25 Essential Skills for Kayak Anglers

1 How do I fight a fish?

Fighting a fish in a kayak is one of the greatest thrills in sport fishing. A three-pound bass will pull a kayak in circles; a 150-pound tuna will drag the small boat for miles. The key is to control the chaos. Since the fish is pulling the kayak, be sure to set the hook with authority.

To keep pressure on the fish, hold the rod low to the water and close to the boat. Point the rod tip towards the bow to turn in the direction the fish is running. Gain line as the fish pulls the kayak. Make short pumps of the rod while cranking, then lift steady until the rod tip is level with your eyes.

overhead shot of a kayak angler on a rippled lake
Brush up on the basics to experience kayak fishing perfection. | Feature photo: Courtesy of Vibe Kayaks

When the fish is close to the boat, use the rod tip to direct it away from rudder or pedal fins. If the fish dives under the boat, put the rod tip in the water then use the rod to spin the kayak towards the direction the fish is running. Should the fish run into structure, take the reel out of gear and let the line go slack. Then paddle the kayak to follow the fish and untangle the line.

2 How do I land the fish?

Getting the fish from the water to the kayak, and keeping it in the kayak, is when most trophies are lost. There are three ways to land a fish in a kayak.

The scoop: Best for smaller fish or toothless giants. When the fish is close, let out enough line to grab the leader. Position the fish parallel with the boat, drop the closest leg into the water, then flip with the line while lifting the leg to scoop the fish into the kayak. The fight is not over. To keep the flopping fish from flipping back into the water, cover it with your legs and prepare for hand-to-fin combat.

The net: Best for light line, small hooks or tournament trophies. Be careful the net doesn’t tangle in rigging and other rods. When the fish is close to the boat, put the hoop of the net in the water, direct the fish overtop the opening, then lift the net and swing into the kayak. Keep the line tight to keep hooks from tangling in the webbing.


The gaff: Best for big fish with sharp teeth. A gaff or kage allows the angler to secure and control the fish. When the fish is close, reach the gaff, hook pointing down, across its shoulders, then sharply pull towards the angler to jab the point into the fish and swing it into the kayak in one move. Keep the deck clear and drop your legs into the water then grab the fish’s tail and use the gaff to control its head.


angler holds up a bass to catch and release
Catch and release fishing will bring a smile to your face. | Photo: Michal Dziekonski/Pexels

3 What’s the best way to release a fish?

  1. Use barbless hooks to reduce injury to the fish.
  2. Use tackle heavy enough to bring the fish to the boat quickly.
  3. Wet hands before touching the fish.
  4. Avoid placing fingers inside the fish’s gills.
  5. Hold horizontally with two hands, support the fish’s belly.
  6. Keep camera and measuring device in easy reach.
  7. Leave the fish in the water until ready to photo.
  8. Before release, hold the fish in the water to revive it.

4 How do I stand and fish?

Standing while fishing is more comfortable and efficient than casting and working lures from a seat. Standing also gives anglers a better view of the water and fish swimming below.

Get up: Put feet together in the center of the kayak. Balance weight over feet and then stand up. Use a stand-assist strap to pull yourself up.

Stand and fish: Keep feet shoulder width apart straddling the centerline. Stand as close to the seat as possible. Use vertical rod holders and an elevated paddle holder to avoid bending down between casts and strokes.

Get down: To sit back down, center weight over seat and use a controlled fall. A stand-assist strap also helps lowering into the seat.

Wilderness Systems fishing kayak kitted out with kayak crate and rod holders
Rod holders are the starting point to start kitting out your fishing kayak. | Photo: Courtesy of Wilderness Systems

5 What rod holders should I use?

A fishing kayak isn’t a fishing kayak until you add the most basic accessory—rod holders. Vertical, flush-mounted, horizontal and raised rod holders each have their purpose. Be sure to place rod holders where they are in reach from the cockpit but out of the way of paddling and fishing.

Vertical: Whether you purchase a fishing crate or livewell or build your own, vertical rod holders will carry rods to and from the fishing grounds.

Flush-mounted: The rod tube is below deck with the opening flush to the deck. Strongest, most reliable rod holder great for trolling or bait fishing because it is best able to sustain strike. Use a 2.5-inch hole saw to cut the hole. Stainless steel bolts or pop-rivets hold the rod holder and silicone sealant keeps out water. Be sure to seal the bottom of the rod holder with a trailer bearing cap.

Horizontal: Keeps rods out of low overhangs. Many boats are designed with channels to hold rods. Or, use a bungee and closed cell foam to build your own.

Raised: Keep your rods out of the water. Most are adjustable to any angle. Attach the rod holder to a gear track to move it from place to place and remove between trips.

Pro tip: Closed cell foam is a great material for rigging. Pick up a stadium seat or gardening pad at any home improvement store. Use super glue to join two pieces of foam. Silicone sealant will stick the foam to plastic.


