayak fishing is a marvelous sport. Not only is it productive, its environmentally friendly too. One of my favorite things about it is I get terrific, non- impactive exercise for going fishing. So kayak fishing has benefits beyond fishing. When one asks most kayak fisherman the most important piece of advice they can give, the most common answer is that they wish that they had gotten involved in the sport sooner. So don't delay, there's a lot more info and help out there when I started, so I look forward to seeing you out on the water. Best of luck in making a decision. End

Copyright © 2003 - 2013 Jon Shein, All Rights Reserved

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