Kayak fishing continues to attract more and more anglers to its ranks. Over the past decade or so kayak fishing has exploded from a small niche activity to a popular sport fishing platform. And today, we want to share with you our best kayak fishing tips and some of the things we’ve learned on our journey.
Before we get to the tips though, if you’re a beginner or just starting to research your first “yak” let’s discuss why kayak fishing is so awesome.
We love it because it’s affordable, drama free, and offers a bit of much needed exercise. You can kayak fish on a pond, lake, or in the open ocean for pretty much any popular species of fish. And the best part is that it’s very accessible. You don’t need a huge tow vehicle, boat storage, or piles of cash to get set up properly.
For anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars you can equip yourself with a reliable and fun kayak fishing setup. And, doing so provides access to fish and water you would never otherwise encounter. Its a ton of fun and if you’re a beginner there are now some really great purpose built kayaks, fish finders, and trolling motors available. None of which were available to those of us who started with a yard sale kayak and cobbled together gear ten or more years ago.
So, to get you pointed in the right direction on your adventure into the world of kayak fishing we’ve assembled this kayak fishing tips for beginners article. Basically the things we wished we’d seen when we started.
Now, this list is based on our personal experiences and preferences so expect to make a few tweaks and improvements on your journey. But, this should at least get you pointed in the right direction.
Quick Basic Tips
- Always wear a PFD (aka a life jacket) – paddlers die every year, most deaths are drownings, and as many as 8 out of 10 were not wearing life jackets
- Buying a Kayak? Try before you buy – we recommend looking for a demo day, contacting a retailer or rental company, or a manufacturer to see if they have any demos scheduled / available. You may also be able to connect with a local angler on social media or a forum.
- Prepare for rain, cold weather, and the getting wet. Always bring warm clothes and a change just in case.
- Check local laws, some states (like Oregon) require permits or licensing for all watercraft.
- Never anchor in a strong / swift current – a change in wind direction could cause a tip over.
- Always have a knife on you – just in case you have to cut your kayak free or need to cut your anchor rope.
- Tell a friend or relative where you’re going and when you’ll be back any time you hit the water. We also recommend buying something like a Garmin inReach just incase things take a turn for the worse.
Ten Tips to get you started…
1. Learn about Kayaks and Paddling Techniques.
There are a lot of bad kayaks out there and a lot of amazing ones as well. Many are purpose built for one activity or another, like sea kayaking. While others are built for pure recreation and hit a really low price point. We started out in the sea kayaking hobby so when see a fishing kayak it’s pretty easy to evaluate its pros and cons.
However, this wasn’t always the case. As with any hobby a novice can’t always see that one design is stable on flat water while another is pretty tippy and intimidating for a beginner. The later design is a must for open water paddling where waves and swells would make a stable design a complete nightmare. This is why you really need to think about how and where you’ll fish.
Flat water and fishing while standing (or even kneeling) calls for a stable design. However if you head out into the surf and swells… you’ll want something that you can balance as you encounter not-so-flat seas. This means you probably won’t be casting standing up on a stable platform. There are a lot of tradeoffs in here but the one that really bothers us is that stable boats are usually wide, and paddling a wide boat is kind of a pain.
Maneuvering a paddle around a really wide, stable kayak is not only tiring… it can wreak havoc on technique. You should definitely take a class or at least watch a few youtube videos on proper technique before you start shopping. Proper technique makes you more efficient and reduces fatigue. You’ll also see how a wider kayak will make paddling more difficult. And, will then have a better baseline to judge which compromises your willing to make.
We presume that most beginners will be looking for a relatively stable kayak, but you really should do a bit of reading on kayak stability and hull shape before you purchase that new kayak.
2. Accessories and Customizations.
As is the case with any hobby buying the supporting gear can be like death from a thousand cuts… it can also be incredibly rewarding if you do some research and planning before you go nuts with the credit card. Take your time read articles like this one and shop around. Brick and mortar stores typically make a lot more on accessories that the central item (kayak, mountain bike, etc.).
The important thing to realize though, is that there are some really awesome mods and accessories that will really help you on the water and in transport. As we mentioned before, wheels are a nice way to take some of the struggle out of launching your kayak. Then there are things like rod holders, trolling motors, and fish finders. All of which are huge improvements. But, we’ll discuss those in detail later / elsewhere.
Just try to contain your excitement and avoid buying everything all at once from a single store. If you’re patient you’ll find some great deals from online retailers or even places like Craigslist. We do however recommend buying your PFD from a store that specializes in paddling. They will sell kayaking-specific PFD’s that are designed for comfort and breathability. Paddling with a standard vest sucks.
But, when you are shopping for that boat… keep in mind that you will be adding things and making modifications. So pay special attention to storage and mounting surfaces.
