How to Choose a Fishing Kayak – The Essential Guide & Tips


Kayak fishing is booming as a pastime, given the fact that it perfectly marries two immensely popular activities in one.

As such, the market has exploded with kayaks that are dedicated to fishing, so much so that it can be a challenge to find the right one.

Especially if you’re new to the sport.

But fear not, for I’ve crafted the ultimate guide on how to choose a fishing kayak, jam packed with all the tips, tricks, and advice you could possibly want to know.

So, before you make any big decisions – make sure to read on for expert help in finding the perfect craft for your needs.

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fisherman in sit-on-top kayak with multiple fishing rods

The Best Type of Kayak for Fishing – Too Long, Didn’t Read

Regular readers of this site will know I always like to give you all the info in a nutshell at the top of the article – for anyone who is in a rush.

However, on this occasion, there’s so much to consider, it’s all but impossible.

Still, let’s give it a try.

When in the market for a fishing kayak, you should be considering the following features, accessories, and factors.

  • Type of kayak – sit-in or sit-on-top?
  • Inflatable or hardshell?
  • Pedals or paddles?
  • Cockpit and seating setup.
  • Fishing location and conditions.
  • Weight capacity and size.
  • Portability and storage.
  • On-board storage.
  • Compatibility with aftermarket extras and fishing features.
  • Your personal skill level and ability.
  • And let’s not forget about budget – often the deciding factor when choosing just about anything, and a key part of the process here, particularly for beginners.

In short, I think you’ll agree that you don’t skip this one, and keep reading to discover an in-depth guide to choosing the right fishing kayak for you.

man in white kayak fishing

Can You Fish from a Regular Kayak?

Why choose a fishing kayak in the first place? Can you not just throw a rod in from any old recreational craft?

You certainly can, and if you’re handy, you can add some of these awesome kayak fishing rod holders to almost any boat to turn it into a fishing kayak if that’s what you’d prefer.

But if you’re serious about the sport, then owning and running a dedicated vessel is going to offer you so much more, especially if it’s tailored to your needs.

With the right fishing kayak, your chances of success will increase significantly, you’ll be more comfortable, safer, and have a more enjoyable time in the process.

What to Look for in a Fishing Kayak

Without further ado, let’s get stuck in and explore all the points listed above in a lot more detail.

Types of Fishing Kayak

Your first big decision is going to be the type of kayak you want to paddle, and here you have two choices.

Sit-inside kayaks have a cockpit that you climb into, and usually have a V-shaped hull which is more suitable for distance/touring, speed, and whitewater.

They offer more protection from the elements, and you can add a spray skirt to keep you warm and dry.

However, they’re not ideal when it comes to something called “primary stability” – which is how stable a kayak feels when you first get into it as it’s sitting flat on the water.

As such, they’re not ideal for standing casts and reels, and can be a poor choice for fishing very still waters.

Sit-on-top kayaks are easier to get into, offer more space in general, and as their hull isn’t as tippy as a sit-inside kayak, they’re the craft of choice for most kayak anglers.

Standing casts and reels are possible – if the kayak allows it – which is an essential feature for many folks in the community.

However, you’re exposed to the elements, and you should certainly make sure you’re wearing a good-quality fishing hat – regardless of the kayak type.

While sit-on-top kayaks are largely preferable for fishing, that’s not to say sit-inside models don’t have their place. On the contrary, they come into their own if you like a challenge and/or enjoy fishing on peppy rivers and tidal regions.

Follow this link for some more excellent reasons why you should consider a sit-inside kayak for fishing, and for more detailed information on the two types head-to-head, read this article on sit-inside versus sit-on-top kayaks for fishing.

man kayak fishing in river

Hardshell versus Inflatable

Next, you need to decide what you want the kayak to be made out of. Again, you have two choices in general – inflatable or hardshell.

Quality inflatables are commonly made from a super-tough and puncture-resistant PVC, but high-end models can come in US Military approved hypalon.

