As I sit down to write this piece, I am miserably reminded by a persistent runny nose, sore throat and achy joints, that we are still in the middle of cold and flu season. I mean it is only early February after all. Still I wait patiently and persistently and like many others, in total defiance of that silly groundhog from Punxsutawney, for the cold snap to break. So that I, like hundreds, if not thousands of fellow anglers, can make our first, tentative seasonal excursions back to all of our favorite waterways of central Pennsylvania, especially the Susquehanna River. I know that a few diehards never really hung up their rods, lures and dry suits but for most, the cold snaps of the fall signal their final stand until the return of next spring's smallmouth bass bonanza.
How to Choose a Kayak for Fishing
Many anglers will return to favorite fishing holes. Some in power boats equipped with jets and outboards, others from the bank, but an increasing number of intrepid explorers will do so for the first time aboard kayaks. Those hardy souls will set out on their small plastic watercraft in the hopes of finding new water. You will see them out there in all shapes, sizes and colors, which brings me to my first tip. With so many different kayaks being offered to anglers looking for less expensive options to reach more fishable water, how does one choose the right kayak? Well the short answer is research and if you expect to get out on the water by this spring, there is no better time to start than now. Surf the internet, read as many articles as you can find, like this one, visit blogs, vlogs, watch video reviews on YouTube, even check out books on the subject at your local library. If you have the time, attend some outdoor shows, in fact, as I write this, The Great American Outdoor Show in Harrisburg just wrapped up. Smaller venues can also be great source of information and they host groups like Central PA Kayak Anglers and PA Kayak Fishing Association. I have found both organizations to be a great source of collective knowledge to tap into, and they are staffed by really friendly and approachable leadership staff.
Considerations of Selecting a Fishing Kayak
Once you have an idea of what type of kayak you are looking for, try them on the water. Typically this option will be available to you from a local specialty shop like Shank's Mare Outfitters in Wrightsville. Testing a kayak on the water is the only true way of knowing if a kayak is the one for you. Some considerations to help you find the right one are; capacity, length, width, comfort and deciding between a sit-inside vs a sit-on-top. A kayak's capacity rating will let you know how many pounds it can support and remain buoyant. So if you are a larger guy or gall, it would be safer to go with a higher capacity rating. Keep in mind that you will want to have extra buoyancy available to you in order to safely accommodate the added weight of tackle, gear, clothing and food. The length of a kayak will contribute directly to it's speed and tracking. If you plan to paddle long distances and cover a lot of water, longer kayaks are better suited for this task as they are faster and have a longer glide, which will help you conserve energy. Turning movements in moving water however, will take a little extra effort. The width of a kayak will help determine how stable it is. Basically narrower kayaks tend to be fast and track better but wider kayaks will often turn better and be more stable. This feature directly benefits anglers that like to stand and fish, or need a little more room to spread out. Now I mentioned comfort in the selection criteria because I believe that it is important. If your kayak is too confined and doesn't give you enough room to stretch out, invariably you will start to cramp up or at the least, get fidgety. This will draw your attention away from fishing and distract you from being able to fully enjoy your time out on the water. Moreover it may cause you to view the kayak as a less enjoyable alternative to get out on the water when it really doesn't have to be. I strongly recommend that anyone new to the sport should consider purchasing a kayak with a good seat. Many of the kayak manufacturers know this is an important feature for anglers looking to buy fishing kayaks, and they have invested a lot of time and effort to develop some extremely comfortable seats. Some, like the Jackson brand of kayaks, even offer inflatable lumbar support air bladders.
