Basic Gear for Kayak Fishing Safety
Most kayak fishermen are fishermen first, kayakers second. Though we love to talk gear, we tend to focus mainly on tackle and boats, while other important gear topics rarely get discussed — most notably, the gear that helps us stay safe while fishing from a kayak.
More important than the tackle you use, more important than the kayak you paddle, is your personal flotation device, or PFD. It’s inevitable — if you spend any time in a kayak, you will at some point end up in the water. A swim might be caused by rough surf on the coast, small rapids in your local river, or even getting hit by a bird (no, really, I know of at least two cases!). Regardless, every kayak fisherman needs to wear a life jacket. Always.
Thanks to stringent certification programs in the U.S. and abroad, any properly sized commercially available life jacket can be counted on to keep you afloat. However, not all PFDs are created equal. The number one factor to consider when choosing a vest is comfort, because if your PFD isn’t comfortable, then you’ll be less likely to wear it. NRS PFDs like the Clearwater, cVest and Chinook are especially nice for kayak fishing; each features a mesh lower back panel designed to work comfortably with even the highest-backed kayak seats. Made with kayak fishermen in mind, the Chinook features plenty of front pockets for holding tippet and leaders, small tackle boxes and fly organizers. (There are also a couple of tabs to help hold your rod for those hero shots on the water.) Don’t think you need all the bells and whistles of the Chinook? The Clearwater is just as comfortable. Worried about keeping a VHF radio nearby? Then check out the cVest; it’s an excellent choice for the saltwater kayak fisherman.
Now that we’ve made sure you’ll float if you swim, it’s time to consider the water temperature. A good rule of thumb: always dress for immersion. While fishing on a gorgeous, 80-degree bluebird day last spring, I was wearing my NRS Drysuit with a layer of fleece underneath. A couple out on their SUPs paddled up and struck up a conversation about the weather and how nice it was. One of them asked me why I was “bundled up” compared to them wearing shorts and bikini tops. My only reply was “have you been in the water?” While it was a nice day, the water temperatures were only in the mid-40s. Should they have ended up in the river, they would have experienced quite a shock. If they couldn’t have gotten out of the water in less than 30 minutes, their SUP outing could have ended badly. The nice part about wearing a drysuit is that if you start getting too warm, just practice a self-rescue! The quick dip will help cool you down for a while!
If fishing slightly warmer waters, then think about wetsuits. Sleeveless “farmer john” style wetsuits like the Ultra John and Ultra Jane offer insulating protection from cool water while freeing up your arms for paddling and casting. Many kayak fishermen prefer the Farmer John with the addition of a splash jacket for both comfort and protection at a low cost when compared to a full drysuit.
Another great option for immersion gear is a drypant and a drytop. Many people find the combination more comfortable than a wetsuit, and it can be used in a wider range of water temperatures, depending only on the layers you wear beneath. In fact, being fishermen, many potential kayak anglers already have a pair of waders. Match these with a drytop like the NRS Revolution, and you’ll feel safer on the water when temperatures drop. This is the combo I used for a couple years before making the switch to a full drysuit.
Still, for many, this all might be too much gear. I spent a day fishing in Florida’s famous flats, where a mile from launch I was still fishing in 18" of water that was warmer than I like to shower in. While water temperature isn’t something to be concerned about in that situation, the sun exposure can be damaging. Lightweight, moisture wicking synthetics like the long-sleeve Crossover Shirt excel in these conditions, and a sun hat is a must. Check around with some of your local kayakers and see what they’re wearing to protect themselves from the elements.
With a good PFD and suitable apparel for the conditions, you can feel pretty safe being on and in the water at any time of year. Wearing a life jacket and immersion-ready clothing is the least you can do to make sure you are kayak fishing safely and will be able to return home, no matter what happens. There are also a few other optional safety items I keep with me at when I’m on the water.
At some point in your kayak fishing adventures, you’ll likely want to anchor the kayak. Anchoring brings on a whole new list of potential failures and what-if scenarios. Besides anchoring, many people use leashes to attach paddles, fishing rods and other gear to their kayaks. All of these things bring up potentially life-threatening entanglements with bungee cords and rope. While I have yet to be entangled by leashes, I have had some potentially dangerous situations with snagged anchors. Because of this, I always keep a knife handy. All of my PFDs have an NRS Pilot or Co-Pilot knife attached for quick use. These knives effortlessly cut through rope and feature blunt tips to keep from puncturing things you don’t want punctured, like drysuits, legs and hands. When back on land, the bottle opener is quite handy too.
Whenever fishing saltwater or big rivers with commercial traffic, like the Columbia or Mississippi, a VHF radio can be an invaluable tool. VHF radios give you instant access to the Coast Guard should things go awry. The Coast Guard also relays important information about bar crossings at ports and harbors where swells can be magnified with the tide. All VHF radios give you access to up-to-date weather information which is important, especially when you might see some dark clouds on the horizon. Commercial ships also use VHF radios to communicate ship-to-ship and ship-to-shore. By monitoring these channels, you can find out about big freighters heading in your direction before you see them.
Very few kayak fishermen keep a first aid kit on the kayak, and this is something that should change. There are often sharp knives around, if not sharp teeth, and injury is always a possibility. The NRS Paddler Medical Kit makes a great foundation for a first aid kit. It packs well into small places and has most of the necessities. My only addition is a pair of 8" bolt cutters. I’ve seen hooks go through hands and fingers, and the bolt cutters are the quickest way to get the lure free so you can attend to removing the hook, or seeking out more professional care.
Tow ropes and throw bags are the most recent safety items I’ve added to my kayak. A couple years ago I found myself out on the Pacific Ocean, two miles out of port. Somehow I had aggravated my back to the point that it didn’t want to work anymore. I was in pretty severe pain. Between the wind and the current, I was only able to tread water in my kayak. I was sitting there, struggling, and trying to figure out what to do next. I had my VHF, so I could call one of the local charter fishing boats for a ride back, or I could call the Coast Guard. I was debating my next move when another kayak angler happened upon me. He knew I was in trouble and offered me a tow. I gladly accepted his offer before I knew how that was going to take place. He pulled out a tow rope and tossed one end to me. I cinched it around my waist while he attached the other end to his kayak, and away we went. It was a long, trying trip back to Depoe Bay, but one of the first things I did was get myself an NRS Kayak Tow Line. I haven’t had to use it yet, but it is always in my kayak. After all, “yet” is only a matter of time.