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Kayak Fishing: Dress For Success

If you live in an area with mild enough weather to allow for kayak fishing in the first place you probably won't need much in the way of protective clothing. There are times, however, in even the most comfortable weather where dressing appropriately makes all the difference in your day, and during colder months of the year when the waters may be calm enough for kayaking, the weather may not be quite as forgiving. Even in the summer time some days can start out chilly in the morning and end up sweltering. This article will give some advice based on personal experiences kayak fishing in a variety of weather conditions, from cold surf launches to hot summer afternoons in Mexico.

The Basics

First, some basics. Kayak fishing involves periods of both physical exertion along with periods of rest. It's important to wear something that will allow your body not only freedom of movement during those periods of motion, but also keep it the proper temperature. At the same time, kayak fishing also involves long periods of rest while addressing the 'fishing' portion of the sport. So your apparel must also keep you insulated (or cooled) during those times as well. Since few, if any, materials meet all the criteria outlined here, you must keep the ability to add, remove, or swap clothing, especially if there's a change in temperature throughout the day of even a few degrees. If you kayak fish long enough and you're not dressed appropriately you'll find yourself cold in the morning, hot in the afternoon, cold when you're fishing and hot when you're paddling. By using some of the guidelines here you can maximize your comfort in the kayak and maximize the amount of fish in it as well.

Avoid materials that soak up water and stay wet, such as t-shirts, jeans, and just about anything you would wear if you were doing anything other than kayaking. On a hot summer day you might get away with a t-shirt, but if the wind kicks up, as it often does here in San Diego, it'll cut right through the wet portion of that t-shirt and make you real cold real quick.

Also avoid anything that is difficult to take on or off, specifically wetsuits. Besides losing the ability to take off a wetsuit should the weather improve throughout the day, the wetsuit itself will also act to overheat you if you're not constantly submerged in the water (if you are, you might consider a new kayak). Wetsuits function by heating a layer water between your skin and the wetsuit. When not submerged in water, it leaves the wetsuit directly insulating your skin. That leaves you with an article that will almost always overheat your body in even colder weather, will not allow you to easily remove it once you're out on the kayak, and offers very poor freedom of movement. Say no to wetsuits, but neoprene has its place when used sparingly such as gloves, booties, or even neoprene vests and shorts.

While seal skin parkas may insulate well, I doubt they were very breathable for our early kayak fishing brethren. Thankfully modern technology has graced us with a number of breathable, waterproof, comfortable articles of clothing with little or no remnants of seal guts attached. We'll start from the bottom and work our way up. First, your feet.

Booties and Socks

What you wear on your feet is determined more by what you do on land than in the kayak, but in colder weather it's important to have enough insulation on your feet. Most people find this the root of their discomfort even when dressed appropriately elsewhere. If you walk down a rugged trail or concrete sidewalk a decent enough distance you might prefer a neoprene booty with a hard rubber sole since it'll protect your feet when you're not in the kayak. Once afloat however, some of these booties might prove to be a bit more bulky and clumsy in the kayak, and may hamper your swimming ability should you flip. Neoprene or polartec socks are certainly much more comfortable to wear in the kayak, but offer little protection from rocks and pine needles. The flexible sole booties commonly used for scuba diving are average on both counts and excellent on neither. A good option would be a pair of Teva sandals over neoprene socks so with the pull of a Velcro strap you've got the best of both worlds. If you were alive in the 90's chances are you've got a pair of those sandals laying around the house somewhere anyway. Only in the hottest weather is it normally comfortable to go barefoot. You'll almost always be wearing the same footwear year-round in most climates. Time of year will, however have a big impact on what you wear on the rest of your body, starting with pants.

Shorts

During warm weather months a simple pair of swim trunks (or as we degenerates out here in So Cal call them, board shorts) should be adequate as long as the water temp is reasonable. If the water temp is still a little cool and you tend to get water splashing up through the scuppers in your seat, let's just say you'll be on your toes that day. To avoid that you've got a couple options. Easiest and most obvious solution is to use scupper plugs. However, if you launch through surf or get water coming over the side of the kayak that will only form a pool in your seat, making the problem worse. To address the issue properly (besides starting out with a drier kayak) you can wear a neoprene or polartec short as underwear. This is usually just enough to insulate against those surprise attacks from below, but will only cause you to overheat in the hottest climates. Luckily it's a rare condition where you find water cold enough to be uncomfortable in that situation and weather hot enough to make you overheat at the same time.

Pants

The board shorts and optional insulating underlayer get us through half the year in San Diego. Ok, three quarters. Ah, who am I kidding, eleven months, sorry east coast guys. For the rest of the year (and most of the world) you've got to go a little further than that unless you want to hang up the kayak in September. Now we start getting into the real meat of proper apparel. As mentioned earlier, the biggest concerns would be freedom of movement, easily taken on and off, and of course general comfort (which includes proper breathability and/or insulation).