6 What about electronics?

To find fish and structure, use a fishfinder and GPS combo. Install the display where it is in reach and easy view. Run the transducer and power cords through the deck using wire caps and silicone. A transducer signal will shoot through a kayak hull. Carve a dam out of closed cell foam to hold the transducer puck. Fill the dam with water and insert the transducer puck. To receive a clearer signal and accurate water temperature, mount the transducer to the outside of the kayak. Use an aftermarket transducer arm or scupper plug for a temporary install or use the factory transducer mount attached to the stern of the kayak.


YakAttack CellblokGet the gear: YakAttack Cell Block with a transducer arm from Scotty, RAM Mounts or Railblaza allow the display, power and transducer to be quickly installed and removed.


Compass: GPS is great, but nothing replaces a high-quality marine compass. Install the compass in sight, but away from electronics that might interfere with the magnetic needle.

Safety checklist:

  1. VHF radio
  2. GPS
  3. Personal locator beacon
  4. Signal strobe light
  5. Pealess whistle
  6. Cell phone in waterproof case

7 How do I rig the ultimate standup kayak?

Blinding glare is the enemy of sight casting. To reduce glare, choose a dark kayak. Paint the deck of the kayak with matte spray paint. Cover the deck with closed-cell foam padding such as SeaDek to further reduce glare and improve comfort and traction. Keep the deck clear of rigging and electronics for more standing room.

The basics make a big difference when you’re fishing for a bite. | Photo: Courtesy of Ocean Kayak

8 How do I rig the ultimate offshore kayak?

Covering miles of water through unpredictable seas requires a lightweight boat. Offshore anglers should sweat over every ounce of tackle and gear. Only take enough sinkers for the day. Every pound you save is a pound you don’t have to paddle.

9 How do I rig the ultimate bass kayak?

Tackle management is key. Carry lures in tackle trays stored in a crate. Stuff extra soft plastics into a sealable plastic bag. Only take tackle you’ll need for the day.

10 How do I rig the ultimate riverboat?

Avoid snags and hangs by keeping rigging to a minimum. Store rods horizontally to keep out of overhanging trees. Install fishfinder transducers inside the kayak hull or on a removable arm so it doesn’t drag on rocks and deadfalls.

11 How do I rig a SUP?

Standup paddleboards are valued for lightweight, shallow-draft and stable design. Add rod holders and other accessories with suction cups, adhesive and leash-plug attachments. A lightweight cooler offers a place to hold gear and sit down. Vertical rod holders and elevated paddle holder keep paddle and rod in easy reach.

Leash law: Rod and paddle leashes are a great way to keep your gear onboard. However, using a paddle leash while paddling adds weight and interferes with paddle stroke. Rod leashes will also get in the way of fishing. A clip between the leash and the collar make it easy to connect the tether. Best to use leashes when the paddle or rod is not in your hands. An ankle leash will keep the board close in case you go over. Always wear a PFD when SUP fishing, inflatable models are most popular. Also, be weary of getting tangled in leashes if the board flips—keep a safety knife handy.

12 How to store gear, bait and fish?

Crates: Storage options differ depending on the angler’s needs. The key is to keep gear inside the kayak and out of the elements without adding extra weight or taking up too much space. A milk crate is cheap and light with loads of rigging options, but it doesn’t protect gear from water and sun. Use dry bags and boxes to further protect gear. A small cooler will seal out water and sun but add weight. Be sure the crate or cooler is secured to the kayak.


Angler fishes from a Wilderness Systems Recon kayak with a Yeti cooler in the back
The best kayak coolers look good, perform flawlessly and last a lifetime. | Photo: Courtesy of Wilderness Systems

Fish box: “Where do you keep the fish?” is one of the most common questions from newbie paddle anglers. Soft-sided coolers will stuff in a hatch and keep the catch cool, but not cold. Hard coolers are more difficult to store but more efficient for cooling the catch. A fish stringer works best in cool water, but it will affect paddling efficiency and could tangle lines.


Livewell: Nothing beats a frisky live bait to fool the most finicky fish. Small, hardy baits can be stored in a minnow bucket or bait tube, but dragging these bait holders will affect paddling and fishing. Build a livewell out of a cooler and plumb it with a small bilge pump. Power the unit with a 12-volt, 9Ah battery.

13 How do I make the kayak move?

Forward stroke: Place hands shoulder-width apart on the paddle shaft. The paddle blade should enter the water at your foot and exit at your hip. Keep your body upright and rotate at your waist to reach the water. For the most efficient paddle stroke, hold the paddle low to the water.

Turning: A longer, sweeping stroke on one side will turn the kayak to the opposite side. Avoid dragging the paddle to turn the kayak. Tilt the kayak away from the turn to tighten the radius.

Moving sideways: To move the kayak sideways, reach perpendicular from the kayak and place the paddle into the water with the blade face parallel to the boat. Pull the blade face towards the boat to move the kayak sideways. To recover and set up for another stroke, turn the blade 90 degrees and slice it back to the start point. Then, turn the blade parallel again and pull.

Man crouches behind a fishing kayak rudder he is installing with a screwdriver
Whether to use a rudder is a hard question to answer, but they’re easy to install. | Photo: Daria Burnley

14 Use a rudder or not?

Adding a rudder will make steering the kayak easier. Angling the rudder in wind and current can help keep the boat on course. However, a rudder adds more moving parts to break or snag lines.


