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Guide To Best Fishing Kayaks For Fly Fishing
Nothing gets you close to the action like fishing from a kayak. Whether casting for rising trout at dusk, reaching bank overhangs you’re certain hold big fish, or in pursuit of trophy fish like salmon or tarpon, a kayak can give you access to more fishing than you’ve ever had before. Check out our detailed reviews and recommendations for best fishing kayaks here.
Here’s a quick snapshot of our top recommendations, be sure to also read our detailed reviews below.
1. Ocean Kayak – Prowler (if unavailable consider the Pelican Pescador Pilot 12)
Solid all around fishing kayak, easy to transport, clean deck with built-in foot rests avoids tangles, lots of storage space, tracks well, scuppers allow fish finder, several camo colors.
2. Jackson Kayak – Mayfly – Orvis Special Edition
Designed specifically for fly fishing, it is very well thought-out, a custom Jackson edition made specifically for Orvis customers. Low gunnels shed wind, a larger more stable craft.
3. Vibe Kayaks Sea Ghost
Very stable, capacity of 550 pounds, great load/weight ratio. Its width is 6-7 inches wider than most average kayaks, performs well in salt flats, slow water, ponds, and small lakes.
4. Wilderness Systems – ATAK 120
Designed specifically for fly-fishing, the deck and cockpit are fly casting friendly. Super stability with a 35-inch width, prevents wind push with low gunnels, yet doesn’t give up much in speed or tracking.
5. Wilderness Systems – ATAK 140X
Also designed specifically for fly fishing, this ‘yak tracks very well, even in heavy wind, very stable and well suited to casting and playing large trophy fish even while standing.
Updated October 1, 2020
While kayak fly fishing can open all kinds of new possibilities, at a more reasonable cost than many other watercraft, you’ll want to make your selection carefully. Many makes and models have come into play recently, to capture the booming kayaking fishing market. But fly fishing has its own unique requirements, so you don’t want to make the mistake of just pulling one off the rack at your local store without first knowing for certain it’ll work well for you.
Our comprehensive, proprietary guide will step you through the most important considerations for best fly fishing kayaks, bearing in mind that not all kayaks are well suited to fly fishing. Also bear in mind that adding kayak accessories, such as kayak fly rod holders, can make all the difference in how your day on the water goes. You want to make your fly fishing kayak setup as perfect for your own needs as possible.
Buying a kayak not only opens up huge possibilities, it is also a huge responsibility in terms of safety. No matter how stable, all kayaks can capsize. You can kayak fly almost anywhere, but don’t buy a kayak without first getting and doing the following, and be sure to read up more detail on kayak safety and these very points in our FAQs at the end of the article:
• Get a really good life vest
• Ensure you can paddle comfortably with a quality seat and paddle
• Know your skill level relative to the water you’ll be in
• Take the right gear such as paddling gloves, throw rope, etc.
• Consider other kayak fishing accessories, because convenience can translate into safety and helps keep you from getting tired
• Take a kayaking skills course for efficient paddling and safety procedures such as T-rescues and bailing while on the water
• If you travel or even kayak fly, be sure to protect your kayak with enough packaging that it’s not compromised during transport. We don’t think you need separate kayak fly tickets, as you can check it in at the oversized luggage counter.
In this article we’re talking primarily about hard shell, sit-on-top fishing kayaks. These kayaks are comfortable to sit in, can be comfortable and track well over long distances, and have lots of storage space. While they are awesome, they don’t always fit the bill. There are many other types of fishing craft that may work better for you under certain conditions – with a summary list here and more detail on each one (and when and why you’d use them instead of a kayak in the FAQs below):
White water kayak
Drift boat or dory
Eastern Mountain Sports
Here’s What Is Important – Key Specifications
What goes into the best kayak for fly fishing? Different kayaks are designed for different conditions and different types of water. In fact, kayaks vary widely in their ability to turn vs. track, handle waves vs. calm water, stability, weight for portability, storage capacity, and other design specs. Here are what we feel are the most important criteria you’ll want to ensure meet your needs. We’ve summarize here, and have put all kinds of further detaile in our FAQ’s below that will help with fly fishing from a kayak:
Match your kayak to the type of water – big with waves, or small and still? Moving river?
