Kayak fishing: Big thrills on a small budget – USA TODAY
KENTUCKY LAKE — The rivulet that feeds the creek that spills into a bay that’s large enough to swallow 10 football fields before joining this nearly mile-wide reservoir is barely knee-deep, narrow as a cave, and overshadowed by a willow tree older than most of the humans who have seen it.
There is no discernible current.
Thanks to my boat, an Old Town Predator PDL, which is both a mechanical marvel and the simplest of watercraft, I am beyond reach of the bass boats and other power rigs that are plying the bay and main lake points in search of bass and crappie.
The water near the bank is nervous, a good indicator of fish activity. A roll cast from my 8-foot, 5-weight fly rod misses the mark. The popping bug lands on the fringe of the mud bank then sloughs into the water. A tug on the line. Nothing. Again. Nothing. Another twitch and the water boils as though I’d tossed in a brick.
For an instant, the fish and I are connected. Then only a slack line and an accelerated heartbeat. A few paddle strokes and the boat glides quietly to where the creek begins to meld into the bay and is flanked by a flooded grassy flat and where the water depth ranges from feet to inches and holds the promise of more fish.
Kayaks (and canoes) aren’t new, of course. They have been used by fishermen and hunters for thousands of years and were the original water vehicles for indigenous peoples across much of the globe. It’s easy to see why. Few tools match the simplicity and function of a kayak, whether it’s in original form — skins stretched over a wooden frame — or the latest incarnation, a polyethylene molded boat complete with rod holders, rudder and a pedal propulsion system like the Predator’s PDL.
While kayaks have been around for millennia, they have recently enjoyed a surge in popularity among sport fishermen.
Reasons vary but include practicality, price and simple fishing pleasure.
“Kayak fishing is just more fun for me,” said Michigan-based angler Dave Mull, who owns a 17-foot, 75-horsepower bass boat, which he’s used once in the past year in favor of his kayak fleet. “A kayak’s stealth and low profile let you get right up on fish — I’ve caught bass that I’ve made eye contact with. Kayaks also let you get into places that (power) boats can’t go.”
Mull prefers a Hobie-model kayak and owns two, the 11-foot Outback and the larger 14-foot Pro Angler, which, like Old Town’s Predator series, was designed specifically for fishermen. And, like the PDL model, Hobie’s Outback and Pro Angler employ an optional foot-powered drive system (you can of course still paddle).
“Being able to propel the boat with my legs allows me to move around a lake and fish at the same time,” explained Mull, who is regular competitor in kayak fishing tournaments. “Which is a huge advantage over paddle-powered craft when it comes to fishing.”
Lee McClellan’s preferred angling target are stream-bred smallmouth bass. A few years ago he traded his one-person pontoon boat for a kayak and has never looked back.
“I finally got a kayak for the ability to cover more water in a stream but I also use my kayak for flat water fishing in small lakes,” said McClellan, who frequently fishes the waters near his Frankfort, Ky., home.
“Stealth is one of the great advantages of kayak fishing, too,” he added. “I can sneak up on shallow water bass in a small lake or the backwaters of large reservoirs where large boats can’t go.”
Best bargain in fishing boats
Compared to the cost of a fully rigged bass boat, which can range from $10,000 to more than $70,000, the price of a kayak is relative pocket change. Prices start at around $300 for a simple no-frills boat to around $3,000 for a top-end model designed with the angler in mind.
The suggested retail for the Old Town Predator PDL, for example, is $2,800. The Hobie Pro Angler 12 is around $3,200.
The suggested retail for the Vapor 10, the entry-level boat of the Old Town fishing fleet, is $399.
“Lower expense is the reason a lot of guys and gals are getting into kayak fishing,” noted Mull. “You can get a really nice new fishing kayak and set it up for fishing with rod holders, a tackle and storage box and even fish-finder electronic sonar and GPS for less than a thousand dollars — a lot less if you buy a used kayak, and there are lots of those available as anglers are constantly upgrading.”