3. Your First Paddle
When we moved from paddling janky big box store kayaks to composite high-performance sea kayaks one of our biggest surprises was the importance of a paddle. There are a lot of reasons why you want to invest a significant amount of your budget in a good paddle. One of the biggest is that a light weight paddle reduces fatigue. Also, a higher end paddle will last a long time and are typically more efficient when it comes to propulsion. Trust us… you’ll want a nice paddle.
When you are shopping for a paddle to match your new kayak, be sure to get one that is designed for kayak anglers. They’re longer because you’ll be farther from the water and the kayaks are much wider than say a sea kayak. They’re also stronger and have different blades to offset the heft of a loaded down fishing kayak. Some even have hook removers and a ruler built into the paddle itself.
One last thing… maybe two. First, keep your paddle where you can grab it fast. If you’re seated, keep it on your lap. if you’re standing, find a place where you can grab it quickly if you need to maneuver when you get a fish on the line. Two, practice paddling with one hand. When you’re fighting a fish you want to be able to reposition your kayak as the fight evolves. You’ll be surprised how much power a fish has when you’re not on shore or in a larger boat.
4. Storing, Hauling, Launching and Loading your Kayak.
Better performing kayaks are typically pretty long and can be awkward to maneuver. Even our composite lightweight sea kayaks can be a bit of a pain to lift from garage wall to roof rack. They can also get a little heavy if we’re carrying them down to the water over a fairly long distance. So be prepared to lift and maneuver an even heavier awkward kayak as a fishing kayak enthusiast.
Think about where you’ll be fishing and what kind of access you’ll have to the water when you launch the kayak. This will help you when kayak shopping. Sure a long sit on top kayak will work well on the water, but it might be a complete pain to launch.
Also think about how you’ll transport the kayak. If you have a tall SUV and plan to carry the kayak on the roof, you’ll need a way to get it up there when you’re tired. Lucky for us we have a van with a long cargo area so getting a kayak into the vehicle is pretty straight forward. But, just know that when you’re shopping for that kayak… if you buy it you’ll eventually have to lift it. If you can, visit a demo day or store that will allow you to not only paddle the kayak, but lift and carry it a bit. You may also want to invest in some wheels if you’re going to be moving it over a long distance.
Also, think about encouraging a friend or relative into the hobby. Kayaks are much easier to lift and maneuver when you have the help of a friend.
5. Plan your day or trip on the water
If you’re coming to kayak fishing from a motorboat or no boat at all you need to think about paddling. Or more accurately… how much exercise paddling can be. It’s not like hopping into an aluminum boat with a 175 hp outboard.
Hopping in and heading out in a random direction is a recipe for disappointment and fatigue. Chances are you’ll be paddling all or most of the way while kayak fishing. Trolling motors are pretty sweet on a kayak, but to travel far and explore a lot of water you’ll need to rely on paddle power as well.
With that said, you’ll want to take your new kayak out on the water for a few short orienting trips. Take it out without gear or any aspirations of fishing and just paddle around a bit to get the hang of things. Figure out what it actually feels like to paddle into the wind. See how the kayak turns. Evaluate stability. And, we really suggest finding a safe spot to capsize the kayak or at least get into the water and attempt to get back onto / into the vessel.
Once you’ve got a good baseline of performance, you’ll be ready to plan your first trip. For, us it was a lake that we’d already fished a bit, but only from shore. We started by thinking about prevailing winds and planning a circular route that wouldn’t leave us paddling back to our vehicle later in the day when winds were strong and we had fatigued a bit from paddling around the lake.
Google maps is a great tool to plan your trip, but there are some better paid tools for navigation. We use Gaia GPS for trip planning and navigation but there are plenty of options. The big thing to look for is something that measures distance so you don’t bit off more than you can chew. A lake looks pretty small from a satellite image, but that shoreline gets pretty long when your following it in a kayak or on the trail.
You may also want to plan to drift a bit while fishing. Drifting will allow you to paddle less and present your lure to more fish.
6. Pack light and versatile.
Nothing screws up the performance of a kayak (or human powered anything), like excessive weight. So approach your loadout and gear selection with a minimalist mentality and you’ll be happy once you’re out on the water.
However, don’t go too far into the world of packing light. This isn’t a power boat so if you forget something in the truck or car you can’t speed back to the ramp to get that sunscreen you forgot. But aside from forgetting sunscreen, snacks and water… you want to anticipate things not going to plan with the fish you’re after.
Be prepared with enough tackle to either change the tactics you’re using on a particular species. Or even target another species all together. Plan to be versatile and adaptable but don’t go overboard with the fishing gear.
