fly-fishing with a kayak Wayward articles  

Flyfishing from a kayak

Youíre probably thinking, Who in their right mind would flyfish from something as finicky and unstable as a kayak? How would you control the line? What happens if you catch a fish, a big fish, a salmon maybe? How do you perform an Eskimo roll while attempting to boat a fish as big as your leg?

OK. There are some challenges--enough to deter most normal people. And you certainly donít want to go out right away and buy a kayak just because you think you are going to fish from it. You buy kayaks because you want to enjoy a nice trip on a flat piece of water, maybe with the family. If you told a salesperson that you want a kayak to flyfish from, he probably wonít call you a nut in front of you. And he knows heíll probably lose a sale if he chases you out of the store with a paddle.  More likely, he'll probably assume you've been browsing the internet too much.

Why a kayak

If you can surmount all these initial obstacles, you are left with one significant advantage to fly fishing in a kayak: You can cover great distances swiftly and easily. On certain lakes, this advantage begins to outweigh the disadvantages. You only flyfish from a kayak on those waters you wouldnít dare take a float tube because of distances and where you canít legally take a motored craft. Beyond a few hundred yards, the only float tubers who wonít exhaust themselves have the stamina and legs of Lance Armstrong.

A pram will get you a little further than a float tube, but try rowing a 100 pound one backward for a mile. Your back will curse you. But in a small 35 pound kayak, you can go for miles with a decent paddling technique, at twice the speed and comfort of anything that doesn't have pistons or a spinnaker. Speed itself is not the advantage you're after. Primarily, speed in a kayak translates into ease of paddling.

Your relatively streamlined position on the water will let you battle strong winds more confidently than in another type of craft.  Float tubes and prams certainly have their place. I love fishing from them for the advantages they offer, especially in close quarters, on smaller lakes, or when standing feels good.

Kayaking is also the stealthiest way to fish. There are no noisy oars clanging against the hull of a boat, no noisy propellers to spook fish, no flippers to send out alarming vibrations that bass hear a hundred yards away. To make my kayak even stealthier, I've adopted a trick that pram owners use--dampening the sound of oars using soft materials. I've glued a very thin neoprene sleeve around the ends of my paddle to dampen the sound of the paddle when I place it on the top of the cockpit when fishing. This arrangement also makes a comfortable arm rest while fishing.

So if you want to reach those far weeds where no one else dares venture, slip into a little kayak. First, though, what kind of kayak are we talking about?

Types of Kayaks for flyfishing

If you already own a kayak, there is no point in buying another one simply because you are thinking of flyfishing from one. (Well, OK, I bought a short kayak for the purpose of fishing from one, with a thought to watching my 5 year old daughter race around in one.) If you donít own a kayak, then the best one for flyfishing with a thought towards other kinds of recreation is the shortest flat water kayak you can buy, maybe around 9 feet, which is also the size that will fit all members of your family from a 4 year old to a 46 year old.

The shorter length is ideal for controlling the boat while fishing. A 16 foot ocean-cruising type, while sleek like a yacht on the water, will be somewhat limited in maneuverability.  Now, a  salesperson will be quick to tell you a short kayak wonít track as well or go as fast as a longer one, which is true. But a short kayak tracks reasonably well and is reasonably fast for the short to 3 mile lake trips you are likely to takeóand youíll spend $1,000 less for one and haul around 20 less pounds.

Tracking ability works against the fishing purpose, which is be speedy while having a good amount of maneuverability to get you out and around all sorts of interesting fishing waters, shallow bays, the bulrushes and tules, and those little intriguing floating islands of weeds on some lakes.

The shorter length will help you in other ways as well. Retrieving your fly from the shore brush may not be possible in a long kayak given the tightness of shore brush. And you don't want to get out of a kayak near shore too often just for the price of your dearly departed Dahlberg Diver. Good fishing water means unpredictable shore lines that will cause a spill if you step out too often. But a short kayak can pretty much slip into any confined place for all kinds of little shore chores.