Handling surf or waves? Be sure you can punch through.
Seat comfort & height – tall enough for comfort, but not so tall as to obstruct casting (different than spin fishing!)
Clear the decks – to avoid snags and tangles
Stability is everything – especially if you want to cast standing up!
Comfort saves the day – so you can kayak long distances
Color matters too – lighter colors deflect light and stay cooler, darker colors can heat up too much on a sweltering day
Sit-on-top vs sit-in design – sit-ins paddle more efficiently while sit-on-tops are easier to cast from, among other things described in more detail in FAQs
Low profile saves energy and grief – gets pushed less by the wind.
Watch the weight for transporting & portaging
Stock up with storage – look at compartments and platforms fore and aft, also cockpit storage, overall volume, and features that secure your gear and coolers
Price – just a note about cost. Is it important? Yes. Can you find kayaks for less than those we’ve finalized reviews for here? Yes. Will you give up a lot in stability and safety and features if you spend less? Yes. Enough said? Yes.
Summary of Best Fly Fishing Kayaks
We recommend that you read our full detailed fly fishing kayak reviews, below. For a preview of what’s coming up, we’ve categorized our recommendations as follows:
Top 5 Best Fly Fishing Kayaks – our best picks out of the many kayak for fly fishing options available are:
[NOTE – Covid-19 has caused many manufacturers to slow production, at the same time demand is increasing as people look to get outside for safe recreation. For models that are experiencing shortages, we provide alternatives for your consideration.]
Runner Ups – these are quality boats also well suited for fly fishing, that almost made the cut for the Top 5. Close enough that if we wrote this article as a Top 10 they’d be included! While we haven’t reviewed these in detail, we’ve listed them here in the event you want to check them out or their specifications are preferable to you:
Be sure to read the reviews carefully as these kayaks each have unique characteristics that may make them right for you. For that reason, we have NOT listed them in priority order – rather detailed what we feel is important so you have great information to make a great decision and will be confident in your purchase.
The Ocean Kayak Prowler 13 Angler is a solid all around fishing kayak. It meets many of the key criteria we laid out above, easy to transport, clean deck with built-in foot rests helps avoid tangles, lots of storage space, and it tracks well. Not to mention the scuppers lend themselves well to mounting a fish finder. It comes in several camo colors.
Customers report the kayak is stable while seated, and that it tracks well. However, most reviewers don’t find this model stable enough to stand while fishing, which of course depends on your size and whether you plan on standing at all while fishing.
The Prowler 13 does well with storage capacity, coming with a large bow hatch and generous stern platform well/ It also offers a smallish cockpit hatch with a gear tray, however, some report that as convenient as this is it’s not always waterproof. Ocean Kayaks designed this model with two rod holders located behind the seat, at an angle which works for some but for others is an awkward placement.
Overall on the plus side, this kayak is pretty light for its length, and is universally a solid design and performance at a reasonable price.
Take note, the Jackson Kayaks Mayfly was designed specifically for fly fishing. As such it is very well thought-out, a custom Jackson edition made specifically for Orvis customers.
For starters, its low gunnels will help shed the wind and stay in place to cast and reel in your fish. As a larger more stable craft, what it may lack in long distance speed or tacking is made up for in stability. Many customers report this is the most solidly stable make and model they’ve tried. That makes this a good choice if you’re relatively new to kayaking, and/or if you plan on doing a lot of casting while standing.
The design really performs when put in salt flats, slow water, and ponds. The Mayfly also comes with generous storage both front and stern (both with hatches), with a stern platform that can accommodate coolers such as an Orion 25 or JKooler. A very nice touch in the forward (bow) storage is a removable gear tray.
This kayak’s clear and clean deck is complemented by foot pegs that are designed to avoid line tangling. It comes with numerous rod holders specifically designed for fly rods, another plus for fly fishing specific needs. Scuppers are designed for fish finder transponders too.
This is also a boat that will be comfortable all day, and not many boats fit in that category. This is aided by the high and comfortable seat made from a high quality Thermarest brand pad.
The primary disadvantages are the length and weight, which can make it hard to transport. Note the weight shown in our diagram is without the seat installed. While it may be harder to lift and transport than other kayaks, if stability is what you are looking for, this may be a small price to pay for a kayak that you can practically do handstands on it’s so stable.
