Pro Tips: How to Choose the Right Fly-Fishing Kayak, Part I

Written by Damon Bungard, Jackson Kayak

Choosing the right kayak for your style of fishing requires a series of important decisions about style and features.
Photos courtesy Damon Bungard

If there’s one question I hear more and more these days, it’s “Which kayak is right for me?” With the explosion in popularity of kayak fishing and myriad of products now available on the market, it’s an understandable question. There are modern kayaks available tailored to every style of fishing, body of water, or species you want to target, with prices ranging from a few hundred to thousands of dollars. They are very portable, highly customizable with the most modern fishing technologies, and excellent fishing tools, creating all kinds of new opportunities for the fly angler. Luckily, as Product Manager for Jackson Kayak who’s kayak fly fished all over the world, I know a thing or two about fishing kayaks. In this article I’ll outline some of the factors that will help you determine which kayak is right for you, especially taking into the unique considerations of fly fisherman.

A Sit-On-Top is a sturdy platform for storing gear, but you need to secure it well.

1. What/Where Do You Like To Fish 90% Of The Time?
Before asking what kayak is right for you, first ask yourself what you want to use a kayak for most of the time. That includes species, types of water conditions, distances you expect to paddle, and style you expect to fish. The idea of going to an exotic location to do a week-long self-supported trip a remote, wild river may be something you picture yourself doing, but odds are you won’t do it—and even if you did, it would be for just a week. Shop for a kayak that you’d use the other 51 weeks of the year, and let the exotic week work itself out.

Freshwater bass fishermen have different needs than saltwater flats fisherman who have different needs than trout fisherman, and so on. Do you want to actually fish from the kayak, or just use it to access places to wade? How far do you need to go to get to where you want to fish? Do you fish alone, or tend to have a friend with you to help transport the kayak, or maybe factors into considering a solo or tandem fishing kayak?

A kayak designed for short distance, stand-up, lake bass fishing is quite different than one designed for long distance, deep water, off-shore conditions. Some kayaks are specialized, while some are very versatile by design, so it’s good to recognize where you want to use the kayak and how you want to use it most of the time to steer you the right direction.

Both the width and the length of a kayak will affect its stability when you stand up.

2. How Do Physical Aspects of a Kayak Affect Performance?
Once you recognize where and how you want to use a kayak, you can start to look at design aspects that affect performance. Kayaks come in all shapes and sizes, so first we’ll consider some overall design aspects like length, width, and hull profile shape before getting into details.

In general, length equals more speed: the longer the kayak, the faster it is, and the shorter the kayak, the slower it is. Length hurts maneuverability, however. Longer kayaks are harder to turn, while shorter kayaks are more nimble. Nimble is great for river fishing, where currents change and turning radius may be tight, but nimble is terrible when all you want to do is go in a straight line efficiently, and the wind is blowing you around on a salt flat. Typical fishing kayaks will be from ten to fifteen feet long.

In most cases, width affects speed and stability. Wider kayaks are slower, and narrower kayaks are faster. However, if stability for stand-up fishing is a priority, a wider kayak is more stable, and a narrower kayak feels more tippy. If you want to stand to see and cast, recognize your physical ability and look at kayaks that match your needs. If you’re a big person, and not very comfortable with unstable footing, you’ll want to lean toward the widest models out there. If you’re small and very athletic, you may be more comfortable with a relatively narrower fishing kayak. Most modern fishing kayaks will be from 30 to 35 inches wide.

The third factor is hull profile (viewed from the side), or rocker profile. The more curve a hull has from stern to bow, like a banana, the easier it is to turn. The straighter and flatter it is, the easier is it to track straight and hold course. If you fish rivers, maneuverability to deal with currents and obstacles is very important, but it will require more effort and skill to hold course. If you want to paddle three miles a day across a bay to get to your favorite flat, a flatter, better tracking hull that will hold course with less effort and be less affected by wind will be the priority.

Sit-Inside kayaks are quieter, which may be a consideration for flats fishermen who need to sneak up on their quarry.

3. Sit-On-Top or Sit-Inside?
Fishing kayaks can be lumped into two categories, Sit-On-Top (SOT) and Sit-Inside. Sit-On-Tops are basically a hollow shell that you sit on top of. Sit-Inside kayaks are more like canoes: open on top, with the seat inside the hull.

SOTs are more popular than Sit-Insides for various reasons, but each has advantages and disadvantages. The main reason for the popularity of SOTs is the perception that they can’t flood. Depending on the hatch design, that may or may not be true, but in general, yes, they will not take on water that comes over the sidewalls, since it can drain through the scuppers. If you are running mild rapids, or dealing with ocean waves, SOT’s are far safer in those conditions. You also stand a few inches higher in a SOT, increasing visibility, but hurting stability. They make a great platform for laying out all of your gear, but it’s also very easy for your gear to fall off if it’s not secured, and small items like flies tend to fall through the scupper holes. Scuppers create drag, and can make noise in certain water conditions, so if sneaking up on very spooky fish like carp or bonefish is a strong priority, going with a Sit-Inside may be preferable. Scuppers can also snag on twigs and other underwater obstacles, so if you’re fishing in places with a lot of fallen logs and pushing through brush, the scupper-free hull of a Sit-Inside may be preferable.