With a 9 foot boat, you almost have the maneuverability of a white water kayak while still being able to go in a straight line to reach that enticing big splash next to that clump of tules a quarter mile away. Just donít try paddling on a lake with a white water kayak. Youíll probably paddle yourself in circles and wonder how you are going to get back to shore. (My apologies to white water enthusiasts who could probably paddle circles around me and go straighter.)

Most of my experience has been with a sit-in kayak. I prefer these because they keep me drier and because, well . . .  others weren't available to me. And they are very short, which is ideal for my fishing. However, A sit-on-top of kayak is favored by a growing culture of fishers. The advantages of this kind of kayak is ease of entry while still staying very stable and low in the water. Some come equipped with many features for fishing, such as rod holders and fittings for fish finders. Many of these are designed for short ocean adventures while chasing stripped bass, tuna, and many other ocean species, but they can also be used in fresh water for close fishing work.

Flyfishing tacticsófresh water

Donít fight the wind. This is an important lesson I've learned that makes flyfishing from a kayak easier, or for that matter makes any flyfishing easier. To be sure, when the wind is too strong, fishing is over. A strong wind will blow you too fast over the water for fishing purposes, even for trolling. A real strong gust could rip the paddle out of your hand if you donít know what you're doing, and might rip it out anyway if you do know what you're doing.

In the more frequent slight winds, you want to orient yourself so that you are moving parallel to the shoreline without too many adjustments. Normally, the wind is blowing not directly into shore, but at an angle. As long you are casting ahead of yourself as you move along, you will minimize dragging your fly. This is similar to fishing a river from a boat.

If you are being blown more directly into shore, position yourself 100 feet from shore.  As you move closer into casting position, first cast directly into shore. The advantage of doing this is you are fishing the area where you're kayak is likely to be in a few minutes. As in most types of fishing, don't step or paddle into water until you've fished the water in case there are fish present. As you get closer to shore, start casting at shallower angles until your casts become nearly parallel to shore, forcing you to retreat or get a face full of shore brush.

Now this assumes you are target fishing; that is, fishing a dry or emerger along the shore or floating weeds and tules. A lot of my fishing done this way is for bass who are very structure oriented. For trout, too, I prefer to target them rather than just troll the deep water. Trolling the deep water works in a kayak, too; but there isn't a new strategy for kayakers: just let the line out and sail away. A little uneventful for me, but it is certainly possible. You may find that the kayak will blow you more quickly over the water for trolling purpose than it would a float tube.

Invariably, the wind will push you into awkward positions and angles. This is where a short maneuverable kayak is especially helpful. For minor adjustments, I grab the paddle with just one hand and brace it against my chest. With a quick pull of the handle, Iíve moved out far enough from shore to cast again, while still holding the fly rod in the other hand. This takes some getting used to. As in float tube or pram fishing, you donít want to let go of the fly rod at all if you can help it. With practice, you can even continue fishing while maneuvering with the other hand. You can get rather creative and still tell yourself you are fishing.

Another trick is to use pool gloves while fishing, which give some extra resistance. With a small kayak, paddling this way for a few short strokes actually works. Of course, beyond a few strokes, youíll feel a strain in your shoulder or wrist, and you may want to put the paddle down.

The trick is to avoid placing the paddle down while actively fishing. With some creativity you may even find ways of making a quick 1 or 2 strokes with both hands on the paddle, while still holding onto the fly rod. Since you are in a kayak, one or two strokes will send you quite a distance. Thatís why minor adjustments with a single stroke or pool gloves often work best. Remember, I am talking about minor adjustments to help you cheat the wind a bit.

Nevertheless, accept the fact that the wind is going to twist you around a bit. But with some practice and observations, you'll begin to notice that the wind twists the kayak in somewhat predictable ways. Or at least it will twist you only so far until the kayak begins to stabilize its orientation to shore.

Usually, all you have to do is twist your body and  adjust your arms and wrists a bit to maintain as straight a line as you can--little tricks, often very creative, that flyfishers normally devise in any type of fishing. One way or the other, you'll be able to orient the kayak and yourself with one minor adjustment trick or another without too much fuss. Just remember the cardinal rule: Keep the fly in the water to maximize the amount of time you are fishing.

