April 19, 2021
No kayak will perfectly do everything an angler might want it to during a year’s worth of fishing. It’s impossible for any one kayak to handle rough water, smooth water, streams and rivers, windblown bays and sounds, and calm lakes with the same level of performance.
Anglers who seek the most efficient and comfortable kayak for their purposes need to closely examine the available boats and hull designs before making a choice. There is no single element that determines the success and pleasure of a kayak angler more than the hull.
This is where the boat meets the water, and how these two elements interact will largely dictate how well the kayak works in specific fishing conditions.
First, a fact of boat hull design: The longer and narrower the hull, the faster it will go with the least effort expended. But while fast is good, stability is very important, too. The wider the hull, the more stable it will be. A fishing kayak needs speed and ease of movement, but it also needs to be a safe and secure platform.
With modern construction methods and the almost universal use of easily formed plastic hull materials, kayak designers can build into longer, skinnier hulls some stability-enhancing features. Fishing kayak design is not easy, however, and kayak anglers and builders are faced with a compromise.
Many of today’s popular kayak designs bear little resemblance to the narrow, pointy sea kayaks and whitewater boats appropriated for fishing duties in past decades. Jim Czarnowski, vice president of engineering for Hobie in Oceanside, Calif., has learned to accept the occasional wry comment or lifted eyebrow.
"When we first designed the Pro Angler, with the squared-off bow and stern, some said it looked like an aircraft carrier!" he notes. "But it made sense, with big handles forward and aft, and the ability to carry a lot of gear."
Thing is, the slab-like appearance of the Hobie Pro Angler (PA) and similarly shaped Outback belie sharp angles and sleek curves at and below the waterline. Both hull styles, as Czarnowski explains, have a fine entry, a plumb (straight up and down) bow that pierces the water. Aft, the hulls roll up and away from the water, "almost like a sailboat or a yacht-style transom," says Czarnowski. "Normally with a pointed transom or one squared off at the water line, if you aren’t balanced just right or you have too much weight in the back, you get drag that slows the boat down."
Translation: these boats are built to carry gear—crates with tackle boxes, fish bags, anglers attired in foul-weather gear.
Midship, the PA and Outback bottoms can take on a tri-hull shape. "They have a center bulb and two outer sections, and they get a lot of stability from that," explains Czarnowski.
The Outback is designed with a built-in skeg (not to be confused with the transom-mount rudder) which aids in tracking—keeping the boat in a straight line and resisting wind drift. The larger, wider PA has a drop-down skeg, which can be removed to accommodate the company’s new MirageDrive 360 propulsion system in order to enable deft lateral movements of the boat.
"The evolution we’ve seen is people are really buying for stability," Czarnowski says. "And with pedal-driven systems like the MirageDrive, they produce so much more power to push a wide, stable boat well. So the question is, why have a boat that feels uncomfortable? Or why sit low with your butt in the water? Early on, that was what we did—sit low in a tippy boat, worrying we might capsize."
Of course, Hobie has other models in its lineup that aren’t as wide or hefty as the premiere fishing models. Still, they trend toward stability and capacity without compromising maneuverability.
Another company building fishing kayaks deviating from the classic template is Old Town, based in the Maine town of the same name. Nontraditional might be a bit of an unexpected turn for a company that has built beautiful canoes and other paddle boats since the late 1800s, but that’s where Old Town went about 10 years ago.
"The Predator was originally designed in 2012 as a big kayak that would be pleasant to paddle, with a sharp entry and a rounder chine, which allowed you to reach over the gunnel and efficiently paddle a heavier craft but not feel that way," explains Ryan Lilly, Old Town brand evangelist. "When we introduced the motorized Predator in 2014, and then the pedal PDL version, that shape carried forward well because it was set up to efficiently pierce the water. It was good for rougher water and found a nice following among fishermen who liked the hull shape to handle big water offshore."
Old Town placed even more emphasis on stability when it launched the Topwater in 2018. "It was more of a DoubleU or pontoon-shape hull, with rock-solid primary stability," notes Lilly. "The Predator’s performance tri-hull was very stable, but because of the rounder chine, the hull shape can rock side to side. The new Topwater hull was designed for super-extreme stability."
Essentially, one design offered optimal stability—a major attraction for anglers wishing to stand and cast—while the other was great for water-piercing efficiency. Old Town’s next move only made sense, Lilly explains.
"We brought the greatest hits of the Topwater and Predator into the Sportsman line—we borrowed hull shapes from within those lines," he says. "We knew customers wanted the DoubleU hull stability, and then the cult following loved the Predator design, so we knew we wanted to carry that tri-hull shape forward. And finally, with the design of the AutoPilot 136, we did something slightly different. It has the DoubleU hull, but the bow’s sharp entry provides some of what the Predator performance hull does. We knew some of these customers would be likely going offshore, in big water conditions, and would want that wave-piercing quality."
