This story featured in the 2012 July issue.

Photo: Jose Chavez

By Paul Lebowitz

Fishing kayaks have come a long way since the Ocean Kayak Scupper first hit a West Coast beach in 1971. It was a new sort of boat—one designed to get watermen through the waves and the chop to dive and fish. Self-draining, open-topped, and capable of carrying scuba tanks and other heavy gear, the aptly named Scupper was square one in the evolution of today's fishing kayaks.

Forty years later, contemporary sporting kayaks share the same basic plan, minus the big rear hatch—that has morphed into the indispensible open-topped storage well. Other changes were incremental, such as decks designed to accommodate an ever-increasing range of equipment: rod holders, fishfinders, GPS and the like. The hulls themselves grew wider for better cargo capacity and increased stability for battling big fish, or standing tall to hunt fish by sight. Contemporary fishing kayak design has come so far, manufacturers now offer models suited to virtually any water, whether that's the infinite skinny acreage of the flats or tumultuous Big Blue.

To get a sense for the state of the fishing kayak art, C&K convened a representative bi-coastal crew to put a half-dozen of the latest and greatest human-powered fin chasers to the test. The salty dogs of the Tampa Bay-headquartered Hardcore Kayak Anglers Club stood tall for the multitudes of flats casters. In Southern California, a motley set of traditionalists fished the inky deeps. We liked what we saw.

Photo: Chavez

Emotion Grand Slam Angler
Swift power hitter
($699 in roto-molded linear polyethylene,
L: 14'5"; W: 30.5"; 69 lbs., 355-lb. capacity
In this age of truck-like fishing kayaks built to carry a load, it sure is sweet to hop on a boat with get up and go. At just over 14 feet long and 30 inches wide, the Grand Slam Angler hits an undeniable sweet spot between glide and maneuverability. It can slink through the mangroves with speed, yet is still plenty stable for a practiced flats caster to do his thing while standing tall. Our test anglers enthusiastically praised the Grand Slam as an all-around winner with its dual, flush-mount rod holders, an adjustable console-mounted rod holder up front, and sizeable compartmented storage in the stern. The two paddle keepers were also a tester favorite, proving to be a great place to stash that drift anchor (a flats staple). While the bow hatch is definitely an improvement over prior Emotion models, a nest of stretch cord made on-water access difficult. However, the new see-through cockpit hatch proved so convenient and easy to operate that most testers didn't feel the need to use the larger bow hatch on the water.

Photo: Chavez

Freedom Hawk Pathfinder
Rock steady
($1,395 in roto-molded, high-density linear polyethylene,
L: 14'2"; W: 31"; 79 lbs., 450-lb, capacity
Bar none, the Pathfinder is the most stable fishing kayak on the planet. If you can walk to the mailbox, you can stand and cast on this kayak. When the adjustable outriggers are deployed, our test anglers said the kayak feels more stable than many small motorboats. The unique outrigger system boasts three positions: the locked-down, super-stable Y position; a middle setting for stability with mobility; and fully folded for travel. Fit and finish are top notch. The foldable casting brace eases the transition from seated to standing position, and on-deck storage is plentiful. There's a large oval hatch up front along with the de rigueur pair of flush-mount rod holders. The supremely comfortable Elite Angler Seat ($179) is a highly recommended option. Its high perch makes standing up and sitting down significantly easier. The premium on stability comes with a price though. Even with the outriggers tucked away in the most streamlined position, the Pathfinder is a slow boat. Our test crew pegged it as an outstanding choice for short-distance outings, particularly for flyfishing. For longer runs, rigging the optional motor mount ($109, plus motor) would be quite tempting.

Photo: Allen Bushnell

Jackson Kayak Cuda
Killer crossover
($1,199; $1,399 with rudder in roto-molded, high-density linear polyethylene,
L: 14'3"; W: 29.75"; 74 lbs., 400-lb. capacity
Jackson took concepts developed for the company's 2011 sensation, the pioneering river-running Coosa fishing kayak, and made them bigger and better for the new Cuda. It's purpose-built as a "standable" kayak, and comes complete with an assist strap that makes the transition from seated to vertical much less dicey. The discussion really has to start with the mesh Elite Hi-Lo seat though—a veritable throne that lives up to its name. The rod stagers notched into the foredeck also carry over from the Coosa, securing rods lying on the deck. The new goodies include one of the better stretched-out cockpit hatches going—one large enough to stash even the big guns favored for blue-water big game—and Jackson's new, unique rod tip cover up front that deflects "grabby" shoreline branches. Our testers gave it good grades for fishing the flats, where its quiet hull, high seating, on-deck tackle storage and stand-up stability are great strengths, but also remarked that it has most of the hallmarks of a true open-water boat. Only downside to this otherwise killer crossover: The relatively low-volume bow spears through surf and chop, making for a soggy ride.

