Different kayaks are designed for different types of water and conditions, and yes, different types of fishing. Does your “best fishing kayak” make the cut for fly fishing, or should you look for a new one? Read this before other general reviews or you go shopping for a new ‘yak.
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Does Your “Best Fishing Kayak” Make The Cut For Fly Fishing?
Don’t be fooled by general reviews of the “best fishing kayaks.” In case you hadn’t noticed, fly fishing comes with its own unique demands.
In fact, kayaks vary widely in their deck design, stability, seat height and adjustability, profile, comfort, ability to turn vs. track, handle waves vs. calm water, weight for portability, storage capacity, and other design specifications.
So, the “best kayak for fly fishing” may be something entirely different than what you have, or than what general reviews tend to rate higher. So surprise, this article doesn’t review kayaks, or recommend specific brands like our other articles do, rather, focuses on what to look for when you do shop for a kayak!
CRITERIA SPECIFIC TO FLY FISHING
Here are the criteria we feel are most important for a fly fishing kayak:
A Clear Deck
To avoid snagging or tangling your fly line while casting – or worse yet while playing a trophy – you’ll want an open deck without things sticking out. For example, enticing big fish by stripping streamers can easily tangle your line. So can accumulated loops of line right before you shoot for distance.
Adjustable foot pedals are the worst offenders, and actually aren’t necessary if you get one with snag-free serrated foot rests. Some anglers like fashion a line basket out of a piece of tarp, or a milk crate, but why add more clutter on top of clutter? A straightforward clear deck is much better to keep your focus on casting.
Also mounted rod holders may be great for spin rod bait fishing or trolling, but are terrible for fly fishing (unless they can be removed, not all can). Of course, some manufacturers such as Scotty make a holder specifically for fly rods, but make sure it’s not installed where it’ll catch your line.
Stability Takes The Trophy
This is especially true for casting while standing up! Of course, you get the most visibility, distance, accuracy, and endurance for a long day by standing up – not to mention it’ll help prevent a sore back.
Pay attention to the center width of the platform, the wider the better, but width is not the only determinant of stability as hull design plays a strong role as well.
Many kayaks have reasonable stability, however, choose carefully – what feels fine sitting down may not standing up. Not to mention, it may be hard to get up in the first place. Be sure to test this aspect before you purchase a new one.
To ensure you choose a great kayak, think about the extra stability you’ll need when you’re playing a large fish, while kayak fly fishing in choppy water, and then all of a sudden the line snaps off. Will you remain standing, or tip over? That’s the standard – many kayaks were designed more for calm water catching bluegills – unless of course that’s predominantly what you do – we love bluegills too!
Note that some anglers like to kneel while they cast, a nice compromise especially if your ‘yak isn’t super stable.
If you prefer to cast while seated, and many do, it’s a pure tradeoff, the higher the seat the better for casting and the more it compromises stability. So, you are looking for the perfect sweet spot compromise if you prefer sitting instead of kneeling or standing.
Some of the best fly fishing kayaks come with an adjustable seat height for casting. This cool thing about adjustable is, you can set it up while fishing / casting, and set it down for more efficient paddling while getting to your destination or back. Or, choose a well-designed fixed high seat combined with an extremely stable hull.
Said another way, casting while sitting is very possible, but really only works with the proper elevated seat. Many seat designs are actually quite awkward, and most aren’t adjustable, so you’ll want to be sure that the seat design and height of the backrest works for seated casting.
Comfort Saves The Day
Of course this is true for any kayak, but especially so if you are casting till your arm drops off the same day you paddle a lot. Make sure your seat design can keep you comfortable during long excursions. The seat affects how not just your back, but also your rear end and your legs fare after a long day.
Does the back of the seat provide high quality support, and bottom enough cushion? Is there enough space for your legs, especially if you’re tall? How easy is it to get up and sit down? Of course, you can always purchase a custom seat rig, and modify yours, but the right kayaks designed for fly fishing already have this in mind.
PRO TIP: use your kayak seat as a camp chair, when you stop for lunch or overnight camping.
Wind is a factor for any kayak, but especially while fly where fly placement in front of a rising fish is often the difference between a fish taking your fly or not.
Wind costs you both energy and time, so you want to minimize its impact. Nothing is more annoying than being blown out of position right before a cast, especially when they are rising! Having to put your paddle back in the water to readjust your position can in turn spook the fish you had just approached with stealth.
A low profile means choosing a ‘yak that has low gunnels to minimize the surface the wind can catch. Don’t worry, this doesn’t have to compromise stability, which comes more from the width and hull design.
However, think about this seldom known fact – how well a boat tracks not only helps with efficiency while paddling, but also helps minimize the effects of wind drift.
GENERAL CRITERIA FOR FISHING KAYAKS
Of course, some criteria are important no matter what kind of fishing you do, but important to think about for fly fishing as well:
Will you be fishing predominantly in calm ponds and lakes, or on large rivers with moving water, mild white water, or punching through surf and even whitecaps on salt water? How far will you be paddling to get there – short or long?
