Kayaking East Texas
In Love With Kayaks
By Dr. Lynn Gray
I’ve fished most of my life – a lot of it from the shore. Even at a tender age, it was clear that much of the best water was inaccessible without a boat. Unlike a stream or river where wading is possible in many parts of the flow, if you’re fishing in East Texas, you need a boat to get to the majority of the fish. Bass boats are great when you want that feeling of zipping across the water at 60 mph with your ears pinned back, but there are times when you just want (need) simplicity, peace and quiet. Enter the kayak…
Let’s start by my admitting that I am certainly no expert on kayaks and my experience is anything but vast. The contents of this article are based on my personal experience and a little research. My goal is to provide enough information to get someone started if this sort of approach to fishing seems interesting. If I had to sum up the advantages of these sleek little boats in but a few words, I would say: portability, stability and stealth. Fly fishing from my kayak gives me nearly the “oneness” with the water as wading – and I can have it right here on East Texas waters. To appreciate the virtues of fishing kayaks, it’s helpful to know a little about them. You can get as scientific as you want in your research, but I would advise anyone considering purchasing one to at least do a little homework and especially, to take one or more out on the water for a test-drive. Ask friends and retailers and do some window shopping on the INTERNET. A little research up front pays off in the long run as you search for a boat that meets your particular needs.
Kayaks come in two basic types. The traditional sit-down-inside-of type is what most folks think of when they hear the word “kayak” – usually in the context of a daredevil paddler racing through white water spray. You can fish out of them, certainly, but, kayaks made primarily for fishing are more recent inventions and are usually classified as “sit-on-top” boats. Traditional kayaks are great for white water paddling and touring, but make for somewhat less stable fishing platforms, so I’ll confine this discussion to sit-on-top models.
Modern fishing kayaks are lightweight, weighing from 45 lbs to over 70 lbs. Because most are made of polyethylene or other polymers, you don’t sacrifice durability. They are tough and sunlight resistant. Weights for mid-size boats average 65 lbs. or less. This makes a kayak readily manageable even for women like me. An average person can handle loading and unloading the boat alone if necessary. All but the longest boats can be carried in the back of a pickup (with acceptable overhang) and any of them can be carried on a car-top rack such as those made by Yakima or Thule. You can also use the much cheaper foam block carriers if you don’t want the expense of the permanent racks and there are even lightweight trailers available. Tie-downs don’t have to be heavy duty because the boats are so light.
Essentially, the longer and narrower the boat, the faster (but less stable) the boat is. In other words, if you want a stable-feeling fishing boat, it needs to be wider and you have to give up some speed. Personally, I think one of the real advantages of fly fishing out of a kayak is the boat’s stability. I can concentrate on my casting rather than on remaining upright. Also, it’s really great to be able to change positions and even sit on the edge of the kayak without tipping. Bending over to unhook a fish is a piece of cake! I’ve seen really agile folks stand up in the things! Even an inch or two in beam width can influence how stable the boat feels. This is a major reason to test-drive a few kayaks if possible.
Fishing kayaks range from 11’ to 18’ with the majority being close to 14’ long. Beam width varies, but 25”to 28” seems to be popular. If you’re fishing tight coves or small creeks off the main lake, consider a small or mid size craft. If, on the other hand, you intend to regularly tour large lakes or rivers and cover a lot of water, the longer, faster models may be more comfortable. Consider how you will carry your kayak (a car-top rack or trailer is essential for the really long boats) and what kind of gear storage you will need. Will you be camping and carrying these supplies in your boat or do you mostly plan shorter day outings? The mid size and long, touring boats tend to have better dry storage than the really short boats, making the former excellent choices for carrying lots of gear.
Because kayaks present such a low profile, you are lower in the water and, I’m convinced, less visible to the fish. I have been able to approach shore birds, turtles and other animals quite easily in the kayak (even more so than in a canoe) and they just don’t seem to notice till you get really close. This is a real advantage if you like to photograph or just watch nature while you fish. On my own small lake, which is very clear, fish swim right under the kayak and seem undisturbed by my presence. When fishing small waters stealth is a must. The kayak is perfect for a quiet approach and allows for multiple casts to the same target waters without scaring spooky fish. I like to do my paddling well away from the target area and simply glide in, gradually slowing my approach by gently dipping the paddles in the water to put on the brakes.
