Kayaks can be incredibly for accessing difficult-to-navigate fishing spots. But, space is limited—so learn how to optimize your kayak setup for fishing. Don't get stuck without the equipment you need!
Last updated: April 13, 2023
By: Brandon Sanders
“Got one!” I called out as I watched the small bass hammer my crawfish fly that I had been stripping in all morning. I glanced over at my brother, still fumbling his rented, lackadaisical setup to try and get a clear view of the fish I was about to land. As the small, but fierce fish breached the surface of the water, I grabbed my pre-wetted net and slid it under him. Hauling the fish onto my measuring board, I quickly snapped a picture and put him back. I took the moment to watch the fish swim away as I mentally compared my brother’s predicament with my expert set up. I was extremely grateful for having taken the time to set my kayak up correctly.
Kayak fishing is challenging for a number of reasons yet it continues to grow exponentially. It is physical, you are limited in range and speed, and probably most impactful you can’t carry much tackle to accommodate changing situations.
Yet there are unique opportunities for mountains of success—a serious amount of record breaking fish have been caught from a kayak. Therefore, the successful kayak fisherman needs to know what fish they want to target, how to read the water, the implications of the season they are in, and tailor their tackle to those specific conditions.
With the limited nature of a kayak’s tackle storage, there isn’t much room for changing species or approaches to fish on the fly. Therefore, it is important to know exactly how you intend to catch fish when you start out.
If you are bass fishing, will you be using a lot of search baits or will be you targeting suspended fish with a Carolina rig? Those two techniques will require a vastly different bass tackle box setup. One cannot do both out of a kayak simultaneously. Such as it is, having a solid plan on how to target the fish and sticking to it is essential to kayak fishing success.
Yet, how do you choose what tackle you need? There is so much out there to choose from and such little space in a kayak. Understanding the fish’s natural behavior and patterns in the current season will greatly aid in choosing the most appropriate approach concerning tackle.
During different periods of a fish’s life, there are more effective ways to catch them. Salmon going upstream can be effectively caught using a drop shot technique cast across rivers, but in other times, you’ll need to use a flasher and fish open water for them.
Bass in the spring time are highly reactive to soft plastics, buzzbaits and other surface based presentations, but in the fall, bass become lethargic and move to deeper water. In the winter season, deep water crank baits and slow moving carolina rigs are the way to go. Each season brings about it’s own tackle needs. The last place you want to be is loaded down with tackle that is not season appropriate. ⚠️
Water conditions are another crucial factor to consider when selecting tackle for a kayak outing. Generally speaking, light penetration is the key determining factor on the color of bait that should be used. The more light (such as sunlight) in the water, the shinier and more reflective the lure must be. However, in muddy water conditions, it’s better off with earth tones to match the water color.
Depending on the species, muddy water could also demand use of rattles or some sort of kinetic device in the bait to help the fish locate the lure. Knowing the water conditions before even dipping a paddle will be crucial in making the most appropriate tackle decisions.
Kayak fishing is fundamentally different from many other types of fishing primarily because you are your own source of locomotion. Your hands are inherently busy the entire time you are afloat.
Either you are making presentations with your rod in hand, controlling the boat with a paddle, or you are trying to get things organized so you don’t lose the next fish you land. That being the case, it is crucial that you manage your equipment efficiently and effectively.
Enter the rod holder. One of the key features that many people will notice about a kayak fishing set up is the plethora of rods sticking up from the boat. There are several different ways you can install a fishing rod holder on a kayak. In more conventional set ups, rods are placed in boxes or strapped to the gunnels of the boat. However, with a kayak no such space is afforded to the fisherman.
Therefore, the kayak fisherman must think in a three dimensional manner and take advantage of the unused space above the kayak. Placing the rods in holders are key to reducing the footprint of an 8ft long rod to being the size of a quarter in terms of deck space consumed.
Rod holders come in a few distinct types. First are the additional rod holders that attach to rail systems or are hard mounted to the side of the boat. Second, are the classic molded in rod holders that are common on many of the leading kayaks for fishing, especially sit on top style kayaks. Thirdly, and possibly the most effective, is the homebuilt milk crate setups that have PVC pipes attached for holding multiple rods. This is an effective way to increase your tackle carrying capacity without increasing confusion and hassle while fishing.
When one looks at paddles for the first time, shock is sure to occur. The range of prices can be absolutely staggering to the untrained eye. However, after the first outing a kayak angler will begin to understand that a paddle is possibly the most important piece of gear onboard their trusty vessel. Therefore, paying extra for one that will serve you well is more than warranted.
Not all paddles are the same. Sure, one can go to a big box retail store and get a relatively inexpensive paddle to get started, but will be sorely disappointed when the weight, size, and quality jeopardize the only day they have to get on the water that month.
Therefore, investing in a paddle that fits the angler, the boat, the type of water being fished, is incredibly important. Also, a paddle is not something to go cheap with. Investing in a high quality and low weight paddle is seriously worth it in the long run.
You can’t go kayak fishing without acknowledging some of the safety concerns that present themselves—and the equipment you could need in these scenarios. A very overlooked aspect is the clothing you wear when kayak fishing—including preparation for the seasonal climate and the sun. ☀️
Perhaps most important piece of safety equipment needed however is a great life jacket. These can come in several forms, styles, and prices. Finding one that fits you comfortably—that you’re not going to want to take off after five minutes, is important.
