What Makes A Fishing Kayak?
As kayak fishermen we don't claim to be kayaking experts, we're mostly fishermen who needed a cheap and easy way to get on the water. Start talking about secondary stability, draw strokes and wing paddles and most kayak fishermen will return the favor with a blank and confused stare, even though many kayak fishermen spend as much or more time on the water than "real" kayakers. While there's a lot to know about the sport of kayaking, the scope of this article will focus on the most important aspect; the kayak. As always we'll concentrate on relevant information to the subcategory of kayak fishing.
Sit-Inside vs. Sit-On-Top
The sit-on-top kayaks we use for fishing and diving are a relatively new introduction to the sport of kayaking. Most people around the country and around the world consider the sit inside versions true kayaks. From touring to white water, sit insides provide more performance for the paddler, but are generally limited in areas important to kayak fishermen, such as weight capacity, storage, mounting options, stability and safety.
Sit inside kayaks consist of a hollow hull with a large hole in the deck where the paddler sits. A spray skirt covers the hole to keep water out and seals around the paddler's torso. If the kayak flips, the idea is to Eskimo roll and right the kayak without ever leaving the cockpit. This is a great design for applications such as white water where flipping the kayak is not only possible, but likely. Since the paddler stays in the kayak at all times there's no danger of being separated from the kayak, or having to climb back into the boat amidst turbulent water like there would be with a sit-on-top. In cold weather climates the spray skirt acts as a barrier from cold air and water, and some even have a complete jacket built into the skirt.
From a kayak fishing perspective, the design is not only impractical but can also be dangerous. With the amount of bait tanks, rod holders, milk crates, batteries, rods and (hopefully) fish that are routinely mounted and stored on fishing kayaks, Eskimo rolling would be nearly impossible. That means if the kayak flipped, the paddler would have to eject from the kayak underwater, or mid-flip, pulling the spray skirt off the cockpit, allowing it to fill with water. Then the paddler would need to right the kayak, pump out the water in the hull and re-enter the kayak. A much more dangerous situation than simply plopping out of a sit-on-top and climbing back onboard.
While most sit-insides are designed either for speed for touring, or maneuverability for white water, it's understandable that most of them lack the weight capacity and stability that are key to kayak fishing. Most storage options are designed to be packed at Point A and unpacked at Point B, after a day of touring the local waterways. Accessing anything on the water is limited to areas in direct reach of the paddler, since moving around on the kayak would be impractical with a spray skirt. Since the area directly in front of the paddler is out of the question for mounting options because it's just spray skirt rather than the usual console or storage hatch found on sit-on-top fishing kayaks, the mounting and storage options within reach of the paddler are even more limited.
Just like a pick up truck would make a bad race car and a race car would make a bad helicopter, sit insides are good at what they're designed for, but they're not designed for kayak fishing. Within the realm of sit-on-top kayaks is another array of specifications, designs, and dimensions, all of which should be taken into account when selecting a fishing kayak. Just because it's a sit-on-top does not mean it'll be ideal for fishing, but the most important factor when selecting a kayak, whether for fishing or recreation, is the quality of the kayak and process by which it is made.
Not all kayaks are created equal, and selecting a kayak that is made properly can have an enormous difference in the life of the boat. Roto-molding is the process which is used by most major kayak manufacturers. This process involves a large two piece mold which is filled with plastic pellets and then joined together to create one large, kayak shaped cavity. The pellets are heated to the point of melting and the entire mold is spun around at all angles to coat the walls of the mold in liquid plastic. When the plastic cools and solidifies, and the two halves of the mold are pulled apart, a one piece plastic kayak is produced. The result is a kayak with no seam, and by holding the mold at certain angles for certain periods of time, it can be made thicker in areas of higher load or higher wear
The alternative to roto-molding is combining two halves, usually the deck and the hull, by means of welding or heat fusing. This results in a seam which will almost always lead to leakage at some point during the life of the kayak. These kayaks generally don't last longer than a few years before the leaking becomes too much of a hindrance, and since they're usually off-brands the design is normally lacking compared to higher quality kayaks. Most of these brands will be found at big box stores and marine retailers, and the price tag is usually in accordance with the quality. In plastic kayaks, you definitely get what you pay for. OEX and our online store KayakFishingSupplies does not and will not carry any kayak that is not roto-molded. Of the brands that we carry; Malibu Kayaks, Jackson Kayak, Native Watercraft, Wilderness Systems, Old Towne Kayaks and Hobie, all are made by roto-molding and all are of comparable quality with similar warranties. The biggest difference between the brands is the general layouts of their decks, as most brands tend to follow a similar pattern in their deck layouts. When choosing a brand, choose the deck layout that you like best and then find a model from that manufacturer that offers the performance you're looking for.
The type of fishing that the kayak will be used for will have a big impact on what sort of deck layout might be preferred. An angler launching through the surf and fishing live bait might want storage for rods, a tank well big enough to hold a bait tank and a place to mount some extra rod holders. But an angler going out for an hour or two at the local pond might prefer something a little more simplistic and wouldn't require much more than a couple rod holders, a place for a small tackle box and of course a six pack or two.