Kayaking East Texas:
Small lakes (several acres and up) are ideal for kayaking. The stealth afforded by these boats allows easy approach for fly-casting to spooky fish where the sound of a trolling motor might end your opportunity for catching fish that day. Unpressured, private waters are the best, but one of my favorite impoundments for kayaking is Tyler State Park. It is just a beautiful place – not too big, but large enough to be interesting. The water is clear and there is relatively little fishing pressure. You can fish for the typical warm-water species anytime (including some really big bass) and in the winter, when its spring-fed waters get cold, the lake is stocked with trout. They aren’t big, but they are fun to chase (and sometimes catch) in the kayak. Big lakes (such as Lake Fork) are also fun to fish, but you have to be selective about where you fish. The very low profile that makes you less visible to fish also makes you less visible to high-speed boats, so crossing open water can be dangerous. Waves and weather are also a threat in larger lakes. Most of the state park lakes and county lakes (like the Wood County lakes of Holbrook and Hawkins) are excellent kayak territory and have less fishing/boating pressure than the bigger impoundments. I haven’t done it yet, but I long to get together with a group of fellow kayakers and fish Caddo sometime!
Manufacturers and Cost:
Major manufacturers of kayaks include Cobra, Hobie, Ocean Kayaks, Perception and Wilderness Systems to name only a few. I would advise shopping on the INTERNET first to familiarize yourself with what’s out there (and the costs) and then go and visit retailers to actually see the boats. Costs for the boat alone range from about $400 to well over $2000. During my own search in Tyler, I looked at several Hobie models (Simpson’s Bike & Sail Fitness & Adventure Sports) and Wilderness Systems (“The Ride” model) at Backcountry. I also fished out of a friend’s Perception. I asked lots of questions of retailers and kayak owners before making a decision to buy. Our local retailers were very helpful to me and frankly, all of the boats they offered were of fine quality and reasonably priced. I settled on the Wilderness Ride model (13.5’ long, 28” beam and 63 lbs.) and have been very happy with my choice. Check the manufacturers’ websites on the INTERNET for retailers and their locations if you have a specific brand in mind. I have listed several websites below that I found with just a quick search under “fishing kayaks.” Also, I have included several Tyler retailers and the brands they handle. Call them for details.
You can trick out a kayak pretty much to the extent of your bank account. (If you have a bass boat, you know all about this.) Some models come with optional rudders and others are even pedal driven! Plan to pay more for these extras (the pedal-driven Hobie Mirage comes in at about $1200 on the INTERNET sources I visited.) You can also accessorize to the hilt (see the next section) with rod holders, fancy seats, straps, anchors, etc. or keep it simple. A basic kayak in the 13 to 14’ size range probably averages around $800, more or less. Add a comfortable seat (about $90), a decent paddle ($70 - $100), a PFD (lifejacket) and you’re up to about $1000 for the whole outfit. You can go cheaper or more expensive on the accessories, but I would urge you to put your emphasis and your cash into the boat itself. You can always upgrade your other equipment later, but having a comfortable boat that you can fish out of all day (without visiting the chiropractor) is essential!
Some excellent information on kayak selection and accessories can be found at Kayak Fishing in Southern California and Baja
, Canoeing and Kayaking Info - Paddling.Net
and Kayak Online - Info on kayaks, kayaking and kayak gear
. If your interest is in saltwater fishing, Coastal Kayak Fishing
is a good site. Local retailers in Tyler that either have kayaks in stock or can get them include: Backcountry (Wilderness Systems Kayaks in stock), Jones Creek Orvis (they can order Cobra boats for you) and Simpson’s Bike & Sail Fitness & Adventure Sports (Hobie kayaks in stock.) These retailers are a great source of information and can help you with your selection with personal experience. Call them for information about available models and accessories.
