Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Fishing Kayaks and Sea Kayaks

I would like to take a moment to talk about the differences of kayaks, specifically length vs. width, and what that means to the person in the cockpit. People come in the shop all the time who have never kayaked before, completely overwhelmed by the number of boats they see.

The first thing I do is ask a series of questions, such as; "What do you want to do? Class 4-5 whitewater? Two week expeditions on the open ocean? Overnight camping on a flat-water lake? Day touring on flat-water, or simply general purpose float lounging at the end of the dock?"

What I'm really asking here, is; "How much do you want to learn about kayaking?"

Anyone who sits in a kayak should learn fundamental strokes & boat control, and proper safety techniques without question. Learning how to properly drive a kayak not only helps avoid frustration, but adds to the enjoyment of the whole experience.

For instance, most of the time I paddle a sea kayak. This boat is 17ft 8 inches long, and 21.5 inches wide. In general, a long boat with a narrow beam is more efficient in the water. What that means to me is that there is more glide with less work. I can paddle a sporty sea kayak into 25 knot wind, or strong current, and make headway with much less effort than a kayak say, 12ft. long and 30 inches wide.

"Is a narrower kayak less stable than a wide one?" I get asked this allot. The way I look at it, a wider boat generally has more primary stability and less secondary stability, as opposed to a narrow sea kayak that has less primary, and more secondary stability.

So what does that mean? It means you have to learn how to use a sea kayak, as opposed to hopping on a floating barge that an elephant could not flip. Loads of primary stability usually means less efficiency, which means more work to paddle, which equals less enjoyment. Primary stability is how stable the boat feels when your just sitting there, not moving. Secondary stability is how stable the boat feels on edge or in rough water. With just a little practice, primary stability becomes less and less important to how comfortable you feel in the boat.

I love kayak fishing, but I have to say whenever I see kayak fishing in the media, most of these guys are hopping on a power boat with their sit-on-top pigs loaded with electronics, live wells, motors, 50 rods...it's amazing. No wonder they need a ride out to the fishing grounds, they have basically made their kayaks as inefficient as possible. It's ok to love your gear, but is all this stuff really necessary to catch fish?

I cringe when I see this. Why bother with the kayak if you just need a float pad to hook your fish from. I get what they are going for - stability, but you know what? That width they need for stability is caused by the overloading of gear, and raising the center of gravity. KISS: Keep it simple stupid. I've hooked quite a few large (king salmon, halibut) fish from all kinds of kayaks, and all the pull those fish give you gets dissipated through the rod. My boat doesn't get tugged over at all, even when I'm offshore in a sea kayak.

The other reason people chose these incredibly wide and slow kayaks to fish from is that they don't want to learn about kayaking. I teach first time paddlers to kayak every day. 20 minutes into the class everyone wants a sportier boat with less beam and more efficiency. Everyone quickly realizes how easy and fun effectively driving the boat is, and how unnecessary the super wide floating barges called recreation, or flat-water kayaks are.

Don't get me wrong, sit-on-top kayaks are great for fishing. They allow you to place rod holders anywhere, and access gear & tackle with ease. You have to search hard to find the most efficient models, as most are made for flat-water recreation. There are a few sporty fishing kayaks out their from various manufacturers. The Prowler Trident 15 by Ocean Kayak is one of the sleeker angler kayaks on the market. They manage to keep the beam around 28 inches for 15 ft of length, which is a good combination of efficiency and primary stability. One day I hope to see a 16ft, 24 inch wide sit-on-top fishing kayak with high secondary stability and thigh straps as to utilize edge control, punch through surf, and cover long miles with ease.

People also ask if a shorter boat is easier to maneuver vs. a longer boat. Technically this is correct when keeping the boat flat while turning. A basic kayak skill, called edging, makes a longer boat have a much shorter waterline, in essence making an 18ft kayak just as, or more maneuverable than a 12 ft. boat.

Just a little learning and practice can open up a world of opportunities for the kayak angler, and you won't have to pay a charter boat captain to give you a ride to the fishing grounds. You'll get yourself there, which is the whole point of using a kayak!


PS- I'm working on a kayak fishing trip on the Columbia near Portland targeting coho salmon, or a return to the Nehalem for chinook within the next week. I'll post a trip report with kayak fishing tips, techniques, and photos ASAP!


Saltman said...

Doesnt wilderness systems make a sit-on-top surf kayak? That would be a good boat for dealing with surf. Or better yet, when you catch a fish you could be surfing as the fish pulls you.

Jason Self said...

You are correct. There are some surf specific sit-on-tops out there. All though they shine at catching waves, they don't really fill the niche for an "efficient" sea kayak, or performance touring style sit-on-top kayak.

Would you want to paddle 15 miles in a surf style sit-on-top?

In reality, people have been fishing just outside the breakers from their surf boards for years. So, for near shore fishing, they work, but there are better ways.

Thanks for your post Saltman.


Rob Appleby said...

I know this is an old post, but I felt the need to comment.

I've got a wide yak, probably one of the widest at 34" (Big Game). It's not that fast, averaging 4mph over open water without current, 5+mph at warp paddle!, plus it's quite heavy.

So why do I have it I hear you cry!!?. As much as I fish during daylight hours, the majority of my fishing is at sea, anchored at night, often over a mile offshore. The shipping in my area is heavy and the resultant steep-sided swells often hit 3-4 feet above the existing sea conditions. It's not often you see the swells coming and I've been there head down, baiting a hook when over you go over at 30-40 degrees!.

Yes, I believe I can justify my wide yak, though yes there are times I would like something sleeker!

Jason Self said...


Besides my sea kayak, I also use an Ocean Kayak T15 sit-on-top for fishing.

I was unsuccessfully trying to make a few points. The first is that i think keeping your outfitting simple is a good thing. Second being that I prefer a bit more efficiency and secondary stability in my hulls, and I'm willing to trade a bit of primary stability for that efficiency, even in rough seas. I feel more comfortable in a truly "sea worthy" craft that I can control easily in a dynamic environment. Just my preference really. I like using the sit-on-top in non-moving water like lakes, where I can lounge and enjoy it and not have to fight that hull against wind and current. I do like the sit on top platform for fishing, and think I would enjoy the OK Scupper Pro a bit more than the T15, because it is still pretty darn stable, but the hull is a more playful design....I'm working on getting one.

My final unsuccessful point was just me venting my frustration at guys riding a power boat with their yaks on it out to the fishing grounds, hooking fish from the power boat and then hopping in their kayak while someone hands them the rod to land it so they can claim a world record. I just think that is lame. I believe that getting there by kayak is half the fun.

Thanks for your post Rob!


Jason Self said...


I think I would prefer the stability of the T15 or Big Game fishing at night with swell also. I tend to lose a bit of the old depth perception at night and don't feel quite as confident in the sea kayak. I gotta say I admire your ballsiness for anchoring in a shipping lane a mile off shore alone at night. I would want every bit of primary stability I could get!

Most of the time I fish in a tidal bay or estuary or big river with high wind and current. With out the benefit of a buddies car to run shuttle, at some point I have to paddle several miles against the wind/tide/current, and prefer something with very little resistence and lots of glide, like a sea kayak.