Kayak fishing is rapidly becoming more popular around the world – and particularly in North America.
Boats are cheaper and more accessible, and cutting-edge technology is being developed all the time for the ultimate in kayaking comforts.
But is kayak fishing dangerous?
What are the hazards involved?
Is it safe for beginners?
We have everything you need to know in this article, including the risk factors involved, how to choose the right kayak, preventative safety measures, and what to do in emergency situations.
Don’t skip this one – it could save your life.
Table of Contents
- Is Kayak Fishing Dangerous? – Too Long, Didn’t Read
- Choosing the Right Fishing Kayak
- Kayak Fishing Common Risks
- Dealing With Emergencies
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Is Kayak Fishing Dangerous? – Too Long, Didn’t Read
First of all, this article is not intended to frighten you off, and kayak fishing is still a safe pastime that thousands of people enjoy every year without serious incident.
But in answer to the question “is kayak fishing dangerous” – yes, it can be dangerous.
However, with the right precautions and safety measures in place, you can avoid becoming a statistic.
Read on for an in-depth guide to the potential risks involved, and how to prepare for and avoid them.
Choosing the Right Fishing Kayak
Now, this might be a no-brainer to some, but you’d be amazed at how many people get into difficulty because they’ve gone out in the wrong vessel for the conditions.
I can think of several tragic stories that made the news due to victims venturing out in boats that were totally inadequate for the conditions and situation.
So, put some time and effort into sourcing the right fishing kayak for the location where you’ll be using it.
Go here for the best river fishing kayaks available.
This link will take you to an article on the best ocean fishing kayaks.
If you want to enjoy standing casts and reels, you’ll need a super stable boat that’s designed for that. Try this piece on the best stand-up fishing kayaks.
If you’re a larger human, you might want to take a look at this article on the best fishing kayaks for bigger guys and gals.
And if you’re going out as a family, a tandem fishing kayak is going to be much better than trying to cram more people onto a solo craft – and much safer too!
Of course, that’s not to say you can’t use an ocean fishing kayak on a lake, or a river kayak on the ocean, for example.
You just need to make sure that the kayak you use is suitable for the conditions you’re using it in – before you even set foot in it.
Kayak Fishing Common Risks
Below, you’ll find a list of the most common risks associated with kayak fishing, in no particular order.
Make sure you read through, as not all of them are as obvious as you might think.
Drowning isn’t the only danger out there…
That’s a whopping 534M kayak fishing trips for 2022, and a massive increase from previous years.
Why has this happened?
This soaring rise of kayak fishing popularity, coupled with more affordable products, and the effects of the pandemic, has seen a huge swell in the number of paddlers taking to the water each year.
It looks like people want to get out more!
But this isn’t always a good thing.
Many of these paddlers lack experience, basic kayak safety knowledge, or even how to perform a correct paddle technique.
And such inexperience is a recipe for disaster, and can be a leading cause of accidents and fatalities on the water.
You and your family might be enticed by a fishing kayak as cheap as the Intex Excursion Pro, and be desperately excited to get out there and try it.
But for complete beginners, I would highly recommend you take a basic paddle course before you do.
Check your local community noticeboards or a local paddle sports club. Some community swimming pools offer in-house kayak training in a controlled environment.
Be realistic about your limitations and experience, and know before you go!
If you’re paddling on a small lake or gentle river, you might not be so worried about losing your way.
But for anyone fishing in open or larger bodies of water, or rivers with multiple tributaries, getting lost can be a real danger.
It only takes a few seconds of distraction, and you could become disorientated, pass your get-out point, or have no idea where you are entirely.
You might take a wrong turn and have no clue what lies ahead – which raises all kinds of potential risks.
Be sure to make a float plan before setting off. Map out your route, and note easily identifiable landmarks to keep you orientated.
That way, if you do get distracted while trying to land a monster, you have a chance at retracing your path back to a familiar waypoint.
Remember, though – battery-powered devices can fail, so a good ol’ fashioned map and compass is an excellent backup.
