How To Create The Ultimate Fishing Kayak Setup

Buyer’s Guide | Kayak Angler

Enjoyment. That’s what kayak fishing is all about. Escape from the mundane. Fun in nature. Adventure and excitement. All the time and effort invested in the sport has one objective: enjoyment.

Choosing a kayak and rigging it right is the number one contributor to this end. We will wake up early, paddle through ice, fish in the rain, sweat profusely and swat flies with a smile, but paddling a poorly designed, uncomfortable, inefficient and annoying kayak is a major downer.

To that end, we’ve put together the ultimate rigging guide. Whether you sneak around farm ponds for lunker bass or brave the bluewater for sea monsters, picking the best boat and adding rod holders, electronics and other accessories will make you happy, and that’s the point. Here’s our advice on everything you need to create the ultimate fishing kayak setup.

[This article is part of the Kayak Angler Buyer’s Guide for The Best Kayak Fishing Gear for 2021. Find all the best fishing gear from the top brands for all situations.]

Overhead view of angler getting their fishing kayak ready on land.

Kayak

What is a kayak? Nowadays, the word kayak can cover pedal-drives, motorized boats as well as the traditional small craft propelled by a pair of paddle blades. The wide variety of designs available makes choosing a fishing kayak both easier and more difficult. The good news is there’s a kayak at the right price for every angler. The bad news is there are so many models in each category, choosing the right kayak might seem impossible.

To the rescue, Kayak Angler’s editors and contributors have tested the best and worst kayaks on all types of water. Our advice is to consider the following three requirements when choosing a fishing kayak. First, think about the fishing you will do most often. Backwater or open ocean? River or pond? Second, think about how you will store and transport the boat. Do you have a pick-up truck and a big backyard, or are you living in an apartment and driving a hatchback? Third, how much money do you have to spend? Luckily, there is a great boat for all these situations at a price to fit any budget.

To make the choice even easier, follow the links below to find your next fishing kayak.

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Paddle

It is estimated, under typical conditions, a paddler takes 800 strokes each mile. When putting together a fishing kayak setup, choosing the best kayak paddle is as important as choosing the best kayak. The weight, stiffness, design and length of the paddle will directly affect the performance of the boat and the angler’s comfort.

Do you need a high-angle or low-angle paddle? What is the best shaft length for your seat height? What material is best for where you fish? Is the paddle your main propulsion or a back-up to your pedal or motor drive? Get the answers to these questions and more in the article below.

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PFD

In the most recent U.S. Coast Guard report, paddlesports-related deaths were down last year while participation in the sport grew. According to Jim Emmons, grants director at the Water Sports Foundation, this trend is a direct result of more people wearing life vests.

At Kayak Angler, we think the trend in safer paddling is a direct result of more comfortable and convenient life vest options. A personal floatation device (PFD) is designed to keep a person afloat in an emergency. But a life vest only works if you wear it. Recent developments in designs remove the barriers to properly using a PFD.

The Coast Guard requires paddlers to keep a Type I, II or III PFD onboard. Type III PFDs are lighter and smaller, making them easy to wear all day. Following are three styles of vests most popular with kayak anglers.

Foam life vests offer inherent floatation, which means if the angler goes in the water, the buoyant material will keep them on the surface. Foam vests are the most commonly used, and are recommended for anglers fishing shallow, rocky rivers or open water. The best vests feature form-fitting foam, air vents and soft, durable material. For kayak anglers, foam vests have pockets and attachment points on the front. To accommodate the high frame seat in many fishing kayaks, foam is placed higher on the back. Choose the correct size vest and look for multiple adjustment points to dial in the perfect fit.

In recent years, inflatable life vests have become very popular with paddlers. When the wearer goes in the water, they activate a CO2 cartridge that blows up rubber bladders to keep them afloat. The PFD can be activated automatically or manually and rearmed by replacing the CO2 cartridge and repacking the bladders. Inflatable PFDs are lighter, smaller and less restrictive, but they require some maintenance and are slightly less reliable than foam. These life vests are most popular with standup paddleboarders and anglers fishing sheltered waters and in regions with hot weather.

Hybrid life vests are a mix of inflatable and foam life vests. With less foam, the vests are more comfortable and a smaller inflatable bladder can be activated for extra floatation. Hybrids are great for anglers who want more mobility and the reliability of inherent floatation.

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Fish finders

Nothing contributes more to catching a fish than installing a fish finder. Many boats are pre-rigged with transducer scuppers and battery compartments making installation a breeze.

Kayak-friendly units pack the most advanced features in a small package. On most kayaks, the installation comes down to three simple steps.

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Battery

A 12-volt, 10-amp-hour battery is sufficient for most fish finders with extra power to charge cell phones and run LED lights. Sealed, lead-acid batteries are less expensive but heavy.