Well start with the most important, the outer layer. If you look at what 'real' kayakers wear, you'll see a lot of waterproof, plastic like material with rubber or neoprene seals around the waist and ankles. These kayaking pants also called splash gear, splash wear, paddling gear, etc. are designed to be worn in a sit inside kayak and may have some drawbacks for our application which is done mostly in sit on tops. For starters the waist of these pants generally only come to your true waist. The next time you're sitting in your sit on top, take note of where the back of the waist on your pants ends up. It'll usually wind up being at or near the surface of the kayak when you're in a seated position. What that means is it would be very likely and probable for water to enter through the back of your pants should you take a wave over the side or launch through surf, developing a pool of water in your seat. While these pants do have some sort of seal around the waist, nothing short of super gluing it to your skin would create a completely waterproof seal. Since these pants are designed for sit insides which never have water in the seat area due to the spray skirt, this makes them not ideal for sit on tops.

Another problem with general kayaking pants is the ankles. You have the same issue there, a 'waterproof' seal which proves not so waterproof the minute you wade your kayak out to launch. If it's any consolation, somehow the seal almost always remains waterproof enough to trap a decent amount of ice cold water inside the pants so that the minute you sit down and straighten your legs, it all runs straight toward you know where. No need for coffee if you launch early in the morning. Sometimes you can get a good enough seal to minimize that effect if you seal your booties over the top of the ankle cuffs, but it's almost unavoidable with that style pant.

To remain completely dry below the waist, your pants and booties must be combined into one article, and it must extend north of your true waist to prevent water entering through the waist. You may have already guessed it, those are called waders. Recently a line of pants have been introduced that are aimed at the kayak fishing market, which are essentially waders that don't go quite as high and lack the shoulder straps, but the concept remains the same. This is the best way to remain completely dry and comfortable all day. They're completely waterproof, breathable, comfortable and easy to take off. Be sure and opt for the canvas waders rather than neoprene for better breathability and comfort, and also get the stocking foot style rather than boot foot to allow for easier swimming should the need arise. Be warned however, waders can be dangerous if worn in quick moving rivers and currents. Always wear a wading belt whenever wearing waders, in a kayak or not. Every year fishermen are killed by slipping in a river when their waders inflate in the current like a parachute, keeping them from reaching the surface. Always wear a wading belt to prevent that occurrence and always wear a PFD if you choose to wear waders in a kayak. We take no responsibility for any injury or death that may occur from this suggestion, but they do keep you pretty darn dry&

In some climates a decent outerlayer may be sufficient enough, but for a word on underlayers, please review the underlayer section.

Jackets

The jacket situation is different from the pants in that the pants must provide a barrier from wading your kayak into the water, along with the possibility of sitting in water or having water splashed up from underneath. The jacket really only needs to protect against splashing once you're in the water, and taking a wave or two to the chest if you're surf launching. While your bottom half may be exposed to cold water most of the day, your upper half may remain dry as soon as you clear the surf zone. That's why it's even more important for whatever you wear up there to be very easily removable. Most of your temperature regulating throughout the day will be done by adding or removing layers to the upper half of your body. Many kayak fishermen in Southern California will wear a good waterproof jacket just to get through the surf early in the morning and once the sun starts to warm up, the jacket goes in a hatch for the rest of the day.

Paddle jackets are far more useful to kayak fishermen than their lower body counterparts. While the ankle seals on paddle pants may not be sufficient to keep out water when completely submerged while launching your kayak, the same seals around the wrists on a jacket are sufficient to keep out trickles that may run down your paddle shaft and down your arm. These seals are very important for that reason, and work very well in that scenario. Same goes for the neck seal, but only if you're launching through the surf. Neck seals tend to be uncomfortable for most people, so find a jacket that has a Velcro seal that can be loosened once through the surf zone. If you never launch through the surf, look for a jacket with neoprene cuffs and call it a day. You will want that neck seal for surf launching though, a big enough wave to the chest and you'll be glad you're all buttoned up at 4am in the dark. Oh, you don't think you'll be launching at 4am in the dark? You don't have the fever yet, my friend.

Most paddling jackets you'll find will be made of similar materials, generally plasticky and stiff and relatively uncomfortable. Some of the more expensive models are a bit more bearable to wear and move around in because the material is a bit thinner, but these are meant to be an outer barrier. Gore-tex and other similar materials can be the most comfortable to wear and still remain waterproof, but they are generally expensive and generally aren't available with neck and wrist seals. Some climates may require you to wear a full outerlayer all day long, but if it's warm enough to allow for the removal of the waterproof layer, there are more comfortable options available as underlayers that are perfectly suitable once you remove the waterproof jacket, even with continued exposure to splashes and occasional dunks.