Sound planning will also help you avoid many other fishing kayak dangers – especially seasonal hazards like post-winter flooding, high water lines, and powerful rapids.
Finally, one of the most vital safety measures anyone can take when going anywhere in the great outdoors:
Make sure you tell someone of your plans before you go – including your route, departure and return time.
The longer the trip, the more detailed this will have to be, as it’s vital that at least one person knows your rough whereabouts in the event of an accident or emergency.
I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve ventured out on my kayaks and forgotten to put sunscreen on.
Even in a partially cloudy sky, that means my fishing trip is going to be interrupted or cut much shorter than I wanted it to be.
And getting burned isn’t the only danger you can experience from unprotected exposure to the sun’s potentially deadly rays.
Hives, heatstroke, dehydration, premature skin aging, blisters, skin cancer…there’s a long list of unpleasant effects the sun can have if we don’t take steps to prevent it.
And this is particularly true for the sensitive skins of children and those of us not getting any younger.
Thankfully, keeping the sun’s rays at bay is pretty straightforward, so I’ll keep it short and to the point:
- Cover up.
- Wear a high-factor sunscreen on exposed skin.
- Wear a good fishing hat.
- Wear good sunglasses – the sun can seriously damage your eyes, too.
For more information, you can check out this article for a complete guide on what to wear when kayak fishing, to make sure you’re not only comfortable, but protected against the elements.
And don’t forget to stay hydrated!
Either way, make sure you keep drinking the H2O as long as you’re out there – and save the beer for when you’re back at camp.
The sun isn’t the only dangerous thing that mother nature can throw at us.
And when you’re out there on a small kayak in a big world, you might start to feel very exposed.
Strong winds, heavy rain, thunder, lightning, fog, hail and snow can all cause significant problems to kayakers – and weather-related incidents, accidents, and fatalities happen every year without fail.
Water can be a deadly conductor of electricity, even if a storm is several miles away.
Winds can blow you significantly off course.
And kayaking in thick fog is nightmare fuel – as just a few examples.
Always check the weather reports when planning your trip – even if it’s just for a few hours. You never know when it can take a turn for the worst.
You should never attempt to go out in poor weather, and avoid at all costs if there’s even a hint of a thunderstorm.
When in doubt – don’t go. It’s not worth the risk.
Inclement weather will pass, and you can live to fish another day.
But if you’re already out there when you first hear or sense the sounds of an approaching thunderstorm, you should get off the water immediately.
And I mean immediately – a lightning strike can still be lethal even if it hits many miles away.
Flipping a kayak isn’t necessarily dangerous in itself – it’s how you deal with the after-effects and how well-prepared (or unprepared) you are for that situation that will make the difference.
Even with these rock-solid, super-stable pedal fishing kayaks, capsizing can still happen given the right circumstances.
I’ve flipped a kayak because of an over-zealous paddle stroke, but it could just have easily been a rogue wave, or while fighting a fish that just doesn’t want to be caught.
It can happen to anyone, at any time, but the vast majority of fatalities that occur as a result are because the paddler wasn’t adequately prepared.
It’s as simple as this:
WEAR an accredited kayak PFD, life jacket or vest.
The emphasis is on the word ‘wear,’ because there are so many accidents where drowning is recorded as the cause of death – and yet the victim had a PFD on the kayak – but not on themselves.
Or left back in storage at home.
Check out this article for a review of the best kayak fishing PFDs, which provide practical tackle and equipment storage, as well as potentially life-saving possibilities.
It’s also important that you know how to self-rescue, and that you don’t live in fear of capsizing.
We’ll have more on this technique coming up, but I highly recommend you try capsizing your kayak in a controlled environment beforehand, and get used to the feeling before venturing out into more uncertain and unpredictable conditions.
And if you’re particularly concerned with kayak stability, you can always add outriggers/stabilizers for additional peace-of-mind. Follow that link for some great examples.
Hypothermia and Water Temperature
Just because it’s a warm day doesn’t mean that the water is going to follow suit.
