By Steve Griffin
There’s no such thing as kayak fishing.
At least no such single thing. In Michigan, a variety of species and settings are perfect matches for the kayak.
We talk about kayak fishing — sometimes even contract the two words into kayakfishing — as if it were a singular pastime, easily defined. But in Michigan, it’s a cluster of pursuits: Great Lakes salmon and trout trolling; inland lake angling for bass, pike and panfish; river fishing adrift, anchored or in waders, for trout, salmon, smallmouths or others.
What they share is fishing intimacy, excitement and, sometimes, economy. Kayaks offer a closeness to the water that perhaps only the wader-clad can understand. A feeling of self-reliance perhaps shared with the backpacker, who makes the most of the least. Self-direction is valued by anyone who has had to do — or not do — whatever the captain says.
I was just getting my feet (and, yes, my seat) wet in plain-vanilla, recreational kayaking nearly two decades ago when, on a Lake Huron beach, my wife and I watched a pair of young guys pull up, toss two plastic kayaks off their pick-up and load them with gear. They told us they’d hammered lake trout the day before, and then they vanished across the water.
Maybe my mouth hung open. Perhaps my eyes glassed over. But my wife said softly, “I can tell what you’re thinking.”
Within a month, I’d made some truly fumbling forays onto small ponds near home in a short, sit-inside kayak and read a pioneering book on kayak fishing and, a few weeks later, carried a sit-on-top fishing kayak on my Subaru almost full-time, sliding it into an inland lake, a river, or a Great Lake at every opportunity.
And boy-oh-boy, do we have opportunities.
But first, let’s leave some kayak basics in our wake.
Kayaks come in two configurations — sit-in, the kayaker seated within a hollow cockpit, and sit-on, which not surprisingly puts one atop a sealed hull. You can fish from either — but it’s far easier from a sit-on-top, with more rigging options and freer movement. You get a little more wet, but you’ll likely catch more fish.
What about length and width? The longer and narrower the boat, the quicker it moves and straighter it tracks. The shorter and wider, the faster it turns and more stability it offers.
Was I a specialist, I might pick a longer boat for bigger water and a shorter one for little places. But, I’m a generalist; my boat is 15 feet long, 28 inches wide, and in it, I am comfortable pursuing Platte Bay’s salmon on Lake Michigan, bluegills on a no-name borrow pit and smallmouth bass and walleyes in my hometown Tittabawassee River. I’ve caught pike from the U.P.’s Muskallonge Lake, coho salmon from Lake Michigan off New Buffalo and other species elsewhere — and yet, I’ve only scratched the surface of Michigan’s potential.
The last major consideration is power: paddle, pedal or even electric motor. I love a traditional paddle and have learned to cover distances, fine-tune fishing presentations, and battle and boat fish with a safety-leashed paddle in my hands or across my lap. Others love pedal drives: like a drummer on a kit, one’s feet can do one task (power the boat) while the arms do another (fish!). Electric kayak motors are very pricey and to me, transform a kayak into a powerboat.
Weight matters, too. My car’s luggage rack is rated for up to 100 pounds, but my kayak’s roughly 60 pounds is all I want to hoist up there. A trailer is a popular option, but I like the spontaneity that comes with a car-topped boat at the ready.
Where to fish from a kayak? Truly, just about anywhere there’s water. And in Michigan, that’s almost everywhere.
The little boats — secure, subtle and even sneaky, may shine brightest on inland lakes. I love slipping along a shoreline so quietly a homeowner working on his lawn jumps when he hears the splash of the spawning crappie I’ve just hooked.
I once snuck through a Wixom Lake culvert, through which a boat couldn’t have passed, to work a pod of bedding bluegills no one but a few property owners could cast to. Never mind the spiders…. the ‘gills were epic!
Spinning, spin casting and baitcasting are little changed in a kayak, while fly fishing is a bit tougher because of the low-to-the-water seated pose. Pivot the backcast a bit higher or — and I don’t practice or even recommend it — learn to stand and fish.
On rivers, kayaks make great transport and fishing platforms, easily moving up, down or across the current. Some favor a trolley-rigged anchor, to stay in position and fish a hole thoroughly; I prefer free-drifting and then paddling back upstream for another pass. Using a kayak to hop-scotch from one wadeable fishing spot to another works well, too.
But when it comes to my kayak fishing first love, it’s trolling, especially with Great Lakes trout or salmon in the crosshairs.