7. Sight fishing from a Kayak
Sight fishing is a pretty well known tactic to seasoned fly fishing and bass anglers. It’s a great way to both learn and land fish. The big advantage kayak anglers have in the world of sight fishing is stealth. Paddle boards, kayaks, and canoes can roll into a fishy locale without making much noise. And that means that you’ll get into more fish and often bigger (smarter) fish. Sight fishing from a kneeling or standing position combines that stealthy approach with one of the most successful fishing tactics.
To stand, however, requires a stable platform. And as you probably know most kayaks are not stable by design. The good news is that with the increased popularity in kayak fishing, manufacturers are now offering ultra stable fishing kayaks. Many of which actually feature standing platforms. That said if you’re getting into kayak fishing and you’ll be spending more than half of your time on clear pristine waters… you definitely want to add sight fishing to your list of requirements.
8. Landing and Releasing from your Kayak
One of the best things about kayaks is that you’re close to the water. If you’re going to release the fish back to its home you want to keep it wet as much as possible, being close to the water helps. This is a huge advantage and makes life easier when you’re gently holding the fish in the water to get oxygen back to its gills.
However, being close to the water can be a “con” when fighting the fish. As you know fish jump and you’re using a super sharp hook to tow the fish to your vessel. This creates a situation where you could be hit by a fish, or snagged by a barbed treble hook hanging from its mouth. If there’s ever been a selfish reason to crimp your barbs… a bass and hook to the face is it. Just be careful, avoid using barbed hooks if possible, and consider tiring a fish a little more before you try to haul it in to your kayak.
If you decide to keep your catch do as you would with a fish you catch in a larger boat or from shore. Stow it, put it on ice, etc. The thing you don’t want to do is use a stringer and keep the fish in the water. First… it creates drag on your human powered vessel. Second, in some areas there are predators like larger fish, sharks, gators, etc. they could be attracted to a an easy meal. And, if we were in such a situation… a kayak is one of the last boat types we’d want to be in if a gator is in hot pursuit. The good news is the fishing kayaks have internal storage, and deck space where you can place a cooler for storing fish.
9. Use your Anchor
Coming from the sea kayaking world; we were admittedly ignorant to the need and usefulness of an anchor for kayak fishing. We use them all the time in the drift boat, but for some reason it didn’t click until we started talking about casting and such. If you’re on the water you’re probably moving whether it’s a current or the wind; it’s next to impossible to stay in one spot without an anchor. And, as you probably already know holding position is hugely beneficial in fishing.
You don’t need anything too complex or bulky. A 2-4 pound anchor is plenty for most situations. Just make sure that you can cut away or release quickly. Things can go sideways fast in such a small vessel and you don’t want to lose your gear or life because you couldn’t cut lose the anchor. You’ll also want to add a float of some kind to your anchor line/rope. That way if you do need to cut loose… you can easily recover that anchor.
If you do want to get fancy; check out the Power Pole Micro Anchor. It’s a great shallow water pole anchor for kayaks and other small boats.
10. First Aid & Sun Protection
No matter what outdoor activity you’re enjoying you need to have a basic first aid kit nearby. Fishing seems like a pretty low risk activity, but there are a lot of sharp things in and around the kayak. You may get blisters from padding and there are other things to consider. You know the things stuff like antacids and anti-diarrhea can remedy. Bottom line… get or build a first aid kit for your kayaking adventures.
You’ll also want to protect yourself from the sun. Anyone who spends a lot of time in the water knows how crucial sunscreen, hats, and long sleeve shirts are while fishing. It’s easy to get distracted when the fishing heats up, so don’t just rely on sunscreen that needs to be refreshed. Consider shirts, like those popular with fly fishing enthusiasts, that are lightweight, synthetic, and feature sleeves that roll up and down easily. You may also want to consider a wide brim hat rather than a baseball cap. They provide a lot more protection for your ears, face and neck.
When it comes to sunscreen, chose something that does well in the water. But, also look for sunscreen that isn’t harmful to creatures that call the water home. Also, rub on sunscreen is a bit better for kayak fishing. You’re really close to the water at all times, so spray on sunscreen is bound to end up in and on the water when you reapply. It’s kind of silly to fish from such an environmentally platform only to spray a bunch of chemicals into the water.
Also don’t forget sunglasses. Sure the sun reflecting off of the water is detrimental to your eyes. But, polarized sunglasses are a game changer when it comes to spotting fish in clear water. Win-win, you catch more fish and protect your eyes.
Fish + Kayak + Angler
Let’s take some time to cover the fishing part, how a kayak impacts fishing, and what you can do as an angler to seize opportunity and address challenges.
Don’t cast into the wind. To be clear, you can but it presents challenges. On a kayak the challenges are more pronounced. Aside from the obvious lure aerodynamic problems the wind will create multiple problems. The wind will blow you backward. You’ll wind cock (the bow will point into the wind). And, if you’re anchored the wind can even rotate you around the anchor point. Position your back to the wind and you’ll reduce nearly all of the problems or challenges.