In warmer regions and more temperate climates, naive paddlers might think that it’s fine to go out in just a T-shirt and shorts because it’s a “nice day.”
But hypothermia can still occur in water temperatures as high as 70 degrees Fahrenheit. And the colder the water temperature, the faster the body is going to shut down.
Which means, even if you’re fully practiced in self-rescue, your muscles might not allow you to climb back onto your boat.
Remember the golden rule – always dress for immersion.
You should wear appropriate clothing and materials as if you were guaranteed to go in the water – even if you don’t.
This article on what to wear kayak fishing in winter will tell you everything you need to know – but don’t let the season fool you.
It should be applied whenever the water temperature is below 70 degrees Fahrenheit.
Learn the 120 degree rule. Combine the water temperature and air temperatures, and if it’s on or above 120 degrees Fahrenheit, you are likely not at risk from hypothermia if you happen to fall in.
If it’s below, you need to wear an appropriate dry or wetsuit.
Staying dry is key, and it’s vital that you pack a change of clothes.
Keep reading for more information on dealing with hypothermia in the emergency situation section, below.
Tides, Waves, and Currents
We all know the dangers of rip tides, rogue waves, and those fast, unseen currents when we’re swimming.
The same can be said for kayaking.
Unpredictable water conditions can be just as deadly to paddlers as they are to swimmers – with seas and oceans being particularly dangerous.
Most seasoned kayakers will recommend that you never paddle alone – but they often don’t take their own advice!
Kayak anglers like to go out solo and enjoy the peace and quiet, and if that’s the case, then you need to be prepared for the unexpected.
In open water, I highly recommend you carry a VHF radio, flares, and possibly a kayak/personal locator beacon.
To echo the risk of inexperience – it’s important that you are skilled enough to handle tides, waves, and currents in your kayak.
Higher waves and stronger currents are going to require more advanced paddling techniques and endurance – so choose another location to fish if that’s not yet part of your skill set.
Obstacles and Hazards
When you’re out on the water, you might encounter any number of obstacles and hazards along your route.
And not all of them might be visible.
“Sweepers” are overhanging trees that can literally sweep paddlers out of their kayaks.
“Strainers” are obstructions that hinder the flow of water, and can create a sieve-like effect underwater.
“Undercuts” are banks or rock ledges on the shoreline that can trap a kayaker underneath.
And that’s barely scratching the surface!
Man-made hazards like low-head dams are also a serious danger to river fishing kayakers, as well as weirs, bridges, spillways, and more.
How you deal with an obstacle or hazard on a waterway will depend on the type of hazard you encounter.
This article from the American Kayaking Association offers an excellent breakdown of each in a glossary of river hazards.
Make sure you’re aware of weirs and low-head dams, and if they’re present on the route you intend to take, as they will likely be unmarked when you approach them.
And this is one instance where even a good PFD might not be able to save you, so they should be avoided at all costs.
Learn the dangers, and you’ll be in a better position to safely overcome them.
Often overlooked, biting and stinging insects can pose a real danger to kayakers – and not just when it comes to comfort.
Horseflies, deer flies, mosquitos, wasps, sand flies, blackflies, ticks…the world is full of these evil little creatures!
Allergic reactions can be deadly, and at the very least, might make you feel ill for several days.
And it might even impact your ability to paddle or make sound judgements, which can lead to further compilations and dangerous scenarios on the water.
Pack that bug spray!
Make sure you’re using something topical that is going to keep these critters at bay, and is potent enough for the particularly nasty ones.
I also highly recommend covering your legs and arms – and wear close-toed water shoes instead of sandals.
In particularly hostile areas, I would even consider a fishing hat with mosquito net for additional protection.
You might read several articles or watch multiple videos with headlines like “shocking great white kayak attack.” Or, terrifying kayak walrus ordeal.”
And while animal attacks do happen, they are very, very rare when compared with how many people are kayaking safely without incident.
Still, the animal kingdom needs to be respected, as it’s their environment you’re invading in the first place.
