The Best Fishing Kayak For Every Scenario
There is no “perfect” fishing kayak that can do everything at its best. Let’s get that out of the way first. There is a best fishing kayak for each scenario and many that are very versatile. This article will be dedicated to which specs and features are best in certain scenarios and which kayaks are the most versatile across “disciplines”.
In order to help us sort through the myriad options available, we sat down with Jeff “Chap” Chappell at Bucks Island Marine in Southside, AL. Chap isn’t just an ardent angler and hunter, he’s also the resident expert on all things paddlecraft at Bucks Island, and he spends his days doing whatever it takes to make sure fishermen leave with the perfect kayak for the kind of fishing they do.
At one time, not so very long ago, choosing the best fishing kayak was easy. There just weren’t too many kayaks suitable for full-time fishing available, so someone who wanted to get into the kayak fishing game had to take what was available.
Best Pedal Fishing Kayak
When most people think “fishing kayak” they automatically think “pedal drive.” According to Chap, this is largely due to the prevalence of pedal drive boats among tournament fishermen.
“It’s easier to pedal a kayak than it is to paddle one if you’re new to it,” Chap says. “Especially if you’re looking to cover a lot of water, and to get there a little quicker, then you definitely need a pedal-driven kayak. They’re especially popular with tournament fishermen because with a tournament, you may all be putting in at one boat ramp. There may be 30 other people there that you’re trying to get away from. The paddle guys are mostly going to stay within a couple of hundred yards of the boat ramp, but the pedal guys can get out there a mile or more and still have time to fish and make it back before lines-in.”
Chap’s best-selling pedal-driven boats are powered by either Hobie’s Mirage Drive or Jackson Kayak’s Flex Drive. Both are solid, trusted performers used extensively by recreational and professional kayakers, but they have some key differences. Jackson’s Flex Drive system is a prop-driven system, while Hobie’s Mirage Drive uses a unique fin design to propel the boat. Prop drives, according to popular consensus, generally have a slight upper-hand when it comes to the ability to quickly put the boat into reverse, which can be handy when applying pressure to big fish or when maneuvering in tight quarters. Fin drives, on the other hand, usually get the nod if ultra-shallow and weedy waterways are common where you fish.
Recent advances in technology in each system have reduced comparative differences, however. Both systems are easier to operate, more robust, faster, and shallower-drafting than ever before. Which system you go with is largely a matter of personal preference, which is why Chap encourages potential buyers to demo a few boats before they decide on a pedal-driven system.
“We have a little test pond behind the store,” says Chap. “If you’re really looking into a kayak, all you have to do is call and ask for me and we will put you in the water. There’s not a kayak in the store that I won’t let somebody demo. I don’t want somebody in a boat they haven’t driven. I want to put them in something that’s safe for them, that’s comfortable for them, and that’s something that they’ll enjoy. I don’t want to see that kayak listed cheap on Craigslist next spring because they bought something that they don’t ever use.”
Best River/Creek Fishing Kayak
While pedal driven systems are king when it comes to quickly cruising large lakes, bays, and rivers, Chap advises anglers not to assume that they have to jump into a pedal-driven system. Traditional paddle boats still have a place.
“If you’re just fishing the local creek or grandaddy’s pond, or if you’re fishing the local Wednesday night tournaments…you don’t necessarily need to rush out and spring for a fully-loaded Hobie Pro Angler” he says. “And even myself, I tournament fish too. But I’ve always been a pretty simple angler. If I’m not going a long way in swift current, I’ll go in a paddled boat. Especially if you’re the type of fisherman to get back in the creeks and drag your boat over rocks and logs…you don’t need a pedal drive.”
Chap continues, “The Jackson Coosa X and the Jackson Bite Angler are both good paddle boats for that type of fishing. They’re on the smaller side, so they’re good creek boats. They’re also not terribly expensive. Hobie also makes a really neat little boat called the Lynx. It looks almost like a stand-up paddleboard, and it only weighs 47lbs. I think it’s one of the neatest little boats on the market right now.”
Best Fishing Kayak For Big Guys
When customers call Chap and tell them they’re interested in a new kayak, he says he generally starts the conversation with a few key questions.
“First of all, the question is, of course, “What’s your budget?” The next is, “Do you have to have a pedal drive?” After that, generally, the question is, “Just how big of a boy are you?” Chap chuckles.”
Stability is an important feature for any kayak, but it becomes especially important for big and tall fishermen. Chap understands this, since he’s a big guy himself.
