Whether you're a nature nut or a gearhead, there's a lot to love about today's fishing kayaks and canoes.
by John Page Williams
Fishermen have been getting around the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers with paddles for a millennium or so. From the Native American vessels made of hollowed-out logs or birch bark to the durable aluminum and lightweight canoes of the 20th century, anglers have long valued paddle craft for their versatility and stealth. One of my sentimental favorite fishing boats is my 34-year-old Grumman 17 aluminum canoe, an outrageously durable vessel I fell in love with while running Chesapeake Bay Foundation field trips with a fleet of them in the 1970s and early 1980s.
I learned how to paddle solo, using a 9-foot paddle with double blades, from a remarkable gentleman--Dr. Homer Dodge, my paddling guru, who grew up along the St. Lawrence River back when canoeists routinely used double-bladed paddles.
He would feel at home today with the latest trend in paddle-fishing, sea kayaks. Customized for fishing, these open-water kayaks have become the vessel of choice for a new generation of tech-savvy anglers. The powerful double-bladed paddles give these folks a good workout in stealthy little boats that draw them into intimate relationships with the Bay and its creatures, from great blue herons and ospreys to river otters--and fish.
Every generation of paddle-anglers has had a favorite vessel: the classic wood-and-canvas canoes used by guides in the north woods in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; Grumman Aircraft's aluminum canoes, beloved by Scout troops and summer camps; and modern fiberglass, ABS plastic and Kevlar canoes, which many anglers still favor over powerboats for short trips along the shorelines of Bay rivers and marsh creeks.
The sea kayak revolution is a more recent phenomenon. I first began encountering paddling clubs around the Chesapeake in the early 1980s. Two factors have contributed to kayaking's explosive growth in the past 25 years: the boats' construction method and their propulsion system. "Cooked" in a rotating mold, polyethylene kayaks are inexpensive and even more durable than the legendary Grumman canoes. Plus, the technique allows the builder to integrate a wide range of features directly into the boat's hull. Then there is the intuitiveness and power of using a double-bladed paddle. I've taught a lot of people of all ages to use both single and double blades; each has its uses, but the easiest to learn quickly is the double.
Chesapeake anglers have taken to kayaking in a big way, slipping into creeks and coves in their low-profile boats to fish areas such as the marshes of Eastern Bay, Tangier Sound, Mobjack Bay and the Lynnhaven River. Like canoes, kayaks offer the sense of adventure that comes with being able to launch almost anywhere and paddle to a fishing spot. And paddle-fishing conveys the same sense of oneness with the water that wade-fishing does. In fact, light-tackle anglers like to use kayaks to reach spots where they can wade-fish for shallow water rockfish, white perch, croakers, speckled trout and puppy (red) drum.
Spinning outfits are the most versatile, but plenty of anglers also use fly rods and bait-casters from their 'yaks, and paddlers now rig their boats with rod holders, tackle boxes, coolers and livewells, along with the safety gear they've learned to rely on.
Essentials and Extras
From the start, kayaking clubs emphasized safety. Instruction became standard not only with the clubs, but with kayak dealers and suppliers too. Beginners learn basic paddling techniques, how to read weather and water conditions, how to avoid trouble and what to do when it rears its head, including ways to rescue yourself or a buddy. Like any boat, kayaks demand continual on-the-water learning and beginners should start on easy water.
Dealers and clubs are the best sources for advice in choosing a kayak. Mass marketers may sell kayaks at attractive prices, but they don't always have salespeople knowledgeable about kayak fishing. The same goes for outdoor outfitters, where you'll find plenty of competent paddlers, though many of them may be non-anglers.
To get started, do your homework on the internet. Visit stores that specialize in fishing kayaks. Look for clubs and guides who can give you specific fishing advice. Besides helping you select the right boat, these folks will emphasize three critical accessories: a paddle, a flotation vest and a seat.
Paddles should fit your size and build so you can paddle all day without feeling like you're swinging a pressure-treated four-by-four. You'll find plenty of good, affordable entry- and intermediate-level models to choose from. Proper fit is also crucial when it comes to your PFD. Make sure it's comfortable and snug. Some vests can accommodate small tools and even a waterproof handheld VHF radio.
Seat technology is a real sleeper for paddlers. It may not seem so, but getting the right kayak seat is a big deal. It should be comfortable enough for long outings and ventilated to keep air flowing around your hind end.