15 How do I paddle and fish?

To fish and paddle at the same time, use one-arm strokes. The trick is to paddle with one hand and use your arm or torso as the second fulcrum. To go forward, hold the paddle shaft across your chest and paddle with one arm. To go reverse, use the back of your arm as the fulcrum point.

16 What’s the best way to stand and paddle?

Start with right hand on the end of the paddle blade and the left at the middle of the shaft. Switch sides by crossing your arms then letting the paddle shaft slide through your right hand and grab the blade with the left.

17 How do I get into my kayak?

From shore: Both feet together, back to the kayak seat. Reach behind and grab the back of the seat to steady the kayak. Sit down in the seat and swing feet into the cockpit.

angler getting into his fishing kayak from the dock
Be careful, but you got this. | Photo: Kevin Whitley

From a dock: Hold onto the dock with both hands. Place one foot in the center of the kayak. Follow with the second foot. Sit down in the seat while holding onto the dock.

18 How do I get out of my kayak?

On shore: Turn the kayak parallel to the shoreline. Swing feet out onto the bank. Hold the kayak and stand up.

On a dock: Hold the dock with both hands. Stand up in the cockpit of the kayak. Carefully step out onto the dock.

19 How do I anchor my kayak?

Use an anchor trolley to move the anchor rope to the stern or bow. Deploy the anchor, clip the rope in the anchor trolley, run the rope to the bow or stern with the trolley, deploy line until the anchor grabs then tie off to a cleat. To pull anchor, pull in line until the anchor breaks free then retrack the trolley to bring the anchor in reach. Keep anchor line free of tangles and knots to avoid snagging in the trolley.


20 Where do I keep my paddle?

It is best to keep the paddle lying across your legs parallel to the kayak. Or store the paddle with a paddle holder. Placing the paddle perpendicular across your lap increases the risk the paddle will strike something or fall out of the kayak.

21 How should I dress for the elements?

Kayak anglers are completely exposed to the elements. Wearing the correct apparel is essential for safety and comfort.

Summer style: Lightweight, breathable shirts and long pants keep the angler cool and protect against sun damage. Add a lightweight, light-colored hat with a dark brim, neck gator and sun shirt with a hood and light gloves for complete sun block. A pair of water shoes and light socks protect the feet. Don’t rely on sunblock lotion alone to protect against sunburn. Pack a light rain jacket and rain pants for summer showers.

12wt cotton linen trucker hatGet the gear: Twelve Weight’s Cotton/Linen Trucker Hat is made from breathable and light material with a black fabric brim to absorb light and reduce glare.


Mustang Survival Hudson drysuit

Winter wear: If the combined air temperature and water temperature is below 120 degrees Fahrenheit, take special precautions. Start with a thin, breathable base layer. Add lofty mid layers to trap body heat. A waterproof and windproof outer layer keeps out the elements. A full drysuit is the safest option for cold-water fishing. Waders or paddling pants are cheaper and more comfortable but don’t provide full immersion protection. Add a dry top when the weather gets nasty.

Get the gear: Mustang Survival’s Hudson Drysuit offers full immersion protection with waterproof neoprene gaskets, water-resistant zippered pockets on sleeve and thigh and internal suspenders for extra comfort.


22 How to store and care for my kayak?

Store the kayak laying on one side or on the deck to keep the bottom from warping. This also keeps rainwater from filling rod holders and cockpit. Keep the kayak out of direct sun. Treat the plastic with 303 Aerospace Protectant to prevent the color fading.

man loads his fishing kayak onto a roof rack for transport
Ferrying your kayak to and from the fishing grounds is one of the basics, so it’s essential to find a secure and hassle-free transportation solution. | Photo: Kevin Whitley

23 How to load and launch a kayak?

Save time loading and unloading by transporting the kayak without removing the seat and crate. Carry the day’s gear in one bag or crate to quickly transport from the car to the boat. When using a busy launch ramp, park your car, load the boat on a cart, fill the boat with gear, then wheel the kayak to the launch. Drop the kayak so that it doesn’t interfere with other users and return the cart to your car.

24 How to clean rods and reels?

Rods and reels take a lot of abuse. After each trip, rinse the reel with a light spray of fresh water. Shake out excess water, then dry the rod and reel with a chamois.

25 How to fix my kayak?

Plastic kayaks can be fixed with melted plastic. Save any scraps after installing rod holders or hatches or mine plastic from the inside of hatch covers.

Clean the area with alcohol and let dry completely. Sand smooth. First, use a heat gun to heat the damaged area until the plastic is soft. Then, use a plastic welder to heat the repair plastic until it has the consistency of soft butter. To join the plastic, use the heat gun and welder to melt the plastic together. Let cool, then sand until smooth.

This article was first published in the Fall 2016 issue of Kayak Angler Magazine. Subscribe to Kayak Angler Magazine’s print and digital editions, or browse the archives.

Brush up on the basics to experience kayak fishing perfection. | Feature photo: Courtesy of Vibe Kayaks



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