One style of life vest that many fishermen like in particular is the inflatable, CO2 cartridge equipped life jackets. These life jackets are compressed life preservers that only inflate when a rip cord is pulled releasing the compressed carbon dioxide into the jacket. It is best for those that need a high level of mobility, but have a constant threat of falling out of the kayak. White water fisherman should take special note of this particular set up.
A feature that is common on life jackets these days is moly webbing. This allows the fisherman to attach emergency kits, knives, satellite communication devices, and other safety equipment directly to the life vest.
These factors are important because if you become separated from the kayak, everything needed to survive will be with you rather than floating away in your boat. When selecting a life vest, one should consider what all safety equipment they should have and how the particular vest they are considering could accommodate their permanent attachment.
When people consider fishing from a kayak, they often never think about implementing an anchor system. However, after their first outing of fighting the wind and current to get the boat in the best possible place to make a presentation to a fish, they will soon discover that an anchor is a must have while kayak fishing.
The systems available are as complex or as simple as needed and can vary wildly in terms of style. From plow anchors to anchor chains, the modern kayak fisherman is afforded a wide variety of options to optimize their anchor to the conditions they face.
Static anchors in flat water such as alpine lakes allow for the fisherman to set the boat up exactly where they need. This is crucial even when targeting bass with search baits as it allows the fisherman to concentrate on fishing and not on having to control the boat. Being able to drop and anchor, place the paddle in a holder and then concentrate on fishing greatly enables the fisherman to make quality presentations.
Anchor chains or sea anchors slow the kayak and maintain its attitude in moving water. This is crucial in fishing rivers and current plagued blue water environments where one may be chasing large game fish.
When attempting to hold the boat in a certain posture to fish some sort of bottom topography or distinct cover in a very dynamic environment can be nearly impossible without some sort of anchor system. However, a static anchor will not allow for the boat to move freely and could cause safety concerns depending on the conditions. Therefore, chains and sea anchors allow for enough freedom for the boat to be insulated from the speed and direction of high current.
While many people begin kayak fishing to embrace the simplicity inherent in such a small craft, there are those that like it for other reasons. For the crowd that doesn’t mind making things a little more complex, there are some great gear options that will make kayak fishing much more productive and enjoyable. The two most common upgrades in this arena are a fish finder and a trolling motor.
The fish finder offers the most bang for your buck when considering cost, weight, and space in a kayak. A good fish finder will allow you to identify depth, bottom topography, and structure that would otherwise go overlooked to the untrained eye.
While it comes at the cost of a heavy battery and somewhat complicated wiring, a fish finder will enable an angler to take their game to the next level. This is especially true when environmental factors cause the fish to pull into deeper holes or congregate around submerged structures. A fish finder can highlight these areas revealing opportunities for using a bass jig.
The trolling motor is also a great enabler, but a much more complex one to implement on a kayak. Weight becomes a serious factor as finding the right size trolling motor can be difficult, with further considerations including the complications of steering and powering the craft.
The trade off is increased range and speed that opens the door to fishing opportunities previously forbidden by those chained to the paddle alone. While many fishermen perceive the process as complicated and technical, mounting a trolling motor on a kayak is actually quite simple. Many individuals can build their own mounts using PVC or wood as a frame.
A trolling motor is an incredibly useful asset provided one understands that the weight and space that it will take up detracts from the space for tackle and other useful items for the fisherman. There are a variety of popular trolling motors built specifically for kayaks, though it is important to find one which is suitable for your particular fishing kayak.
Pulling up to the boat ramp at the end of that day is always a good feeling—if your kayak fishing setup was properly prepared and you had all the equipment you needed. If you really want to get out there and catch big largemouth bass and other species of fish from a kayak, it is absolutely crucial that you think through the endeavor before you ever get on the water.
Prior preparation will enable you to have a fantastic fishing experience, where the lack there of almost ensures a degree of disappointment. To really optimize your fishing experience, make your own checklist and build out your own kayak for fishing with many of the tips above. Get out there and go make some memories!
The essential equipment for fishing from a kayak is a paddle, a life vest, and the tackle you intend to use. Therefore, understanding which fish you’re targeting—and preparing appropriately—is crucial.
You tether a kayak paddle by attaching a lanyard to the shaft of the paddle that is connected to a hard point on the kayak itself. Paddle lanyards are relatively inexpensive and widely available.
You can put a stadium seat in a kayak and the comfort of the kayak will be greatly increased. However, the footprint of the seat will be felt as the room for tackle and other equipment will see a serious reduction.
Equipment that isn’t necessary to bring on a kayak when fishing is extra coolers, live wells, electronics and anything outside of the boat, a paddle, and what will be used for fishing.
About the author: Brandon Sanders, who goes by BBSanders, is a freelance outdoors writer that enjoys hunting and fishing across the world. He is a combat veteran of Iraq, Afghanistan, and many other smaller deployments. He lives in East Texas in a small cabin with his wife and two dogs. You can learn more about him on his own website, here.