If you fish primarily on stationary water such as large lakes, or you need to track well over long distances, choose a kayak that tracks well and is streamlined for speed.
However, if you go fly fishing from a kayak on smaller waterways such as winding streams, rivers with significant current, or on smaller ponds, then quick turning may be more important. Simply put, the shorter the boat, the easier it turns. Also boats without tracking hulls and rudders turn better.
If you want to “eddy out” to fish a nice looking seam below a riffle on a river, after sitting back and enjoying the river scenery while letting the current do the work, that’s a very different boat than it takes to paddle a mile or more across big water to get to your destination.
Waves, Whitecaps, or Surf?
You’ll want specific features if you are contending with waves, whitecaps, or surf. For example, paddling on large freshwater lakes you may experience whitecaps in the wind, such as paddling the boundary waters in Minnesota when short storms roll across.
Or, if you’re a saltwater angler and launch on the beach, for example in pursuit of striped bass, then you’ll definitely want a kayak that is a “sit-on-top” design with large drain holes and lots of ties to strap down your gear.
Of course, safety is paramount so make careful judgments about when to be out, paddle closer to shore when things get rougher, and consider a pontoon as one accessory that can add several more degrees of stability.
Color Makes A Difference
For managing your temperature on hot days, remember that kayaks with dark colors can really heat up from the sun, even uncomfortably so. Kayaks made with lighter colors reflect more light and absorb less. So, light colored kayaks are generally the better choice if you fish where it gets hot.
Camouflage may or may not be all that important on kayaks for fly fishing, depending on what you are fishing for. If you also like to hunt for waterfowl, where camo is paramount, then it’s nice to have a cross-over kayak.
Sit-In Versus Sit-On Design
Kayaks originated with the sea-kayak design, where the paddler sits down below the water line actually. This is very efficient for paddling, because you can transmit more power to the water through the paddle with less effort. Combined with the long and narrow tracking hull design, you can cover miles with less effort.
For fishing, of course, being up higher is helpful, so “sit-on-top” designs are the most widely used. Especially for fly casting, the bigger deck space makes it easier to cast whether seated or standing. Another advantage is they are more open, with scuppers to prevent flooding.
However, sitting on top is not always the optimal choice. That same openness that makes it easy to move around the boat and cast, also exposes you much more to the weather, and is less efficient for paddling.
Sit-in fly fishing kayaks offer more protection from waves and spray off the bow, so you stay drier as a general rule. This is especially true when you add a skirt to cover the opening, you can take on almost any weather.
PRO TIP: Sit-in kayaks tend to be quieter, so if you need to approach fish with stealth, for example on the salt flats or when fishing in shallow fresh water areas for pike and bass, you’ll probably spook fewer fish.
The flip side of this is that sit-in kayaks don’t have drain holes built in, so if you do take on water, you can get swamped and even flood the boat, necessitating a T-rescue or other procedure (vs. flipping over for a sit-on kayak).
Sit-in kayaks are also faster than sit-on-tops, because you are able to more directly transmit paddle energy to the water when sitting right at the surface water level. That one factor can make a huge difference a long paddle. The tradeoff is that the lower seating profile combined with the enclosed cockpit will restrict casting. But if getting somewhere with a long paddle combined with adverse weather is your game, a sit-in style may be better for you.
Of course, weight comes into play when you load/unload, carry your kayak, or portage your kayak. Is your loading onto a roof rack, or only as high as a trailer or bed of your pickup truck? How far will you need to carry it – short or long? Are you portaging ¼ to 1 mile trails in a wilderness area, or just schlepping it down a boat ramp or riverside? Just you, or can others in your party help?
The important thing to know, is that weight actually differs quite a bit between different makes and models. There’s also a correlation between weight and performance. Lighter kayaks tend to also be shorter, meaning easier to turn but also less ability to track straight. The opposite is true as well, heavier kayaks tend to track better, but that is not always true so look at hull design and performance reviews.
Storage For All Those Fly Boxes…
Of course, with all fishing comes gear, especially with fly fishing. You may not have a tackle box, perhaps just a fly vest and extra boxes, but it often also makes sense to bring your waders stuffed into the hatch for beach or river fishing, along with everything else to make your day pleasant and successful.
So, the best kayaks for fly fishing can hold a bunch of gear without clutter. Keep an eye out to make sure the front hatch is tightly water-proof, to avoid taking on water when waves come over the bow or you get hit with a heavy rainfall.
You’ll want storage right in the cockpit, that is easily opened while you are paddling to quick-grab necessities such as water bottle and snacks, sunscreen, rescue rope, GPS (if not mounted), etc. Cockpit storage should be accessible but at the same time low-profile, to avoid tangled line while casting.
Finally, check out the volume and shape of the rear deck platform – is it big enough to hold a cooler or box? With lots of anchors for anchor ropes, tie downs, etc?
Does Your “Best Fishing Kayak” Make The Cut For Fly Fishing? With all these ideas in mind, we hope you are feeling ready to select the best fly fishing kayak, or consider some of the many accessories that will help adapt your current kayak for fly fishing to get it a higher level of performance.