Yakity-yak… you won’t look back

by Neil Turnbull

You’ve decided to invest in a SOT fishing kayak, but which one? Are they all the same, and what do you need to look for? Yak addict Neil Turnbull is on hand with some priceless advice.

What is a SOT Kayak? It stands for ‘sit-on-top’ and the obvious difference between a SOT and a conventional kayak, is that you do indeed sit on top of it rather than inside. This is made possible by means of moulding a seating area on to the top of a watertight construction. Hatches and storage areas are then added, making it the perfect platform to fish from. The benefits of a SOT kayak for the angler are numerous, especially if you’ve not done much kayaking in the past.

a kayak angler lifting a cod aboard

It might be stating the obvious but, anyone who cannot swim should not be anywhere near a sea kayak. And now that we have that clearly understood and the Health and Safety Police are satisfied, let’s move on. Take a worst case scenario: you’re heading out to sea from a beach launch; there’s a bit of sea running and unfortunately a freak wave catches you unawares and you get dumped in the surf 500yds offshore. ‘Game over’ you might think, but that isn’t so. The fact is that there’s no need for fancy roll techniques, and no fears of being trapped in the boat hanging upside down in the water. Just wait for a quieter wave pattern then climb back on top, and you are back in business… hopefully not too shaken and none too stirred.

As soon as you get moving again the water in the seat and foot well area drains away through the scupper holes. These kayaks are all self-bailing. As water moves under the hull it passes the scupper holes and creates a venturi effect. This effect draws the water out through the drain holes, back into the sea. The other unique features of an angling SOT are accessible, easy to reach compartments for storage, specially designed areas for housing and mounting marine electronics, fish holds for storing your catch, built in rod holders and watertight hatches for stowing your dry gear.

a kayak angler padding at sea

Design evolution

SOT kayaks first appeared in the US around 30 years ago, and they evolved very slowly until recently. Now many different manufacturers have jumped on the bandwagon, all proclaiming that they produce the best SOT kayak on the market. Some serious money is now being invested in research and development. As a result, new and innovative designs are appearing with much greater frequency. Although each new model exhibits significant improvements on its predecessor, to my mind, the ideal fishing kayak has yet to be produced. What might suit one angler could be miles off the mark for another. Admittedly, some kayaks tick more boxes than others, but the ‘horses for courses’ adage applies well in this instance. There are a few questions you need to ask yourself before making any purchase decisions. The answers will help you make the correct choice and help avoid an expensive mistake. What are you going to do with the kayak? What are you going to fish for? How much gear do you need to store? Will you be venturing a couple of hundred yards offshore for bass with minimal gear, or do you have sights on more adventurous fishing grounds further afield?

By making the right choice first time round, you could save yourself a lot of time and cash. I must confess to having purchased two or three kayaks myself before finding something that was best suited to my style of fishing.

a kayak angler with a fish in flat calm seas

Probably the most important thing to look at first is the kayak’s dimensions. As a general rule, the longer a kayak is at the waterline, the faster it will travel. Shorter kayaks will be slower but they will be considerably more manoeuvrable. Wider kayaks will be more stable but the width has an adverse effect on your speed.

So in practice a long, narrow kayak will be fast but quite unstable, and would be trickier to manoeuvre. A shorter, wider kayak will be more stable, but would be painfully slow to paddle over any distance. The basic design principle required for a good fishing kayak lies somewhere between these two extremes. Although not a definitive equation for kayak design, this simple formula is a good guide.

Cake monsters beware!

Your personal height and weight are also contributing factors in kayak choice. Some sleeker, faster kayaks have restrictive cockpits and less volume. These may not be as suitable for the larger paddler. Wider beamier models with larger seating areas and more leg room may be a better choice for those who eat a lot of cakes. The only real answer is to try before you buy. Speak to someone that fishes from a kayak in your area. I’m sure they would be more than happy to give you a go and share their experiences with you.

What else will you need to get onto the water safely? You wouldn’t go to sea in a boat without a propeller; likewise a kayak needs some form of propulsion. Your paddle becomes the link between you and the water. It also provides you with steering and stability when required. To start off with I would suggest a standard, robust paddle that suits your needs and your budget. It’s something you can upgrade once your skills progress. A paddle between 210cm and 230cm will suit most heights and arm lengths. Again, pick one up and try it first. You will also need some form of leash to attach the paddle to the kayak. If you let go of the paddle to handle your fishing equipment, the paddle stays leashed to your yak rather than floating off in the tide.

an nic ecod on a kayak with rod and reel

Next on the equipment list is a good PFD (personal floatation device). There’s no compromising here. Get one that supports your body weight. The buoyancy they afford is measured in Newtons: a standard 50 Newton PFD will only afford 5.5kg of buoyancy. This would be a minimum requirement for a smaller paddler. Ideally you would be better with something in the 70N range. There’s some good kayak fishing-specific PFDs available with handy storage pockets.

Essential togs

Clothing is another big decision. Choices here depend on where you are likely to be fishing. Essentially, consider if it will it a cold or warmer climate. It is important to keep in mind that you must dress appropriately for being ‘in’ the water, not on top of it…. always be prepared for the worst eventuality. At a minimum, I would wear paddle trousers and a dry cag top garment. Mostly I stick to my dry suit, and regulate my temperature with seasonal adjustments to my mid and base layers. Some people can get away with a wet suit, but that’s not for me. Fishing north of the border equates to ‘cool’ water temperatures year-round. Global warming, my cold rump!

Hats and sunglasses offering UV protection are also a must. Get a lightweight hat that offers protection for your head, neck and face for summer, and another one that offers a bit of insulation for the colder months. It’s a good idea to carry sun cream as well; unfortunately that’s something I’ve not had much use for this year. Gloves can be worn in winter, but choosing a pair can be a bit of a minefield. In short if you can manage without them then do so. I find them a hindrance and some actually make your hands colder when they get wet.

all the gear required layed out beside a kayak

So now we have a kayak, paddle, paddle leash, PFD and suitable clothing. Surely we can now set to sea? Well in theory you could, but what if you need to call for assistance when you’re out in the great wet wilderness? I would recommend carrying a handheld VHF radio, attached to your PFD. Get one that has a waterproof rating of no less than IPX7; this will stand up to the occasional dunking. An
ything less than IPX7 and good advice would be to purchase an aqua pack to protect it. Remember, there is a double legal requirement to hold both an operator’s licence and an owner’s certificate before the VHF unit can be used. The operator’s certificate involves a one day course, which covers all aspects of VHF use and function. Additionally, a mobile phone in a waterproof an aqua pack is always a handy piece of equipment to carry on your person. The list of safety equipment seems endless, but it forms an integral roll within your kayaking kit. I will not put to sea without any of the items listed, even the shortest inshore trips. What I have detailed is an equipment bare minimum. And for pennies there are other items available that could ultimately save your life.

Things you could attach to your PFD would include an old CD which is an ideal visual signalling device; a small waterproof whistle; a small folding lock knife for cutting rope; a day/night personal waterproof flare; a hand bearing compass and a waterproof strobe light.

a kayak angler sorting his tackle at sea with waves cresting

On the kayak, I would also carry a First Aid kit; deck compass; an anchor; emergency food rations; fresh water; map of the local area; spare clothing; survival bag and a tow line. You would be surprised how little space all these items take up. I keep 90% of this kit stowed in a dry bag that can be grabbed quickly in an emergency. Once you’ve got that lot covered it’s time to learn a few basics and get wet!

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