In this kayak fishing beginner guide we cover everything from how to get started to essential equipment you need. You’ll also learn about the different types of kayaks, staying safe and the best spots! Continue reading below…
Kayak Fishing for Beginners
Imagine spending all day out on the water, paddling around and exploring the area, casting lines in promising spots, and bringing home fresh fish for dinner. Sound awesome? Then try your hand at kayak fishing, an invigorating outdoors sport that’s the perfect way to spend a weekend afternoon.
What Is Kayak Fishing?
People have been fishing from kayaks and kayak-like boats for approximately 4000 years. Inuit, Yup’ik, and Aleut groups traditionally construct their kayaks from seal or other animal skins stretched over a wood or bone framework. For centuries, they have plied the waters of the Arctic Ocean, Bering Sea, and North Atlantic in kayaks.
These small, thin vessels are simple to use and extremely maneuverable, making them a fun and effective choice for fishing. Kayak fishing has grown in popularity in recent years, so if you’re interested in getting in on the fun, you’re in good company.
What does this hobby involve? Pretty much as the name suggests, you’ll navigate kayak through a body of water while (hopefully) catching some fish.
If you’ve never kayaked OR fished before, you might want to get some experience trying out each activity on its own first. Combining the two skills can take some practice.
Why Try Kayak Fishing?
This fantastic activity gains new participants every day for a number of reasons:
- It’s a fun social activity.
- It gets you outside enjoying the fresh air and great outdoors.
- It gives you the challenge of combining multiple skills.
- It can be as laidback or as exhilarating as you like, depending on where you choose to fish.
Any water sport involves safety considerations. With some simple precautions, you can prepare yourself to handle challenging situations and stay safe on the water.
Wear a personal flotation device (PFD). This can literally save your life. If you unexpectedly capsize, a PFD will help you stay afloat.
Learn how to self-rescue. If you spend enough time out on the water, you’ll inevitably end up falling in eventually. So, practice self-rescue in a pool or shallow water until you’re confident that you know what to do when your kayak tips.
You can watch video tutorials on kayak self-rescue to get the basic idea, but I strongly recommend also going through the steps yourself. This will help you perform a self-rescue confidently and efficiently instead of panicking when your kayak flips.
If possible, I also suggest taking a kayaking course that covers self-rescue techniques.
Wear appropriate clothing. Lightweight, breathable, fast-drying materials work best for kayak fishing. In cold weather, make sure you have adequate layers and consider wearing a dry suit. Take precautions against the sun.
Be prepared for weather and water conditions. Before you tackle challenging kayak fishing conditions (such as whitewater rapids, or the open ocean), make sure your kayaking skills are up to the task. Check the forecast before heading out so you don’t encounter any unexpected storms or high winds.
Bring a friend. There’s safety in numbers, and it’s always good to go kayak fishing with a buddy who has your back.
Locations for Kayak Fishing
The first thing to determine is whether you’ll be fishing in freshwater or saltwater. Freshwater locations like ponds and lakes offer a different environment from saltwater endeavors such as the open ocean.
Freshwater (Lakes and Rivers)
Some freshwater locations like lakes and ponds have still water, while other freshwater spots like rivers and streams have moving water.
You’ll also have to consider the size of the body of water. For instance, if you’re fishing in a huge lake, you’ll probably be covering more ground than you would in a tiny pond. So in this situation, you might choose a longer, narrower kayak, which is less stable but quicker and more streamlined.
On a smaller lake or pond, however, I prefer a relatively short and lightweight vessel that gives me excellent stability and maneuverability. A simple recreational sit-on-top kayak will do the job.
If you’re heading on out saltwater, you’ll encounter either inshore waters or offshore waters. What’s the difference?
Inshore waters hug the coastline and are shallower. Even along the coastline though, you may still have to handle some waves or wind.
Offshore waters are further out and deeper. They often pose challenges such as large waves or the need to travel long distances to get out to the best spots.
Here is what you’ll need to get started with kayak fishing:
- Fishing Kayak
- Fishing gear
- Anchor system
- Paddle leash
- Outdoors clothing
- Sun protection
There are tons of kayaks on the market with all sorts of designs and features. This section provides a basic rundown of the major kinds of kayaks you may encounter and the features that are most important to think about before selecting one of your own.
A purpose-built fishing kayak is a great investment to make if you think you’ll be going kayak fishing on a regular basis. Check out our recommendations for specific models here.
Sit-on-top vs. Sit-in Kayaks
When choosing a kayak, you’ll see two basic styles: sit-on-top (SOT) kayaks and sit-in kayaks. The names are pretty self-explanatory.
Both types of kayaks will share some basic components, like a seat and some type of foot support (e.g. foot wells or adjustable pedals). You can get either type of kayak as a single or a double.
The major difference is that sit-in kayaks have enclosed kayaks; people usually attach a spray skirt around the edge of the cockpit edge to keep water out and stay dry.
Some advantages of sit-on-top kayaks are:
- They’re straightforward and easy to use, even for beginners.
- They tend to be stable and don’t tip over easily. If you do happen to flip, you just hop back on.
- They provide great freedom of movement—you can move around, jump out, and so on.
The advantages of sit-in kayaks include:
- They keep you warmer and dryer.
- They can also be very stable and user-friendly.
- Some models offer features like waterproof compartments, which are great for storage.
Many people prefer sit-on-top kayaks for fishing because they offer greater freedom of movement, are very stable, and are easily maneuvered. In general, most sit-on-top models are classified as recreational kayaks (rather than sea or touring kayaks) since they’re usually on the wider, shorter, and more stable side.
