By Jeff Little
Have you ever met a car salesman who tells you that he has the perfect car for you, seconds after introducing himself? He pushes you hard toward a vehicle that he decided that he had to move off his lot. You just happened to be the next sucker that walked through the showroom doors. So to him, the car is perfect for you, and you are perfect for that car, which is perfect for his sales quota.
Of course, today’s car shoppers are a little more educated than one who would fall victim to such a salesperson. They have resources: online research, consumer reports, car enthusiast message forums, Facebook groups and recommendations from their friends. They walk into the showroom knowing exactly what they want, and know how to talk that salesperson into a corner, not the other way around.
Kayak sales and car sales have a lot in common, but you can’t take a test paddle any day of the week. The test drive equivalent is a paddlesport retailer’s Demo Day. I attended my local paddle shop’s Demo Day recently, and thought through how to help customers truly find the kayak that is perfect for them.
To get to that answer, many questions have to be answered by the shopper. I’ve had plenty of new kayak anglers who just want the short answer now. "What kayak would you get?" My favorite kayak is irrelevant. My needs are different from yours, even if we fish some of the same waters. Here are a few questions that should help guide your next kayak purchase.
1. What kind of fishery will you be on most of the time?
It simplifies the decision to label a kayak as a good river boat, or a great saltwater kayak, but it may short change the discussion. Traditionally, river fishing kayaks were shorter, wider and more agile - better to make quick maneuvers in whitewater. But once spring’s heavy flows subside, a longer boat with a larger footprint in the water may be a better option. It will float through skinnier water than a shorter boat with it’s displacement concentrated in a smaller footprint.
Boats that have a high volume in the front half of the hull are considered great surf launch kayaks. These high volume boats also excel in keeping anglers on the right side of breaking waves on all sorts of fisheries from large wind blown inland lakes to haystack waves at the base of a class 3 rapid.
If it doesn’t seem like I’m helping you narrow down much yet, you are catching on. This is a complicated decision to make. The first question posed may only serve to educate the consumer beyond how kayaks are marketed within subcategories of kayak fishing. Consider the next few questions while thinking specifically about the places you would like to kayak fish.
2. How much distance will you cover in a day?
In the last two months, I’ve covered distances as short as from one end of a 1 acre pond to the other, and as long as 24.3 miles of trolling in open water on the Chesapeake Bay. Generally, the longer the distances you will cover, the more efficient you’ll need to be in order to sustain all day. The easiest way to cover vast distances is to put a motor on a kayak.
I used to start this discussion by talking about an efficient hull design of a long skinny kayak that slices through the water with ease. That still applies. A 29 inch wide 15 foot long kayak will glide much better than a 32 inch wide 11.5 foot kayak. But put a motor on that longer kayak, and you’ll put miles behind you with ease. Narrow and long, efficient hulls help whether you are paddling, pedaling or powered up.
The pedal drive options are perfect for long distance kayak fishing. Just choose one with an efficient hull, because even if you are tapping into a larger muscle group, you’ll want your legs to last as long as possible. Narrow, spear shaped boats make this happen.
3. How much current will you encounter?
This is where I would steer someone toward the shorter kayaks. If rivers with class 2 or greater rapids are your home waters, a 15 foot kayak will be a handicap. You wont turn on a dime in the middle of a ledge drop followed by a series of boulders that can fold your kayak in half. But that 11.5 foot long boat can pinball through the rock garden with ease, and eddy out to place the angler in perfect position to catch smallmouth or trout from the plunge pool. Most river anglers over estimate their need for a whitewater capable hull, and underestimate how helpful a wider, mid length kayak is during summer’s low flow on rivers with less aggressive whitewater. There’s a balance, and most river anglers know not to go over 14 feet in length, with the peak of the bell curve being in the 12 foot range.
4. How will you transport your kayak?
Toward the end of the Blue Mountain Outfitters Demo Day, I offered a customer the chance to use my vehicle to see if he could car top the model he was interested in. It was a rather wide, stable 14 foot long kayak. That’s a lot of plastic, and the fifty-something kayak angler wanted to know that he could handle putting it on top of his SUV. I showed him how my car rack bars were off set to allow me to lift one end first, then walk around and lift the other, so that I could always do it solo. He performed the task, considered lighter kayaks, trailer use, then ultimately bought the 14 foot, stable kayak that he now knew that he could put on top of his vehicle. Not everyone will be strong enough to do what he did. Some lightweight models make both loading and getting your kayak to and from the water an easier task.
5. Will you stand up in the kayak?
Going upright in a boat that most of humanity associates with the eskimo roll may seem more like lumberjack log rolling than a way to catch a fish. But many fishing kayaks are wide enough to not only make standing possible, but allow the angler to walk around on the hull, accessing gear storage behind the seat or in the bow.
I taught one of the Demo Day customers how to trust the stability of a kayak made to stand in. By the time I coaxed him to move his weight from his seat to the balls of his feet, he tentatively straightened his legs. His pupils dilated, and he looked at me as though he wanted me to grant permission to sit back down. I didn’t. Instead, I told him to shift weight from one foot to the other. The kayak dipped down on that side, but didn’t flip. Then he reversed which foot he put more weight on. He did this until he could completely lift one foot off the kayak. Within five minutes, he trusted the stability of the kayak and was able to paddle around in that upright position.
Standing isn’t of much use if you catch your fish from jigging in 30 feet or water. It doesn’t help you if trolling accounts for most of your catches. But if you need to visually assess a series of pockets in the pads to flip a jig into, or if you are sight fishing a shallow water fishery with a fly rod, getting upright triples the radius of water you can visually assess for your next cast. Seats with higher positions provide a similar half step in that direction. In order for both of those to be possible, you’ll need a kayak with a wider, more stable hull. By doing so, there’s usually a sacrifice in speed.
6. Will you be using electronics?
More than one kayak manufacturer has figured out the importance of mounting a depth finder’s transducer somewhere that it won’t be damaged. Special shaped scupper holes, plates, pods and scupper transducer mounting kits have been implemented in the design of fishing kayaks for the last several years. If you chose a model without those features, you can still use a depth finder, but you’ll need to install a transducer arm, something that is more subject to being damaged by it striking a log or rock. Transducer arms also rob your paddling or pedaling efficiency.
Those six questions can only take you so far. They can guide your "doing your homework" before you test paddle or test pedal a kayak at a Demo Day. But nothing substitutes sitting in a boat and moving it around in the water. Keep your search wide. I’ve seen many customers come to a Demo Day 98% decided on a specific brand and model, then paddle a different one and fall in love with it.
Not every Demo Day carries all the brands you should consider. It may take attending the Demo Days of multiple retailers to make the right call, comparing multiple brands and multiple models. But having done so, you’ll know that you’ve not been sold something that someone else decided was perfect for you. You’ll have avoided buying a kayak just because it’s the one your buddy paddles. You will have asked and answered important questions and found the right kayak for your fishery and style of kayak fishing.