A kayak is about the most versatile small craft you can own. Here’s how to get maximum use out of seven models that run the gamut from kayaks designed specifically for fishing to a few general-purpose paddlers.
When my wife and I moved to the coast several years ago, I finally got the opportunity to use my sit-on-top kayaks in the environment for which they were designed.
Initially, we moved to pursue our interest in sailing. As it turned out, the sounds, marshes, and bays surrounding our new home were a kayak angler’s dream.
In between learning the lines on a small centerboard sloop, I spent countless hours paddling through the tidal creeks and bays in search of speckled trout, flounder, and striped bass.
I also envied the specialized fishing kayaks launching at the local boat ramp, those pedal-powered warships bristling with enough rod holders and electronics to outfit a center-console powerboat.
While those vessels are state of art in kayak fishing, any reasonably stable kayak will serve the angler well, especially with a few modifications.
7 of the best fishing kayaks on the market
Old Town Sportsman Bigwater 132
Best fishing kayak for offshore angling
Length: 13’ 2”
Weight: 122 lbs.
Reasons to Buy
• A fully accessorized fishing machine.
• Powerful propeller drive for instant forward and reverse.
• Capable of offshore travel and fishing.
• Stadium-style seat for comfort.
Reasons to Avoid
• At 122 pounds fully assembled, the Bigwater is a heavy boat.
• One of the most expensive fishing kayaks.
The earliest pedal kayaks used a flipper system to move the boat. Old Town utilizes a sophisticated propeller drive that offers instant power in forward or reverse.
The PDL system easily deploys in deep water and swings out of the way on the flats. Old Town’s pedal assembly also features a built-in dry box for storing personal items.
The Bigwater’s sharp hull entry cuts through swell to keep you dry when offshore. And while this boat is fast, it is still beamy enough to stand in. You can easily turn around to access tackle boxes, coolers, or other storage. A padded cockpit floor minimizes hull noise.
The fast-draining mesh seat is adjustable fore and aft and high or low. The high setting is great for fishing, while the low position is best for plowing through wind and chop.
The Bigwater features two built-in rod holders behind the seat. Additional tracks and pads are customizable to almost any aftermarket rod holder, electronics, or camera gear.
A voluminous forward hatch gives access to the entire hull interior. Side nooks along the inwales are great for maps, pliers, or other small items.
A retractable rudder deploys and steers from the cockpit. If you are chasing big fish on open seas, the Sportsman Bigwater 132 will get you there and back in style.
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Wilderness Systems Tarpon 120/140
Best fishing kayak for all-around use
Specifications 120 / 140:
Length: 12’ 3” / 14’ 5”’
Width: 31” / 28”
Weight: 63 lbs. / 68 lbs.
Reasons to Buy
• The tarpon is a tried-and-true SOT design.
• Mid-range cost.
• A versatile boat that capably meets every need.
Reasons to Avoid:
• Not a dedicated fishing kayak.
• Available only as a paddle vessel.
I have owned a Wilderness Systems Tarpon 140 for about ten years. My wife paddles a Tarpon 120. I can recommend either as an all-purpose paddler that can be modified to create an excellent fishing vessel.
I ordered my 140 with the “angling package”, which included a small anchor, one adjustable rod holder, and T-tracks for mounting accessories. The hull has two built-in rod holders.
Although the stern will accept a rudder, the Tarpon 140 tracks very straight without one. The biggest flaw is that the deck hatch leaks in stiff seas, but perhaps Wilderness Systems has rectified this problem in newer models.
Other than that, I’ve fished, hunted, and paddled hundreds of miles in my Tarpon 140 and loved every stroke along the way. It is a classic among SOT kayaks.
Old Town Sportsman Salty PDL 120
Best fishing kayak overall value
Old Town’s Sportsman line boasts seven boats, including the high-end Bigwater mentioned earlier. The Sportsman Salty PDL 120 offers many features of Old Town’s larger boat without the sticker shock.
At 12 feet, it’s big enough to accommodate all but the tallest anglers, yet it won’t swallow those of slighter build. The Salty comes with the same propeller drive as the Bigwater. This boat is intended for coastal use but is at home on any lake or stream.
There is an open tank well for storage in the bow rather than a hatch. The tank well is less protective than a hatch, but an open well makes it easier to access tackle, coolers, and other gear.
With loads of tracks, pads, and other installation points for custom touches, the Salty 120 will meet the needs of hardcore and entry-level anglers alike.
Weight: 104 lbs.
• Specialized for fishing.
• Lighter than its sister ship, the Bigwater.
• More affordable than the top-end pedal kayaks.
• Good value.
• No closed bow hatch for dry storage.
Wilderness Systems Recon 120
Best fishing kayak for big anglers
Length: 12’ 2”
Weight: 95 lbs.
• Wide and stable enough to stand in.
• Voluminous storage.
• Large weight capacity (450 lbs.)
• Attractively priced.
• Standard Recon 120 does not include pedal-drive.
• Pedal drive adds another $1,350.
Kayak fishing is precarious enough for folks of average build, but big anglers need a big boat. The Wilderness Systems has that in mind with the Recon 120.
