June 01, 2022
By Drew Warden
Angler interest in kayaks has exploded recently, and so too has the number of kayaks tailored to fishing applications. With today’s dizzying array of purpose-built fishing kayaks—and an equally overwhelming variety of features and characteristics—many prospective buyers don’t know where to begin. However, there is a method to the madness.
Speak with a handful of industry experts on the kayak buying process, and several key considerations will come up again and again. If you’re hunting for a new fishing kayak, keep the following items in mind.
1. Intended Fishing Use
Choose a kayak that fits the waters you fish and the type of fishing you do most often. Are you chasing bass or panfish on calm lakes and slow-moving rivers, or inshore species on flats or coastal bays? Do you fish large lakes or offshore, where wind and wave conditions are a factor? Where and how you fish should guide your decisions.
"It’s important for someone to identify what type of angler they are and where they plan to fish," says Ryan Lilly, brand evangelist for Old Town Canoe and Kayak. "There are so many options on the market now that you can inadvertently buy a kayak that was designed to do X when you’re really going to do Y, and you won’t be happy. Or you won’t have the best experience."
The kayak you select should address your most common needs. If you’re a hard-core bass angler and want a bunch of rods, tackle, electronics and a trolling motor, you need a large, stable, relatively flat kayak with adequate capacity. Lilly says Old Town’s Sportsman Autopilot 120 or 136, Sportsman PDL 106 or 120, and Topwater 106 or 120 fit that bill. If you’re fishing big, rough water, a model with a sleeker, more rounded hull and pronounced bow shape may work better. Here, he recommends the company’s BigWater PDL 132, Sportsman BigWater 132 and Sportsman Salty PDL 120.
As you’ll notice, many buying considerations overlap and connect. The largest and heaviest boats are often the most stable with the greatest carrying capacities. Smaller and lighter boats hold less gear but are easier to transport and portage. Most decisions involve tradeoffs, but the result—your kayak solution—should always serve your intended fishing use.
Tyler Brown, COO of BIG Adventures, the parent company of Native Watercraft and Bonafide kayaks, notes that a top consideration for most buyers is stability. He sees it with new kayak anglers in particular. "[Good stability] really allows somebody that’s new to the sport to be confident, to feel comfortable doing it," he says. "If people who are new get into a boat that isn’t stable, and they spend most of their time trying not to flip, and they’re nervous, obviously, their experience is not very positive."
Stability concerns every kayak angler, though, not just newbies. You need a stable platform to fish from, especially if you want to stand. Even if you don’t, nobody wants to tip a kayak loaded with expensive gear.
A wider, heavier kayak is usually more stable than a lighter, narrower boat. You sacrifice speed and tracking ability the wider you go, though. It’s also harder to paddle a wider kayak, but this is mitigated on boats using a motor or pedal-drive system.
Hull design affects a kayak’s stability, too. Some offer more (secondary) stability in rough water and others provide greater (primary) stability on calmer waters. An entire article could highlight how hull shape influences stability, but for anglers not fishing big, rough water, so-called pontoon- or catamaran-style hulls often yield the best results.
Brown suggests that the hybrid "cat" (catamaran) hull on the Bonafide SS127 and the wide, uniquely designed hull of the Native Watercraft Titan make them some of the most stable boats.
One last note on stability. Typically, the higher your seat sits in the kayak, the wider the boat should be to accommodate a higher center of gravity.
3. Capacity and Features
Call this "gear-friendliness," if you want. How much gear can a given kayak hold? Does it have ample storage space? And does it have features that make adding accessories like a motor, shallow-water anchor, fishfinder and other items easy? The amount of gear a kayak supports correlates to its usable capacity. If you want to install many accessories or carry lots of gear, your boat should safely float it. Howie Strech, Hobie’s parts and accessories product manager, suggests how much weight capacity you need is largely based on how you fish.
"Are you a hard-core bass guy that takes a ton of gear or are you a minimalistic type of person?" he asks. "The reason I love the Hobie Pro Angler 14 so much is just because I get that much extra boat. I can take everything I need to take, and there is a space for it."
The tradeoff is a heavier kayak to support the weight. This often costs more, too, and so do features that make custom rigging easier. You must also consider how you distribute weight inside the kayak to avoid imbalances, especially with motors and batteries.
4. Transport and Storage
We know a kayak’s weight and dimensions affect capacity, stability and tracking. Size and weight also influence portability and how easy a kayak is to transport and store.
Want a kayak that will ride atop your car or SUV? Pick a smaller, lighter vessel. Longer, heavier kayaks are better suited for trailers or truck beds, and you may need an extender for your pickup’s bed. Keep your physical capabilities in mind, too. Are you able to repeatedly lift a kayak onto your vehicle or a trailer, or do you need a device to assist you?
Similarly, choose a kayak for which you have adequate space to store. Anglers without much storage might consider a quality inflatable kayak, like Hobie’s Mirage iTrek 11. Strech says that while you can’t treat it exactly like a rigid-hull kayak, it’s plenty durable and gets you on the water.
“If you’re in an apartment, you may want a certain boat, and it might be the best boat for you once you’re out on the water,” says Jeffrey Fortuna, asset manager for Hobie. “But if you don’t have any way to transport it or store it when you’re not using it, then it completely changes your buying parameters.”
