What you should know in buying a fishing kayak

If it ever stops raining, we might be able to go fishing again.

Trout fishing has been great for the past several weeks, at least for those few days when the streams have been down to a manageable level. With the generally high water levels, I haven’t encountered much dry-fly action on the streams I’ve fished, but the trout have responded well to wet flies and nymphs. I’m especially missing the Juniata River and its hard-fighting smallmouth bass. That longing is magnified by the fact that I bought a new kayak a month and a half ago, and that boat has yet to make a fishing trip to the river.

This year marks my 13th season of fishing from a kayak, and looking back, I can’t believe that a friend of mine practically had to beg me to try fishing from one. Once I fished from one, however, my conversion was instant, and I bought my first kayak the very next day and have owned two more boats in the years since. The advantages of kayak fishing are many. Compared to even a smaller conventional fishing boat, kayaks are relatively inexpensive. A kayak is light and portable, making it possible to launch and access waters that would be difficult otherwise. Kayaks will easily float in just a few inches of water and can easily penetrate dese weed beds to get to fish other boats cannot. Kayaks are also super quiet and stealthy, allowing an angler to get closer without scaring away the fish.

Having been a fan of kayak fishing for some time, friends and fellow anglers frequently ask me for advice on buying their first fishing kayak, especially during the past few weeks as we enter the summer fishing season. I am unabashedly a hardcore fisherman who uses a kayak as a personal fishing craft, not someone who is looking to go for a boat ride, so my perspective on kayaks is probably much different than a hardcore paddler or kayak enthusiast. With that in mind, here are some tips regarding the purchase of a basic fishing kayak.

The first choice will be the type of kayak. There are two basic types: sit-inside kayaks and sit-on-top kayaks. Sit-inside boats are the traditional style of boat. As the name implies, the rider sits inside a cockpit surrounded by the hull of the boat. Sit-on-top kayaks are flatter and mostly open, and, of course, the rider sits on top. Both types come in different lengths. For fishing, something in the range of 9.5 to 12 feet is optimal. Because I mostly fish the river, I prefer a shorter boat, 9.5 or 10 feet, for handling and maneuverability in the current, but several friends and fishing companions seem equally happy with their 12-footers.

Weight is another primary concern. Sit-inside kayaks weigh considerably less than sit-on-top kayaks of comparable lengths. My 12-year-old 9.5-foot sit-inside boat weighs just 36 pounds. I can easily lift it onto the roof rack of my Ford Explorer and strap it down for transport. That’s important to me because I often fish alone, so I need to be able to load and unload by myself. My new 10-foot sit-on-top boat is a Bass Pro Shops Ascend 10T that weighs 67 pounds. I’m not throwing that boat on the roof rack quite so easily.

Fortunately, my mechanically talented brother built me a custom roof rack and a set of wheels that attach to the boat itself that make loading this heavier new boat a simple and quick chore. Make sure you take how you will transport your kayak into consideration when selecting the size and type of boat.

Overall room and storage is another personal preference. In general, sit-on-top kayaks have more room than sit-inside kayaks, but this will vary from boat to boat. When I made the transition from a wading fisherman to a kayak fisherman on the Juniata River, the biggest benefit was being able to have so much more gear at my disposal. In my little sit-inside kayak, I could easily take four rods and reels, a medium-sized tackle bag with plenty of lures, life jacket, anchor and a small soft-side cooler for drinks and a sandwich. That’s more than enough gear for a full day on the river most of the time, but I enjoy having the extra firepower some days. And I can get all that gear and more in the new sit-on-top boat. In fact, I’ve already had eight outfits on board and could probably handle a couple more if I thought it really necessary. Yes, I am a bit of a gearhead at times.

Regardless of the size or type of kayak you start with, you will need a few accessories to complete your fishing package. First among those is a good life jacket. You must have a life jacket onboard at all times, and you must wear it anytime you are on the water from Nov. 1 until May 1, so get one that fits and is comfortable. A good paddle is also essential. Make sure not to get one that is too short for your stature or boat. A comfortable seat is another requisite item, and some of the seats in cheaper boats can be just awful. Fortunately, there are plenty of aftermarket seats in case the one you buy hurts your back or bottom. Most “fishing” kayaks will have at least two flush-mounted rod holders installed. These are worthwhile options if you plan to take more than one rod and reel on your fishing outings.

My most important piece of gear for river fishing is a good anchor. I’m not out there to take my tackle for a boat ride, so I don’t make a cast unless I am anchored and targeting a specific area. Floating downriver and casting randomly is tactically bankrupt most of the time and virtually guarantees you will pass by many, if not most, productive spots. Most so-called kayak anchors are much too light to hold the boat in even moderate river currents. Get one at least 8 to 10 pounds, set up, and catch some fish.