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Kayak Fishing Fundamentals by Rob Fort

Kayak fishing in New Zealand continues to grow in popularity and many anglers now seriously consider the humble kayak as an effective way to catch fish. Not only are kayaks good for fishing, but also they offer us excellent health benefits. In a world where we are becoming more and more confined to the couch where some will spend a lot of time watching television or alternatively sit in front of the computer surfing the net. The kayak is an activity to take us away from all this technology and help us rediscover our adventurous side we all have to some degree. They say that lack of exercise can be a contributing factor to conditions that we can suffer like depression and anxiety to name a few. I would have to agree with this as I’m sure most of you would also and when I am unable to get out kayak fishing or diving for long periods I can get grumpy. Not only is keeping our bodies in good physical condition important but also the way we conduct our chosen kayaking activity. It is equally important to operate in a safe and considerate manner when out on the water.  In my opinion we are no different to any other vessel. Whether you choose to go off-shore, close to the coast or just out in the local harbour it is imperative that you keep safe. Most of us think that because you are in a kayak it is unnecessary to have the usual safety gear that is standard to boating in general let alone a proper safety plan should the inevitable happen. This misconception couldn’t be further from the truth and kayaks are far more vulnerable than most other vessels out on our lakes, rivers and oceans. In fact because of our vulnerability this is even more reason for us to select the right equipment when conducting this type of activity. This summer has brought yet another wave of new comers to the sport of kayak fishing and it’s great to see so many taking up this exciting water sport activity. With a growth in popularity the demand for fishing kayaks has also grown and this has led to the importation of a number of unknown brands into this country. These are priced well below the more reputable kayaks available and as a result are attracting a number of newbies to seriously consider them because some models have rod holders fitted. To the uneducated such kayaks give the impression that they are suitable for fishing our ocean environment. The situation is made worse by being available only through websites and with the onslaught of internet shopping more and more people are choosing to purchase kayaks this way. This can leave a very large gap in the amount of advice on offer because the internet environment lacks any personal interaction like you would normally receive when going to a specialist store. This is made worse because some of the traders selling them are just out to make a dollar and have no interest or knowledge on the subject of kayak fishing. As a result it is quite common for a potential purchaser to not receive advice in terms of equipment and operating techniques. So in other words by purchasing this way many new comers are literally throwing themselves into the deep end which leaves them open to all sorts of issues including safety. In terms of the cheap imported kayaks more often many have design flaws and as a result lack performance and stability because they have not been designed with New Zealand conditions in mind. The marine environment commands respect from all those who intend to visit for whatever reason and any failure to do so can cost you in equipment or worse still loss of life. Most of us are vigilant when it comes to taking every necessary precaution that ensures the safety of ourselves and gear. Beginners are obviously inexperienced and can be naive to problems that could possibly arise. You are much less likely to have any incidences by sticking to some core fundamental rules of thumb. If you are looking at getting into kayak fishing or just starting out then there are a few key points to consider. I cannot reiterate enough that it is best to take small steps when entering the world of kayak fishing. It is easy to overlook things when getting into fishing from kayaks and this can often put your emphasis towards equipment for fishing rather than general kayak operation. A classic example is a new comer who buys a fishing kayak believing it is ready for fishing straight away and goes out on the water expecting to catch fish. More often they are unsuccessful or at best this is limited to a few fish which is more often due to luck. As a result the newbie looks to change this and increase the success rate by adding a fish finder for example. This is done so at the exclusion of other more important core equipment like an anchor system and anchor. The new electronics will certainly aid in locating fish however because the user is unable to anchor on the sea floor or drift over them at a speed slow enough to get bait/softbait down into the zone they fail to be successful. I’m sure you have heard the saying crawl before you walk and walk before running and it is no different when fishing from a kayak. It important to also remember that what works for one person may not necessarily be right for another. Only by trying different methods will you gain experience that will in turn help equipment suitability. The good news is that in this day and age there are a number of products designed for the purpose of kayak fishing so it is much easier to make choices. This can be further enhanced by talking to specialist dealers of kayaks however some are not that knowledgeable on the subject of kayak fishing so be sure to find the right person. There is plenty of information on the internet including forums which can also be useful. Getting things right is paramount and the following summary can help point you in the right direction when getting started.  

Common Core Equipment

The Fishing Kayak

As mentioned previously be careful when choosing the right kayak for the job. It would take a whole article on the subject of kayak design to cover this properly. The only sound piece of advice is to try before you buy as this will confirm whether the kayak is right for you. Take it for a good paddle not just a quick session within a calm sheltered bay because the test will only be limited and kayaks handle differently when wind and chop come into play.