Ideally, you’ll be able to rent or try out a few different kinds of kayaks before committing to a purchase.
As noted above, recreational kayaks are relatively wide and short, which gives them great stability. You can find both recreational sit-on-top models and recreational sit-in models.
The downside? These kayaks are less streamlined, so they don’t move as fast. If you need speed, then take a look at sea or touring kayaks instead.
However, I would say that the majority of anglers I know prefer recreational kayaks, especially for tackling the calmer waters of lakes and ponds. After all, stability is a great thing if you’re fighting a big fish! And shorter kayaks are lighter-weight, which makes them easier to lug around.
Sea (Touring) Kayaks
Sea kayaks (also known as touring kayaks) are longer and narrower, allowing them to slice effortlessly through the water. If you need to cover long distances, this kind of kayak will let you do that quickly and efficiently. The cockpits are usually smaller, however, which can reduce your freedom of movement.
Whitewater (River) Kayaks
Now what if you plan to fish primarily in rivers? Yes, you can take pretty much any kayak onto a river, but a specialized river kayak will perform so much better, especially in rapids and whitewater. A good river kayak will let you handle fast-flowing and rough water and allow you to maneuver quickly and precisely.
This kind of kayaking is definitely more challenging than just chilling on the lake—so if you’re new to both kayaking and fishing, I recommend not jumping straight into river fishing in a kayak. This is a recipe for disaster as you’ll need to learn too many new skills all at once.
Instead, work on your kayaking and angling skills separately, or in more laidback situations (in calm water) before trying your hand on the rapids.
Check out my guide for buying inflatable kayaks for fishing and whitewater trips.
Important Features in a Fishing Kayak
Fishing from your kayak is a bit more of a specialized activity than simply paddling around—so there are a couple extra things to consider when choosing your kayak.
First, you’ll need rod holders. These, quite simply, hold your fishing rod for you while you do things like paddle. You may decide to get a motor for your kayak, but many people get around using the traditional paddle, which requires the use of both hands.
A rod holder will let you move to a new location or do some trolling fishing. So, look for a kayak with either in-built rod holders or rod holder attachments.
Next, make sure to get a kayak with adequate storage space. Remember that you’ll need somewhere to put all your equipment, not to mention any fish that you catch and keep. Try to find a kayak with a relatively generous amount of storage.
Apart from your kayak, fishing equipment is the other obvious necessity for anyone interested in kayak fishing (unless you’re planning to scoop up fish in your baseball cap—which I did once, accidentally).
You’ll need the following basic items:
- Rod and reel
- Fishing line
- Clippers (for cutting your line)
- Hooks and weights
- Tackle box to keep your gear organized
And don’t forget to acquire a fishing license.
Read more on getting started with fishing here. Just as with kayaks, there are a ton of options when it comes to fishing equipment. Novice anglers are often put off by the dizzying array of options, but the good news is that it doesn’t have to be that complicated.
I recommend heading to your local tackle shop or asking a more experienced friend for suggestions as you put together your tackle box. You can also watch this video, which walks you through an outdoors store and shows you what to buy to get started.
Make sure you have a system for bringing and storing this equipment safely in your kayak. Things you don’t want: things falling overboard, losing equipment if you flip the kayak, ruining electronic devices like fish finders by getting them soaked.
Keeping your tackle organized is always important when fishing, but especially so on a kayak. This video is a great visual demonstration of how you might decide what tackle to bring and how to organize it. Buoyant waterproof boxes are a good investment—even if they take a spill, they’ll stay afloat and keep your gear dry.
An anchor will help you hold your position without drifting, which is sometimes necessary to up your chances of catching something. With an anchor, you don’t have to worry about strong winds or currents pushing you away from a great fishing spot.
A paddle leash is…basically a leash for your paddle. People drop paddles all the time and watch helplessly as they float away, never to return. A paddle leash prevents this problem.
It simply attaches onto your paddle at one end and onto either you or your kayak on the other end.
This is especially helpful for kayak fishing, when you are sometimes multitasking or end up surprised by a big fish.
Dress appropriately for the weather. Remember that when kayak fishing, it’s quite likely you’ll end up getting wet, so wear clothes made of quick-dry synthetics, not cotton.
I always wear a life jacket that has some external pockets. This serves the dual purpose of keeping me safe and storing some of my stuff.
Apart from that, you’ll find me in quick-dry layers, typically a long-sleeve shirt and pants. As for shoes, I prefer my Keen sandals—they dry out fast, they’re lightweight but durable, and I like the closed toe. Sneakers or water shoes will also do.
In cooler weather, I swap all that out for a dry suit or some waders, plus waterproof footwear, which helps me stay dry and warm. Then I’ll add some extra layers and a waterproof jacket. A base layer underneath all that is a good idea, since it wicks away sweat and keeps you dry.
In very cold weather, you’ll need to guard carefully against hypothermia. Check out this guide for ideas of dressing properly for cold winters.
Accessories like a hat and sunglasses go a long way in preventing sunburn and protecting your face and eyes from the sun. I generally prefer to wear long sleeves when I’m out on the water all day, and I wear sunscreen on any exposed skin. A buff will help shield your neck.
Even if it’s cold out, the sun can still be strong, so make sure to take precautions during all seasons.
Learn more about protecting yourself from the sun while kayak fishing here.
In addition to dressing appropriately, make sure you bring plenty of water along so you stay hydrated!
Once you’ve got your equipment and learned the basic skills—both kayaking and fishing—you need, it’s time to head out onto the water. With a little practice, patience, and luck, you’ll soon be bringing in fish and having the time of your life.