David Hadden, the watercraft brand manager for Johnson Outdoors, which owns Old Town Canoes and Kayaks, agrees buyers at all price points will find good options.
“Everybody has a budget,” said Hadden, who became addicted to fishing from kayaks and canoes as a young man. “If you have a $500 budget, pick the best boat you can for $500,” he said. “But if you have more budget to spend I think some of the items you get as you go up are very important.
“Hands-free fishing, to me, is one of the biggest opportunities for an angler,” he continued. “And we’re seeing a lot of people go up to a hands-free fishing boat. But I think what you want is to get the maximum amount for your budget as possible.”
Fishing kayaks are now available for nearly every niche and angling market.
Tennessee-based Jackson Kayak offers several boats in their fishing fleet but recently began targeting a specific fishing market with their Mayfly, a paddle-powered kayak designed for fly fishermen.
The Mayfly was introduced earlier this year. Sales have been brisk, according to Damon Bungard, product manager for Jackson Kayak and a former whitewater kayaker turned kayak angler.
“Fly fisherman, just like other fishermen, have unique needs, with the line management being the most important,” said Bungard. “And the Mayfly was designed specifically for the fly fisherman.”
Bungard agrees that a kayak gives an angler access and perspective that is missing from a bass boat or other power rig. But he says the two tools aren’t mutually exclusive.
“Fishing from a kayak is just fun,” he said. “And fishing kayaks let you get in and out of places the boats just can’t go. But I know a lot of guys who have bass boats with kayak cradles so when they get to the right spots they can work an area then get back in their boats and move on.”
Life jackets save lives
While kayak models and fishing techniques vary, there is one thing everyone agrees on: Life jackets save lives. But they only work if you’re wearing one.
Do so, advise the experts.
“It’s just smart to wear a personal flotation devise,” said Bungard. “There are far too many accidents that just flat out wouldn’t happen if (paddlers) were wearing a PFD.”
“It’s the most essential thing,” added Old Town’s Hadden. “There is no lure, bait, rod or reel that’s more important than a life vest. Anglers have to understand that. No matter how good of a swimmer or waterman you are. You never outgrow a life jacket. It’s the most important thing you can take on any fishing trip.”
Choosing a kayak
Fishing from a kayak is a fun and economical way to get on the water. Some things to consider when choosing a boat:
“When I’m talking to someone about a kayak I usually ask them where they like to fish most of the time and what do they like to fish for,” said Damon Bungard, product manager for Jackson Kayak. “Because fishing kayaks have evolved to the point where you have everything from kids’ boats to really big adult boats. You have river boats. You have long-distance paddling boats. You have boats that prioritize standing. You have boats that prioritize storage. There is really every flavor out there.”
Price is another consideration, of course. Old Town Canoe and Kayak’s David Hadden advises buyers to get the most boat they can for their budget.
“When I’m doing a seminar and people ask, ‘For $300 or $400 what’s the best thing I can get to change my fishing?’ I tell them it’s a $300 or $400 kayak,” Hadden said. “If they ask me the same question and their budget is $1,200 it’s a $1,200 Predator. If they have $3,000 it’s a Predator pedal.”
Hadden adds that anglers should not overlook canoes, the tool used by early explorers wherever waters flowed.
“Fishing kayaks are very popular and, honestly, it’s the best fishing experience,” he said. “But there is something about a canoe. I love paddling a canoe.”
Some kayak and canoe dealers offer on-the-water test drives, which Dave Mull highly recommends, especially for novice paddlers. Mull is owner/operator of Black River Kayak Adventures in Paw Paw, Mich., and an experienced kayak tournament angler.
“Go to kayak dealer that allows test rides and try out as many kayaks as you can to see how each will fit what you like to do and — equally important — (physically) fit you so that you’re comfortable sitting in it,” he said. “Do you prefer pedaling to paddling? Are you going to be fishing in a lot of shallow areas that could damage a foot drive or at least make you want to take it out of the water? Do you want to stand up and fish? Try as many kinds as possible until you find what suits you best.”