Paddles, pedals and power: Expanding the range of kayaks on the flats. By Jerry McBride
Some anglers view the slow speed of kayaks or canoes as limiting factors in catching flats fish. Not me. Access to unorthodox launch sites and water off-limits to powerboats, along with the inherent stealth, more than make up for any shortcomings. And fish and fish habitat are easier to spot at four knots than at 40.
To the uninitiated, canoes and kayaks may appear interchangeable. In truth, they’re very different beasts whose fortunes, at least locally, appear headed in opposite directions.
There was a time not that long ago when paddling was synonymous with canoeing. Paddling saltwater grassflats today, it’s obvious that kayaks have supplanted canoes as Florida’s personal fishing craft of choice.
The reasons are mostly logistical. Canoes are generally heavier, take up more storage space, and are unwieldy for a lone fisherman to transport or paddle. Those tall gunnels expose a lot of surface area to the wind, and instant corrections are needed to maintain control if a breeze kicks up.
However, it’s hard to see the canoe ever fading into obscurity. They’re inexpensive packhorses for hauling the family or lugging a week’s worth of camping gear. And there’s nothing more indestructible for banging around Big Bend oyster bars than an aluminum canoe. With a good partner paddling or manning a trolling motor in the rear, they remain outstanding platforms for sight fishing Florida grassflats in sheltered areas.
Having owned both, I’ve found that kayaks are generally more versatile and user-friendly, with a rapid and more forgiving learning curve for novices. Rotomolded sit-on-top kayaks, which dominate Florida’s market, are virtually unsinkable flotation devices. Their low profiles don’t grab the wind, and on-deck seating keeps the center of gravity low and rollovers infrequent. For experienced kayakers, there are few days when the weather knocks flats off-limits. And the kayak market has seemingly exploded with choices.
If my sole objective was to catch fish, I’d buy a pedal-drive kayak. Pedal drives produce increased torque which easily overcomes wind and waves, so I reach the fishing grounds sooner in adverse conditions. Legs provide more strength and stamina than arms, so I can go farther, fish longer, and get back faster. And the pedals leave my hands free to fish, making casting possible even when I’m moving between spots. In wind and current that quickly pushes a paddle kayak off the spot, foot-drives emulate a trolling motor that lets me hover quietly off a point, pothole, piling or other fish-holding structure.
They’re more efficient after the hookup as well; without putting down the rod, I can pressure a fish at more effective angles, and I can chase down a tarpon that threatens to outrun my line capacity. The pedals also produce enough instant power to perhaps coax a snook from structure that might otherwise culminate in a cut line. They shorten the fight.
Afterward, they’re even handy for towing a fish to revive it prior to release.
The combined result is that my lure spends a lot more time in the water.
For all those reasons, I break out a pedal-drive kayak whenever I head offshore, or to the flats if the wind kicks up beyond 20 knots, or if I fish the rare tournament. Otherwise, I stick with my hand-driven paddle kayaks.
Unless wind and wave conditions are truly adverse, I never feel at a disadvantage in a paddle boat. In light winds, I can reach the flats just as quickly. I fish with a guy who watches his GPS, and it consistently registers 4 to 4½ mph whether we’re pedaling or paddling. And if the plan is to wade-fish, my hands are free to cast no matter how I reach the grassflats.
I find paddle kayaks offer other practical advantages as well.
They operate much shallower, and are unmatched for silently easing onto a grassflat.
There’s nothing more responsive in maneuvering around docks or mangroves (most pedal kayaks don’t reverse).
I can store a lot more gear—even fishing rods—inside the hull, and the cleaner deck has fewer snags to grab my fishing line. Of course, they’re much cheaper to purchase.
And I find there’s just something hypnotic about settling into a smooth, steady paddling rhythm. At the end of the day, I feel an unexplainable sense of accomplishment.
It’s no trick to empower just about any canoe or kayak. Clamp on a mounting bracket, attach a stern-mount trolling motor and battery, and you’re off…to the local tax office. Florida law requires registration of motorized vessels.
Battery power is not a polite topic of conversation among paddling purists. To them, even foot-driven boats border on heresy; electric kayaks, in their view, miss the point of kayaking entirely (another testament to America’s obsession with obesity). To a guy who just wants to reach the flats, electric kayaks offer affordable transportation that fits on the roof of the car and stores in the garage.
No matter which side of that aesthetics argument you land on, keep in mind that paddle fishing tournaments clearly delineate between manual and electric propulsion. Leave the batteries home if you fish tournaments.
Fire up a Web search engine for an overview of the many electric options hitting the market. Several models that emerged in the last year are the Hobie eVolve, Ocean Kayak Torque and the Native Watercraft Volt.
The Hobie eVolve gives current MirageDrive owners the option of replacing drop-in pedals with a 6-pound German-built Torqeedo electric motor, or mounting it on the Twist and Stow rudder to supplement the pedal drive (ambitious kayakers can use both at the same time). The Torqeedo utilizes a 6.6-pound lithium-manganese battery that allows up to an 8-hour run time. An integrated GPS and remote throttle displays battery charge status, remaining range and speed over ground. Suggested retail is $1,899.
