The first question people ask when they start kayak fishing is, “How do you keep your fish cold?” The answer isn’t so easy. Since every inch and every ounce counts, big, bulky coolers packed with ice are out. Throwing the fish in a hatch only works in the winter; even then, cleaning fish goo out of the hull can require a hazmat suit. Check out these compact options for keeping your cool.
Keeping your catch cold is the only way to keep it fresh. Storing meat below 37ºF slows down molecules, making bacteria, yeasts and molds grow more slowly. Without ice, flesh starts to rot. A fish off ice is only safe for a few hours. Properly packed, your catch could stay fresh for days. A fresh fish will have clear eyes and firm flesh. Stay away from red or milky eyes and mushy meat.
To properly pack a fish, it is best to remove the guts and head then stuff the cavity with ice. Lay the fish on the ice and cover with a layer of ice. For best results, let melt water drain away from the fish. Block ice lasts the longest and chipped ice stays frozen longer than large cubes. For best results eliminate empty space in the cooler.
Cooler technology has advanced to the point where a small cooler can keep ice for days. A cooler with a sealed, insulated lid and thick insulated walls is best. For optimal performance, pack the cooler with ice hours before the trip then top off just before launching. Look for a cooler that fits in the kayak’s tankwell with molded in tie-downs to keep it in place. Use straps to secure the cooler, bungees could stretch or even break in rough water.
Soft-sided coolers are a great choice because they pack away when not in use and they can be compressed as the ice melts or stretched to fit one more trophy fish. To keep ice frozen longer, throw the cooler into the freezer overnight. Advances in technology and design make soft-sided coolers almost as efficient as a hard cooler. Look for a model that can stuff into a hatch. Some are shaped to strap on the bow or stern of the kayak. External pockets and tabs allow a soft-sided cooler to store tackle and gear, too.
Old-school fish boxes were famous for broken hinges, marginal insulation and lost drain plugs. Now, the latest generation of coolers combines high technology with solid construction and killer looks to make you feel cooler, too. We tested out four of the best kayak-sized coolers by filling them with ice, bait and beverages, then bouncing them around under the hot southern sun. All of these coolers kept ice longer than we needed it while taking heavy-handed punishment. The difference came down to the details.
5 Best Coolers for Kayak Fishing
Hopper Flip 18
$299 | yeti.com
Soft-sided coolers fit anywhere and go anywhere, but they suck at keeping stuff cold and usually leak or tear. Leave it to Yeti to invent a super soft-sided cooler. Built like a whitewater raft, every attachment and connection is double stitched and reinforced. The soft material is puncture and tear-proof. Handles and straps make the Hopper easy to carry. Antimicrobial liner on the inside makes for easy clean-up, and the leak-proof zipper keeps water and cold in. The Hopper Flip 18 lives in my truck cab all summer with 10 pounds of ice and a half-dozen cold drinks.
IMX 24 Qt Cooler
$109 | igloocoolers.com
For years, Igloo’s marine coolers were icons of sportfishing; every angler has a garage full of these white, utilitarian fish boxes. Recently, Igloo added the tough and efficient IMX line of coolers. Extra-thick, two-inch insulation in walls, floor and lid keep ice for days. The folding handle makes it easy to carry. Aluminum parts don’t rust and won’t break and hinges on the lid and latches are molded in so they won’t snap. The IMX boasts an extra-large drain plug, but we found it cuts down ice retention when opened. The IMX 24 fits perfectly in a standard tankwell or on a standup paddleboard deck.
$169 | feelfreeus.com
Feelfree is famous for super-tough kayaks with smart features and striking looks. Best of all, their 25-liter cooler is perfectly matched to the color and camo pattern of their line of kayaks. Super thick foam-infused polyethylene and a refrigerator-grade lid gasket provide excellent insulation. The lid has a closed-cell foam pad that makes sitting and standing more comfortable. Rubber latches secure the lid, but take some effort to engage. The most unique feature is the high-flow drain plug that lets water out without letting hot air in.
Classic Large 20L
$79 | icemulecoolers.com
This insulated dry bag packs away or expands to hold eight pounds of ice and fish. Fold down top is waterproof and seals out air to compress bag. Tough outer shell and PolarLayer insulation foam keep contents cold for over 24 hours. A perfect alternative for hard coolers, the Classic comes with an ergonomically designed single backpack-style sling strap, making it easy to carry comfortably. This soft cooler is portable, rollable and it floats—even when fully loaded.
Tundra 35 Cooler
$299 | yeti.com
The super-cooler revolution started with Yeti’s Tundra. In addition to two to three inches of insulation, the cooler features a rubber gasket that seals in the cold. Rubber latches, rope handles and indestructible molded-in hinges never need to be replaced. Every inch of the Tundra 35 is intelligently designed and beautifully built. We like the drain plug that opens without being completely removed. The only down side: Yeti coolers are so popular that they are sometimes stolen from boats, truck beds and backyards. An integrated lock attachment lets you keep the cooler chained in place.
The best kayak coolers look good, perform flawlessly and last a lifetime. | Feature photo: Courtesy of Wilderness Systems