Navy Lt. Chad Hoover fishes from a Wilderness Systems Commander kayak in a private lake in Virginia. (James J. Lee / Staff)
Ocean Kayak Trident 15 Angler (Ocean Kayak)
Freedom Hawk 12 (Freedom Hawk Kayaks)
Hobie Mirage Pro Angler (Hobie)
Hobie Mirage Oasis Tandem (Hobie)
Paddlin’ old school
No fish is safe. Today's fishing kayaks turn secluded lagoons and previously inaccessible, shallow backwaters into prime hunting grounds for anglers wanting to boldly go where no one has fished before.
On the other end of the spectrum, even the blue waters of the Gulf Stream can be a playground for the adventurous kayaker.
Ric Burnley is a saltwater kayak-fishing fan who loves engaging fish on a more level playing field, especially in big water.
"Not only are you more in touch with the water and the wind and the waves, but you're in touch with the fish. When you hook a fish in a kayak, you're at your victim's mercy," says Burnley, the regional editor for SaltWater Sportsman magazine and editor of http://www.fishcrazy.info/">www.fishcrazy.info.
"I was with a friend when a bluefin pulled him over two miles in a 90-minute fight," Burnley says. "Then to land the fish, you don't use a net or a gaff or a gripper. No, you reach into the fish's face, grab it by the mouth and wrestle it into the kayak. It's totally Neanderthal!
"Almost any fish will pull you around, and a big fish will pull you where it wants go," he added. "I've had big striper pull me into pilings, bull drum pull me into breaking waves, black drum pull me into rocks, and blackfin tuna pull me into three other kayaks. I've even had big bluefin tuna pull me backwards!"
In "backcountry" saltwater, kayaks can slip stealthily into the skinniest flats, maneuvering through just a few inches of water. On the freshwater side, any pond, lake, navigable stream or river (whitewater not recommended) lends itself to kayak fishing.
That said, this is the age of specialization, and choices abound, with kayaks designed for all kinds of fishing scenarios.
Many people think of kayaks in terms of the "sit-in," enclosed versions, but "sit-on-top" kayaks dominate the fishing market.
Accessing and using fishing gear is better in a sit-on version. Plus, they're easier to get in and out of, especially if you spill. Exiting in shallow waters for wade fishing is also less complicated.
Burnley calls sit-on-top kayaks "idiot-proof," mainly for their stability, safety and adaptability.
The Hobie Cat Co. makes fishing kayaks for all types of water. The Mirage series uses a pedal system — including optional, faster "turbo fins" — to propel the craft and free up hands for fishing.
Hobie's Ingrid Niehaus says consumers should consider storage capability, speed, comfort, stability and accessorizing options when choosing a fishing kayak.
Shorter, wider boats may be excellent in places where the water is shallow and distance paddling isn't required. While an 11-foot kayak may be great in easy water, Burnley says anglers hoping to fish water typical of the mid-Atlantic should seek a seaworthy boat between 13 and 15 feet long that can cut through waves and cover distance. Stainless-steel hardware will help prevent rust.
A look at some self-bailing fishing kayaks:
Ocean Kayak Trident series
Part of the Johnson Outdoors lineup of products, Ocean Kayak's Trident series features crafts from 11˝ to 15 feet constructed of linear, medium-density polyethylene. The Trident 11 kayak is 11˝ feet long, weighs 54 pounds, is 30˝ inches wide and can carry up to 400 pounds. Like the Hobie Outback, it's good for anglers looking for stability and maneuverability. It has a bow hatch, two rod holders, a large tank well and a high-backed Comfort Tech seat, among other features.
The Trident 15 Angler is a lengthy 15 feet, 7 inches and 29 inches wide. Similarly configured as the shorter model, it weighs 60 pounds and can carry 550 pounds.
• Prices: Trident 11 Angler: $959; Trident 15 Angler: $1,179. Both are available in camouflage for an additional charge. Equipping with a rudder costs about $250 extra. http://www.oceankayak.com">www.oceankayak.com
Freedom Hawk 12 and 14
One of the knocks on kayak fishing is that you're very close to the waterline. This makes spotting fish and then sight-casting, even with polarized sunglasses, difficult.
These kayaks are ingeniously designed with integrated outriggers. Pulling two levers on either side of the hull opens the rear of the kayak, increasing stability and offering stand-up fishing with push-pole propulsion possible.
The 12-foot Freedom 12 weighs 72 pounds — 54 pounds with outriggers removed — which also makes for easier transport. It's rated to carry 250 to 275 pounds.
The Freedom 14 measures 10˝ feet with the 4-foot outriggers removed. It weighs 79 pounds fully assembled and is rated to carry 400 pounds. It comes standard with casting brace, padded high-back seat, two flush-mount rod holders, adjustable foot braces, anchor boom and paddle holder.
Freedom Hawk offers a 20 percent military discount. Contact the manufacturer for details.
Lifetime Sport Fisher
The minimal-frills, 10-foot Sport Fisher is a stable 36 inches wide. It weighs 55 pounds and can carry 450 pounds. It can be set up for solo or tandem use and includes one padded backrest and a 6-inch storage hatch. It's designed for easy customizing with other accessories. A tunnel hull design and an upswept bow help it roll through swells and surf, but where it should shine is in fishing small lakes or ponds, calm creeks or gently flowing rivers.
• Price: At about $500, it's a good choice for the infrequent angler tackling easy water.
Hobie Mirage series
The 13-foot, 8-inch Pro Angler, with its squared stern, is 38 inches wide and weighs 88 pounds. Stability and its 600-pound carrying capacity are its hallmarks. It's a best bet if you're a little hefty and working mostly placid water with shorter travel distances. It has a cutting board, six-rod horizontal storage area, large "cool ride" seat, a spacious front hatch and more.
The new Oasis Tandem is a sleeker 14˝ feet long and 33 inches wide, offering the best compromise between stability and drag, according to Niehaus. Weighing 69 pounds, this two-person kayak has four storage hatches, cup and rod holders and more. It can carry 550 pounds.
Tandem kayaks operate best with two people. Anglers fishing solo would need to sit in the rear and ballast the front.
The Outback is a maneuverable 12 feet, 1 inch long and a stable 33 inches wide. It weighs 66 pounds, and it's rated to carry 400 pounds.
The Revolution, at 13 feet, 5 inches long and 28˝ inches wide, requires a little more skill at staying upright, but it'll cruise more quickly. It weighs 59 pounds and can carry up to 350 pounds.
The Hobie crafts, except for the Pro Angler, all have high-backed, padded seats with inflatable lumbar support.
Hurricane Phoenix 140
While most kayaks are crafted from roto-molded polyethylene, Hurricane kayaks are "thermo-formed" from a material they call Trylon, which is lighter and more rigid with a high-luster look that fools some into thinking they're looking at fiberglass. The material is touted to glide easily in the water.
At 14 feet long and 28 inches wide, the Phoenix 140 weighs just 54 pounds and is rated to carry 325 pounds. It is sleek, but sleek can be unforgiving for novices. It's designed for coastal waters, lakes and rivers, and has bow and stern hatches. An optional fishing package is available.
Ken Perrotte is a Military Times outdoors writer.