When I think of fishing, there are two main ways I can go: from shore or from a watercraft.
I grew up shore fishing and always wondered about what lay beyond the reaches of my cast. I had heard stories of the bigger fish and different species that frequented the deeper water, but how could I reach them? I was 16 years old at the time, living in southern California, catching corbina, croakers, perch and halibut from shore. It was (and still is) a blast, but I wanted to catch new and larger species. I knew I had to figure out how to get out there, beyond the breakers, to the kelp beds, where the larger fish lived.
One Saturday morning, I set out off Encinitas on my longboard with a handful of rubber swimbaits and lead heads, one rod, and some pliers. As I looked back towards shore, I could hear the buzzing of cars on coast highway 101 and people enjoying a sunny day on the beach. I was in a serene environment, and the peacefulness of being far away from shore began sinking in. I paddled my surfboard with the rod clenched between my teeth, keeping my reel out of the water, and a zip lock bag with my lures and pliers stuffed in my boardshort pockets. I reached the front edge of the kelp and for the first time got to see a unique and incredibly rich new world that would become my playground for years to come.
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I began to paddle my way through the gaps in the thick vegetation and it didn’t take long before I spotted a few fluttering smelt on the surface. Watching the activity, I suddenly noticed a large swoosh, as a fish came up and ate one of the baitfish. My heart started racing as I scrambled to ready myself and make a cast. I tossed my lure towards the boil and started retrieving. I could feel the beat of the swimbait as I worked it back towards my board, when suddenly, I felt a hard thump. I set the hook and knew I had hooked into a hefty fish. My 10lb test was straining as I fought against headshakes and tried to keep pressure on the fish. I was getting pulled by the fish amongst the kelp and trying to keep my balance. My cheap reel was seizing up thanks to its low-quality parts and the saltwater bath it had just endured while I paddled out through the surf. Adrenaline pumping, I got the fish close enough to see its checkerboard brown and yellow pattern. I lipped the fish and held up my first calico bass. Little did I know that this calico bass would ignite a passion that still drives me today.
Enter the kayak! A platform I could launch through the surf and get out to the kelp beds in a timely and efficient manner, plus it had a seat, storage for more gear, and a place to keep my catch. Buying my first kayak was a big purchase for me. I had saved up $600 working at a local tackle store, enough to afford a blem model Cobra Fish ‘n Dive, one of the most popular fishing kayaks at the time. My dad and uncle drove down to mission bay with me and the 3 of us each picked one up. These kayaks would become the catalyst to hundreds of hours of family fun fishing trips all over SoCal and the Baja peninsula.
A few months into it, we had built bait tanks out of 5-gallon buckets and rigged Scotty rod holders for trolling. A basic milk crate held our gear behind us and my hand made PVC gaff was there in case I hooked into something big. In the summer of 2001, we decided to try our luck at a spot we’d never fished before called La Jolla. The plan was to catch mackerel and troll them around for big fish. I ended up hooking up and going on my first ever “sleigh ride”, catching my first yellowtail from the kayak that day. The experience of catching that fish gave me great satisfaction. I had completed a goal I had set out to achieve over a year earlier, and best of all, every reason I caught that fish was because of decisions I made. I had gotten myself out to the spot, caught my own bait, and landed this beautiful fish solely due to the decisions I made that day as the “captain” of my own human-powered plastic vessel. The kayak gave me a sense of independence to fish any body of water, fresh or salt, as long as there was a place to launch. I could cover long distance against wind or current and stealthily sneak up on the fish which I believe increased my catch rate substantially. It didn’t cost me anything to kayak fish, aside from the fuel I burned in my vehicle getting me to the launch spot and back home again. Over my late teens and early twenties, that kayak paid for itself many times over.
Fast forward to today, and I’m still kayak fishing. I’ve caught all sorts of species all over the world. Kayaks excel in just about any environment where fish live and give you access to get after them. Kayak designs, propulsion systems, accessories, and the gear we use, have all evolved to make this one of the most popular ways to fish.
There are plenty of options out there with specific models designed for different fishing styles and environments. At one stage I owned 3 different kayaks, each rigged and used for different fisheries: lake fishing, quick before or after work surf launching, and all-day trips to La Jolla. Kayaks are like fishing rods, you can use one to do almost everything, but you’ll also find certain models that are designed specifically for certain waters and fishing styles. If you are looking for one to do it all, there are many kayaks in the 12-14 ft range that work great. Most manufacturers will offer several options in this size range. Other things to consider are stability, speed, and the ability to stand up and cast.
What about a float tube? They’re great, but they have limitations because they’re slow, are tough to use in wind, don’t have much storage, and you sit in water all day which is just not comparable to the comforts available on kayaks today. If you’re worried about weight, there some incredible inflatable kayaks, or use a cart for portaging regular or heavier models. Most kayaks are designed to load and offload from your vehicle with a technique that won’t break your back. The bed of a pickup truck or a trailer work great as well for anglers who like to leave their kayak rigged and ready to go. One thing is for sure, nothing beats a kayak in the human powered category, and you have endless options for adding accessories that help you catch more fish. Electric motors and trolling motors are popular on kayaks today, but before you go the motor route make sure to try one with a pedal system out.
Pedal or paddle? My answer: Whatever you can afford that gets you out there on the water, but if you can float the bill for a top-of-the-line pedal kayak, your experiences and comfort are going to be so much better. Personally, I feel like I am limiting myself when fishing from a paddle kayak because I fish so much more efficiently from a vessel I propel with my legs, leaving my hands free to cast and catch more fish. Trust me, I fished from paddle kayaks for many years, and pedals drive systems have so many advantages I could write a full article on just that. Lastly, remember that the barrier to entry to kayak fishing is low compared to buying a boat, and the good brands hold their value and you can sell them years down the line for a great price. Do the math on the time and enjoyment the kayak brings you versus how much you bought and sold it for, and you’ll find that there’s no better way to win as an angler.
I hope this article will inspire you to try kayak fishing. It changed my life in so may good ways and gave me access to all the fishable lakes and coastline where I live. Do yourself a favor and look up your local kayak store. Pay them a visit and demo some kayaks to find the right one for you. Keep it minimal or rig it to the hilt with your favorite accessories. I can assure you some good healthy exercise and an enriching experience you’ll enjoy for life.
Be safe out there and remember that no fish is worth more than your life, so please always wear a PFD and always fish with a buddy.