The Sea Ghost also falls in the category of “very stable,” like the Mayfly above and the A.T.A.K. below. In fact, the capacity of 550 pounds load for the weight is one of the best ratios we’ve seen (so much so we think the max weight might be a bit overstated). It derives its extra stability from its width 6-7 inches wider than most average kayaks, like the Mayfly above and it’s immediate relative the 110 model.
This kayak performs well in the conditions presented by salt flats, slow water, ponds, and small lakes. Of course, you get the idea by now, that means a trade-off with speed and tracking, meaning if you are planning on kayaking for long distances this may not be your best “yak.”
The Sea Ghost 130 offers ample storage, with a spacious stern coupled with a bow hatch matched with a small, sealed hatch you can reach right behind the seat. Like the Wilderness Systems kayaks described below, it presents a clean deck with the sole disadvantage of adjustable foot rests that can snag fly line.
Also on layout / design, this kayak provides two rod holders available behind the seat, coupled with a fish finder / transducer mount. transducer. Perhaps it’s hallmark feature, it has a high, comfortable seat that users like because it provides support and a degree higher comfort during all day outings.
In terms of weight and length, the Sea Ghost 130 is “mid-range” when it comes to ability to transport and portage – neither heavy and cumbersome nor lightweight and nimble.
The Sea Ghost comes in several camouflage color patters (as to most of its competitors), with the lighter smoke camo the most sun reflective of the options. Overall, another solid choice that will support stand up casting and higher stability with an overall fishing design and features that won’t let you down.
The Wilderness Systems A.T.A.K. 120 was designed specifically for fly-fishing. By now you’ve read enough of these you know what to look for – focus in on the deck and cockpit where you’ll see fly casting friendly features. Also measuring in at a 35 inch, like the Mayfly, it boats super stability while at the same time preventing wind push with low gunnels. The shining feature of this kayak is, even as stable as it is, it doesn’t give up much in speed or tracking. In fact, it gets strong reviews from users on its stability while casting combined with other performance features..
Also generous with storage, in this case a distinguishing feature of its large stern well a small hatch that allows access to the hull (most don’t allow access under the rear deck). The hatch in front is easily reached from the cockpit (though how far down you can reach depends on how flexible you are!). Its deck is also clear enough for fly line, with the exception that its adjustable pegs can tangle with your line.
Mounting for fish finders is a degree more flexible than most kayaks, in that it has both two transducer capable scuppers, and also can mount a side scanning fish finders. The designers at Wilderness Systems were definitely thinking about technology use, with a built in removable pod that will hold your fish finder, battery, transducer, and cables.
The seating system is the most flexible and comfortable we’ve seen, with an adjustable AirPro Max seat in three positions. Even at the highest setting, it allows casting comfortably.
Here we go ahead – tradeoff between weight and stability. It’s a hefty 86 pounds, but delivers a stable casting platform. Desert camo is the lightest color option that will absorb the least heat.
We included two kayaks from Wilderness systems for a reason. You can transfer many of the same attributes we described above for the ATAK 120 to the ATAK 140X (upgrade to the Tarpon 130X which is unavailable). Still priced in the medium high range compared to most other brands but worth the quality.
This boat tracks very well, even in heavy wind. If not quite as sleek as its predecessor the Tarpon 120, it is instead very stable and well suited to casting and playing large trophy fish even while standing.
The 140X is a modified version of the already established and respected 120-130 series. We like the broader variety of color choices than most kayak lines, yet would still choose the desert camo for sun reflection (getting bored of hearing that one?).
Same generous storage and features as the ATAK 120, with the standout feature compared to other brands that its hatches seal very well to keep your gear dry. Plus the added feature of a pair of mini compartments covered by webbing keep your small gear handy just to either side of the cockpit. The deck is clean, with the same drawback as the ATAK, that the foot pedals could tangle your line. And same technology friendly design for mounting your fish finder and the removable pod to store your electronics. And yest you guessed it already, the same extremely comfortable AirPro Max seat that is handily adjustable to three different positions.
Slightly heavier lighter the A.T.A.K. at 72 pounds, this long kayak is manageable for most people.