A friend was fishing the pre-dawn, Platte Bay surf in waders the day I boated my first kayak Chinook. He knew it happened without actually seeing the strike and the fight: I was running full navigation lights, and from a half-mile he saw their movement speed double when the king took off for Manitou Island, pulling me behind on a freshwater ‘Nantucket Sleighride.’ When the lights no longer moved, he figured I’d either broken off or boated the fish — a challenging task of its own, sliding a hook-dangling Chinook onto one’s lap. But a fish brought boatside to a kayak is typically exhausted, and this fish was well-hooked.
I was grinning at the big fish in the little boat.
Troll crankbaits on a pair of rods, one out each side of the boat; the pull of a diving plug will twist your boat to one side unless countered by another. I love crankbaits fished clean, but planers, trolling weights and even down-sized downriggers are options.
Kayak fishing follows a predictable progression: one purchases a kayak for its simplicity and lightness — and then begins gathering gear that compromises both. You’ve seen the images: a paddle or pedal boat festooned with rods in holders, armed with electronics, secured by trolley anchor systems or shallow-water poles, all overseen by a Go Pro or other camera systems. Besides budget-straining, this all adds serious weight, especially when batteries are added.
What do you really need?
Start safe: invest in clothing — dry suit, wet suit, rain gear, whatever — that matches the conditions under which you’ll fish — water, not air temp. Get a life jacket made for kayaking, and wear it. I carry a throw rope, lights and emergency signals, whether required by law on today’s fishing waters or not.
For fishing gear, start with rod holders: you need a safe, trouble-free way to carry and fish with expensive rods.
Navigational gear is a good idea. If you’re new to kayak fishing, you’ll marvel at how much less of the world you see from the water’s level. It’s kind of like ground-blind deer hunting after hunting from an elevated blind. Even though my fishfinder/GPS combo rides along on most trips, I still also carry a hand-held, waterproof GPS, so that fog, darkness or confusion can easily be overcome, even if the sonar’s battery runs out.
What about fish finders? They add cost and, with their batteries, weight, too. Then, there’s the hassle of mounting transducers and running cable.
I’ve got a Humminbird combo unit on my sit-on-top kayak, and I’d often be lost (truly and metaphorically) without it on big waters. The sonar keeps me apprised of water depth, structure and the presence (or lack) of fish. The GPS and chart-plotting features keep me in the know about where I am, where I’m going and what’s along the way.
But the biggest job of my GPS is speed monitoring. Each lure has a speed at which it runs best. My favorite Hot’n’Tots, for example, work best for me at about 2 mph. But my kayak loves to cover the lake at nearly double that, paddling so easily it takes real effort to go slow. The GPS keeps me honest, and it’s easier than watching rod tips pulse.
In shallow water, your transducer cone is too small to be of much help marking fish. Still, reliable depth information can help you trace drop-offs and other features that likely hold fish.
But if you know your lake, and don’t need to see fish to believe they’re there, you can maintain a free-spirit approach with an electronics-free kayak.
When mounting electronics straight ahead or on gunnels, make sure you can reach their controls while they remain out of the way for line rigging, paddling or pedaling and fish fighting. Transducers can be glued (and occasionally reglued) inside the hull, mounted to shoot down through specially-designed scupper holes or suspended from an arm reaching out from the side of the boat. Influencing your rigging choices is whether you want to be able to strip the gear at trip’s end for safe storage or use on another watercraft.
And electrical power? Most kayakers still use lead-acid batteries, a minimum of seven amp hours for short-day use, 10 to 20 amp hours for longer outings and multiple days. Lithium batteries are winning converts for their light weight and steady charge — but they do cost more. I’ve switched over to a 15 aHr lithium battery that’s small, light and powerful. I love everything but its $125 price tag.
There are rods, life jackets and even electronics designed specifically for kayak fishing, and many sporting goods stores have sections dedicated to the sport. Regarding kayaks themselves, beware. For some makers the addition of a molded-in rod holder or two makes their discount kayak an angling boat; higher-end boats, often designed by veteran anglers, are rigging-ready, plus often have additional stability designed-in.
Where to kayak fish, you might ask? Nearly any place that fish swim.
My battles with Chinook salmon, a three-hour drive from my home, were nearly duplicated in time and feistiness by a big catfish in the Tittabawassee River three miles from my driveway. In between are a ton of bluegills and some great river runs.
Each brand of kayak fishing is its own special pursuit, and each of them has its place in Michigan. Your place? In the seat of one of those fishing boats.
Call it all, or any part of it, kayak fishing. Just don’t be surprised if you wind up calling it your favorite kind of angling.