Kayak Fishing Tips - How To Be Safe On The Water

Kayak fishing has been getting ever more popular in recent years, but did you know that it's nothing new? In fact, kayaks have been around for centuries, millennia even, and their original purpose - apart from transport - was for fishing.

Obviously, kayaks have evolved somewhat since their inception in the Arctic. Fishing gear has changed too. Nowadays, a fishing kayak comes with mounts for your gear, such as anchor trolleys and rod holders and fish finder mounts. It is infinitely more complicated than simply dropping a line in and waiting for a bite.

Still, it's much cheaper and more accessible than, say, buying a fishing trawler. You can get started for just a few $100 if you're lucky and get all second-hand gear - otherwise, a brand new kayak fit for fishing will set you back around $500-1000, along with gear.

man kayak fishing in lily pads in yellow kayak

It's a great pastime, and a lot of people take it very seriously. Here I'm going to give you some tips to get you started kayak fishing, and hopefully, answer many of your questions. If you want help with how to choose a kayak click here.

I think it would be great if you could go out on your first couple of trips with an experienced kayak angler, you'll pick up a lot more and get some local knowledge too. If you can't, so long as you follow the safety guidelines I've set out and use some common sense then you should have a productive and safe fishing trip regardless.

Kayak Fishing Tips

Kayak fishing can be broken down into saltwater and freshwater fishing, and that can be further broken down as follows:

Saltwater

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    Coastal/inshore waters- this is any water that is close to the coast, including estuaries, limited to a depth of about 70-feet.
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    Offshore waters- this is any water further off the coast with a depth of greater than 70-feet

For coastal waters, a SOTK may be perfectly sufficient, but use your head when deciding whether it is safe to go out. Big swell, tidal currents, and adverse weather will affect your ability not only to fish, but to paddle safely and effectively at all.

In deeper waters, and rougher conditions, a sit-in kayak may be preferred because you can use a spray deck and so stay drier and more comfortable, but be aware that this will restrict your movement quite significantly which is a hindrance for fishing. For this reason, many anglers opt for a SOTK regardless.

The sit-on-top kayak type has the advantage of being almost unsinkable (only almost, so don't push it) and easy to get back on to if you are thrown off or if it capsizes. However, as I said, it has the disadvantage of exposing you to the elements, and they tend to have less stability in steep waves and rougher water. To be honest, I wouldn't be too comfortable fishing in rougher water and prefer calm seas for kayak fishing.

sunset over the sea

Freshwater

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    Stillwater - such as lakes and ponds
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    Moving waters - rivers, natch.

Some rivers can be closer to still water than moving water, but I don't know if a lake can be moving water... I mean, lakes usually stay in one place, more or less. For moving water, your kayak needs better stability and should be manoeuvrable enough to handle currents. You may also need an anchor if you intend to fish, especially in windier conditions.

Fishing on still water, such as a lake, can be done from almost any kayak provided the conditions are good. Unless you are on one of the great lakes and intend to paddle a long distance, even a recreational sit-on-top kayak will probably be sufficient for your needs.

Water conditions

It's a good idea to be conversant with the conditions in the waters you want to fish - tides, reefs, currents are all things you will be happy to know before you find out in the field. The other things you will pick up on by asking a local would be the species you can expect to find in the area and any known hotspots as well as what bait and lures might be working at the moment.

You should also be able to use your own observations to judge whether it is safe to go out on the water - is the river in spate? Is it blowing a gale? Is there a shark warning in the bay?

I'm going to break the rest of my worldly advice into categories - equipment, safety and catch care. But before I leave you to read on, my big tip is to practise angling and kayaking separately. It is really good to have some experience at both before trying to combine to two skills - if you start both from zero at the same time, it will take you longer to become proficient at either and ultimately you'll struggle. Perhaps when the conditions aren't great for kayaking on the sea, you could do some beach casting, and I'm sure if you put some thought into it you can find some time to go for a quick paddle without the rod!

Equipment

The essential, in my opinion, tools and equipment for kayak fishing are the following:

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    Tackle box
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    Dry clothes
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    First aid kit
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    Rod and reel
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    Bait
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    Multitool
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    Radio
fly fishing rod and reel

I mainly have experience with sea fishing where it is imperative that you have your safety systems in place, and that includes a radio. I'll get into all of that in the safety section.

Some of the above may surprise you, but other items are obvious. Tackle box, naturally - you would take this on any fishing trip, I suppose. However, my usual tackle box is a big, bulky, heavy thing with everything I need to make pretty much any rig or setup I can think of, and probably a good many that I can't. So for kayaking, it's good to have a well-organised, compact tackle box with a few essentials depending on what you're catching.

A tip I have is to make up several rigs on quick links so you can change or replace as necessary without having to tie many knots - cold fingers, see? A good way of storing your rigs is wrapped up around a length of foam pipe insulation. This keeps them from tangling.

The multitool is another space saver, rather than having a knife AND pliers AND scissors etc. A hook removal tool would still have its place in your tackle box, but the multitool is easily accessible.