Particular care must be taken when kayaking in the breeding and/or mating seasons of any species.
And it’s not just animal attacks that can cause problems.
You might have heard about the kayak angler that was pulled 15 miles out to sea while battling a 500 lbs marlin.
Now there’s a choice if ever there was one!
Count your losses and let it go, or fight to land the catch of a lifetime and risk a serious incident.
What would you do in that situation?!
The course of action you take in avoiding an unwanted animal encounter will largely depend upon the animal in question.
Below is a list of a few critters you might come across when kayak fishing, and some brief advice on how to deal with such a situation.
If you’re fishing saltwater offshore, there’s a good chance sharks will be in the vicinity. They’re interested in your bait, or whatever it is you’re trying to catch.
They might even bump your kayak to figure out if it’s a tasty treat.
Make sure to keep your arms and legs inside (as if you need telling twice), and don’t put blood or chum in water.
If you spot shark activity, stay calm, and move to another location if you can.
Snakes generally keep to themselves, but they can be very impressive swimmers, and will get territorial – especially around mating season.
Be wary of paddling under overhanging branches and trees. In warmer climes, “sweepers” come with even more risks!
Keep your distance, and move on. Slapping your paddle in the water will cause a snake to decide you’re not worth it.
Most of the time, these reptiles won’t be bothered you’re there – but they can get aggressive if you venture too close and/or they have young present.
Keep your distance, paddle around the animal’s location, and avoid areas of dense vegetation.
And don’t ever attempt to feed them – which includes leaving your dog at home!
If the animal does go for a fish on your line – let them have it – and your rod too, if need be. You’re not going to reel in an alligator, and you wouldn’t much want to!
Not so much of a problem when you’re in your kayak, it’s getting in and out of the boat that these critters can be troublesome.
Wear appropriate footwear and shuffle your feet to scare off rays. If you’re particularly concerned about jellyfish, you can purchase sting protection for your skin.
Yes, otters and beavers can attack! They have a nasty bite to them, too.
They won’t usually charge unless they feel threatened, and beavers will warn you with an aggressive tail slap.
You can do the same thing right back, and slap the water with your paddle to deter them from coming closer. The same technique will also work with an otter.
Avoid kayaking during breeding/mating seasons, or at least stay away from such locations.
As for the marlin, or incidents like it, I have to say I’d probably err on the side of caution and give up the fight – so that’s what I’m going to recommend here.
That said, you never know what you would do (or what you’re capable of) in such a situation.
In this case, the angler in question fought the critter for six hours and won. But it could easily have been a very different story…
I’m sure there’s all been a point in our lives when we’ve been less than truthful regarding our own physical capabilities.
And when it comes to paddling – and kayak angling in particular – fatigue and exhaustion can be a significant danger when we’re out on the water.
Just because you have the strength and energy to paddle to one destination, doesn’t necessarily mean you have the strength and energy to paddle back.
Know your limitations – and be honest about them.
You should be in reasonable physical condition to go kayaking in the first place, as even with an awesome pedal kayak like the Hobie Mirage Pro, or the Old Town Sportsman PDL, you can still get tired eventually.
And don’t forget – they’re heavy kayaks, which can cause fatigue on its own. You might like to take a look at this article on the most lightweight kayaks if you’re concerned about getting to and from the water.
Other Water Users
Kayaks are small craft with a low profile. They sit low in the water, and can be difficult to see from larger boats.
Fishing near shipping lanes, or in areas of extensive water traffic, can be incredibly dangerous, and boat-on-boat accidents can happen all the time.
And much like driving a vehicle, you can account for your own skill and road sense, but not of the skill and road sense from others around you.
Water users can be reckless, and risk other people’s lives as much as they’re risking their own.
If you’re fishing somewhere with a lot of boat traffic, you need to make sure both you and your kayak are as visible as possible.
This is where brightly colored fishing kayaks are the safest option – something like the Jackson Bite, for example.
Failing that, wear bold, bright clothing, and I highly recommend using a kayak safety flag in such situations.