You may also need to play a fish a little differently from a kayak. This changes based on myriad factors like species, water depth, and gear selection. On elf the first things you need to experiment with is drag. The system in your reel will work a little different on an easily moveable kayak than it does from a fixed point. Theoretically speaking the your kayak could be viewed as a drag system in and of itself. Think about sitting in a kayak holding a rope, and all of a sudden a force pulls on that rope. You’ll move forward, but there will be a bit of resistance caused by the hydrodynamic drag on the kayak’s hull as it’s pulled through the waters. This is sort of like the drag system in your reel. If you were holding the rope on shore and something in the water suddenly pulled the rope… you’d either fall in, lose your grip on the rope, or the rope may break.
What does that mean to a new kayak angler? Basically that you’ll need a little more drag (resistance) on the boat that you would fishing from shore. Since the kayak moves, you’re less likely to break the line or otherwise lose the fish. Furthermore this will prevent that bunker from stripping too much line from your real as it dives or runs across open water.
On the Water…
When you’re on the water, weather conditions can change with little notice. And, when they do… the impact on things like waves, visibility and overall safety are much bigger than when you’re standing on the shoreline. There are a lot of things you’ll learn as your skill progress, but we thought we’d lay out some basic stuff to get you started.
Waves… if you’ve ever spent a day near a small lake you’ve probably seen how a slight breeze can transform a reflective glass-like surface into a choppy ripple filled body of water. Now that’s not a cause for alarm, but on larger bodies of water, with stronger winds waves get a little intimidating. When confronted with waves, in any vessel, it’s important to keep your bow (or stern) pointed into the waves. You never want to be hit by a wave from the side… this is a surefire way to capsize.
Now if you do end up in the water the good news is that righting or escaping isn’t as technical as it is in a small cockpit sea kayak. So there’s no need to to learn how to execute an Eskimo roll. Just do your best to right the kayak and climb back aboard. Your fishing kayak will be pretty stable so it shouldn’t be too difficult. But, if you can’t get back in stay with your boat and wait for help. We really recommend practicing recovery methods near the shore on a warm sunny day. A bit of prevention in a low stress setting is definitely worth missing some fishing time.
If wind does start to pick up and the waves are getting a little sketchy get closer to shore. From there you can either wait things out or follow the sheltered shoreline back to your vehicle.
Rod & Reel
There really isn’t any requirement to have one rod over another when it comes to kayak fishing. in fact, in many scenarios you have less to worry about than you would fishing from shore. You’ll have few issues with obstacles (especially fly fishing). There are fewer things to think about in terms of casting; your kayak can cover the distance whereas from shore you need to cast farther.
The one thing that really comes to mind however, is the amount of fishing line you may need on your reel. There’s a good chance that kayak fishing will position you above a taller water column (deep water) and give fish more room to run. This means that you’ll want to make sure you have enough line to fight a fish over in a larger area. Other than that the rod and reel in your garage will probably work well until you gain enough time on the water to start fine tuning your gear to suit your needs.
If you’re going to fish around motorized boats… make sure that they can see you. Kayaks are small and present a low profile on the water. Add to that the fact that many really awesome looking kayaks are basically camouflaged – you start to become pretty hard to see at high speeds.
Fish don’t care about kayak color; you’ll catch as many from a camp boat as you will from a neon pink and safety orange one. Now we’re not advocating one color over another; but be sure to consider visibility as it pertains to fellow boaters. For us we like to ensure that we have at least as much brightly colored stuff on as we would during hunting season. Doing so ensures safety as well as increases the chances that a boater will slow down when passing.
Now, if you’re not on a lake with motor boats, you’re probably pretty safe with dark colors. Being rammed by a canoe or paddle boarder isn’t going to land you in the ER. However… to some degree there are advantages to being seen if you need help. We always have a sighting mirror and lights with us for that reason. But, you may want to consider bright colors somewhere on your gear just incase you need the assistance of others.
There may be locations where it makes sense to have an air horn on board. But, we haven’t found the need where we spend our time. The same goes for flare guns ant the like. Be sure to check local rules and regulations… but we haven’t seen a need for anything like a portable air horn.
Does that mean we go completely without an auditory signaling device. Not at all. All of our gear from fishing to backpacking stuff have a whistle somewhere; typically on our person. If you get hurt or lost being able to use a whistle to alert search and rescue (or friends) is much easier than trying to yell.
We strongly urge you to go online ASAP to purchase a bulk pack of whistles if you’re a fan of the great outdoors. Some uneducated people make jokes when they ours, but ask any SAR volunteer or professional and they’ll tell you that a whistle is one of the most powerful life saving tools you can buy.