As for the first aid kit, I don't expect you to be performing surgery out there, but something to cover up a scrape or a puncture wound will likely be appreciated by you at some point - have you never hooked yourself?

Fun story - when I was about 8 or 9 years old, I was fishing in some rock pools at the local beach. I had a treble hook on my line; it was a cheap seaside toy shop kit. Anyway, at some point, I tried to flick my bait into a pool, but I snagged something and heard a yelp behind me. I turned around, and lo! I had managed to stick my treble through a poor old man's nipple. Whoops!

Paddle

Make sure you have a decent lightweight paddle - you know why?

paddle aloft

The paddle, more so than your rod even, will be your number 1 piece of equipment on your kayak fishing trip. You'll probably be doing hundreds of strokes with it, compared with a few dozen casts of your rod.

If your paddle fails you'll be, what's that phrase? Up the creek without something, wasn't it? Never mind. You'll be screwed anyway, especially at sea or on a lake. Fancy a swim?

You can get paddles that are in three pieces - some of these are good, but I've had experiences where they fall apart, either from poor build quality or me not assembling them correctly. So be wary of that - what you can do is drill a hole in each part and link them together with some strong, lightweight line. There might be some in your tackle box....

The other thing to consider is that it ought to be lightweight enough not to leave you exhausted halfway through your journey, or too tired to use your rod. Even better is if you can manoeuvre with one hand, and fish with the other. This is a good skill to learn!

Remember, the paddle is one of the cheapest parts of your kayak rig, so you can afford to spend an extra $20 on it right?

And try to make sure you have a paddle leash or something - after investing all of that money in it, you don't want to drop it and watch it float away, do you?

Weigh anchor!

An anchor is a very useful piece of kit for an angler, especially in windy conditions. I always think of anchors as those massive anchor shaped things you seen on cartoons and often on the outskirts of a big port town, made into a modern art sculpture.

Obviously, a kayak only requires a small anchor, just a couple of pounds in weight, to keep it in place in most cases, because a kayak is so light. Be careful using an anchor in a river or a strong current - if the anchor keeps you in place, the current can overwhelm your boat, and you can come a cropper.

anchor on a boat

Dude, hold my rod

If you buy a dedicated fishing kayak, chances are that it comes with rod holders and rod rests as standard. But if you want to take your recreational SOTK out for a spot of angling, you will be well served by buying a couple of rod holders.

Rather than drilling into your kayak to secure them, you can use something like epoxy resin - it's a very strong, water-safe adhesive. Beware that when affixing mounts and other customisations to a sit-on-top kayak, you can compromise the integrity of the hull - even a mount that has been in place for years can suddenly start letting water into the sealed hull. This can have disastrous consequences, so be extra cautious!

Having a rod holder allows you to paddle freely and not worry about losing your gear, and you can also move around while your line is in the water.

Storage

Make sure you're properly organised before you head out. Know where your hook removal tool is, where your bait is, where your priest and game bag or coolbox is. And not only know where they are, but make sure you can reach them when you need them! There's nothing worse than having a fish on the hook, and having to let go of the rod in order to grab a piece of equipment.

What happens next?

Well, that wiley fish swims off with your tackle, doesn't it? Yes, indeedy. Bye bye rod.

Prevent this by having your stuff within easy reach.

To be honest, you can never have enough storage on a kayak when you're fishing. You can consider using a stringer if you're keeping your catch - that frees up the space that a cool box would otherwise take up, but beware sharks! And alligators.

Another option is to use a game bag with some frozen bottles of water in it - it takes up less space than a cooler and can be stuffed into a compartment somewhere until you need it.

If you have extra D rings, make the most of them by adding bungees and clips.

Say Cheese

gopro camera illustration

This is especially true if you are fishing for sport rather than to catch and keep - bring a camera.

But not just any old camera - you may or may not have had the experience of a big wave washing over your yak, and either spoiling or simply taking your phone away. But it happens!

The best way to deal with this is to have a waterproof case for your camera or smartphone and a mount of some kind. This will stop not only water damage but also prevent it from being lost overboard. AND it means that when you land your prize fish, you can get a photo straight away without searching for your camera.

Better than a cell phone is something like a GoPro - you can get specifically designed waterproof cases and sturdy mounts as well as a wireless remote to make capturing that footage even easier.

Bug Spray

This isn't essential, but there are some circumstances where you really, really wish you had some bug spray with you. Especially if you're fishing in the late afternoon going on into the evening when those horrible biters start coming out in force.

It can get so bad that you are willing to end your fishing trip early just to get some respite from their attacks.

An alternative to going home all blotchy is to use some reputable bug spray or insect repellant cream - keep it in your storage for when you might need it, you'll be grateful for it if you do.

Safety

They always say "dress to swim and rig to flip" - and I always think about dressing appropriate for the water temperature rather than the apparent weather, and you should always be prepared for the worst.

Being on a kayak, you are exposed to the elements entirely - you're basically on a desert made of liquid. I suppose sand is a fluid, actually - so there's basically no distinction. It's a desert. If you're at sea, you have no chance of finding drinking water. Okay, if you're on a river it's a very long, narrow desert, but nonetheless - be prepared. Here are some tips to keep you safe.