The Torqeedo also attaches to virtually any rigid kayak hull, and has an automatic kick-up feature to protect the prop if it strikes an obstacle. Suggested retail price is $1,799.
Ocean Kayak’s Torque is based on the Trident 13. An internally mounted Minn Kota 36-pound saltwater trolling motor presents a clean deck profile, while providing infinite forward and reverse speeds. Suggested retail price is $1,999. Johnson Outdoor’s Sam Heaton and I took a pair of Torques fishing last year for a Florida Sportsman WebXtra. Check out the FS Web site for pictures and specs.
The Volt is the electric option in the Native Watercraft MultiSport series, which encompasses the Ultimate and the Mariner series, ranging from 10 to 16 feet in length. The Volt relies on an 18-pound trolling motor that swings up in front of the kayak seat when not in use or in water too shallow for operation. Prices range from $2,100 to $2,500.
Downsides beyond initial expense in using any of these products? First, drop-down propellers require considerably greater operating depth. Then there’s the extra weight, expense of batteries, decreased deck space and extended launch times.
Surprisingly, in my experience electric kayaks aren’t any faster than a well-designed standard kayak; they simply require less manual labor. And if you’re of the opinion that shallow-water fish have learned to recognize and fear trolling motor noise, then there’s every reason to assume that electric kayaks may also alert fish to your presence. Consider turning off the motor and paddling (or pedaling, if you have the Hobie eVolve) or drifting the final hundred yards. If the motor is necessary to maintain position, operate it at a constant setting no higher than necessary.
Wading is often the best approach of all, once you’ve reached the desired area. But if the bottom is soft or too deep to wade, that’s okay. A couple precautions can net excellent results fishing from the kayak (or from any type of vessel, for that matter).
Most importantly, try to avoid announcing your arrival to the fish. Always paddle upwind or upcurrent of the target area, and drift silently. Barging into the fish, even in a kayak, sends out pressure waves. Be silent, be more successful, in the shallows.
On breezy days, look for sheltered spots where wind and tide are in opposition. Cast with the wind, and allow your bait or lure to drift back toward fish pointing into the current.
Wading the flats requires anchoring or beaching the kayak. Minimize hull slap on windy days by anchoring some distance away.
Tied off at the bow, a couple pounds of lead accomplish that task on calm days. But windy days are when wading really shines. No need to steal the Danforth off the big boat. Here are some lightweight options that ensure the canoe or kayak doesn’t wander away.
My kayaks have bungeed paddle shelves on both gunnels, perfect for keeping a long stick anchor quiet and out of the way. My preference goes toward a pole with lots of flex (www.stickitanchorpins.com). Retail prices start at $49.95. Clip it on at the bow when wading; sticking it in a scupper hole generates a very audible thump every time a wave hits the hull.
Then there’s the traditional folding anchor, available at any kayak or marine outlet. Lightweight and compact, it’s theoretically perfect for kayak use. Potential problems: It can be noisy on a bouncy deck. Worse, the prongs don’t reliably lock open and grab bottom. Depending on weight, the retail prices range from $10 to $25.
I’ve grown very fond of my homemade tube anchor with copper wire prongs. I discovered the instructions for construction on the FS No Motor Zone Forum a few months ago. It adheres to any type of bottom, and I don’t have to worry about hanging up in deep structure; the wire prongs bend if you pull hard. I spent around $10 on copper wire and tubing.
Then there’s the anchor-free method. I never kayak without a tow rope in case a partner prefers to nap or read a book while I paddle home. The cord doubles for tying off to a mangrove branch, a downed tree or another anchored kayak. Stainless steel carabiners expedite anchoring or towing.
Hobie introduced their MirageDrive in 1997. The Mirage employs a stair-stepper motion to engage penguin-type flippers. The stroke length is adjustable to accommodate kids through tall adults. The company’s 10 pedal models range from 9 to 16 feet, and include inflatables and tandems. Major attribute: The pedal drive does not need to be removed in shallow water. By pulling back either of the pedals, the blades nest up against the hull. And although 15 to 18 inches of depth is required to fully extend the blades, a shortened pedal stroke allows operation in depths as shallow as 8 to 10 inches. Another cool feature: the tandem Oasis and Outfitter models now feature dual steering. Should the angler in back hook up, his partner in the bow can take over driving duties.
Kayakers can also choose among three blade styles to customize performance and operational depth. Suggested retail price for Hobie single MirageDrive kayaks is $1,799. Add around $500 for the Pro Angler, Hobie’s sightfishing beast. Tandem models featuring twin MirageDrives are comparably priced.
Native Watercraft began competing in this segment last year, with the introduction of the Propel. A bicycle motion rotates the twin-blade propeller with a 1:10 drive ratio. Five models ranging from 10 to 16 feet are currently offered in Ultimate sit-insides and the recently introduced Mariner sit-on-tops. Major attribute: Pedaling backward puts the boat in reverse gear. Suggested retail prices start at $1,799. FS