Hardshells will usually be made from roto-molded heavy-duty plastics, but as you move up the quality scale, you’ll discover fiberglass, graphite, and Kevlar composites for performance kayaking.

High-end inflatables might also have an aluminum frame to help provide strength and comparative hardshell performance.

Both have their advantages and disadvantages, and you should check out this article on the best inflatable fishing kayaks for a more detailed comparison.

Pedals versus Paddles

How you power a kayak is another important consideration, and for the most part, once again you have two choices.

Paddles alone – or paddles and pedals.

I say paddles and pedals, because while kayak pedal technology is improving all the time, you’ll still need a paddle when you’re out there – at least for now.

Plus, you never know when your pedal system might fail, such as getting struck under the hull, damaged, or tangled up in some way. Having a backup paddle is essential, so you’re not left stranded.

Kayak fishing with just a paddle is very accessible, ideal for beginners, and highly affordable. This setup is fast and easy, and will have you out on the water in no time.

Take a look at this article on the best kayak fishing paddles to see the level of quality and performance currently on the market.

Unfortunately, kayak pedal power remains quite expensive, and I would recommend only taking that step when you’re ready and your budget, experience, and enthusiasm allows.

Still, there’s no harm taking a look at the best pedal fishing kayaks available – and who am I to say you can’t treat yourself?

There is a third option when it comes to powering your kayak, as some models will be compatible with a trolling motor.

Look out for that feature if that’s something you feel you will benefit from in the future.

fisherman with a fly rod in sit-in kayak fishing

Cockpit and Seating

It’s important that you’re as comfortable as possible when you’re out there fishing all day, and your kayak seating setup has a lot to do with that.

Budget fishing kayaks will likely just have a simple seat with minimal padding, or possibly none at all, where you just sit directly on a molded recess built into the kayak.

As you move up the price and quality scale, kayak seats become things of beauty, and you’ll feel like you’re sitting in your most comfortable armchair at home.

Look for seats that can be fully adjusted to your needs. Some even offer different height positions, so you can switch between paddling, relaxing, and fishing with a better field of view over the water.

But equally important, is if you want to enjoy standing casts and reels from the cockpit, which means the kayak has to be super stable, with enough room to plant your feet on an anti-slip deck.

You can’t beat this article on the best stand-up fishing kayaks, all of which offer some seriously impressive cockpits and comfort seating to make your trip as enjoyable (and successful) as possible.

Fishing Location and Conditions

In hindsight, perhaps this consideration needs to be higher up the list.

Where and when you’re fishing is going to be a key factor in choosing the right fishing kayak for your needs.

If you’re in quiet, calm lakes and slow rivers, a small sit-on-top craft is advisable. But you’ll still want to be highly maneuverable, with the ability to negotiate obstacles as and when necessary.

Take a look at this piece on the best river fishing kayaks for some great examples.

If you’re more of an adrenaline junkie, and you want the challenge of fishing peppy rivers with stretches of whitewater, then choose a sit-inside kayak instead.

For open water or coastal regions, you’ll want to consider the best ocean fishing kayaks on the market – capable of handling waves and chop, but also with the ability to travel longer distances if required.

Pedal kayaks are highly recommended in such circumstances – and you’ll be thankful for the extra power when tackling strong tides and currents, rather than simply relying on your arms alone.

red inflatable fishing kayak on the autumn river

Weight Capacity and Size

No matter the quality, size, type, or price of the kayak, they will all come with a maximum weight capacity that should be adhered to.

It’s highly advisable you don’t push your luck on this one – and never overload your kayak even close to this figure.

Remember to take into account the weight of the occupants (human or otherwise), your tackle and gear, and any fish you might catch when you’re out there.

Obviously, the higher the weight capacity, the more stuff you can take with you.

But what’s the best size of kayak for fishing?

Again, it depends on the when and the where. Smaller kayaks are more maneuverable but slow, while longer craft are excellent for distance and speed but not so hot at making sudden turns.

