Buying your first fishing kayak can be a really exciting time, but with so many options and different designs out there it can also be a really confusing one. We’ve created this all-inclusive, definitive guide that should answer all the questions you have and make buying your first fishing kayak a smooth and fun process. Once you know what to look for in a boat, take a look at our Paddling Buyers Guide and shop for your perfect boat before you even leave your house. Then, compare, test and buy with ease!
Things To Ask Yourself Before Looking At Kayaks
1) Where are you going to be fishing?
2) What’s your experience level?
3) What species are you going to be fishing for and how are you going to fish?
4) How much gear or how many rods will you be bringing on the water?
7) How much do you want to spend?
Where are you going to be fishing?
I get asked all the time what boat should people by. That’s probably one of the hardest questions to answer, because there are so many variables that come into play. Asking what boat is perfect for you, especially if you’re a stranger to me and I have no idea your experience level or type of water you fish, is like asking me who you should marry. There’s almost no way I can answer that question to the best of my ability without asking a bunch of questions first.
The first question though, is always, “where you’re going to be taking your boat,” specifically what type of water you’ll be paddling in. Are you going to be fishing faster moving water in rivers and creeks? Are you going to encounter rapids? You’ll want a shorter, more nimble boat, usually less than 12ft. Are you going to be fishing bigger lakes, ponds or inshore? You’ll want a kayak that can get up and move, something between 12ft and 16ft long. Open ocean? You’ll want the longest and skinniest boat you can paddle comfortable so you can get out far with ease. Boats longer than 16ft are going to be best for your type of kayak fishing.
While some anglers fish many different types of water, knowing where you’ll be fishing most is the best way to make sure you get the right kind of boat.
Photo: Where you’ll be fishing plays a big factor in what kayak you should buy, think about it before you even start shopping.
What’s your experience level in a kayak or canoe?
This question is more about balance than anything. Just because this is your first fishing kayak doesn’t mean you’ve never paddled or been in a kayak or canoe before. When I ask someone their paddling experience level I’m looking to see how skinny a boat can be before they get uncomfortable. Brand new paddler anglers are going to want a boat that is wider, at least 32″ wide, so they don’t feel like they’re about to tip over with every cast. A more experienced angler who’s used to feeling a nimble craft rocking beneath them will be able to upgrade to a more nimble boat, something skinnier than 32″, which will make paddling around more enjoyable.
What species are you going to be fishing for and how are you going to fish?
If you’re going to be trolling for big lake trout for 90% of your fishing, you probably don’t need a boat that’s slow and stable and designed for standup fishing. If you’re going to be fly fishing from your boat on wide, flowing rivers, a long, skinny, tippy sea kayak isn’t the way either. Decide how you’re going to fish for the majority of your fishing and then look for a boat that has the design the best fits your needs.
How much gear or how many rods will you be bringing on the water?
If you’re planning on bringing eight rods, don’t buy a boat that doesn’t have any room to mount rod holders. Pro staffers Jeff Little and Jed Plunkert have three flush mount rod holders on each side of their kayak in the space behind their seats because that’s what they need. They made sure to pick a boat with plenty of empty deck space so they could customize their boats to their exact fishing needs.
Photo: Kayak Angler web editor Ben Duchesney picked a boat with enough storage space for all his striper fishing gear, cameras and rods.
Are you going to trailer the boat, put it in a truck bed or car-top it?
Think about how you’re going to get the boat to the water before you buy it so you don’t get stuck with a big heavy boat out in the parking lot of the store if you only have a little compact car to get it home. Many anglers that fish in heavy fishing kayaks also pick up a kayak fishing trailer when they buy their boat, or even before they buy it, so they never need to worry about car topping.
If you’re going to be car-topping it all the time, make sure to get a kayak that you can lift on top of your car or truck by yourself. If you can’t do it by yourself then that means you can only go fishing when you have a buddy to go with you. No one wants to be limited with when they can go fishing.
If the idea of using a paddle and slicing through the water repulses you, then look at pedal drive boats. Many manufacturers are now offering a pedal drive option on their popular fishing kayaks. If you need to troll and constantly rig up baits or swap out hooks then a pedal drive makes sense. If you’re going to be fishing swift moving rivers where you need to be agile, then a paddle kayak makes more sense.
How much do you want to spend?
There’s a lot of debate on when to consider your budget. Many people say to think about what you can afford first and then look for a boat that has the features you want at a price you can afford. That’s probably the most responsible way to shop, and should be my recomendation, but I have an addiction to boats, so I’m not one to talk. (Seriously, I may have a problem). If a boat has the exact features that I want, I’ll find a way to pay for it. Eventually. Just don’t spend too much money that you can’t afford other gear like a high quality paddle or PFD, or even enough gas to get to the water. Priorities.