Decide what you want to add to the kayak and how you want it laid out. A fishfinder, bait tank, anchor trolley, rudder, four flushmounts and two Scotties might be possible on one kayak but not on another. Flushmount rod holders need a flat area large enough for the gasket to seal properly, plus enough space inside the kayak for the tube to fit without hitting the bottom of the boat. Rudders need mounting inserts in the transom and foot rails that can be replaced with the foot controls. Certain items have certain requirements and not everything is possible on every kayak. Even an area that you had in mind for a specific item might not be feasible for one reason or another, so make sure it's possible to place the items you have in mind where you want them to go before selecting your kayak.
There are some other factors to keep in mind with the layout of a kayak as well. Size of storage hatches and their whereabouts might be important for storing rods in the surf zone, or accessing things like tackle, cameras, spare clothes, or even storing fish. The size and shape of the tankwell might come into play for storage of bait tanks, milk crates or fish, and if any accessory requires access to the backside for installation, make sure it's in the proximity of a hatch. Once you're satisfied with the general deck layout of a particular brand or two, it's time to think about performance.
With kayaks you can either have something fast or something stable, you can't have both. To be fast it must be narrow which makes it unstable and to be stable it must be wide. There is some room for blurring those lines a little bit, but this is the general law of kayak physics and it cannot be broken. The addition of pontoons might make a narrow and unstable kayak more stable without losing much speed, but for the application of kayak fishing it adds a lot of bulkiness and general awkwardness that would hamper any fishing attempts. Besides something to impede landing of fish, it also provides a good place to tangle a line and if you've ever tried to surf launch with pontoons you're either dead already, or lucky you aren't yet. The same applies to adding a sail to a stable kayak in an attempt to improve speed. These various apparatus are good in theory, but in practice they tend to be too cumbersome in such tight quarters if fishing is the main objective. You're better off selecting the right kayak in the first place.
Along with stability, extra width also provides more weight capacity which is important for larger paddlers or somebody that wants to bring a lot of fishing gear or camping equipment. While stability is a consideration for almost every paddler, there are two types of stability to consider. The first is called primary stability and it is how the kayak feels as you're sitting in it at rest. For example, upon writing this article it should be evident by now that I have surpassed the legal limitation on alcohol consumption, and now feel as though I may fall out of this chair at any moment. I have poor primary stability. For those of you feeling fairly secure in your computer chairs, you have good primary stability, you do not feel like you're about to tip over at any second.
Secondary stability is the ability to save the kayak before it flips. So it may feel unstable as you're sitting in it at first, but when it gets to the point of flipping, it may be very difficult to get the thing to actually flip over, whether by leaning or shifting your weight, it's possible to correct.
Primary and secondary stability are determined mostly by the edges of the kayak. A kayak with round edges will usually have weaker primary stability, but better secondary stability, while a kayak with sharp edges will usually have excellent primary stability but once it gets to the point of no return, there's no saving it. Primary stability is usually more important to inexperienced paddlers and in some kayaks the primary stability can be so good that it's nearly impossible to get it to the point of flipping anyway.
Another law of physics applies to the tracking of kayaks. In a shorter kayak it will have a tendency to push the bow left with a paddle stroke on the right, and right with a stroke on the left, creating a side to side "wag" as the paddler propels the kayak. Generally this effect is lessened in longer kayaks and anything over 13 feet in length should be expected to track fairly well. Certainly a 14 or 15 foot kayak should track nearly perfectly. A skeg or keel would improve tracking, but that would be impractical in a fishing kayak that is often traveling in shallow water, over aquatic plants, and launched from shore. You can add a rudder system to most kayaks that is retractable and will allow you to deploy/stow at a moments notice. A rudder will greatly improve tracking on all kayaks especially in cross current/wind conditions.
Storage and Transportation
A shorter kayak may give up some performance in areas such as tracking, but it does have its advantages. With a 9 foot kayak weighing 40 pounds, it is possible to carry the thing on your shoulder and access launch sites that might be difficult or impossible to get to with a 15 foot kayak on a wheel cart. Hoisting it on top of an SUV or van can be done simply by grasping both handles and lifting it overhead onto the roof rack; a feat that could not be done with a larger kayak unless you're a stronger man than I am. Which is very unlikely. Very unlikely.
If storage space is a limitation, then a smaller kayak might be the only option. Besides space in a garage or storage room, fishing kayaks are being seen more and more on the sides and transoms of boats. A small kayak like a Mini-X or Tarpon 100 is easy to launch and takes up very little storage area, making them perfect for such an application.
You will give up some performance in a smaller kayak, but they do fill a niche. Keep in mind, whether your kayak is 13 or 16 feet long, chances are you'll need a wheel cart to go any sort of distance either way, and you more than likely wouldn't be able to lift it on top of an SUV without the proper rack accessories, or a buddy. The difference between a 12 or 13 foot kayak and a 15 or 16 footer is almost non-existent as far as handling on land is concerned. They're both big, heavy kayaks no matter how you slice it. There really isn't a difference until you get down into a 9 or 10 footer weighing 40 pounds or so. A kayak that size will give you some advantages in transportation that you wouldn't get with a bigger kayak.
With the amount of options available to choose from, there's no reason why you can't find the perfect fishing kayak. The right approach to choosing a kayak can go a long way, and whenever possible try a few out before you buy. Our store in Mission Bay offers free demos of every model we sell, so before you spend all that money, make sure you're getting the right kayak.