Underlayers

You can wear anything you want underneath waders since you'll be completely dry. Anything from sweat pants to fleece, heck even your slacks from work if you've got the kayak on top of the commuter car waiting till the stroke of 5. Wool socks work well to insulate your feet, but beyond that your options are endless. However, if you opt for the kayaking pants, or if you plan on removing a jacket, or bypassing the outerlayer altogether, you'll need something that will continue to insulate even if it does happen to get wet, or in the case of warmer weather, won't soak up water and will remain breathable and somewhat water resistant. This is not a bad option even if you do wear waders, as you never know when or how you may be in a situation where you'd be wet inside your waders (catching the biggest fish of your life may cause wetness inside your waders, but that's a different story).

For something that'll perform under cold, wet, conditions, the best thing we've found is a material called polartec and it's available from a company called Mysterioso. It's a manufactured material very similar to fleece, but it wont soak up water or get soggy the way cotton would for example. Itll hold its form and continue insulating even if you went swimming with it. Snowboarders wear it as an underlayer, surfers, swimmers, spearfishermen, and now kayakers. For cold weather climates weve found this stuff hard to beat and its become a favorite of kayak fishermen from Maine to Alaska. You can get the stuff in socks, pants, shorts, long sleeve, short sleeve and now they even have a lighter line for slightly warmer climates.
Neoprene isnt all bad. When used sparingly it can be beneficial, but there are some drawbacks alluded to earlier. Neoprene is generally difficult to put on or take off, making a full wetsuit nearly impossible to take off should you (when you) start to get hot. But neoprene shorts are acceptable, especially in thinner neoprene as underwear, as well as neoprene vests to keep your core insulated. If you can find a neoprene vest with a zipper, even better. Neoprene socks are awesome and gloves insulate well, but may not give you the dexterity in your hands needed for kayak fishing. Dont be afraid to try neoprene, just avoid large articles like wetsuits that are difficult to remove and youd probably want to avoid long sleeve neoprene shirts since it doesnt give much freedom of movement unless youre underwater (more generally referred to as kayak diving).

What often happens in Southern California is well have cold water in the surf to get through and then a beautiful sunny day once youre free and clear. If you wore jeans and a t-shirt, that cold bath in the morning would keep you wet and cold on even some of the warmest days, especially when the wind comes up. So a water-friendly underlayer is very necessary since the jacket is really only needed in the surf zone, but you remain exposed to splashes and droplets throughout the day. For something like that you could wear a rashguard which is basically a tight fitting lycra shirt worn by surfers in the summer time, or under wetsuits to, uh, guard against rashes. It protects from the sun, offers a little insulation but is mostly just a thin, breathable layer between you and the sun. Rashguards are supposed to be worn skin-tight which some kayak fishermen may find uncomfortable and some kayak fishing spectators may find offensive. For a more comfortable fit there are similar shirts out there made of a slightly less "lycra-ish" and more cloth-ish' material that is equally breathable and sun protecting, but fits looser and more comfortably. This material will bead water if its splashed, but while it's quick drying, would soak up water if you dunked it. It's not completely water PROOF which is why we have an outerlayer. For hot weather when you want as little insulation as possible and you're looking for something that won't make you sticky, won't turn into a wet blob and will serve mostly to protect you from the sun, this stuff is your best bet.

Hats and Glasses

Hats and sunglasses are advisable as the glare off the water can be intense being that close to the surface. Polarized sunglasses will greatly help cut down that angle through the water to see schools of baitfish, underwater plants or kelp, and even fish. If you have an expensive pair, do yourself a favor and buy some cheap ones for the kayak, or use one of those neck leashes at the very least, or attach some sort of float. They will end up in the water eventually, believe it.
Some sort of hat will minimize the sunscreen application and keep glare out of your eyes. Anything from regular baseball caps to wide brimmed straw hats have seen their time on the water. No special requirements here, just protect the top of your head from the sun and keep the glare out of your eyes.

Gloves

In general you want to use gloves only when the weather demands it. If you're concerned about gripping the paddle with your hands, you just need to paddle more. You'll quickly build tough spots on your hands that will eliminate the need for gloves and the lack of dexterity that comes with them. If the weather absolutely demands additional insulation on your hands, a thin neoprene glove with half fingers is ideal. There are some that are even made for kayaking and have extra grip on the palms. A full fingered version is also available and there's a variety of other styles and materials out there on the market. Anything from sailing, diving, cycling, fishing or water skiing gloves might be adapted to kayak fishing, just be sure the materials won't remain wet and will continue to insulate if submerged or soaked. Leather and cotton would be bad choices.

When it comes down to it, choosing what to wear depends on the individual user and the individual climate. You'll see a kayak fisherman on a rainy day in 50 degree water wearing nothing but board shorts and a t-shirt and another guy wearing full waders and splash jacket on a summer afternoon. Everyone's tolerance for the elements is different, so use this article as a guideline to fill a need or concern that you might have about the proper apparel.