As in all flyfishing, you need to do something with the line that is off the reel. The spray skirt often sold with kayaks is ideal for this. You donít need to attach it around the cockpit unless you experience strong wind and waves, in which case you probably arenít fishing anyway. Just lay the skirt loosely on your lap to catch all the loose line. Without some kind of skirt, stripped line will fall between your legs and get wrapped around things, giving you line control problems and frustrations as you try to handle the fish that is heading into the next county. Handle the line or the fish will handle it for you.

In short time, you'll get used to line manipulation. If you don't, you are going to look pretty silly with a paddle, rod, and line all competing for equal time with just two hands. Remember: flyfishing is a lesson in mastering line manipulation so that you maximize the amount of time your fingers and fly are fishing productive water.

You have one more may to cheat an unmanageable wind: Skip to the other side of the lake. Because you are in a kayak, doing this becomes much easier than in any other boat that doesn't have a motor or a sail. Kayakers don't realize this right away. You can always beat the water toward new territory.

Fly fishing tacticsósalt water

The tactics for fishing salt water are largely the same as fresh water, except for those fearsome tides. First of all, know what the hell you are doing in the salt water. Take a class in kayaking and navigation. Even if you arenít planning an over-night trip in a dinky 9 foot dingy, the same cautions apply:

  • Know which way the tides are going.
  • Listen to local marine weather forecasts, not just the weather reports on TV.
  • Stay away from sea lions.  They are frightening beasts up close, and have been known to bump and turn kayaks.
  • Hell, stay away from any animal bigger than you.

Now that you are a competent sea-faring flyfishing kayaker, there are a few strategies specific to salt water. If the tide is slack, fish the water like it were a lake. I donít want to get into specific tactics for specific fish, but keep in mind that fish can be anywhere, even within feet of the shore in one foot of water. But generally, the kings are going to be down deep. You probably don't want to hook one anyway, unless you want to take a quick ride into the shipping channels. Coho and cutthroats are typically the species flyfishers chase since they stay up higher in the water column.

If you are in a tide, fish like you were in a river. The feeling is a little different until you get used to it. Basically, the fly, your boat, and the water are traveling at the same speed. (Now with some wind, this will change.) So the fly isnít going to drag much. Instead it will sink, which is a little unexpected. So it is like fishing in a moving lake. Well, something like that.

What if you catch a big fish? Well, good for you. The big fish isnít going to turn your boat over. (You did take a kayaking course, right? And you did practice paddling in rough weather, right?). Nine foot kayaks are fairly stable. But you could get pulled around a bit. The worse thing that can happen is that no one will believe you that a 30 pound king pulled you into the path of a tanker.

What about anchoring my boat?

Get realistic? You arenít in a row boat. And donítí bring a little float tube anchor. Kayaking has enough lines you have to manage to worry about one more to get tangled in.  Besides, if you are like me, you are way too impatient to bother with anchoring a boat. Anchoring assumes you want to fish one spot for an extended length of time, but I figure my skills as a flyfisher haven't been honed to the point where I don't manage to scare a bass after at least a half dozen casts, which would necessitate paddling backwards and dredging up the anchor throughout the day.

Another neat trick is tying your kayak to surface weeds with a short line.  On one end of a short 6 foot line tie a loop. This you will tie to a pond lily or other weed with a simple line looped within the loop so that the line can be easily undone. Usually all you need to do, though, is yank on the line to rip it free from the weed stalk.

Tie the other end of a six foot section of line to the kayak, maybe on a cleat. I tie the other end around a line the circles the under the lip of the cockpit. This way I can also adjust the position of the line to angle me in different directions depending on what the wind is doing. 

Another trick is park or lodge yourself into the edge of mat of pond lilies, which can hold you in a pretty stiff wind. Or simply saddle up to a clump of floating tules. Make sure you fish that floating clump first. Floating clumps are moving ambush points for bass.

You can also cheat the wind with a sea anchor, which is like a floating sack you drag in the water behind you to act as a wind brake. This works ok, but they are a little fussy to work with. You donít want too much fuss in a kayak when you have other things to distract you, like the paddle and all the lines that go with seafaring and fly fishing.

What if you have to put the fly rod down?