Secure everything

Use lanyards and bungees to keep everything in place, especially stuff you can't really do without. If you lose your paddle at sea, as I said, you're up a something or other without the thing essential for getting you out of that place. There's a better way of saying it, I'm sure, but I'm not very eloquent.

Make sure your essential safety stuff is kept in a dry bag and that the dry bag is properly waterproof! You don't want to need your radio to call for help (after losing your paddle and catching a current out to sea) only to find that it's sitting in a bag of seawater.

lightning storm over water

Weather

Wind means rougher water, which can cause you to capsize. It also means you can find it more difficult to make headway, especially in a SOTK or an inflatable kayak which tend to catch the wind nicely. So be wary of going out to sea in an offshore wind, for instance, and keep an eye on changing conditions.

Where I live you can see all four seasons in one afternoon - dazzling sunshine quickly changes to torrential rain, hail and snow and gale force winds. So never take the weather for granted.

With that in mind, I always have rain gear AND sunscreen. Sunscreen is an absolute must have - but if you notice, you'll often see kayak anglers covered up almost completely, including polarising sunglasses and a peaked hat. This is a good idea - you've no shade whatsoever on the water, so you'll be taking the full force of the sunshine the whole time you're out.

Don't forget the back of your neck!

Drinking

On a somewhat related note, take drinking water. You will get thirsty; it's hard work moving a kayak around for a few hours. It may be the last thing on your mind, after all - you're afloat in a body of water. Just keep in mind The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner - you know the one, water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink?

I don't want you to have to go all Bear Grylls with a seagull enema. Water or a sports drink is much nicer, and you can consume it the usual way.

people drinking water

Float Plan

Write up a float plan to leave with someone on land - someone who isn't going to forget about you until the day after tomorrow. Best left with a loved one or something like that.

It should include details of where you're going fishing, where you're launching from and where you intend to land, as well as intended timings. If you don't come back, the holder of the float plan can pass on all of the relevant information to the coast guard, and they've got a much better chance of discovering you.

Another hint, don't disregard everything in your float plan just because you found a really good spot - at least remember to tell your nominee about your change of plans unless you like the idea of wasting lifeboat resources!

Radio and other equipment

vhf-radio

You've got your obvious safety equipment - the water, the sunscreen, the PFD (in some areas it's mandatory to wear a flotation device, but not everywhere - nonetheless, you should definitely be wearing one; like a seatbelt, it might seem uncool until it saves your life).

Things you might not consider, but which aren't really overkill in all scenarios, are flares, VHF radio, paddle and rod leash, gloves, lamp or torch.

Flares!? Well, it isn't impossible for you to find yourself in trouble after dusk. A radio isn't a long shot at all - but remember, you may need a license to use one in some places.

I know, you could use your mobile phone - but with a VHF radio, you can directly contact other boats nearby if you're in need of assistance, as well as communicating with the coastguard. Mobile phones will also lose signal a few miles offshore whereas a VHF radio is more reliable in that regard.

Other Water Users

Mentioned above, other water users are a big risk to your safety. If you're in a high traffic area, make sure you are visible - this means a bright BRIGHT light, on a pole - or a flag in daylight. A speedboat may not see your tiny, piddly little craft over the swell, and they can be on top of you before you know what's going on. Even if you don't collide (heaven forbid), the wake can shake you up a treat.

Catch-care

Finally, catch care. Whether you're fishing to keep or to catch and return, you need to take care of your quarry.

Fighting a fish

Worth noting is that a small fish, just a few pounds, can happily tow you and your kayak around due to the kayak's small size. However, you can position your kayak such that the fish doesn't stand a chance, you are safer, and you don't have to work so hard: keep the line perpendicular to the kayak. Simple huh? That way if the fish wants to pull, it has to drag the length of your yak through the water rather than the narrow breadth.

landing a fish with a net

Handling a fish

Releasing a fish without incident is best, so if you plan to release your catch, please do so quickly and painlessly - remove the hook and place the fish back in the water. Don't throw it or drop it or hold it up using the line. It may take time to revive a fish, do this by moving them through the water which gets water passing through their gills, allowing them to "breathe".

If you must get a photo, avoid damaging the fish's gills, and be aware that some fish have sharp teeth. I would use a Boga grip or similar if you must hold the fish vertically, rather than dangling it from your tackle. Some fish may require support under the belly, or a gloved hand on the tail. And make sure to wear gloves, especially for certain species which are spiny.

If you plan to keep your fish, you should make sure you have the correct tools: a priest or billy club, to administer last rite (whack it) and a sharp knife to put through its gills to bleed it out. A good whack may be sufficient to kill it, but bleeding out your catch will keep the meat for longer.

A cool box or a game bag with some big blocks of ice, such as frozen water bottles, is best for storing your catch - but a burlap sack or something can keep them cool for a while if you keep it damp.

I hope this has been useful to you, as ever happy paddling and tight lines!