When trying to help new anglers decide how much to spend on a boat, I usually break fishing kayaks down into three different price categories: budget boats, middle-of-the-road kayaks, and high-end fishing kayaks.
Budget boats get a bad rap, but there are many that I’d recommend to anglers that are just trying to get on the water and can’t afford to spend more. Since all that really matters is that you’re comfortable on the water, the price of your boat is irrelevant if you can fish in it with confidence and it has the features you’re looking for. No matter what, just make sure you test out the kayak before you make the purchase.
I always try and talk anglers out of buying from a big box sporting goods store because the workers at that store are usually as clueless about hull design as you are. Which is fine, but that’s not the person you want to ask questions about when buying a new boat. Instead, go to a real paddle shop in your area and talk to the experts there. They’ll be able to put you in a boat you love based on your questions and where you want to fish, or they’ll tell you which boat to buy used from Craigslist. Real paddle shops will also let you test out the boats before you buy at a demo day (most stores have a few every season, usually one as soon as it gets warm enough). Just test before you buy!
I know, $1100 doesn’t seem like a price that should be in the middle of the road, but that’s where I see boats that fit the description best: you save a little money by giving up a few features. Some boats give up a lot of features to get the price down, yet have a hull design or something, like speed, or crazy stability, that let you still fish like a pro.
Other boats sacrifice only a little and therefore the price still seems a little high for anglers just looking to purchase a boat. But think of it this way, a cheap bass boat is probably $35,000. Try reasoning that one to the spouse.
These are the boats that hold nothing back. The boats that you see the pro anglers fishing in, the guys that don’t want to settle when it comes to their fishing, the ones that every angler dreams about. Before you purchase the most expensive kayak you see though, make sure you’re really getting the boat you need. If you’re only going to be fishing every once in a while and can’t justify dropping some serious dough on a new kayak, maybe look at the other price categories and see if there’s a boat more your style.
Usually a higher priced boat will have a handful of features and design concepts that set it apart. Fishing accessories like rod holders, gear track, comfortable seats, or ready-to-use wiring for electronics will make your life easier. Other things like better durability or hull design will be better in the long run, buying once for quality rather than two or three times cheaply. My philosophy is always to buy the best you can afford once and just allow the boat to mold down the road, by adding your style and rigging to it as you need, rather than skimping and needing a new boat every year.
Photo: There are many budget options for choosing your first boat, but don’t forget to think about standup paddleboards as another option.
Things To Consider Before Buying A Boat
2) Length (Speed)
3) Width (Stability)
4) Hull Design
Sit-On-Top vs. Sit-Inside
The great kayak debate continues. Whether an angler should get a sit-inside or a sit-on-top kayak is really a mix of personal preference and the style of fishing you’ll be doing. If rapids come into play, anything about Class II, you may want a sit-inside kayak and a skirt so you can handle big waves and even roll. If you’re going to be fishing out in the ocean or on a big lake where there’s a chance you could flip and have to get back in quickly and easily, a sit-on-top is a great option. Many anglers that fish in cold weather love a sit-inside for the little bit of extra warmth and protection from the elements they provide. Others swear by a sit-on-top’s plethora of open deck space, perfect for rigging up rods holders, cameras and electronics.
My tip for deciding between the two styles is to walk into a paddle shop and sit in both kinds of kayaks and as many different models and brands that you can find. I love sit-on-tops for some applications, but there are also some places where I wouldn’t fish in anything else but a sit-inside kayak. It’s all about your needs and your personal taste. Not what some dude on the internet says. (Except for me, right here).
A fishing kayak isn’t the only craft that you can fish from. In fact, Rapid Media founder and Kayak Angler publisher Scott MacGregor has even said that he’d have called Kayak Angler, “Anything That You Can Paddle And Fish From Angler” if it was a good title, because we love all types of paddle fishing here at the magazine.
When thinking about choosing your craft to fish from, don’t think that you can only fish from a big motorboat or a fishing kayak. There are so many options in between that you can fish from. Here are some other options that can get you on the water and to the fish.
Take a surfboard, stand up on top of it and grab a long-shafted canoe paddle and you essentially have a standup paddleboard. As much as I love bringing a bunch of gear with me on the water and having tons of options to throw to the fish, the minimalist in me loves fishing from a standup paddleboard. Without having the storage space of a fishing kayak, a standup paddleboard, also called a SUP, forces you to pair down and get streamlined so you can focus on the fishing.
Many companies have started producing standup paddleboards and SUP fishing gear so that you can rig your board up just like a fishing kayak, which means you can have the same rod holder and electronics setup. Start fishing from a SUP and you’ll see that you’re stealthier than any other craft and fish will never see or hear you coming. SUP fishing also let you surf the wind waves or boat wakes once you get the hang of it. That’s a whole other world of fun.