Special Purpose Fly Fishing Kayaks
In case you have particular conditions or preferences, consider these kayaks which we recommend for:
A Tandem – Jackson Kayak Kilroy DT
Pedal Power – Hobie Mirage Pro Angler 14
Sit -In Style – Third Coast Huron 120
An Inflatable – BIC Yakkair Fishing 2Hp
Motorized Stability – Trident Wing Walker
Runner Ups For Best Fishing Kayak
These are quality boats also well suited for fly fishing, that almost made the cut for the Top 5. Close enough that if we wrote this article as a Top 10 they’d be included!
While we haven’t reviewed these in detail, at least for this edition (stay tuned!) we’ve listed them here in the event you want to check them out or their specifications are preferable to you:
The “best” kayak really depends on your preferences. All of the kayaks reviewed here can serve you well, and we trust you to make a solid decision based on your needs for fly fishing from kayak.
Based on our overall review, our top pick is the Wilderness Systems A.T.A.K. 120, for it’s overall stability, ability to handle big fish, and overall features available.
Out pick narrowly edges out the otherwise excellent Jackson Mayfly and the other kayaks reviewed just by virtue of its impressive stability, storage, and ability to handle diverse demands.
Perhaps its only drawback is its weight, and for anglers that prefer a lighter craft we’ve provided plenty of other options. You can count on the A.T.A.K. 120 – as you can on all of these models – to deliver years of fly fishing excitement!
If for any reason you don’t see a kayak in this review that you already own or want to own, such as dragon fly kayak, that doesn’t mean you can’t fish from it. Just be sure to apply the criteria we’ve described to your purchase, and consider getting accessories to retrofit it. Happy ‘yak fishing!
7. Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) and Additional Detailed Considerations About Your Purchase
FAQ 1. Safety first - what safety precautions should I take?
Buying a kayak not only opens up huge possibilities, it is also a huge responsibility in terms of safety. No matter how stable, all kayaks can capsize. Don’t buy a kayak without first getting and doing the following:
Get a really good life vest – or personal flotation device (PFD) which is not only usually required on public waters, but can literally save your life – or someone else’s you may be called to assist.
Know your skill level in comparison to the water you’ll be on. If you haven’t kayaked before, start out on calm ponds, small lakes, and large slow rivers. Don’t jump into the pool head first, so to speak, by taking on ocean surf or white water till you really know what you’re doing!
Take the right gear. Paddling gloves to prevent blisters, accessible throw rope (in a throw-bag that easily uncoils) for securing your craft and rescue, extra paddle if extended trip, extra plug for drain hole, full rain gear, long range walkie talkies, etc. can make the difference on your trip.
Take a kayaking skills and safety course. Learn how to stay out of trouble, and what to do when you or someone else capsizes – a bow or T-rescue for example – which can easily make the difference between a minor event and a catastrophic day.
FAQ 2 - When should I choose another type of boat or vessel instead of a kayak?
In this article we’re talking primarily about hard shell, sit-on-top fishing kayaks. These kayaks are comfortable to sit in, can be comfortable and track well over long distances, and have lots of storage space. While they are awesome, they don’t always fit the bill. There are many other types of fishing craft that may work better for you under certain conditions – in detail :
Float tube – for smaller still water lakes and ponds, especially where portability is important such as when a hike in or even backpacking is required.
Pontoon boat – for navigating large rivers with strong flow, where extreme stability combined with maneuverability is required, rock fields are encountered, and / or you wish to be higher up off the water.
White water kayak – for serious white water (class 3-4 not generally navigable by a hard shell kayak), to access parts of canyons you can’t get to otherwise, and only with serious training and skill building. Often used in a raft or drift boat supported group trip where camping and other gear can be carried by the larger boat.
Rubber raft – for serious white water where lots of gear is required (e.g. overnight trips), and boulders and rock gardens will be encountered (too much for a drift boat or pontoon boat). A rubber raft is the most stable, impact resistant craft you can get, yet can be challenging to beach or maneuver quickly to fish an eddy line for example.
Drift boat – for larger rivers where extreme stability is desired for standing and casting. The MacKenzie river drift boat, for example is one of the best designs originating out of the northwest (originally Oregon). Also good for overnight trips, and keeps you drier than a raft, but must be certain the white water chutes will allow you through without impacting rocks. Great for sliding over riffles and slowly moving through large pools, and easy to eddy out and hold in place for accurate casting. The choice of guides when possible.