Picking Between a Sit-inside or Sit-on-top Kayak
Finally, we turn to the age old question of sit-inside vs sit-on-top. Both versions of kayaks have their advantages and drawbacks. For most anglers, it will boil down to the type of water they are going to fish and personal preference. Some considerations are weight, wind and water. Most sit-inside kayaks are considerably much lighter than sit-on-tops. This makes them easier to car top and carry, however the hollowed out hull that you sit inside of will typically catch and hold water. This issue can be easily remedied with a sponge or a small manual bilge pump. Sit-on-top kayaks are heavier due to the hull being almost totally enclosed but this also allows for sit-on-top kayaks to be self bailing as water that collects in the hull will drain out through scupper holes. Now we turn to the wind, as most kayakers know, it can be a constant challenge. Because it often blows you out of position, into obstacles on the water, in the wrong directions or simply makes your drift speed too fast. Sit-inside kayaks, by design, offer paddlers some protection from the wind, helping them to stay warmer on cold days but the higher gunwales catch more wind and can be frustrating. New designs of sit-on-top kayaks are addressing this by making the gunwales (side walls) lower, allowing them the shed wind easier. Lastly, we turn to the water problem. If you should flip or turtle your kayak, and you will, getting water out of a sit-inside can prove to be challenging. Not impossible but difficult especially in deep water. In the very least it will be time consuming and may require an emergency landing back on shore. For most people, re-entering the kayak may prove too challenging and if there is still a lot of water in the hull, it will not be very stable. Sit-on-tops are generally very water tight, making them easier to right and allow the angler to perform a self rescue. This does take practice but it is well worth it. The first time you roll your kayak should be in a practice situation, not an emergency. You will have to deal with the chilling effects of wind, especially in the spring, but this can be mitigated by wearing the appropriate base layers and waterproof tops.
Staying Warm Kayak Fishing
Dress for the weather, meaning check your local forecast to make sure that you layer up appropriately, to insure that you keep yourself safe from exposure. You should always dress like you may be going for an unexpected swim. In the spring, the water is still very cold, so with that in mind, stay away from cotton as a base layer. Synthetic materials and wool blends work better at keeping you dry and warm. Cotton tends to soak up water and sweat and loses it's insulating properties when wet. A great and inexpensive way to stay warm is, generous use of hand and foot warmers. Grab a case the next time you are in Walmart and throw them in the trunk of your car. Tackle management is also important but I recommend that beginners take only the bare essentials to start until they figure out what they have to have. I know kayak anglers with years of experience that only take out a few rods and only the lures they know they will use that day. In the spring, black hair jigs, soft plastic swim baits and natural colored creature baits, worked slowly or allowed to lay motionless on the bottom often drum up bites,
Resources for Getting Started Kayak Fishing
Clinics, clubs and comradery are three of the biggest reasons that I love kayak fishing. During the summer and even during the off-season, I try to attend as many clinics as my schedule will allow. I find them to be a much needed break from the cabin fever that sets in during late winter. Clinics are very educational and help to expand your body of knowledge. Application of techniques learned from seasoned kayakers like Juan Veruete, Mike Reinhold and Jeff Little, that I learned about in clinics have lead to more fish in the boat for me. Clubs are also fun because often you will be around a bunch of like-minded individuals that are passionate about the sport of kayak fishing. It's also a more laid back group of men and women that are eager to help newcomers to the sport. Some of the best information, tips and advice that I have been given has come as a result of joining clubs like Central PA Kayak Anglers or by attending events hosted by the PA Kayak Fishing Association. The contacts you make and new fishing buddies you'll find, will make you a better angler. Often members of the club will own or have experience with gadgets, tackle and equipment or kayaks that you may be considering, and they will share their honest opinions with you.
Finally, for me, it's about the comradery. Sure it's fun to get out there by yourself and enjoy nature in quiet solitude, but sharing that with someone like a friend or family member makes it even better. On the practical side, it's also safer, because even though you may be wearing your required PFD, (personal flotation device), warm base layers and dry suit, sometimes you just need a buddy to get you out of a jam. So to wrap this up, remember, do some research to help you find the kayak that fits you and the type of water you will be fishing. Always check the forecast and dress appropriately for the weather, this also means always wearing a properly fitted, Coastguard approved PFD, in fact more and more companies are designing models specifically for kayak anglers that are comfortable for all day use. Educate yourself a little bit and take a buddy out with you, I promise, more than just fish will get hooked.