“I’m 6’5” and 325lbs,” says Chap.” And I’ve fished out of a Jackson Big Rig for my whole life, as well as a Hobie Pro Angler 14. It’s going to be hard for somebody to be too big for those boats. They’re very stable. Back when I was younger, there were days when I’d have a Yeti 35 on one of those boats and I’d stand up there and sight-fish. Or I’d get out in the river and throw a cast net for shad and fish for stripers.”
Best Ocean Fishing Kayak
What about saltwater anglers? What’s the best option for surf fishing or cruising long distances out to oil rigs and other offshore structure?
“A lot of guys really like the Jackson Big Tunas,” advises Chap. “I know guys who take those offshore to the oil rigs, and they’ve been doing it for years. Another good one is the Jackson Knarr. Those are big, long, heavy boats. They’re going to cut through waves and handle big, rough water a lot better than a boat that’s made for shallow water.”
Best Kayak For Fly Fishing
Fly fishing has skyrocketed in popularity in recent years, especially among younger anglers. In a recent episode of the Alabama Freshwater Fishing Report, I had a chance to discuss this phenomenon with Bob Mallard of Native Fish Coalition. Fly anglers are often especially motivated by the beauty and solitude that remote waterways provide, and kayaks are increasingly being designed to cater to fly fishermen who want a quieter way to access fisheries than with an outboard.
“Two boats come to mind when I think fly fishing,” Chap says. “If you’ve got a lot of line piled in the bottom of the boat, something like the Jackson Take Two is nice. You’re not going to get tangled in that thing! And the Big Rig that they’re coming out with this year, it actually has cutouts to put a fly rod in. And if you’re standing up a lot and casting, I personally don’t think that there’s a more stable boat on the market than a Jackson Big Rig.”
Best Bass Fishing Kayak
While panfish, catfish, and even “trash” fish such as bowfin and pickerel have grown in popularity in recent years, bass are still America’s #1 freshwater game fish. Bass fishing is fishing to millions of anglers. Bass fishing equipment has become increasingly sophisticated and expensive over the years, and this is especially true with bass boats. Bass fishing kayaks are cheaper than power boats, but the sky can be the limit if you want “all the fixin’s” on your bassin’ machine.
“My boss here, he has a Hobie Pro Angler 14 with Livescope, a mini Power Pole, and a spot lock trolling motor. He’s probably got $17,000 in that boat,” Chap confides. “And I’ve seen people build rigs that cost more than that.”
While a number like that can make your eyes water, it’s a steal of a deal compared to outfitting a “glitter boat” with similar technology. Boat prices have skyrocketed in recent years, making kayaks a better deal than they’ve ever been before.
“I was in the market for a boat several years ago,” reveals Chap. “Long story short, I priced one, had something come up, and went back later to get another quote. The boat I was looking at had gone up $12,000 from 2018-2022.”
Best Fishing Kayak under $1,000
As good of a deal as kayaks may be, a lot of anglers (myself included) just don’t have the cash to drop on a high-end model like a Big Rig or Pro Angler. What about guys on a budget?
“You don’t have to take out a second mortgage to buy a fishing kayak,” Chap emphasized in our interview. “If you just want to hit the water for the afternoon with a rod and a tackle box, simpler is better. You don’t really want to go too cheap and get something like a Walmart boat, because you’ll run into stability issues. But you don’t have to spend big money. Something like a Jackson Bite; you can get into that pretty cheaply. And it will fish just fine. I’ve talked a few customers out of something like a big, Hobie Pro Angler 14 360, you know. A top-of-the-line boat. Because when I talked with them, all they were doing was fishing in grandpa’s pond. And they walked out of my store with that little Bite, and next thing you know their friends were coming in for one too. They liked it that much.”
Final Thoughts On The Best Fishing Kayak
As we wrapped up our interview, Chap stressed again what we had discussed at the beginning of our talk, the need to “try before you buy.”
“I think of myself not so much as a salesperson as an outfitter,” he said. “My number one goal is to put people in a boat that they like, that will be safe, and that will get used. I had a guy come in here last year, and he was 78 years old. He’d just had both of his knees replaced. And he had a boat that he knew he wanted to buy, but before he did he wanted to make sure his rod and his tackle box would fit and that he could fish out of it. And he spent an hour paddling around and fishing. And I’m glad he did. With customers like that, I didn’t just sell them a boat. I made a friend. People like that, they show up two years later with pictures of big fish they’ve caught out of a boat, and that’s why I’m here doing this.”