Considering the differences in hull design, it’s crucial that anglers select a kayak with a hull made to perform well in specific conditions. Kayak anglers who primarily fish in backwaters like the Louisiana bayous, Gulf Coast creeks or the Everglades want to look at kayaks that are broader in beam and flatter on the bottom to maximize stability, provide good maneuverability and allow stand-up casting. A kayak with a broader beam and more underwater features that promote stability, ease of movement and direction change will give better performance in tight, shallow water. These kayak hulls will not allow high-speed runs, but speed is rarely a significant factor in skinny-water fishing.
However, anglers who fish beyond the breakers and in big open-water situations should look at longer, narrower kayaks that allow faster speed, whether from paddle or pedal. These kayaks need to be easy to propel, convenient to get from vehicle to water across the beach, and able to deal with rough water conditions while keeping anglers safe and secure. Maneuverability is not as crucial in big water; rough-water handling and speed are the primary concerns. A kayak hull that allows high-speed runs enables anglers to quickly close on actively feeding fish, or promptly get off the water in case of threatening weather or sea conditions.
At one time, most kayaks were built of some sort of fiberglass, but today the most common kayak hull material by far is plastic. Specifically, it’s a polyethylene material that is easy to work, quite tough and flexible, and even simple to repair. But plastic isn’t the only hull material, and others have their own advantages.
Many DIY builders of kayaks use wood strips covered with fiberglass and epoxy to produce a strong, fairly lightweight hull. This construction can result in the most beautiful kayaks imaginable. Most of these wood/fiberglass kayaks are sit-in, as opposed to sit-on, designs, but they can serve quite well as fishing boats. I’d hate to have to count the fish I’ve caught through the years from my wood-strip, fiberglass-covered kayaks.
Composite-hulled kayaks tend to be very high-end cruising ocean kayaks, and they also tend to cost more than kayaks made from other materials. Several layers of Kevlar, fiberglass and graphite materials are laid up on molds to form the hull. These kayaks are strong and stiff, but quite expensive because they require considerable skill to assemble. There aren’t too many composite-hulled kayaks specifically designed for fishing.
Plastic kayak hulls are made by heating the material—either powder or sheets—and then forming the soft plastic around or inside some kind of mold. In thermo-formed hulls, sheets of plastic are heated and drawn down by vacuum on a mold. The hulls and decks are then trimmed, fitted together and joined with adhesive. This hull/deck joint can be a weak part of thermo-formed kayaks, and owners need to keep an eye on this junction to ensure no leaks develop.
Roto-molded kayak hulls are much more common, and with good reason. Plastic powder is poured into a heated mold, which is then rotated to form the entire kayak in one step. This produces a strong, relatively lightweight hull, and fantastic colors and patterns are possible with this method. Roto-molding allows different thicknesses of plastic to be applied to different parts of the hull. High-stress areas like the keel can be made stronger and more resistant to abrasion.
All of these hull materials have their uses for kayak anglers, but my experience shows one material to be superior for fishing—especially in regard to durability. When Hurricane Sally roared through my neighborhood last fall, the largest sweet gum tree in south Alabama fell directly on my boathouse and across my kayaks. The boathouse was crushed, and what was once a 7-foot-high rack of kayaks became a 3-foot-high pile of wreckage.
My wood-strip/fiberglass kayak was destroyed, my only composite kayak’s hull was badly punctured and crushed, and my rotomolded and thermoformed plastic kayaks were bent, twisted and warped. But when I dragged the plastic kayaks out of the boathouse and let them sit in the warm post-hurricane sun for a couple of days, their hulls returned to their original and proper shape—no dings, no divots and no warpage. Even after massive hurricane damage and pressure, those plastic kayaks were perfectly usable. No doubt about it, plastic is a very good material for fishing kayak hull construction.
There is nothing an angler can do that will better ensure making the correct kayak choice than to take a trial run—or maybe several trial runs. We wouldn’t buy a pair of shoes without trying them on to see if they fit, and it doesn’t make sense to buy a kayak without some "try on" time on the water. Whenever possible, put potential fishing kayak purchases on the water to make sure that the hull design, seat and boat in general fit you. And when you test a kayak, test it loaded!
Before buying, also consider how you will transport your new kayak. For most adults, the weight that one person can safely lift overhead onto a rack or carry to the water is limited to around 60 pounds. There are devices that facilitate these tasks, and a good local kayak shop should have plenty of options. If you'll be fishing with a regular partner, the two of you can team up for lifting and carrying, but investing in a lightweight kayak might be the right answer for some anglers.