Alternatively, you can keep yourself out of harm’s way by avoiding such areas entirely, and stick to fishing quieter backwaters and sleepy rivers.
Even with the best preparations in the world, and the best gear available, equipment failure can still occur.
Your kayak might get damaged and spring a leak, your GPS might die, a paddle might break, or any number of unforeseen incidents that literally can put you up shit creek without a paddle.
And I certainly wouldn’t want that to happen if I was miles offshore in open water.
Thorough, regular maintenance is key to preventing your gear from giving out on you in the heat of the moment, and is the number one way to prevent equipment failing.
Double-check your gear the night before you leave. Make sure batteries are fully charged, rods and reels are all in working order, and any other important items that are necessary for a safe and successful trip.
I highly recommend purchasing a stowable, emergency paddle, and be sure to use a good paddle leash to prevent your main one from floating off.
Dealing With Emergencies
Accidents can and do happen, and even if you’re fully prepared, certain situations might be unavoidable.
A rogue wave, a sudden change in the weather, unpredictable animal behavior, and human error are some examples of things that can be beyond our control, and change in a heartbeat.
While prevention is better than cure, understanding how to deal with certain emergencies will give you a fighting chance.
The following guide outlines some basic techniques for dealing with the fallout to some of the more dangerous kayak fishing risks.
Disclaimer – please note that I am in no way a medical professional, and while I do hold paddle safety certificates, and have been trained in first aid, I would encourage you to research further if you’re concerned with a particular emergency situation.
Calling for Help
Your number one priority in an emergency situation is to not become a casualty yourself.
The second priority is to call for help – and it’s important you have the means to do so.
That means ensuring your mobile phone has been fully charged up the night before your trip.
I’d also highly recommend that you never paddle without a waterproof VHF radio – especially if you’re kayaking offshore, paddling solo, and/ or going further afield.
And don’t forget to learn how to use it, and who to contact depending on the situation.
Learning how to self-rescue is vitally important when it comes to all types of kayaking.
But it’s especially important for kayak anglers, given the increase in the number of variables that can lead to capsizing.
Watch the video below, which will give you an excellent visual demonstration of how to self-rescue in a fishing kayak successfully.
If you’re caught out in the open, and can’t reach a safe and sheltered spot – for whatever reason – you need to do the following:
- Don’t bunch up – stay at least 100 feet away for anyone in your group.
- Don’t touch your paddle or the water.
- Insulate yourself from the boat – try to limit touchpoints.
For more information, read this excellent article on kayaking and lightning safety from the San Diego Kayak Club.
Drowning and CPR
It’s possible to write pages and pages regarding correct victim management when it comes to kayaking, drowning, and CPR procedures.
But my number one piece of advice would be that you are at least trained in the basics. Everyone should know how to do this in this day and age.
Take a first aid course – one that’s geared towards kayaking and/or kayak fishing.
You can start by watching the excellent video below, which is just as applicable to kayak angling as it is to whitewater.
Dealing with Hypothermia
If you or someone in your party is at risk from hypothermia/cold water shock, follow the steps below.
- Remove the victim from the cold. If going indoors isn’t an option, insulate them from the ground, and keep them protected.
- Remove wet clothing – but be gentle.
- Cloth the victim with dry clothes/blankets – this is why you always bring a spare set.
- Begin to warm the victim – but gradually – and not on the arms and legs. Apply a warm compress to the neck, chest, or groin area. Going too fast is just as dangerous as going too slow.
- Get the victim medical attention as soon as possible.
For more information, read these articles on cold water preparedness from the Recreational Canoeing Association of British Columbia.
Is kayak fishing dangerous?
It certainly can be without the right safety gear, proper equipment, planning, and knowledge before venturing out.
But armed with the tips contained in this article, you should have a safe and successful kayak fishing adventure – like the millions of trips that happen safely each year.
Feel free to share your experience with the community, and any advice you might have that we might have missed.
As always, stay safe out there, tight lines, and happy kayak fishing!