It is shorter and wider than the Old Town Bigwater, which is why I give it the nod as our heavyweight boat. It is also lighter and less expensive,
But the Recon is still a dedicated fishing machine, with loads of storage and accessory points. I particularly like the large, gasketed bow hatch and the built-in rod troughs along each gunwale.
The Recon can be paddled, pedaled, or outfitted with an electric motor. But bear in mind that the pedal drive is sold separately. It is included only as part of the Recon HD package.
Advanced Elements StraightEdge Angler Pro Inflatable
Best fishing kayak inflatable
An inflatable might be just the answer for those who don’t have room to store a hard-hull kayak. They are not as stable or fast as a rotomolded polyethylene boat, but what inflatables lack in performance they make up for in convenience and portability.
Advanced Elements StraightEdge Angler Pro is an inflatable built with the itinerant fisherman in mind. It comes with a duffle bag for transport, and the seat also breaks down to carry in the bag.
Two 1-inch rails stiffen the boat and offer a place to mount accessories. The StraightEdge is stable enough to stand in. The bow does not yaw back and forth with every stroke. And a slot on the keel will accept either a fin for enhanced tracking or even an electric motor.
Length: 10’ 6”
Weight: 45 lbs.
• An inflatable designed specifically for anglers.
• Easy to transport
• Straight tracking.
• More rigid than many inflatables.
• Pump sold separately
• Not as durable as a rotomolded hull.
Perception Hi Life SOT/SUP Hybrid
Best fishing kayak to keep on deck
Weight: 55 lbs.
• Lightweight for easy storage on deck.
• Stand up or sit down to paddle.
• Less expensive than most rotomolded kayaks.
• Padded deck for comfort and quiet.
• Not a specialized fishing vessel.
• No side rod storage.
A full-size kayak is not always practical to keep on the deck of smaller boats. And a stand-up paddleboard may be too limiting for anglers who want more fishing performance.
That’s where the SOT/SUP hybrid comes in. Perception’s Hi Life blends the minimalist design of a paddleboard with the utility of a kayak that is easily handled and stowed on deck.
It is a paddleboard with a kayak seat. You can sit or stand, and the broad aft swim platform makes it easy to reboard after swimming. A center T-track forward of the seat makes it easy to accessorize with rod holders, cameras, and other components.
It’s an uncomplicated, award-winning design light enough to stow on deck but sturdy enough for fishing, exploring, or running to shore.
Perception Pescador Pro 12.0
Best fishing kayak for paddling
If you routinely paddle in shallow water or around obstructions such as oyster beds, coral, or rip rap, a pedal-drive kayak might not be the best choice. A traditional paddle ‘yak will take you everywhere you want to go without fear of snapping off your drive unit.
A 12-foot boat offers a nice balance of speed and maneuverability, making it about right for the average angler. The Perception Pescador Pro comes in a 12-foot and a 10-foot model, and either is a solid first fishing kayak.
It is paddle-only, which saves on the cost of a pedal drive and will take you into super shallow water. Yet it is still a specialized fishing kayak, with an elevated mesh seat, flush-mount rod holders, adjustable foot braces, and side T-tracks for accessories.
Weight: 64 lbs.
• Great entry-level features at a competitive price.
• A fishing design with rod holders and accessory mounting tracks.
• Relatively lightweight.
• No caps on rod holders to keep out rain and spray.
• The forward tank well has a mesh cover for security but is not waterproof.
What to look for in the best fishing kayaks
Here are some points to consider when adding a fishing kayak to your fleet. Fishing from a kayak can be precarious, so if angling is your primary use, make stability the first consideration.
As with any nautical design, stability often comes at the expense of speed. But for ‘yak anglers, the only reason to go fast is to get to the next fishing hole. So, favor beam over length.
As far as hull style, sit-on-top (SOT) kayaks are the way to go. Leave the sit-in kayaks to coastal cruisers and whitewater paddlers. Decked vessels simply are not as practical for fishing. You will get wetter in a sit-on-top kayak, but you will also catch more fish.
Seat height is another important factor. Many sit-on-tops have fixed seats that are flush with the cockpit floor, which can feel too low. An adjustable seat height will give you the proper platform for repetitive casting, along with better visibility.
My Wilderness Systems Tarpon 140 is a touring kayak with an angling package. While it is an excellent overall boat, I often wish I had a little more seat elevation.
Most dedicated fishing kayaks feature pedal propulsion. These nifty devices slide in and out of a slot, similar to a daggerboard. They pedal like a bicycle and offer hands-free maneuvering while casting. To cover water faster or traverse the shallows, raise the pedal unit and grab your paddle.
If you opt for a paddle-only kayak, you need an adjustable anchoring system to hold the boat at the desired angle to the wind. I simply cleat off my anchor line forward or aft to change the attitude of my boat, but I plan to install an aftermarket anchor trolly to make the adjustments easier and safer.
With these thoughts in mind, here are 7 vessels that offer good value and performance for serious fishing, casual exploring, or for keeping on the deck of a larger vessel.
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