As a rough guide, a decent fishing kayak is going to be somewhere between 10-12 feet, but there are exceptions to the rule.

Portability and Storage

Kayaks can be large, cumbersome, and weighty, and how you’re getting to and from the water needs to be taken into consideration.

Pedal kayaks in particular can be extremely heavy – and unless you’re using a kayak trolley, moving them is going to be a two-person job.

Look for kayaks that have quality grab handles at the bow, stern, and sides.

You’ll need all the help you can get with heavier models, but there are some lighter kayaks available you can carry with one hand.

How you’re storing your craft when not in use is another factor that shouldn’t escape your attention. Do you have space? Can you hoist it into the rafters of a shed or garage? Will it sit outside on a rack?

Don’t forget about the off-season, either, as you’ll need to keep your kayak protected from the elements if you’re in a region that gets harsh winters.

Of course, to solve any portability and storage headaches, you can always choose an inflatable model that you can carry on your back and stash under your bed if you so choose.

angler fishing from kayak in sunset on lake

On-Board Storage

You can go fishing with as much or as little gear as you like, but when it comes to kayaks, space can be at a premium.

As such, if you’re someone who likes taking a lot of tackle and equipment, you’re going to need a craft that has room to put it all.

Look for fishing kayaks that have bungee cord tank wells, waterproof storage hatches, under-seat space and more.

If there’s a center console, it should have a place to safely stow your valuables or devices – like a phone and keys.

You’ll need somewhere to stash one of these fishing coolers packed with beer, after all, and you should check out these kayak tackle storage boxes, bags and crates which will help maximize the space available to you.

And you can always wear a certified fishing PFD that has extra storage options for your tackle and gear – as well as the ability to save your life.

It’s a win-win!

Fishing Friendly Features

Do you know the single feature that turns a regular, recreational kayak into a fishing craft?

It’s a fishing rod holder.

That’s about it, at the very basic level.

But when you start thinking about the different types and quantities of such features, then you begin to understand how a basic boat can be turned into a fish-stalking-beast-monster.

The very best fishing kayaks either come with all kinds of fishing-friendly features as standard, or the ability to add them at a later date depending on an angler’s individual needs and preferences.

Gear and accessory tracks along the gunwale are perfect for adding additional rod holders, sports cameras, flashlights, and more.

Center consoles can offer room for tackle and rig setup, a place to stash valuables, keep your favorite beverage to hand, or even offer the hardware to attach one of these awesome kayak fish finders to really up your game.

Toe-controlled rudder systems will help keep you on course when your hands are otherwise engaged, and are a huge asset when you’re fishing in windy, choppy conditions.

Standing straps and non-slip decks help you get to your feet for those powerful standing casts and reels. And they help you sit down again – especially if you’re a little unsure of your balance.

And some kayaks are even compatible with trolling motors, so you can add a propulsion system and really take the effort out of getting around.

Just make sure that you’re choosing a kayak with the features you need and none of the fluff that you don’t.

man stand up fishing on kayak

Skill Level and Ability

We’ve been looking outwardly a lot when it comes to choosing the right fishing kayak, but now it’s time for some home truths.

How experienced are you – and what’s your fishing and kayaking skill level/ability?

If you’ve never set foot in a kayak before, then there’s absolutely no point in purchasing a $4000 + top-of-the-line model. You need to walk before you can run.

Be honest with yourself and your capabilities – both physically and skillfully. You need to be able to control and pilot these craft and do so safely, both for you, the environment, and other water users.

Budget

How much you can afford to spend on a fishing kayak is arguably your first consideration, and the good news is – there’s something out there for everyone.

Just so long as you understand that you shouldn’t be cheap.

Inexpensive isn’t the same as cheap. Good kayaks aren’t cheap, and cheap kayaks aren’t good.

You can easily pick up a quality fishing kayak under $500 – especially if you consider an inflatable or entry-level kayak.