It's best to spend some time researching and trying options before spending quite a bit of money on a fishing kayak. Learn as much as possible about kayak hull design, materials and intended purpose. Talk to kayak anglers who frequent the same waters you plan to fish, and consider their recommendations. If certain brands and models keep coming up, you’ll likely hear good reasons for why those boats are favored. The more info a kayak angler can gather about hulls and on-the-water performance, the better he or she will be able to select a good fit for the given situation.
Rig it Right
Accessories make a kayak more effective.
The fastest growing demographic in fishing over the past few years, the kayak rage has resulted in a long list of accessory manufacturers. You can find the exact boat for your preferred method of fishing, and rig it with the specific components that will ultimately make you more effective and comfortable, at a price far less than a new aluminum or fiberglass boat and motor. The following accessories will not only make your time on the water more enjoyable, but also will make water access, gear management, boat control and storage as simple as possible.
Bases and Track Systems
Some kayaks come with track systems installed at the point of manufacture, others do not. In most cases, however, it’s easy to add aftermarket tracks and bases to support more accessories such as fishfinders, rod holders and camera arms. Since most fishing kayaks are roto-molded plastic, accessory tracks can be added to the topside of the boat with small, self-tapping screws without hindering the boat’s structural integrity. (I suggest adding marine-grade silicone to each hole, and don’t overtighten the screws.)
Tracks generally need a longer stretch of surface area to be installed, while individual bases like the Railblaza Starport HD (railblaza.com) can be placed just about wherever you need them. YakAttack (yakattack.us) and YakGear (yakgear.com) offer tracks and mounts to support whatever accessory you may add to your fishing kayak.
Kayak manufacturers such as Hobie (hobie.com) and Old Town (oldtowncanoe.com), among others, offer boats with universal transducer mounts molded into the underside of the profile. This makes it a snap to install a fishfinder’s transducer and manage the wiring. Typically, holes must be drilled on the top of the rig and plugged with wire gromets to correctly install most units. Most bases easily fit into the tracks discussed above and can be adjusted in any direction so the user can clearly read the screen.
In cases where a kayak does not have an integral mount, add-on transducer mounts from BerleyPro (berleypro.com) are available for a variety of fishfinder brands. Another option is the unique YakAttack CellBlok, which can be mounted on the boat’s gunnel to serve multiple purposes of battery storage, graph placement and transducer deployment.
Electronics require a power source, and keeping them running without interruption was a problem that until recently kayak anglers just had to accept. But now, relatively lightweight lithium-battery systems present effective ways to stay engaged with electronics and the fish they are displaying.
Amped Outdoors (ampedoutdoors.com) and Dakota Lithium (dakotalithium.com) are excellent choices, and although they are not inexpensive, it’s hard to put a price tag on their dependability. Both companies offer 12V lithium batteries with a variety of capacities.
For even more runtime and convenience, the Bad Mofo battery box from Ice Hole Power (iceholepower.com) comes with two Amped 12V, 12Ah lithium batteries prewired in parallel and includes two binding posts, two USB ports and a cigarette lighter output port. In addition, the box has a voltmeter and a pair of Bluetooth speakers. The company also offers DIY battery-box kits.
The overall goals—or requirements—of kayak fishing are to downsize and simplify. That means you can’t take your entire tackle collection. Pick out limited quantities of your favorite presentations and jam them into four or five 3700-size trays, because you won’t have room for more.
Many kayak anglers stow these trays in a milk crate with externally added rod holders or other devices, and place it directly behind the seat. Sleeker solutions exist, and tackle management systems specifically engineered for kayak fishing are worth considering. Examples include the BerleyPro Bucket Bro, Hobie H-Crate and H-Crate Jr., and YakAttack BlackPak.
Mobility and Storage
Regardless of the type of propulsion system your kayak features, getting the boat to the water can be a challenge. A cart is essential to saving your back and extending the hull’s lifetime. There are several options available to safely get your boat to the shoreline for launch. Some, like Hobie’s Plug-In model, attach to the boat through the scupper holes; others strap to the base of the hull. Make sure to choose a wheel type appropriate for the terrain. Loose sand requires wider, softer wheels, while gravel or pavement is better for narrower, harder wheels.
You always need a paddle on the boat, regardless of the drive system. Consider the phrase, “up a creek without a paddle.” Keep one handy at all times. Some kayaks come standard with a paddle and a built-in system for stowing it. If not, check out aftermarket add-ons for paddle management.
When it comes time to store a kayak for the season, a cover will keep excessive dust and critters from making a huge mess, or worse, destroying your kayak. This is an easy investment to justify—if you own a kayak you need a cover. — Thomas Allen