Between 1983 and 2001, Chrysler sold more than three million Jeep Cherokees, the standard-bearer of the compact SUV boom. Modern versions of this junior SUV with a hatchback, four doors and a lower profile continue to be among the most popular class of vehicles in the world—I have one parked in the driveway. But are compact fishing kayaks destined to follow the same path to ubiquity?
Does Everyone Love a Compact Fishing Kayak?
The combination of utility and convenience in a compact SUV appeals to everyone from soccer moms to hipsters and retirees. The same concept in kayaks has the potential to appeal to a wide range of paddlers, from newbies to old salts.
As kayak fishing becomes more diversified and manufacturers turn from “do-it-all” to purpose-specific kayaks, designers are building smaller, lighter, simpler, value boats for new anglers looking for a starter or experienced paddlers adding a grab-and-go ride to the quiver.
Compact Fishing Kayaks Come to Market
Old Town Canoe and Kayak is the most recent big company to jump on the compact kayak wagon. Their new Topwater line series combines a stable hull with a short waterline and price tag under $1,000. David Hadden, marketing director at Johnson Outdoors’ watercraft division, explains the addition was a request from customers and pro staff. “They were looking for small, easy-to-transport boats,” Hadden says.
Team angler Roland “Tex” Butler was happy about the Topwater’s release. “Finally a bass boat and it doesn’t weigh a ton,” he says. Butler is famous for commando launching his kayak in community ponds and isolated waterways. The Topwater 106 is almost two feet shorter and 10 pounds lighter than the next offering in Old Town’s catalogue.
Apparently, many anglers are looking for these features—compact kayaks are a key addition to almost every manufacturers line up.
The newest player in the fishing game, Bonafide Kayaks, has three models: a full-sized 12-footer and a smaller 10-foot fishing machine. This summer, they added the RS117. At 11 feet, seven inches the boat fits in between the two premium models.
The RS117 cuts some of the niceties to lower the price below $1,000. Company president, Luther Cifers says it was important to add a smaller, lighter model for anglers with limited storage and transportation options. “Many first-time buyers come to the paddle shop looking for a shorter, lighter kayak,” he points out. New anglers, he says, are most concerned about storage and transport. “Usually the salesman encourages a customer to upsize,” Cifers says.
JD Desrosiers grabs his 12-footer on most days, but the Bonafide pro says he loves the RS117 for its ease of use. “I can sling the boat into the back of the pickup and go fishing,” he says. Desrosiers prefers the smaller boat for river runs where it is easier to navigate rapids. By sliding the seat forward, he can make the boat turn on a dime. He says, “Maneuverability is important when I want to eddie out of the current.”
Compact Kayak Performance
The challenge to designing a compact is increasing stability while maintaining paddle performance. The laws of nature state a shorter kayak is going to be less stable and slower than a longer boat. Bonafides’ Cifers explains, “One option is to make the hull wider, but the boat will spin around.”
Many designers balance performance and convenience with a catamaran-style hull: two pontoons and a keeled tunnel. The concept pushes the volume to the sides improving stability while the tunnel reduces drag and improves tracking. Wilderness Systems is the master of the tunnel hull; the design is featured on several models and the Ride 115 was one of the first compact kayaks on the market.
Wilderness Systems’ product manager, Adam Ott, explains, “There are tradeoffs when designing a compact fishing kayak.”
He lists performance and features as the biggest obstacles. “Our designers optimized the hull for tracking, stability, speed and maneuverability.” A compact is going to suffer in each category, but designers can tweak the concept to squeeze every ounce of performance from a short, wide boat.
Dealing With Limited Deck Space
On the topside, the challenge is packing features into the smaller cockpit.
Last year, NuCanoe released the Flint, a smaller, lighter version of their iconic kayak-canoe hybrid. For years, compact designers have increased deck space by borrowing from the open boat concept started by NuCanoe. Company president, Blake Young says the Flint is his answer to the sub-$1,000 kayak craze. “The biggest challenge is limited deck space,” he says.
To save space and increase convenience, Young combined features. “The side handles are also paddle holders and a molded channel in the deck holds a measuring board,” he points out. The NuCanoe Flint’s eight scuppers and channeled deck drain water and provide support to the deck. Young explains, for anglers less time managing gear equals more time fishing. “Less overhead,” he calls it.
While compacts like the Flint are marketed towards new anglers and experienced paddlers looking for a niche boat, NuCanoe’s Mike Basnite has pushed compacts to the limit.
“I take it everywhere,” the grizzled veteran of big game fishing says. In addition to forging rivers and lakes, Basnite fishes swift inlets and rough open ocean in the little boat. “I’ve paddled the kayak through 20-knot winds with waves crashing over the bow,” he laughs it off.
Get Big Utility With a Compact Fishing Kayak
In the age of purpose-built boats, it seems clear that compact fishing kayaks are here to stay. A smaller boat will get you going with a minimum of fuss, and manufacturers have found clever ways to cram as much utility as possible into every square inch. Even if these boats are more comfortable on ponds and rivers, the no-nonsense design fits anywhere—especially in the garage, next to your compact SUV.
With their Topwater series of compact kayaks, Old Town is betting that it’s a small world after all. | Feature photo: Courtesy of Old Town Canoes & Kayaks