Weight matters for river anglers, too. If your fishing involves lots of portaging, a lightweight kayak you can comfortably lift or drag is ideal.
How do you want to propel your kayak? You can paddle, pedal or use a motor. Consider your budget, and where and how you fish. The most affordable boats are usually paddle kayaks. Pedal- and motor-propelled kayaks are typically more expensive.
Paddle kayaks often have the edge on skinny-water rivers or on the flats, though certain pedal-drive kayaks can get shallow, too. Hobie kayaks, for instance, utilize Kick-Up Fins that retract on impact and allow you to "flutter kick" to navigate in inches of water. Other pedal drives allow you to raise the drive unit and paddle in the shallows. Most pedal-driven and powered kayaks excel in deeper, open water and in traveling long distances. However, the biggest advantage of pedaled and powered kayaks is hands-free operation.
"The best experience—at least for fishing—is when you’re able to retire that paddle and use a pedal or motorized system," Lilly says. "That opens up a ton of opportunity, and a lot of your time is freed up where you normally have to be maneuvering yourself to make that cast. You’re able to focus completely on the pursuit."
There are various pedal-drive systems on the market, but most fall into two categories: rotary pedal drives or so-called fin drives. Hobie’s venerable MirageDrive (MD)—the longest-standing pedal drive in the industry—dominates the latter group. The MD 180 permits forward and reverse propulsion, while the MD 360, as Strech says, essentially "turns your kayak into a giant trolling motor" offering maneuverability in any direction. On the rotary side, many options exist. Old Town’s pedal drives are widely respected, as is the Propel Drive used on several Native Watercraft kayaks and Bonafide’s new P127.
Motorization has exploded in popularity, too. Old Town’s Sportsman 106 Powered by Minn Kota, along with the company’s Sportsman AutoPilot 120 and 136, come standard with Minn Kota trolling motors installed. The AutoPilot models feature Spot-Lock Technology to “anchor” kayaks in place.
Bonafide and Native Watercraft both offer turnkey bow mounts for a MotorGuide Xi3 kayak trolling motor, and they accept common stern-mounted motors like those from Torqeedo and Newport Vessels. Brown says the Bonafide SS127, Native Slayer Max line and Native Titan 12 are ideally suited for motorization. Hobie also has the Evolve motor for its kayaks, which drops down in place of the standard MirageDrive.
With any kayak, watch how the boat planes after installing a motor. Ensure it’s safe and there’s no excess water entering the kayak. Again, propulsion choices should always reflect your intended fishing use.
Get a kayak that feels good and fits you. You should be comfortable spending time in it. Dave Potts, operations manager for Mariner Sails, a large kayak dealer based in Dallas, Texas, can’t overstress the importance of trying a kayak before buying. "I would say that for probably 60 to 70 percent of people, the boat they think they want is not the boat they decide on," Potts notes.
He emphasizes a comfortable seat is crucial, and that a raised one helps a lot. Just ensure it’s not so high it adversely affects stability. He jokes that there are "one-hour seats, five-hour seats and all-day seats," and if you have a bad back, you’ll quickly know which one is on your kayak.
It comes down to body type and, again, the type of fishing you do. If you’re a bigger individual, you’ll need a longer and wider kayak. An on-the-water demo, Potts says, is a great chance to see firsthand if a boat will serve your fishing and comfort needs.
What’s your budget? Mariner Sails specializes in the rigging of kayaks, and Potts says he often sees people who know how much they want to spend on a kayak but fail to budget for accessories or any wiring and rigging work that must be done. This includes trailers, racks and other items, too. Know what accessories you require and factor them into the price, keeping in mind that most kayaks enable you to easily add more accessories later to fit your needs.
Your budget also influences the type of kayak you can buy and the features that come standard. Maybe you start with an entry-level kayak—a Hobie Passport 12.0, an Old Town Sportsman 120, a Native Falcon 11 or a Bonafide RS117—and progress to enhanced models. Or perhaps your budget allows you to go straight to a premium option—a Hobie Pro Angler 14 with a 360 Drive, an Old Town Sportsman AutoPilot 136, a Native Titan Propel 12 or a Bonafide P127. Price, along with intended use, is often a top consideration for buyers.
Two items that keep you safe and keep you going
There isn’t a lot of extra room on a kayak, and an inflatable PFD makes a lot of sense. The Mustang Survival MIT 100 features a streamlined design for comfort and safety in calm water conditions. A manual inflation cord lets you deploy it by hand if the need arises. The MIT 100 provides up to 28 pounds of buoyancy and keeps the wearer face-up when inflated, and its simple one-fold design makes re-packing a snap. ($139.99; mustangsurvival.com)
Lithium-ion batteries such as those from Lithium Battery Power are ideal for kayak power-supply needs, whether you’re fueling an electric trolling motor, lighting up a sonar unit or recharging a cell phone. The weight savings over traditional lead-acid batteries is significant. Lithium batteries require very little maintenance (no water levels to check) and do not normally emit gases while charging or discharging. This makes them especially desirable in kayak applications where the battery is likely to be stowed in an enclosed hatch or accessory container. Lithium batteries are expensive, but they deliver an incredible number of charging cycles—multiple thousands of them. ($1,092.50 for 12V, 100 Ah Premier battery; lithiumbatterypower.com)