The self-bailing, sit-on-top kayak is the standard for most 'yak anglers around the Chesapeake. Many of these boats are molded with seat bases, footrests, rod holders, "tank wells" that hold storage boxes (usually plastic milk crates), dry storage areas with hatches and "consoles" for electronics.
These boats have the great benefit of scuppers (holes) in their soles that drain any water that comes aboard. The catch with a sit-on-top is that the paddler will usually get wet unless he/she wears some kind of dry gear. But fear not; the burgeoning kayak gear industry has birthed several companies that specialize in comfortable "technical" clothing that will keep a paddling angler dry in any weather.
Gearheads will also delight at the extras, small and large, available for anglers: paddle leashes, anchoring systems, rod holders and even livewells with aerators. Two major electronics manufacturers now build depthsounders specifically for installation in sit-on-top fishing kayaks, which also have plenty of brackets to hold GPS units. Two kayak brands even offer pedal-power propulsion, quite useful for fishing with both hands, although the systems add to the kayak's expense, weight and complexity.
Remarkably seaworthy in experienced hands, fishing kayaks can provide genuine thrills. Members of a tight-knit fraternity of veteran paddlers in the Virginia Beach-Norfolk area test their skills by pushing the paddle craft envelope. Arguably the three best-known of these 'yak anglers are "Kayak Kevin" Whitley, Ric Burnley and Cory "Ruthless" Routh. (If "Kayak Kevin" sounds familiar, maybe it's because Marty LeGrand featured him in her August 2009 article on kayak fishing.)
Skillful, experienced and physically powerful, these folks have developed systems for taking large fish. They can wear out 40- to 60-pound rockfish, red drum and cobia by allowing them to tow their kayaks substantial distances, a technique known as the "Chesapeake sleigh ride." Some are even fishing dolphin (mahimahi), tuna and marlin off the North Carolina coast with the help of a "mother ship" from the charter fleet.
While you might not want to try this kind of fish fight yourself, they do show what paddle craft can do in competent hands. Most of us find plenty of thrills in having a 20- to 28-inch rockfish or puppy drum tow us around Janes Island in Tangier Sound or the Ware River in Mobjack Bay.
You'll find photos of some of Kayak Kevin's monster fish at his website (www.kayakkevin.com), where you'll also see a photo of his father, Ken Whitley, paddling a 17-foot Grumman canoe as a camp counselor in 1975. That's almost the exact vintage of my Grumman, which is still healthy enough for regular work near my house on the Severn River above Annapolis. Mostly she serves as a wade-fishing taxi, but I recently did some low-cost tinkering to make her a better fishing boat.
The Grumman 17 is seaworthy and capable of carrying a lot of gear at reasonable speeds, but as an aluminum canoe its biggest problem is noise. I solved this by buying sheets of 3-millimeter and 5-millimeter stick-on padding from SeaDek (www.seadek.com). I cut strips for the spots on the gunwales anywhere someone might lay a paddle to make a cast. More padding went onto the boat's bottom to silence the sound of a bucket or a small cooler/fishbox and to cushion the place just in front of the aft thwart where my knees go when I paddle solo. All three thwarts got one-inch foam pipe insulation, wrapped in place with duct tape. The aft thwart cushions my butt, while the other two serve as brackets where I can put down a fishing rod.
Dave Young at Annapolis Canoe and Kayak found me a Cannon Wave, an extra-long (275-centimeter) spoon-blade double paddle. Captain Chris Dollar at Kent Island Kayaks sold me a Skwoosh leash for it and a pair of Scotty rod holders, which I bolted to the sides of the canoe for trolling. My depthsounder is a an old but capable Lowrance x51, mounted on a plastic ice-fishing sounder box that also holds the sounder's rechargeable battery. The Lowrance "hockey puck" transducer fits onto a suction-cup mount stuck on the side of the hull in such a way that it causes minimal drag. In the Severn, I mostly use visual marks to get onto specific spots, but it would be easy to bolt in a ball-and-socket mount for a handheld GPS.
I can hold my position with a plastic-covered 5-pound mushroom anchor on 50 feet of line tied to the boat's center thwart. (The foam pad underneath silences the hook when it's out of the water.) I could always tie the anchor in at the bow, which allows the boat to swing straight from it, but it's easy to retrieve it by a short line tied between the anchor rode and the center thwart. That's a trick old-time charterboat skippers used before the days of bow pulpits and power windlasses. It works fine on canoes and kayaks too.
Low-cost ingenuity? It's what kayak and canoe fishing is all about. That and catching fish.