Since the early days of modern kayak fishing, anglers have had two choices: pedal power or paddle. Each type of kayak propulsion has advantages, and neither is inherently better. The choice will impact how and where the kayak owner will fish, so how do we decide which one suits an individual angler the best?
Recently, after a challenging eight-mile trip across wave-strewn open ocean, I jumped out of my paddle kayak and proudly stuck my paddle in the sand like a victory flag. A minute later, another paddler crashed into shore and rolled out of his seat, wheezing as he exclaimed, “That’s it! I’m getting a pedal boat.” Aside from his reaction I was hard pressed to draw distinctions between the two of us, so how to choose the right type of propulsion?
For help on the key factors separating paddlers and pedalers, we dropped a line to Justin Hausner, owner of Fuzzy Guppies paddle shop in upstate New York.
Ask A Pro: Paddle or Pedal?
“First, I ask a customer where he fishes,” Hausner says. If the answer is rivers or shallows, he recommends a paddle kayak. As an example, he offers, “We have a lot of weed-choked lakes only accessible in a paddle kayak.”
Open water and long distance suit a pedal boat. “On the lake, a pedal kayak will go farther and faster,” Hausner says. Most pedal kayaks are stable to standup fish, with higher volume to carry more gear. Hausner adds, “pedal kayaks instill confidence.”
Next, Hausner asks about the customer’s storage and transport options. “A paddle kayak is easier to lift on top a car.” For quick trips and hard-to-reach fishing spots, he’s more likely to grab a paddle kayak.
Advantages of Pedal Kayaks
Higher capacity: Take everything and the kitchen sink.
Simple: Turn the pedals, twist the rudder control and go.
Easy: Legs are stronger than arms.
Faster: Higher cruising speed to travel farther.
Stable: Wider, heavier, the drive acts like a keel.
Hands-free: Fish and go, at the same time.
Best for: Open water, trolling and fishing structure.
Who Should Choose a Pedal Kayak?
Here’s how I see it. Pedal boats are easier to operate, hold more gear and boast greater stability and power, which instills confidence in the operator. On the other hand, a paddle kayak is lighter and simpler with fewer moving parts.
I didn’t get the pedal power appeal until I had an affair. My pedal kayak tryst occurred during a week I spent fishing with the Hobie team in Mexico Beach, Florida. I pedalled nearly every model, from the Outback to the Pro Angler. We fished inshore shallows and offshore reefs. The stability and efficiency are unrivalled. I can’t deny it, pedals are a great way to move a human-powered boat.
I can get in a pedal kayak, turn the cranks and go anywhere. I’m not saying there isn’t a physical aspect to pedalling—it burns my hamstrings like a StairMaster—but pedal kayaks are designed to make efficient use of propellers and fins. The results were evident in the Pedal Boat Olympics. We put seven different pedal kayaks in head-to-head competition and they all came in pretty close at the finish. If you’re into kayak fishing just for the fishing, then a pedal kayak, or one of the new motorized models, may be the perfect choice.
Advantages of Paddle Kayaks
Reliable: Pedal systems break. Rudders break.
Maneuverable: Instantly and intuitively go forward, reverse, sideways or spin in circles.
Light: Possible to car-top and easier to store.
Grab and go: Drag through the woods, lower down a cliff and drop on a rock.
Less expensive: Fewer dollars makes more sense.
Fun: Many people paddle without fishing.
Best for: Shallow water, rivers, weedy, grassy, stumpy lakes and ponds.
Who Should Choose a Paddle Kayak?
If you’re into kayak fishing for the kayaking part, then the paddle is an important part of the draw. I love my paddle, it’s light as a feather and tough like a crowbar. I love my boat, it cuts through the water silent and beautiful. I can go from truck to water in less than 10 minutes then paddle across two inches of water without missing a beat. My boat is designed to launch and recover through the surf without panic. Then spin on a dime and instantly throw on the brakes.
As for speed, maybe a pedal boat will win in a long-distance event, but a paddle kayak can often shave distance to gain time.
On recent trip, two pedal guys and I left the launch at almost the same time. They had to pedal around shallow shoals I could cut across. I was able to skirt the shoreline and escape a nasty headwind. They had to stay to the center of the channel and take it in the nose. The advantage allowed me to reach the spot first.
Setting priorities and planning ahead
Back to the guy wheezing at the boat ramp; he doesn’t care about the thrill of paddling. He bought a big, wide paddle kayak because he was concerned about stability. The boat served him fine in the farm pond back home, but on the open water it proved a sea beast. He doesn’t need a pedal kayak, he just needs the right paddle boat for the conditions.
Paddle anglers, he’s found, are more interested in simplicity and experience of paddling. Whitley points out, “All you need is a boat, paddle and PFD and you’re out the door.” Paddlers aren’t concerned about breaking rudders or stripping gears.
“Some people think paddling limits them, but with some skills and experience, paddlers can actually do more than pedalers.”
Whitley’s biggest horror, “Some people think paddle kayaks are old school,” he shakes his head. “They say pedal boats are for serious anglers.” Sure, pedal kayaks are popular with the tournament crowd; the range and hands-free fishing are too great an advantage for competitive anglers to deny. But many serious anglers who want to avoid mechanical breakdowns, added weight, increased draft and other limits to pedal units choose to paddle.
Paddle or Pedal, the Choice is Yours
Right now, we are in a golden age of kayak fishing. Pedals, paddles, motors, hybrids, SUPs, river, ocean, lake, pond, standup, sit-down, the choice comes down to who you are and how you will use the boat. I’m lucky to have a perfect kayak for the fishing I do. There’s a perfect kayak for the guy wheezing at the boat ramp, too. Somewhere, out there, is a perfect kayak for every angler.
Surf launches favor paddlers. | Feature photo: Chris Castro