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Surface dwellers

Kayaks are smooth and easy, but fish would describe them in less glowing terms.

By DAVID A. BROWN
© St. Petersburg Times
published August 16, 2002


The next time you visit your local lakeside boat ramp, count how many trips from vehicle to boat the average fisherman makes before launch, then observe a kayak angler's routine. True, no sane paddler would attempt to race a motorboat, but in terms of launch speed, few can top a kayak's quick-in, quick-out simplicity. No ramp? No problem. If you can reach the water, you can launch a kayak.

Craig Munz of Florida Adventure Outfitters, a paddle sports shop in Land O'Lakes, rents kayaks to paddlers of varying skill levels. Fishermen, he said, appreciate the kayak's portability, maneuverability and shallow water accessibility.

Typical freshwater targets include bluegill, catfish, carp and largemouth bass. With the latter, visual cues, such as submerged structure, leaping baitfish and movement within grass lines factor heavily in locating your quarry. Granted, such evidence is visible from traditional fishing boats, but if you can see the fish, they have seen you. Furthermore, most species are more likely to tolerate a kayak's low, narrow profile than the imposing form of an angler standing tall on the bow of a motorboat.

During a recent Bell Lake outing, Munz's sister, Julie Flynt, spotted a sunken tree just outside a stand of lily pads. A closer look revealed a dozen bass milling around the spot. A quick hookup ended in a break off, but Flynt's ability to slide within 10 feet of the fish without sending them packing exemplified the benefits of kayak fishing.

A kayak's downside is limited gear space, but a little custom rigging will transform the slender vessel into a lean, mean, fishing machine. The key is rigging and carrying only what you need, so avoid mimicking a Swiss army knife, as excess gear will impair paddling speed and fishing performance.

Common additions include rod-holders, a livewell for bait and a small sand anchor. Dry bags or waterproof trays will keep cameras, cell phones and other valuables safe, and a small, soft-sided cooler gives you a place to keep snacks and beverages. Most kayaks have forward and/or aft storage hatches, but you also can carry a few items in your cockpit.

Choosing your boat

Kayaks come in a variety of styles and materials, with choices available for everyone from pros to first-timers. When selecting a vessel, initial considerations are how much boat you want around your body and whether you want company.

Kayaks come in open-sided sit-on-tops and enclosed sit-in models. The names are self-explanatory, but know that sit-on-tops are more apt to take on water and bobbled gear often goes into the drink.

Single-seat kayaks are shorter and more maneuverable, but you're on your own for propulsion. With tandem models, you get more paddling power, plus the luxury of alternate rest breaks during long trips. The drawbacks are greater length and weight, which can affect speed and maneuverability.

Entry level kayaks made of polyurethane start around $300, with high-end fiberglass models fetching $2,000 or more. Common lengths vary from 9-foot singles to 15-foot tandem boats.

Paddling techniques

Kayaks are more stable than canoes because your center of gravity is on the bottom of the boat. In a canoe, your weight is higher off the bottom. To make a kayak tip, you have to lean from side to side.

Kayaks are powered by double-ended paddles with downward sloping blades that work complementary of one another. With the long edge pointing up, submerge one blade slightly ahead of the cockpit and push forward with the opposite blade, while pulling backward with the immersed end. Alternate from side to side in a circular rhythm for fluid propulsion and a low-impact, cardiovascular workout. Contrary to the constant pulling of a canoe stroke, the kayak stroke keeps your body in balance and minimizes fatigue. Every forward push should naturally blend into a backward pull.

Alternating strokes usually keeps the kayak on a true course, but to adjust direction, stroke wider on the side to which you're turning and tighter on the opposite side. To reduce speed or stop, hold one blade perpendicular to the boat for maximum water drag. For optimal efficiency, relax and work with the kayak, not against it. Rigid posture limits your ability to adjust. Also, sit high, pivot at the waist, use your shoulders more than your arms and resist the urge to lean forward and back with each stroke.

Other considerations

Bumpy ride: Even when everyone plays nice and keeps a respectable distance, wakes from powerboats and personal watercraft can send a splash your way -- especially if you're sitting abeam to the oncoming waves. Avoid this by positioning your bow or stern perpendicular to the turbulence.

Breeze blown: With smooth bottoms and very shallow profiles, kayaks glide across the water's surface with little drag. Therefore, windy conditions can make it difficult to hold a position, unless you drop anchor. Suddenly zipping over a group of fish or awkwardly rustling amid emergent vegetation can nullify your stealthy approach. Preserve your advantage by approaching against the wind: It's better to paddle back up to your spot a dozen times than to blow over it once.

Pickpockets: If you're keeping fish and hanging your catch overboard on a stringer, affix the stringer in clear sight. Alligators and even large snapping turtles have been known to sneak up behind waders or boats with floating catches and help themselves to a quick meal. Their interest generally stops at the freebies, but a sudden tug-of-war can lead to dropped gear or capsizing.

True, kayaks probably aren't practical for the long distances and extensive tackle selection inherent to professional bass tournaments. But for a low-key day on the local lake, these simple vessels provide a unique perspective on fun fishing. The best part is the only fuel you'll burn helps keep you in shape for your next outing.

-- For freshwater kayak lessons and rentals, contact Adventure Outfitters at (813) 996-0886.

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