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KY Afield Outdoors: Choosing the right kayak

By: Lee McClellan

FRANKFORT, Ky. - The first time I fished a stream out of a kayak, you may have heard the oaths I swore in Tennessee. It was a short, cockpit or sit-in style kayak. I had a hard time controlling its tippy tendencies.

After an hour or so, my back began to hurt trying to keep the boat in position to properly fish. I had little room to stow my rod and tackle. I eventually bought a personal pontoon boat for my stream fishing, forsaking a kayak because of this bad experience.

It wasn't the kayak's fault, however. It was mine. I was unaware of the differences in styles of kayaks.

I fished that day in a whitewater performance kayak, designed for quick maneuverability in intense situations such as fast water and strong currents. They are not for fishing. Fishing from one is like complaining about the difficulty of bass fishing from a cuddy cabin style boat.

The summer-like winds now blowing across Kentucky inspire thoughts of paddling a clear, cool stream. Many see kayaks strapped to the tops of vehicles or poking out the end of a pickup bed at this time of year, stirring a fever to finally buy their own kayak.

"The first question I ask is, 'Where are you going to paddle 51 percent of the time,'" said Nathan Depenbrock, co-owner of Canoe Kentucky, a canoe livery and retail shop along the banks of central Kentucky's famed Elkhorn Creek. "Do they plan to paddle flatwater on small lakes, moving water on streams, white water or just occasionally paddle with their family?"

Depenbrock then asks the potential buyer what they plan to do with the boat. Do they want mainly to fish, simple cruising, photography, birding or challenge rapids?

"They must also demo, or test drive, the boat before buying," he said. "They need to get in it and kick the tires. It is just like buying a car. And, just like vehicles, there are different grades of quality. You get what you pay for when buying a kayak."

For those who mainly plan to fish, a sit-on-top design is hard to beat. "We preach that comfort is the biggest thing for your boat," Depenbrock said. "You want your day of fishing to end when the fish quit biting, not because your back hurts."

Depenbrock suggests sit-on-top kayaks not only offer great comfort, but the most safety. "They are the most stable boats and the easiest to get in and out of," he said. "They are also easy to accessorize for fishing. They work well for just simple cruising, too."

Boat length is another important factor to consider. "In Kentucky, a 12-foot model is the one magical length, the single universal length," Depenbrock said. "An 11-foot model offers a little more maneuverability, but it is not as good as a 12-foot model."

Depenbrock said a 10-foot long kayak is not a good choice for an average adult. "That length boat is really unstable for a fully grown adult," he said. "They are okay for children, but you are better off with at least an 11-foot kayak."

A 13- or 14-foot kayak works well for slackwater paddling, but doesn't have the maneuverability to tackle flowing water. They are much harder to get onto the roof rack of a vehicle and too long to put in the bed of a pick-up, Depenbrock said.

The choice of paddle is important as well. Don't buy a nice kayak and then buy a cheap, poor performing paddle. "It is like buying a Corvette and putting retread tires on it," Depenbrock said. "Your paddle is as important as your boat. It is the engine of your boat. You need the appropriate blade style and must consider the material the paddle is made of."

Depenbrock said the more rigidity and less weight in a paddle, the better. A rigid paddle is more efficient while a lighter paddle is less tiring. "You are going to make a few thousand strokes in a day, so efficiency is extremely important," he said.

He also recommends getting a kayak with bright blades for those who plan to paddle where power boats operate.

"Kayaks become awfully little where there are power boats, they can easily get lost in the waves," Depenbrock said. "I would also recommend a flag for paddling in areas where power boats operate."

Kayakers should always wear a lifejacket or personal floatation device (PFD). "You must choose the right boat, paddle and lifejacket," Depenbrock said. "I much prefer a traditional lifejacket for anglers with foam floatation and a horse collar that holds your head up. With the inflatable belt packs, you have to slip it over your head after it inflates and that may be impossible in some situations."

Specially designed lifejackets for kayak anglers make a great choice. They keep you cool, have nice fold out pockets to hold a bag of soft plastic lures, hooks, pliers, jigs and other gear and still provide excellent floatation.

Don't do like I did and try to fish from a whitewater kayak. Select the proper boat, paddle and lifejacket. Years of great fishing and memories awaits you.


Author Lee McClellan is a nationally award-winning associate editor for Kentucky Afield magazine, the official publication of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. He is a life-long hunter and angler, with a passion for smallmouth bass fishing.


This story was posted on 2015-05-14 15:16:42
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KY Afield Outdoors: Kayaks for Fishing



2015-05-14 - Elkhorn Creek - Photo by Lee McClellan. Tim Slone, director of the information and education division of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, holds a smallmouth bass caught last week from central Kentucky's Elkhorn Creek while fishing from a sit-on-top kayak. This kayak style is the best choice for fishing a wide variety of waters ranging from small lakes to flowing rivers.
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