Inflatable kayaks or boats can be a great option for anglers that don’t want to car-top or trailer their boats, or the only option for anglers that don’t have the storage space for a big 16ft plastic kayak. Inflatables can be really, really good boats, so don’t think that you’re getting a pool toy and settling for less if you choose to fish from an inflatable boat.
I know exactly what you’re about to ask me, what about popping it? I’ve never seen an angler pop an inflatable boat, and I’ve seen them put through some serious abuse. (I’m even guilty of some of that torture). While there are some boats that are more durable than others, most boats have multiple linings of material to prevent popping and the good ones even feature extra material on high-traffic spots on the boat, like where you’re going to bump up against the beach or structure.
My first fishing kayak was a hybrid, and let me tell you, I loved that thing. Hybrids are a great option for anglers looking for a mix of lightweight, portability and stability. A hybrid takes the best of a kayak and a canoe and combines them. Usually a hybrid will be paddled like a kayak, but will have the hull shape of a canoe, allowing for a fast and stable boat that you can fish from like a kayak.
It’s no secret that I love fishing from a canoe. (Seriously, that’s how I convert my friends). I like canoes so much that when I’m not fishing saltwater from my kayak, I’m planning multi-day canoe trips that I’ll remember forever. There’s a certain romance and allure of paddling with a single blade that you just can’t get from a kayak. Many anglers even prefer fishing from a canoe because of the space it allows, as well as the supreme versatility.
While canoes don’t perform as well in saltwater environments, there’s no reason you can’t paddle them on big water, as long as you know how to properly perform a self-rescue, should your boat fill with water from a wave or boat wake. Canoes can also make great platforms for fly fishing, since they have plenty of space for your line to collect and not get tangled. Just make sure you know what you’re doing first.
All things the same, when it comes to length, the longer the boat the faster it’ll paddle. Obviously there are so many other considerations to think about, like hull design, weight, and paddle type/ability, but if everything on two different boats was exactly the same, the longer boat would be faster. If you need a boat that can go the distance or battle big tides, a faster boat might be the better option for you.
Shorter boats tend to be more agile, as there is less boat in the water when you’re spinning, so if you’re fishing moving water where dodging rocks is a factor, then you might want a shorter, stubbier boat that can spin on a dime. Make sure to test out different boats on the water before you buy so you know for a fact that you’re comfortable with the length, speed and stability. Long and skinny boats are faster, but also tippier.
Again, all things the same, when it comes to width, the wider the boat the more stable it’ll be and better for standing. If you need a boat that will let you stand up and cast or sight fish all day long, then wider boats will likely be what you’re looking for. Of course there are other factors to consider, especially hull design, as kayak designers have a few tricks up their sleeves to improve a kayak’s stability without increasing the length, but as a general principle, the concept that more width equals more stability holds true.
Photo: In gerneral, the wider your kayak the more stable it will be for standup fishing. Hybrid kayaks like this one can be a great choice.
Whenever I’m looking at a fishing kayak for the first time, whether I’m at a big trade show (Watch videos from ICAST 2015), checking out a Craigslist find, or in a paddling shop, the first thing I want to do is flip it over and check out the hull. The hull design will tell you a lot about how the kayak will perform on the water. If the kayak has a big long, pronouced keel running down the center then the boat is designed to track nicely in a perfect straight line. If the bottom of the hull is rounded then the boat will be more agile and turn on a dime, but also harder to stand in.
Chines and edges and so many other design features will all affect a boat differently. Learn everything you need to know about hull design and you’ll know how a boat will perform on the water, even if you’re still in the store.
When considering hull design the two things that are most important are primary stability and secondary stability. Primary stability is the amount of effort it takes to tilt the boat onto its edge, or in other words, to engage the secondary stability. Once on its edge, secondary stability is the amount of effort it takes to actually flip the boat over.
The easiest way to think about the two types of stability is to look at a jon boat vs. a sea kayak. Jon boats have tons of primary stability, but very little secondary stability. It’s very hard to get a jon boat on its side, but once it is on its side, since there’s no secondary stability, the boat just flips right over. A sea kayak on the other hand has little primary stability, meaning it can tip over onto its edge pretty easily, but then it has more secondary stability so paddlers can carve on that edge.
A Word About Materials
While the vast majority of fishing kayaks you’ll come across on your shopping quest will be made from rotomolded plastic, that isn’t the only way kayaks are made. Most kayaks are rotomolded plastic because it is easy to produce, therefore cheaper for both you and the manufacturer, but also tough as hell. You can slam up against rocks, structure, trees, the beach, (hell, I even drag my kayak across gravel and pavement sometimes…but you shouldn’t) and these things will keep on truckin’. While the other forms of construction might not be as durable, they are way lighter, so if weight is an issue for you, and more important than durability, you might want to check out some of your other options.