Invariably youíll need to put the fly rod down. Normally, you can just put the rod on your lap, maybe with the reel between your legs. But there will be those times when youíll want to secure the fly rod from falling out of the boat. Flies have a nasty tendency to grab some weeds in the water, and as the wind blows you around, the fly rod can begin to move.

The trick I use is to sew together two pieces of Velcro onto a strap, which is then attached to the boat or your belt with another chord. Then you just join the Velcro straps  around the fly rod.

Some precautions about flyfishing from a kayak

If you are new to kayaking, take a course in basic kayaking. Then, near home, when high winds are forecast for your area, take off to a local lake and get in the water. It is time to get a little scared. Start getting into bigger and bigger waves until you feel comfortable in one and two foot waves.

At first, it might be best to stay in shallow water where you can stand up if you tip over, and where any strong wind is likely to blow you into the shore anyway. Make sure you get the wind at your back with waves behind you and at different angles, causing you to start twisting and surfing a little in your kayak. This can be unnerving at first, until it starts becoming fun. That's right, you can actually begin to have fun in bigger and bigger waves, and will even look forward to a giant one to see what it will do to your boat.

I remember my first afternoon in a kayak. A small six inch wave sent fear through me all the way to my toes. But in short time I was getting used to the new feeling and was eagerly seeking out bigger and bigger waves, up to three and four feet, and riding the surf of the larger ones.

Small flat water kayaks can feel a little tipsy at first, unlike float tubes and pontoon boats. As you get more comfortable in a kayak, you'll discover that they are extremely stable and forgiving in waves, but you need a little experience to sense this.

The point of all these water exercises, besides the eventual fun, is that they make you a safe kayaker. When you find yourself two miles from your car, and a very nasty wind comes up pushing 1 foot waves with white crests, you want to know that you can get home fairly easily and safelyóand even have fun doing it. This degree of water safety seems less important in float tubes, where you are less likely to be out too far from shore anyway. But in a kayak, you could be a few miles away from the safety of the parking lot.

Spend some practice times on a warm windless day spilling your kayak. Yes, with you in it. Practice getting back in it. You could buy one of those paddle bags that help you do this, but usually you can get by without one.

And don't forget the following:

  • An extra paddle. I just take half of another cheaper kayak paddle, wedged under the seat. If you loose your main paddle in a strong wind and you donít have a backup to retrieve your primary paddle, you are in serious trouble.
  • A signaling devise. It is the law in most states anyway. I take small flares, signaling mirror, and a large safety whistle. (I donít know why I have the whistle, but it felt right at the time I bought it. I'm not even sure why I have the flares, but they seem like a fairly cool thing to take just in case that oil tanker misses me on his radar. Kayakers can be fairly stealthy on the water.)
  • Basic survival gear that fits in a small pouch: fire starters, signal mirror. Stuff like that that you can read about all over the internet.
  • A kayak pump, for bailing out the water in case you tip the kayak.
  • Large sponge for small bailing jobs.
  • Water proof bags, the kind that river guides bring. These mainly serve to add air pockets to the kayak. One way or the other you want float bags to fill in most of the empty space in the kayak.

Important  Make sure you lash everything down. Every item in the boat needs to be tied to something. I use short pieces of rope fixed to small carabineers that I attach to the rigging on top of the kayak.

These are just normal precautions for any kayaking. Because you are further from shore than in a float tube or pram, you should think a little more about safety.

Flyfishing from a kayak takes a little getting used to, as does any new type of flyfishing. One of the challenging aspects of any flyfishing is the amount of creative challenge you bring to it--and fly fishing from a kayak has much to offer here. Most people you talk to will be genuinely interested in what you have to say about fishing this way. Kayakers will be especially impressed, since they themselves might be flyfishers but have never thought about fishing this way.

There are some strategies and movements to work out and think through. And it takes a couple of trips before you begin to feel you are handling things right; that is, before you begin to feel that you arenít spending too much time trying to figure out how to do everything. But in short time, you'll be fishing nearly as efficiently as anyone in a float tube or pram, and fishing further from anyone who doesn't have a motor or jib sail.

--Toney J. Sisk


Thoughts? Send to