Sit-Insides tend to appeal to folks who are used to canoes or want a more sheltered ride. Some people just feel like they’re going to fall off a SOT, and they like the security that comes with sitting inside a kayak. Sit-Insides create great storage options, and everything goes inside, where it can’t fall off. Our current Kilroy model, for instance, uses sidewall rod storage tubes like drift boats for storing extra rigged rods, whereas on a SOT, they’d be strapped to the deck. You stand lower in a Sit-Inside, drastically increasing stability for an equivalent SOT hull.

In the end, it’s often a personal preference, and like many things, you should demo both styles and try them out to help determine which is better for you. I personally prefer the Sit-Inside Jackson Kayak Kilroy for almost all of my fresh- and saltwater fly fishing, unless waves and rapids are involved.

Modern kayak seats can double as camp chairs on long journeys.

4. What Kind of Seat Do I Want?
Certainly one of the most obvious trends in fishing kayaks in the last decade has been the addition of “lawn chair”-style seating systems. No longer are seats just a bit of foam and a backrest stuck to some plastic. Seats now rival the comfort of chairs in your office or on your porch, can be removed and used as beach chairs, and provide modern fishing features in and of themselves—with integrated tackle and tool storage, or removable Therm-a-Rest lumbar pads you can use in your car.

Modern fishing kayak seats have comfortable, breathable material that’s comfortable for long days seated, and functional as camp or beach chairs once you’re off the water.

These seats are largely designed to aid in stand-up fishing, raising you up above the floor so it’s easier to stand up and sit back down by engaging the stronger muscles in your legs. Think of trying to stand from a seated position on your floor, to from a chair. The latter is much easier. Being able to easily stand is certainly highly advantageous for sight-fishing and casting.

The ability to control fly line and to keep it from snagging is a big consider for fly fishers.

5. What Deck Features Do I Want?
This is certainly a big one, and one worth taking some time to investigate. Fishermen tend to like to bring lots of stuff. The fact is, we all have a paddle, tackle, tools, extra rods, rod holders, cameras, extra clothes, coolers, electronics, or other stuff we may bring some or all of the time. Features for organizing gear and using them in an efficient manner are very important. It’s just you, your gear, and the fish on the line, so it’s not good to be fumbling around with your stuff when trying to make that critical cast, or deal with your fish of a lifetime.

Modern fishing kayaks have track systems for easily adding accessories and customizing the boat for different trips. For fly fishermen, recognize that you’ll want to add a lot of accessories behind your seat, away from creating any fly-line-snagging hazards. Tackle should be stored within easy reach while you’re seated, without requiring a lot of leaning or twisting to access your primary tackle. Paddle storage is key, as having somewhere to quickly, and quietly, store your paddle and pick up your rod when you see that magical fin breaking the surface can make or break the result.

Hatch and storage areas can vary as well. SOTs will likely either have a hatch to access the interior of the kayak on the bow and stern or both, or a recessed well area for storing dry bags and such. If you like to go on overnighters, having access inside the kayak is helpful to optimize storage of camping gear, out of the way of fishing. Some models have center hatches, allowing for rod storage inside the kayak while paddling out through waves. Center hatches also create options for storing large fish inside the kayak after the catch, something very important to off-shore fisherman, who may want to keep and eat their catch.

For fly fishermen, be very conscious of the deck features that may be line-snagging hazards when you’re looking at fishing kayaks. Most kayak fly fishermen prefer very clean standing areas, with minimal features that may interfere with stripping and casting line.

Come back tomorrow for Part II!

Damon gets to test kayaks in some great fishing locations.

Damon Bungard is the product manager at Jackson Kayak and the brand manager for Orion Coolers. He is also a former Trout Bum of the Week.

6 thoughts on “Pro Tips: How to Choose the Right Fly-Fishing Kayak, Part I”

  1. Pingback: Pro Tip: How to Choose the Right Fly-Fishing Kayak, Part II | Orvis News
  2. Pingback: Tippets: Fishing Without a Bobber, Choosing a Kayak, Joe Brooks on Casting | MidCurrent
  3. Photo in par 2, fly fisher stalking fish while standing up with paddle in hand, I can see the flyrod laying down pointing forward with the flyline slack. So he sees a fish, has to set his paddle down and pick up his flyrod, doing so undoubtedly he will have to take his eyes off the fish, possibly bump the kayak, make noise, wiggle the kayak, the line is free to tangle and where is the fly secured. Solution: “Samurai” System
    Photo in par 4, flyline in bottom of boat, which can hang up, get filthy from what is usually a swamp, get stepped on, you certainly can’t leave it there when you pick up your paddle to maneuver the boat. Solution: “Samurai” System

    Just sayin’

  4. Recommendation for fly fishing in southern appalachian moutains, in small rivers, streams and creeks with undulating rocky bottoms.

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