FAQ 3 - What are the most important criteria for selecting a kayak for fly fishing?
Different kayaks are designed for different conditions and different types of water. In fact, kayaks vary widely in their ability to turn vs. track, handle waves vs. calm water, stability, weight for portability, storage capacity, and other design specs. Here are what we feel are the most important criteria you’ll want to ensure meet your needs, in detail:
Match your kayak to the type of water– will you be fishing in calm water, punching through surf, or running mild white water? How far will you be paddling to get there – short or long? If long, you need a kayak that tracks well and is streamlined for speed. If smaller lakes and ponds or mild white water, then quick turning may be more important.
Handling surf or waves? If you paddle on large freshwater lakes that get whitecaps in the wind, or you’re a saltwater angler and launch on the beach, then you’ll want a sit-on-top with large drain holes and ability to strap down your gear.
Seat comfort & height – here’s the tradeoff – a higher seat helps casting, but hurts stability. Some kayaks even have an adjustable seat height for casting. Or, choose a well-designed high seat combined with an extremely stable hull.
Clear the decks – to avoid snags, choose a kayak that has a spacious, open deck without extraneous protrusions that would catch your fly line on a cast – or worse when while fighting a big one. Beware of mounted rod holders which may be great for trolling with a spinning rod, but are terrible for fly fishing (some can be removed and stowed). For example, stripping line to fish streamers can easily tangle. Adjustable foot petals also attract snags – get one instead with a snag-free design as much as possible.
Stability is everything – especially if you want to cast standing up! Most kayaks are reasonably stable, but be wary – what feels fine sitting down may not standing up. Especially when you’ve got a big one on the line or it snaps off. Casting while sitting is possible, but can be awkward so you’ll want to be sure that the seat design and height of the backrest works for seated casting.
Comfort saves the day – You want a kayak that can keep you comfortable all day long – your back, your rear end, and your legs. 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?
Color matters too – Depending on the species you are fishing for, camouflage may or may not be important. If you use the same kayak as a crossover for waterfowl hunting, then camo becomes more important. For your comfort, remember that a dark colored kayak can absorb a lot of heat from the sun, uncomfortably so if it’s hot out. Light colored kayaks generally the better choice.
Sit-on-top vs sit-in design – sitting on top is the most popular, but not always the best choice. They are more open, with scuppers to prevent flooding. They’re a bit easier to cast from in a seated position which is higher. The main disadvantage is they expose you more to the elements. Most of our recommendations are for sit-on-tops given their bigger deck space and easier casting. Sit-ins offer more protection from spray and and waves, especially with a skirt to cover the opening. However, they don’t have natural drain holes so can get swamped and even flood when waves break over the bow or from heavy rain (especially when used without a skirt). The lower seating profile and enclosed cockpit can restrict casting. However, they are faster than sit-on-tops, because you more directly transmit paddle energy to the water when sitting lower. That by itself can make a big difference during a long paddle day.
Low profilesaves energy and grief – Wind can really cost you time and energy, and you want control when fishing a certain spot. Especially if the fish are biting! It can be super annoying if the wind blows you out of position right before a cast. Choose a kayak with low gunnels (and good tracking) to minimize the surface the wind can catch.
Watch the weight for transporting & portaging – weight differs widely between kayaks, and makes a big difference when you’re lifting and handling a kayak during transport or a portage. Consider also, that lighter kayaks tend to be shorter – so there’s a tradeoff with tracking ability. Are you carrying it on a rooftop or trailer? How many people will be available to lift and carry? Will you be portaging frequently (such as in the Boundary Waters Wilderness Area between Minnesota and Canada)?
Stock up with storage – with fishing comes gear, and you need a craft that can hold it without clutter. The front hatch should be tightly water-proof to avoid taking on water from waves. The cockpit storage cell should be easily opened while kayaking for access to necessities such as sunscreen, water bottle, GPS, tackle, rescue rope, etc. Accessible yet low-profile to avoid tangles. For the rear deck or hatch, check out the shape and volume – will it hold a cooler or box? Are there secure anchors for tie-downs and anchor ropes?