Some companies have started making fishing kayaks from thermoformed plastic, which is popular in the sea kayaking world because it means the boats can be light and fast. The thermoformed plastic kayaks are also produced with a shiny finish, so if looks are what you’re after, this might be the construction you want.
That is of course unless you want the king of beauty, the beguiling seductress, the end-all-to-be-all favorite material of so many hardcore paddlers: wood. There aren’t many fishing kayaks that are made from wood, but there are a few sea kayaks and canoes that are made from wood and if you can find one and want to be the envy of every angler on the water, this is what you need. Yes, you need a wooden boat in your life. We all do.
Photo: Before buying your first fishing kayak, flip it over in the store to take a look at the hull’s design features.
You’ll see and hear this term being thrown around a paddling shop or in marketing pamphlets all the time, but many first-time buyers have little to no idea what this really means, even though it’s one of the most important aspects of a boat. At least when it comes to fishing, fishability is truly the make it or break it feature that decides if I want to take the boat out. Fishability takes into account all of the features of a kayak that we’ve previously mentioned and will quantify how well you can fish from it.
For example, a kayak that has added rod holder mounts is great, but it’s useless if the mounts are too far away or in an awkward spot. If you can’t quickly grab the rod then you’ll never be able to troll with that rod holder or at the very least, you won’t be able to grab the rod easily if you see an active fish within casting distance. Knowing you can easily and effectively fish from a kayak is what fishability is all about.
Features that can add to a boat’s fishability are all the great little add-ons that you might have added yourself. Accessories like gear track, rod holders, camera mounts, light mounts, mounts for electronics and deck padding can all add to a boat’s fishability and make it a real fishing-ready craft. Some boats even come fully rigged with all the gadgets you might want, so you’re ready to fish the moment you buy your boat.
Other Gear You’ll Need To Buy With Your First Boat
Paddle: Invest in a high quality paddle, the highest quality you can. The better the paddle, the more you’ll enjoy paddling. The paddle and your arms are the engine that drives your fishing kayak. Getting a nice kayak and then buying the cheapest, heaviest paddle in the shop is like putting a Vespa engine on a Ferrari. That just doesn’t make sense. Buy as nice of a paddle as you can and then keep upgrading as you like kayak fishing more and more.
PFD: There are literally no excuses for not purchasing and wearing a PFD every time you go kayak fishing. Seriously, any excuse you have, it’s a bad one. They’re too hot on summer days? Too bulky? Restrict your paddling? Not if you pick the right one. A properly fitting PFD will be lightweight, unrestrictive, and the good ones have plenty of ventilation for making sure you stay cool on the water, even on the hottest days. If you’re still not satisfied, a high-quality inflatable PFD will give you nearly the same protection but in an even lighter and more subtle package. Plus, a little sweat is better than drowning, don’t you think?
Kayak Angler subscription: Hey, this isn’t just a shameless plug (it kind of is), you really do want to always be on the lookout for learning new skills, tactics and investing in better and better gear. The only way to progress is spend time on the water, fish with anglers that are more experienced than you, and learn as much as you can on your own through how to articles and videos. Plus, then you can represent your kayak fishing pride with your very own Kayak Angler hat.
Photo: Remember that kayak fishing is supposed to be fun, no work. Don’t sweat the small stuff, just get out there and enjoy it.
A Few Other Tips
–If you can, try out the boat and as many different boats as you can before you buy. Knowing that you don’t like this, but that you love a different thing is a great resource to draw upon when you’re talking to the paddle shop owner and trying to pick out a boat. If you’ve never been in a kayak before and go in blank, it’ll be harder for them to know what boat style you like before you even know.
–Save your back, buy a kayak cart. Loading up your kayak full of gear and then trying to carry or drag the boat across the parking lot or grass, or worse, sand, is a total morale killer. There’s nothing worse than finishing a great day on the water with a long, hellish drag through low tide muck back to the muck. Nothing will make you unhappier and ruin the whole day faster. A good kayak cart doesn’t cost much and will make getting your boat to and from the water a breeze. A trailer is really nice too.
–Above it all, fish a lot and you’ll learn a lot. The more time you spend on the water the faster you’ll get better and the more you’ll enjoy this great sport of kayak fishing. Don’t forget, this is all about having fun; just relax, it’s only kayak fishing.
Ben Duchesney is Kayak Angler’s web editor and the host of Kayak Angler TV; he’s not afraid to admit his obsession with boats of every kind–you can never have too many.