Kayak Evolution: In The Beginning, Almost – Part 1 of Paul Lebowitz’s in-depth feature on the modern fishing kayak

Part 1 of Paul Lebowitz's in-depth feature on the modern fishing kayak

Jim Sammons aboard his Ocean Kayak Scupper Pro TW in the early 1990s — complete with PVC rocket launcher rod holders, a live bait tank crafted from a plastic tub, and a portable fish finder. The evolution of the modern fishing kayak was well underway. Jim Sammons photo.

By Paul Lebowitz

In the Beginning, Almost

"Today, you get to use the state of the art," Jim Sammons said as he gestured at a fishing kayak sitting on the sand at La Jolla Shores.

The kayak’s sharp, gracefully lifted nose already pointed at the surf and the ocean beyond, where drag-ripping yellowtail lurked.

"You get to fish from an Ocean Kayak Scupper Pro outfitted with the latest gear," Sammons added.


It was 1999, so long ago it's getting tough to remember the specifics. I'd booked a trip with Sammons, an elite kayak fishing guide, to experience life on the cutting edge.

The Scupper Pro was a good two feet longer and quite a bit narrower than the dowdy Malibu II I'd fished from for a few years.  For starters, the sexy Scupper boasted a full trio of rod holders, a deuce in the back and the third up front.

Such luxury! I stashed a dry bag in the spacious storage area under the front hatch, dropped a couple rods in the aft flushmounts, and set a tackle bag in the tankwell.

"Once you commit to launch through the surf, go, go, go. But remember, by the end of a long day on the water your legs might not work," Sammons advised.

I pulled the Scupper thigh deep into the wash. When I spotted my launch window I didn't so much as sit in the seat as put the boat on. Since the kayak was just 24 inches wide, I was wearing it, sitting virtually on the deck with nothing but a backband to provide a modicum of comfort.

I dug the paddle in and that rocket ship flew me right through the surf zone without encountering a breaking wave. I knew right then it was going to be a great day. As long as I paddled back in with a yellowtail, I didn't care whether my back ached or my legs fell asleep.

It's amazing how far the sport of kayak fishing has come. In this golden age, kayaks arrive from the factory ready to fish, with cushy mesh seats and room for mountains of tackle and a dozen rods. Looking back from 2016, the Scupper Pro seems crude. Not the kayak itself. Those organically flowing lines remain timelessly classic. It's the rigging that's dated–the PVC 'rocket launcher' rod holders, a tankwell so narrow not even a milk crate fits.

Back then, mounting a fishfinder meant Gooping the transducer inside the hull. Inevitably, the puck would work loose after a few trips, but you wouldn't know until hitting the kelp line a half mile out where the sonar screen irritatingly blinked zero, zero, zero. Back to the "Mark 1 eyeball."

Feeling nostalgic, I dial my old friend Sean White. Back in the day before Internet superstores, White operated the Great White Kayak Company from his Ukiah, California garage. He sold Cobras and Malibu Kayaks and an abundance of improvised rigging advice.   

"The early kayaks were not intentionally designed for fishing. They could be fished, but few of them had a flat surface over half an inch wide up top,” White remembers with a laugh. “They were tough to rig. Having a bait tank actually contemplated in the design, or a crate, that was like mind blowing."

That seems so long ago. In his vivid way, he takes me right back.  And there were more side effects of the old designs.

"Part of the freight of sitting right on the deck or on one of those poorly padded seats was dead legs and rotten genitals from sitting in a puddle of water for hours,” Sean says. “People back then were pioneers. We didn't care. We got it done!”

Today there's a fishing kayak for virtually every conceivable niche, from salt to still water, shallow or deep, and it's easy to discern the common DNA that runs through our sleds.

Consider the basic plan. It almost never varies. Bow hatch, cockpit, tankwell. The construction: rotomolded plastic, occasionally thermoformed. The style: self-draining sit-on-top, with the odd open-topped sit-inside or kayak-canoe hybrid. Anyone can see our varied fishing kayaks share a common ancestry.

Next: Part 2, The Original