What Makes a Great Fly Fishing Kayak?
By Juan Veruete
I grew up fly fishing for a variety of species from native brook trout to smallmouth bass in central Pennsylvania. After leaving my fly fishing roots behind me for over 20 years in favor of “conventional” tackle, I picked up the long rod again about two years ago. Since then, I’ve had a lot of fun chasing smallmouth bass and panfish. There’s something special about making that perfectly eloquent cast to that perfect fish holding spot. Of course, there are plenty of “not so eloquent” casts along the road to perfection. I’m sure any fly fisherman reading this is well aware that not “every” cast goes where you plan. Let’s just say, I’ve snagged a few squirrels in my time.
A game changer for me in terms of my fly fishing was adding the distinct advantage of using modern fishing kayaks. Portaging into hard to reach small waters. Paddling into the far reaches of skinny water where neither power boats nor wading anglers go. Parking in a downstream eddy within casting distance of some push water boiling with feeding fish. It’s all possible and more when you're fly fishing from a kayak.
I have fly fished out of a number of kayaks in the past two years. I also want to add that I’m a pretty big fly angler coming in at about 230lbs. I think that’s important in terms of understanding my perspective on “stand-up” fly fishing out of a kayak. Through a process of trial and error, I’ve come to appreciate a number of qualities in specific kayak models in the Wilderness Systems line-up that I think align extremely well with the needs of a kayak fly angler.
Overall stability - Fly fishing requires quite a bit of movement compared to conventional tackle. Casting, landing fish, and dealing with the occasional line tangle means stability has to be at the top of the list for a fly angler.
Stand up stability - Obtaining a high vantage point to sight fish and locate structure can take your fly fishing to the next level. Also standing means that you will be able to make longer casts if necessary. Not all fly anglers will want to stand and fish but given the advantages and the advances in stand up fishing kayaks, it’s something that you should consider.
Open/Clean Deck Area - Fly anglers are best served by kayaks that have plenty of room for standing in the cockpit and and/or laying down your stripped line. The cockpit should also be free of clutter and objects that can snag line. There’s nothing more frustrating than shooting you line only to have it snagged on something in the cockpit and come up sort of your target. A kayaks foot pegs are one such snag hazzard. In all the models that I’ll mention below the foot peg’s simple locking mechanism and long track system allows you to easily push the pegs far forward out of the way when fishing.
Paddling Performance - A good fly fishing kayak is more than just a fishing platform. You have to get to the fish to catch the fish. You also have to be able to get into position to make that perfect cast. Tracking, speed, maneuverability are all important considerations.
Seating Comfort - Regardless of whether your intention is to stand and fish or stay seated, a comfortable seat has to be at the top of your list. I tend to stand and fish a lot in my kayaks but having a comfortable seat to take breaks keeps me from experiencing a lot of fatigue during the course of a day. Bottom line it keeps me on the water and focused on the fishin not a sore back or bottom. The AirPro Max seat is available in most of the models that I use for kayak fishing. It’s the only seat on the market with three distinct positions: Low, High, and “Kick Back”. Low is great for running small rapids. The high position is excellent for kayak anglers who aren’t comfortable standing but still would like to have a higher line of site to the water making it easier to spot structure and fish. The “kick back” position is great for taking a little rest, grabbing a drink and gloating over the huge fish you just caught.
Wilderness Systems Commander Series
The Commander series is a in a class of kayaks known as a “hybrid”. It’s part canoe and part kayak. It’s basically got many of the paddling attributes we love in a kayak with the additional space found in a canoe. The Commander series comes in a 12 foot version (120) and a 14 foot version (140).
Both versions of the Commander offer excellent stand up stability. The size of the angler and how much portaging you plan to do are probably the two most common drivers in terms of which model you select. If you going to “bushwhack” into remote ponds and lakes the Commander 120 would be an excellent choice.
The cockpit floor of the Commander series is wide open making it an excellent choice for the fly angler who will be making long casts and stripping a lot of line onto the floor of the kayak. The footpegs are well out of the way and most of the time don’t need to be pushed forward when fly casting.
Both versions (120/140) track great but the 140 gets a slight edge which may be of interest to flat water paddles or paddlers who will be going longer distances on their fishing trips. Anglers who need a little more maneuverability may want to look at the 120. A recent fishing trip to the small, slow moving, wood choked rivers of Alabama showed me the value of this little gem of a kayak.
The Commander series provides a kayak angler with three options for fishing. First you can use the highly adjustable Phase 3 seating which is located down inside the cockpit of the kayak. If you want to fly cast, paddle or sight fish from a slightly higher position just slide the seat back and take a seat in what Wildy calls the captain's perch. From captain purch it’s very easy to come to a standing position to fish.
Wilderness Systems Ride Series
The Ride series is one of the most versatile kayaks that I’ve paddled. There are three versions of the Ride: 135, 115, and 115X. I like the Ride series because of it’s versatility. I’ve done small creeks, large rivers, ponds and large lakes in this boat. The kayak is very much at home when inshore saltwater fishing. You’ll also appreciate the amount of gear you can take with you in a Ride. It’s great for multi day trips.
The Ride series provides incredible seated stability. You can also stand in this kayak. The deck has two flat areas to place you feet when standing to fish. The Ride 115 takes a little practice to get comfortable standing but once you have your sea legs, you’ll be good to go. The longer Ride 135 offer a little more stability for larger anglers who like to take a lot of gear.
There’s nothing like hooking up with a big fish in skinny water. The Ride series has a lot of volume in the hull so you’ll be able to get into all those skinny spots where you’ve been dying to sling some flies. The shorter Ride 115 is great for maneuvering in small waters and for bushwhacking into remote spots. It’s also very easy to toss in the back of a pickup. The Ride 135 offers more room, a little better tracking and speed. I use both to fly fish inland lakes and rivers up to class II.
Wilderness Systems A.T.A.K. 140 (Advanced Tactical Angling Kayak)
In my opinion the A.T.A.K. 140 offers unprecedented stability for stand up fly fishing combined with great speed. Usually rock solid stability comes at a cost. That costs is “speed”. Through some design magic, this kayak turns that idea on it’s head.
The A.T.A.K.’s tability makes this kayak an oustanding fly fishing platform. I can fly fish in 360 degrees around the kayak as I move about on the flat open floor. Pushing the fully adjustable Airpro Max seat complete back on the track system opens up a more than ample amount of uncluttered deck space for stripping line.
The kayak is designed with a very low gunnel and shape that “sheds wind” so fly fishing in open water such as big lakes and saltwater flats prone to windy conditions is made much easier in the A.T.A.K. When I’m fishing among a group of kayak anglers the A.T.A.K. seems to “stick” in place while others are blown about by the wind. This attribute makes it easier to stay on a spot and make casts to precise targets. You’ll spend less time with the paddle in your hand and more time making casts. Like I often tell my guide clients, “The more your bait is in the water, the better your chances you have of catching fish”.
Honestly, I feel like I’ve just scratched the surface as it relates to kayaks and their application in the world of fly fishing. There is more…. a lot more but what I’ve outlined provides some ground level attributes, design considerations and specific kayak models that should be on your mind as you are choosing a fly fishing kayak.
I truly enjoy fly fishing from a kayak. It’s the art of paddling and the art of the presentation combined that keeps me motivated to improve my skills. I feel like that endeavour is made so much easier by paddling in a kayak suited for the job.
Juan Veruete, Licensed Fishing Guide & ACA Certified Kayak Instructor