If you’re just starting out, I recommend you don’t blow your budget until you know you’re going to love kayak fishing.

When your skills improve, and you’re ready to take the step-up, you can always pass on your entry-level fishing kayak to get someone else into the sport, or use it to take a friend or family member on your next adventure.

Check out this article on the best budget-friendly fishing kayaks on the market, and you’ll find out you don’t have to break the bank to get out on the water.

fisherman with sit inside kayak preparing for fishing trip

FAQs

What size fishing kayak do I need?

It depends on where you’ll be fishing the most.

As a general rule of thumb, choose a shorter kayak for rivers, and a longer one for larger lakes.

Shorter kayaks are more maneuverable for negotiating obstacles and hazards, while longer, slimmer hulls are built for distance and speed.

For the most part, however, a good fishing kayak is going to be around 10-12 feet long, and will be more than capable of handling most environments and conditions.

Don’t worry too much if there’s only a difference of a few feet (which is better, a 10-foot or an 11-foot kayak?). It might just come down to what you can fit in your garage, on a trailer, or on the roof of your vehicle.

What style of kayak is best for fishing?

Sit-on-top hardshell kayaks are the most popular for fishing, but sit-inside and inflatable models have their place as well.

It really depends on your circumstances, the features you value, and your style of fishing.

Having said that, most experienced kayak anglers will be rocking a sit-on-top model, and only take the sit-in out when they want a fresh challenge.

What is a good fishing kayak for beginners?

There are plenty of excellent entry-level fishing kayaks around the $300-500 mark that would be well-suited to beginners.

Look for something with a stable hull, at least one fishing rod holder, a comfortable seat, carry handles, and room for storage.

Perception Kayaks are one of the best brands to look for if you’re just starting out. Vibe and Pelican also make some great craft for rookies.

Check out this article on essential kayak fishing tips for beginners for more information, and watch the video below which goes through the stages of beginner, intermediate, and advanced fishing kayaks.

Is a fishing kayak worth it?

It depends on how much use you’re going to get out of it.

If you’re a keen angler who wants to go out as much as possible, then I’d hand-on-heart say a fishing kayak is 100% worth it.

But if you’re only managing one trip every few months or less, I wouldn’t recommend it.

Should I buy a pedal fishing kayak?

I would say they’re 100% worth it – but with a few caveats.

It shouldn’t be your first fishing kayak. If you’re a total beginner, then I highly recommend getting a more inexpensive model first – and learning the ropes with that.

You can always “graduate” to a better kayak further down the line as your skill and experience improves.

Second – it really is about budget. A good pedal fishing kayak isn’t cheap. They’re also very cumbersome and heavy, so you should be well aware of what you’re getting yourself in for if you decide to go down this route.

Having said that, if you’re not as young as you once were, or you feel your arms aren’t as strong for whatever reason, then a pedal fishing kayak is going to make a world of difference to your comfort.

There really is nothing like the hands-free feeling of being able to fish without having to constantly be reaching for a paddle.

What’s the best fishing kayak on the market?

That’s a tough question, as everyone has their favorites, and what works for me might not work for you.

The good news is, most of the top brands all offer some seriously impressive vessels in their range, and personally, I’d thank you for any one of them.

At the time of writing, my current favorite is the black and red Vibe Shearwater 125. I just think it looks like sex on water.

Check out this article on the best kayak fishing brands for more information, and I wish you good luck in trying to decide which is the best fishing kayak on the market.

Summary

I hope this guide on how to choose a fishing kayak has helped you make an informed choice, or pointed you in the right direction at the very least.

Please, feel free to ask any questions in the comments below, let me know if there’s something key that I’ve missed, or even if you just want to share your own experience with the community.

Best of luck, and remember – there’s a fishing kayak out there for everyone!

Bob Hoffmann

The author of this post is Bob Hoffmann. Bob has spend most of his childhood fishing with his father and now share all his knowledge with other anglers. Feel free to leave a comment below.

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