Photo: Chavez

Hobie Mirage Revolution 11
A lot of boat in a small package
($1,749 in roto-molded polyethylene,
L: 11'6"; W: 29"; 47 lbs., 300-lb. capacity
The spitting image of the original pedal-powered Revolution (a 13-footer), the new 11-foot, 11-pounds-lighter Revolution is a near-perfect blend of maneuverability, cargo capacity and fishability. In other words, it's a lot of boat in a small package. The Revolution 11 has all the essentials: molded-in rod holders, multiple hatches for easy gear storage, and a sizable stern storage well. What's more, with its svelte size and sleek hull shape, Hobie's industry-leading Mirage pedal drive feels supercharged. It also means that you never have to put down that fishing pole. Lightning fast off the line, it carved the tightest urns in the test fleet. Compact kayaks come with their own special strengths, of course—they're easier to haul, store in less space, and are easy to maneuver—but naturally, there's a tradeoff. The Revolution 11 can't carry as much freight as longer boats. It's asking a lot to load it down with a large bait tank, tons of tackle, a plump stringer and 200 pounds of man-angler. It's also too slender a reed- for stand-casting. But if you're a smaller paddler, the Revolution 11 might just be the perfect boat for you.

Photo: Paul Lebowitz

Ocean Kayak Trident Ultra 4.3
Surf warrior
($1,599; $1,899 with rudder in roto-molded polyethylene,
L: 14'1"; W: 29.1"; 59 lbs., 350-lb. capacity
Full disclosure: We put Ocean Kayak's newest fishing kayak to the test out West, where the water's more boisterous than any found on a Florida salt flat. It was only fitting. The Trident Ultra 4.3's playful nature craves big water. At 14 feet, it's a shorter, slinkier option than its 2011 predecessor, the arrow-straight Trident Ultra 4.7. Designed down under by OK's New Zealand subsidiary, every fitting is molded-in for maximum sea-worthiness. There's no reason to drill holes to mount most accessories; they screw right in. The Ultra's cockpit center hatch cover shelters delicate and pricey fishfinders safely below deck when it's time to face the whitewater. Then—cool trick—it flips over, springing the sonar instantly into action. It also includes a purpose-built mounting spot for your sonar's underwater eyeball, a full quartet of flush-mount rod holders, dedicated tool and gaff storage, along with a "Click Seal" bow hatch—one of the best on the market. Bonus: Although the deck isn't exactly acres wide, there's still enough room for calm-water casters to stand. In the seat, our testers called the new Ultra supremely well thought out, and suited for fishing just about anywhere.

Photo: Chavez

Wilderness Systems Ride 135
A spirited revival
($949; $1,069 Angler; $1,169 Angler with rudder in roto-molded plastic,
L: 13'6"; W: 31.5"; 85 lbs., 550-lb. capacity
The original 135 is a time-tested survivor from the earliest days of the kayak fishing movement. It has the ability to carry a big angler and all his gear, up to 550 pounds. But there's been a big change recently, and it's a key one: Thanks to a hull redesign, it no longer paddles like a barge. The new design also embraces the standup paddling boom. The deck is wide and flat, perfect for sight-casting. The seat also detaches, opening up even more room for standing if you need. You can also position the seat in the center of the boat for maximum maneuverability, or scoot it to the stern for improved trim when charging the surf. The rigid "Orbix" hatches open (one-handed) in a snap. And Wildy's revolutionary "SlideTrax" accessory system is better than ever. No tools or drilling required—accessories mount right on the gunwale. The basic model we tested didn't come with rod holders, much to our preference of one tester, who said, "That's fine, I'd rather install them right where I want them." Otherwise, pony up for the Angler edition, which comes with two, plus a SlideTrax mounting plate. The only puzzler: Our test boat came with just a single paddle keeper, leaving us wondering where to stash a drift pole.