A similar lithium-ion battery cuts the weight in half. To do it all, house the battery in a waterproof case with USB and 12-volt connections.

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Rod holders

Choosing rod holders and adding them to the kayak is the first step in personalizing your ride. Before heading to the paddle shop, consider where and how you fish. For trolling, flush mount rod holders are strongest.

To fish in rivers and ponds with overhanging trees, look for horizontal rod holders. Vertical rod holders are best for carrying multiple rods. To keep the rods away from the water and in reach, attach an adjustable rod holder to a gear track or deck mount.

Rod holders behind the seat are mostly for transportation. Place holders ahead of the seat for fishing.

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Mounts and tracks

Gear and accessory connections must be tough enough to survive rough seas, flopping fish, swinging paddle blades and flailing limbs. Then, at the end of the day, the accessory has to be removed in seconds. For the strongest connection, install a permanent base with quick release. Or use a gear track base and t-bolt base for infinite adjustability.

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Storage

In the early days of kayak fishing, stealing a milk crate from behind a convenience store was a rite of passage. Today, there are dozens of crate options, from airtight to super light. A crate holds tackle, tools, lunch and liquid refreshments. Options range from lightweight milk crates to sectioned tackle stations pimped with gear tracks, lights, latches and hatches.

Thanks to the obsessive innovation of live-bait anglers, there are great livewells for kayak fishing. Whether you require an aerator to keep your bait kicking or you have to plumb raw water through an electric pump, there are kits and complete units to fit your needs.

Keeping your catch cold is one of the biggest challenges to limited space and weight capacity. For smaller fish, a high-quality cooler that fits in the tankwell will do the job. To bring home a big fish, anglers turn to an insulated fish bag that can be frozen before the trip and stuffed into a hatch.

Protecting and organizing tackle is another consideration for a fishing kayak setup. First, only take the tackle you will likely need on each trip. Tournament pros organize tackle by location or tactic so they can limit their arsenal to one or two trays and a couple bags. Look for tackle boxes that are easy to grab and store. The latest tackle systems are sealed against moisture and made of plastic that emits a chemical vapor to protect metal from corrosion. When it comes to carrying lures and rigs on a kayak, less is definitely better than more.

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Fishing tools

Anglers require more tools than a race car mechanic. For the safety of the fish and fisherman, the right knives, scissors, pliers and lip grippers can save the day. Pack as many features on one tool and keep it close at hand. Consider using a tether if the tool is too valuable to lose.

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Safety gear

Kayak fishing is surprisingly safe, and it can be even safer with the correct safety gear. Hopefully you will never need any of the following items, but you’ll never regret bringing them on every trip. Pack a 5-liter drybag with a safety kit and keep it on the boat. Better yet, carry these items in your life vest in the event you are separated from your kayak.

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Fishing rod setup

Whether you fish from shore, a kayak or a mega yacht, you want the best fishing rod and reel for your favorite type of fishing. In a small plastic boat, anglers will be limited to three or four rods. Choose reel size and rod action that can cover several tactics with one combo.

Kayak anglers are extra tough on their tackle. Constant exposure to the elements, splashing and spraying water, banging around in a small boat and fighting the biggest fish at close range puts a lot of stress on a rod and reel. Choose a setup with the highest quality materials, rock-hard components and ergonomic design for years of reliable service in one of the toughest fishing environments in the sport.

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Anchor system

A small, lightweight boat is constantly at the mercy of wind and current. Holding a kayak in one place is almost impossible without an anchoring device. But anchoring in a kayak can be a tricky measure. Get it wrong, and the boat will flip over and possibly pin the angler underwater.

As a result, kayak anglers have cooked up an ingenious way to secure their boats. An anchor trolley uses pulleys and a cord to route the anchor line to the bow or stern of the kayak. This allows the boat to turn into the wind or current without flipping over.

River anglers use a drag chain, deepwater anglers like a collapsing grapple anchor and shallowater anglers like a stakeout pole they can spear into the soft bottom. Find out more about setting up a kayak anchor system in the articles below.

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Apparel

Summer, winter, fall and spring—each season provides specific challenges to safety and comfort. Luckily, kayak anglers have a wide variety of clothes and accessories specifically designed for the rigors of water and weather we face. In the summer, look for lightweight, breathable materials that can get wet and protect your skin from the sun. In the winter, a moisture-wicking base layer, insulating mid-layer and breathable, waterproof outer layer will keep you warm and dry in the worst conditions. It’s a good idea to pack extra clothes and rain gear in a drybag and stuffed in the kayak hatch for unpredictable changes in the weather.

Regardless of the season, a good rule of thumb is to dress to cover every inch of your skin. In any weather, you should have shoes, long sleeves and pants, neck gaiter, hat, sunglasses, jacket, dry pants and gloves.

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