Some accessories are, indeed, not optional. You have to have a paddle (unless, perhaps, you have one of the pedal-driven kayaks) and you want one that that is stiff enough to drive your boat, but light enough not to wear you out. Save that strength for the fishing! The kayak paddle is at first intimidating and does require some basic coordination. Using one effectively takes a little practice but in still waters, the technique is not too difficult and mostly involves evening out the strength of your stroke on each side of the kayak to keep the boat going straight. The paddle is also used as a rudder in rudderless boats, slowing/stopping the boat and backing up. You will be amazed at the mobility achieved with such little effort once you know what you’re doing. Your retailer can help you as can your friends who have some experience. You can even get information on technique from some of the kayak websites listed above. Paddles are made from a variety of materials including wood, plastic, nylon, fiberglass and the ultimate, carbon fiber. On the low end, cheap plastic paddles will cost you a little over $30, whereas, at the upper end, carbon fiber paddles can run over $400. For fishing, I personally like wood due to its economy, light weight and durability, plus, it’s just pretty. Blade size and construction is important, too. For fishing (rather than touring) a mid-size, cupped blade works just fine. The great big blades suitable for long-distance touring can really tire you out and are usually not necessary for fishing. Consider durability and especially the paddle tips. If you use that light-as-a-feather, $400 carbon blade to push off the shore or to retrieve your fly from some lake structure, you will chip it. Look for paddles that have reinforced tips to take the punishment likely to be encountered on a fishing trip. Save the touring paddles for touring and speed or at least until you gain some experience in determining the ideal paddle for your purposes. Most modern paddles are the take-down type such that you can easily store/transport the paddle and also change the angle of the blades (for different stroke techniques.) If you want to look at a large selection of paddles in many price ranges, REI (Recreational Equipment, Inc.) in Dallas is a good place to check out. They also stock many kayaks, but not too many fishing types. Local retailers here in East Texas either stock or can obtain good paddles and offer very competitive prices. Once again, window-shopping the INTERNET first is a good idea.
One accessory to the paddle that I have recently started using is a paddle leash (after doing a little sea kayaking in the surf.) This device is essentially a coiled cord attached on one end to the center of the paddle (Velcro strap) and clipped to the boat at the other end. It does what it says in that it leashes the paddle to the boat and keeps you from losing the paddle if you drop it over the side. I like to fish with the paddle laid across my lap and the paddle leash prevents its loss if I lean over to land a fish and get clumsy. I particularly want one of these if the water is cold or if there is current that is likely to carry a dropped paddle off in a hurry. You can also get paddle clips that can be attached to the side of the kayak for paddle storage while you fish. The set I purchased from Backcountry doubles as a rod holder. You can also make your own paddle/rod straps out of cut-to-length Velcro straps.
Seats, PFD’s and other accessories
I consider a removable, comfortable seat essential. It really saves your back during a long day in the boat. A good website for kayak seats is found at: Surf to Summit, Kayak Seats, Sit-on-top Kayak Accessories, Kayak Backrests, Kayaks
. I purchased mine locally, and actually at a better price, but this site gives you a look at a variety of seats ranging from about $50 to over $120.
Another must is a PFD (personal flotation device) which most of us would call a lifejacket. No matter how stable your fishing kayak is, you can still fall out of it or be tipped by a wave or boat wake. People drown on East Texas lakes all the time because they weren’t wearing a life jacket. Because your arms require a fair range of motion in paddling a kayak, you may prefer a true paddling vest over a regular fishing PFD. The former cost more but are totally adjustable for a really comfortable, custom fit. Kokatat and Extrasport make some very nice paddling vests (particularly for women) if you’re willing to spend the $100 or more. I like the fit and flotation these vests offer when I kayak in my waders during the winter. In the summer, the CO2 cartridge-activated flotation devices like SOSpenders are cooler alternatives and don’t restrict your arms. Of course, a regular life jacket will work just fine if it’s comfortable. Just remember, you move your arms a lot in paddling the kayak and I have had some lifejackets that interfered with my stroke and made me sore (but were fine in the bass boat.) Other accessories include mounted rod holders, compasses, anchors, dry bags and waterproof cell phone cases to name a few. The sky and your pocketbook are the limit as you accessorize!
Fishing kayaks are not necessarily dry boats. Most have one or more scupper holes that can be plugged (for a drier boat) or left open in warm weather for a cooler ride. I fish year round in mine, using my waders in the winter to stay dry and warm. With the waders, I like rubber sole scuba or flats boots since they keep the boat drier than felt sole wading boots. I always wear a PFD when kayaking with the waders (and don’t forget the wader belt.) I usually carry flies in a neck or chest tackle pack since space is limited. Since kayaks come in a wide variety of color choices, consider how visible you want to be. Bright colors are great when you want visibility to other boaters or kayakers in your group, whereas, if you intend to fish small waters where power boats are limited, you might want a subtler color to enhance your stealth. Even if your boat is neutral in color (and less visible) you can improve its visibility when appropriate with a pennant flag on a removable, flexible pole sold through a number of the kayak websites. If you don’t want to carry your boat to the water by the handles, there are “kayak caddies” available from several manufacturers that give your boat wheels for easy transport to and from the water. Fishing kayaks are becoming a more common sight on East Texas waters and they offer a versatility and simplicity that is almost as good as wading. I urge you to give one a try. You might just fall in love!