Running Anchor System

Most fishing styles require the deployment of an anchor of some sort to be successful. Because the kayak user is sitting down and confined to the cockpit area assigned to them it is not ideal to access the bow or stern (front or rear) where the anchor should usually be fixed from. The running anchor system over comes this by allowing the anchor to be run between two pulley blocks that are fixed at both ends of the kayak. Between the pulley blocks is a loop of cord and has a leader coming from them that connects to an anchor via a clip. This system works by allowing you to set the anchor at either end of the kayak and also move between when deploying or retrieving from the seated position. Obviously prevention is your best way of ensuring that things go as smoothly as possible and retrieving an anchor is one area that can put you at risk. Capsize can occur when the anchor is being retrieved from the seating position due to the central location to the kayak and this is why an anchor is never fixed like this. Running anchor systems are best for safe anchor retrieval and a correctly designed one will have a leader rope which attaches to the anchor by a type of clip. The leader length should be about half of the kayak and this will allow you to position the area where it joins to the main loop of the running anchor system to either end of the kayak (bow or stern) during retrieval of the anchor. By doing so will allow you quick release of the anchor should a swell come through placing the point of pressure away from the kayak centre and possible capsize.


There are two types of anchor commonly used with kayaks that are the drogue and fixed type. The drogue or sea anchor/drift chute is designed around drift fishing and is usually associated to soft bait fishing but can be used effectively with other techniques. The drift chute needs to be of a decent size and its best to source a specifically designed one for kayaks. As a guide they need to be big enough to slow the kayak down to less than one kilometre per hour. Because kayaks are affected by wind more than anything else a drogue should be the same size as those recommended for a five or six meter boat. The drogue won’t require a collapsing device because the kayak can be pulled to it when retrieving. It will need a float added to stop the drogue sinking and becoming less efficient. Fixed anchors that use rope to connect kayak with the bottom are best contained on a winder type system. The winder should float and be large enough to hold at least fifty meters or more of five millimetre rope with an option to adjust the length to suit the depth of water. On each end of the rope is thimbles with one stainless that connects to the running anchor system clip and the other galvanised. From here we have a shackle that connects to six meters of four millimeter galvanized chain. At the end of the chain is a final shackle connecting the preferred fixed anchor. There are two types of anchor available for kayak use with the grapnel more suited to reef situations. These usually have wire prongs that bend allowing the anchor to pull away easier from foul ground. Folding anchors are perfect for sand use because of the wide pick like blades that protrude from them with the one and a half kilo model more suitable in strong wind and current. The lighter seven hundred gram folding anchor can will hold the kayak over sand also but can also be used in reef situations. It is recommended that both these types of anchors be rigged using a break away system to increase the chance of successfully retrieving it especially when lodged on foul ground. On top of the main anchor types it is also possible to get purpose made hooks for use with mussel farms where normal anchors are not permitted. These allow you to correctly attach to the ropes which is a requirement of the mussel farm industry. Other items like specially made anchor bungees are also available that offer absorption when anchoring in areas with lifting swell that can cause the kayak to be catapulted. Some even have floats attached allowing easy relocation if you want to release from the anchor to fight a large fish. 

Leash it or lose it

One of the most commonly overlooked aspects of kayak fishing is the leash and there probably wouldn’t be a kayak angler that doesn’t have a story about how they lost something overboard. Rods in particular are venerable when not attached to the kayak. How you position the leash on the rod is also important. This should be done in such a way as to prevent the leash from slipping off the rod and this can mean placing it above the reel as well. Rods that don’t have their entire area below the reel seat covered in grip material can allow placement of leash in this area. If you are into going on solo missions then using a leash on items like your paddle are a must. The same applies to any other safety equipment you carry and also yourself which means tethering to the kayak. If this is you even if you don’t regularly go out on your own then consider what could happen if you fall out of your kayak and are separated from it for whatever reason. Windy conditions are likely to see the kayak blown away from you. Even if you’re anchored on the bottom and fall out you are still at risk of getting carried away by currents. In colder climates hypothermia can also affect your ability to get back to the kayak. Sometimes things can go wrong because of changing weather with unpredicted stronger winds turning up bringing rough sea conditions that can put you at risk of capsize. Staying attached with a tether will ensure you are connected to the kayak and should you get into trouble be much easier to find by search and rescue.

Above Left: Correct personal tethers have a bungee system incorporated. Above right: Life jackets (PFD) for kayaking activities are designed with less restrictions in the shoulders and arm areas.

Always wear a personal floatation device (PFD)

Choose a properly designed kayak specific personal flotation device (lifejacket) that is the correct size for your body and size. They are more comfortable to wear than standard PFD’s and won’t restrict your movements which means they can be worn all day long. Ensure it is the correct type for your activity as some PFD’s are rated inshore only. Many have pockets that allow you to carry things like phone, VHF radio, knife and more

Using the kayak

Learn to get back on the kayak after capsize

Many still don’t take practising re-entry to the kayak from deep water (over your head) as seriously as they should. Consider if you fall out and then find you can’t flip the kayak up-right and or get back on to it. In the first instance you’ll become short of breath which will be compounded as you continue to try without success. Panic may also start to make things harder for you and worse still your body is getting colder because of water temperature. Things will rapidly go downhill from here and if you are not found in time then eventually you will succumb to the elements. I know this seems harsh but your life is at risk so learn the skills and if you are not sure then learn from someone who can teach you to get back on your kayak from open water.

Above left: Learn to get back on the kayak after capsize. Right: Correct paddling technique will mean less effort, more power and greater distance.

Paddling basics

When you are paddling always keep a good body posture leaning slightly forward off the back of the seat. This will allow proper movement of the upper body for a better paddling technique and in turn a faster more efficient ride to the fishing spot. Try not to paddle with the arms only and also avoid movements that keep your shoulders square and in-line.

Getting through the surf

The surf zone is one area that seems to claim its fair share of equipment from kayak anglers. Coming back to shore through the surf is the most difficult aspect however any risk is not just limited to re-entry only and launches also carry risks at times. Rods/reels in rod holders are at risk and rods should be laid down and attached to the deck of your kayak. This will prevent them from getting smashed to pieces if you end up flipping the kayak on a wave. Reels need to be removed from the rods and placed into a dry bag then stowed on the kayak as they are likely to come into contact with sand and water that will mean a strip down, clean and re-lube. Other items like sun glasses, hats and anything else not attached to you or the kayak will also require securing before entering the surf zone. Understanding how to handle waves will greatly increase your chances of a successful entry or re-entry in the surf zone also. Once you understand the principles of how waves work then handling can be practiced using your own kayak with no fishing gear attached. Spending some time practicing on waves will give you better confidence to deal with them in the future.

Check the weather conditions before heading out fishing

Weather is another area that can be underestimated and just because the forecast says it is going to be sunny doesn’t mean it is ideal. Check the proper weather forecast which means the marine forecast and not just one either as they can get it wrong sometimes. Before going out on the water ensure the wind strengths are not going to make it difficult for you to paddle. More and more kayaker angler’s are travelling further afield in search of new fishing country which is one of the many advantages this style of fishing has. If you are planning on doing so think hard about situations you are likely to encounter in the area you intend to venture out to. Study a marine chart of the area and find out any other information you can from other kayakers. Things like the internet and kayak forums can help get you in touch with others and Google earth is also useful for checking the access and launch site etc. When it comes down to doing trips away kayak fishing it is preparation that will improve your chances of getting through any situation encountered while on board a kayak catching fish.

Kayak Fishing Check List for New Comers

  • Become familiar with your kayak and learn how to maneuver it in conditions you are comfortable with.
  • In a capsize situation learn how to get back into your kayak successfully from open water. Practice this in safe waters when conditions are calm which can be found in a sheltered bay.
  • Tether yourself to the kayak with the correct type of tether line if you venture out on your own.  If you become separated from your kayak due to capsize while out on the water because of wind or current, then there is a high probability that you are unable to catch up to the kayak by swimming alone.
  • Carry the correct safety equipment – VHF, cell phone, flares, first aid kit, personal locating beacon (Epirb) etc.
  • Don’t go past your physical ability and know your own limitations. Always save a bit of energy in reserve for the return journey back to your launch site. If you push yourself to the limit and run out of steam due to fatigue while fishing then your ability to get home may be jeopardized. Conditions are best if they favor the wind direction is against you on the way to your destination and behind you on the way home when your energy levels have been depleted.
  • Always carry plenty of food and water to fuel the body during the duration of your kayak fishing adventure.
  • Check the weather forecast for any adverse weather conditions or wind warnings.
  • Always tell someone about your trip intentions and expected time of return.
  • Become familiar with any rules and regulations you are required to comply with in your area by local authorities.
  • If you launch from a boat ramp, then never leave your kayak sitting on the ramp while retrieving your vehicle. Position the kayak to one side of the ramp so as not to cause congestion with other boats waiting to use it to launch or retrieve.
  • Wear hi-visibility clothing and apparel so you are more easily seen by other vessels on the water. Hi-visibility hats are far more easily seen due to the constant visible area they offer as opposed to a flag which can have very little profile depending on wind direction.
  • If you stay out fishing till the change of light or are paddling in the early morning before sunrise to your fishing destination then you are at the risk of being run over by other boats without a light. When planning to travel during dark hours use an approved navigation light so you are clearly seen from all directions.  


Above left: Check the weather forecast prior to heading out. Sites like swell map are perfect because they cover many areas Click image to visit the website. Above right: Hi-visibility clothing is vital for kayak use and will make you much easier to be seen by other water users.