Kayak Rigging on Beach

What is the best way to rig a kayak?

For years many people have asked “what is the best way to rig your kayak”.  My best answer to rigging kayaks always starts with “it depends” and ends with “whatever you do keep it simple and plan accordingly”.

I have been fishing out of a kayak for so long people used to laugh at the boat ramp and say “you actually fish out of that thing?” and I went years before I saw another kayak fishing on the water.  Now kayak fishing is a 9 to 10 figure business and you can’t skip a stone without first looking for a kayak or paddle board so you don’t hurt anyone.

My first kayak was a Heritage Osprey. It was their latest boat at the time and well before their first set of fishing kayaks.  It was bright yellow and weighed about 40 pounds.  It was a sit on top with two hatches one on the bow and one on the aft.  It was a far cry (err… scream) from the Hobie Mirage or Native Watercraft Titans.

My first few trips I had my tackle between my legs and my rod laid out on the sit-on-top deck just like I did as a kid when paddling a canoe for trout along the Winnacunnet River in New Hampshire.

The ride was wet and I am a big man so the scuppers let water in every wake and it took very little wind to turn boat slap into a soaking mist.  The floor of the kayak was always wet, and my fishing reel was always sitting in the salt water.  Something had to be done.

rigging kayaks
The options are limitless. But it doesn’t mean you have to rig everything

I went down to my local marine supply and started looking at rod holders.  Most of them where big heavy and stainless steel which only meant one thing… expensive.  But there was a few flush mount holders made for small vessels and were made out of plastic.  I bought two and couldn’t wait to get them installed.

What is the best place to install rod holders on a kayak?

I spent a longtime sitting in my kayak trying to figure out the best place.  They had to be easy to grab but out of the way when I paddled and with any luck the could also be situated to troll on days that I wanted to find new holes.

Today it’s pretty much a no brainer on where to put your rod holders and what kind of holder to use in the different areas of the boat.  There were not pictures online and no one in my area was really doing it.  I didn’t realize it but I was on the cutting edge of a sport that was about to explode.

I finally decided to put both holders behind me on each side.  The holder’s flange was at an angle so I decided to have the angle pointing at 45 degrees off the aft of the kayak.  This would allow two 7ft rods to span wide enough to put two lines out and they were also out of the way of my paddle.  More importantly I could see the tips just by turning my head without shifting my weight.  This was huge back in the day when the kayaks were not as stable as the boats today and came in handy trolling for Spanish mackerel 100 yds offshore in the gulf fighting small whitecaps.

I used a hole saw and made quick work installing the holders but I had one problem.  The holders didn’t have a bottom. They were just a tube with a collar. They where designed to go in the gunnel or bench of a boat and let the rod butts pass through to the open space below.  But in a kayak this would end up being a water entry point to the sealed hull and seeing the kayak’s “unsinkable” feature was designed with the sealed air space I had to plug up the ends to protect the integrity of the boat and more importantly me!! 

Don’t do this when installing rod holders on your kayak

Two PVC caps and marine silicone and the job was pretty much done.  Well at least I thought it was.  The rod holders were just “hanging” below the deck and the two holes I just cut weakened the rear deck enough that on the hot Florida summer it began to drupe from the weight of my gear distorting the deck to a point that it became an real concern.    

I need to brace the deck and support the rod holders somehow.  I ended up going back to PVC, removing the original caps and plumbed extensions to the rod holders that brought them to the bottom deck making them not just the rod holders but the braces to support the top deck.  This ended up being the final solution for flush mount rod holders and to this day it is how I install them.

So now the kayak with two rod holders cleared the cockpit so I could make my way easily which was the primary goal.  However, a secondary outcome was unplanned but just seemed to happened.  With my rods stowed I had more room for more stuff so I would load my boat with more and more stuff (bad idea).

 I would have two poles in the rod holders and still have one with me laid down in the cockpit like before. So adding two rod holders didn’t get my rod out of the cockpit like I hoped.  In addition,  I was also laying my landing net at my feet so the handle went down between my legs for easy access when landing a fish.   This worked for a while only if my cockpit rod didn’t slide around while I was paddled rough water.  When it did, I always seemed to hook my net which always made a mess of things.

As I expanded my fishing knowledge and started to shift from whatever is biting to chasing red fish and snook hard baits with trouble hooks became my go-to baits for long casts and big fish.    However, it was a 30 minute delay every time I buried the troubles in my net and it always happened when I could see tails of busy drums or linesiders crashing bait.  It got so bad one day I ended up cutting three large holes in my $100 net just so I could get back to fishing.

I needed to be able to carry all my rods, nets and gear out of the way while I was on the move.  I thought about mounting a rod holder between my legs but it looked like a ball crusher if I every had to get back in the boat while in deep water.  I was convinced I needed to keep everything behind me.  I ended up taking a milk crate and zip tying pvc posts into two of the corners.  I then fastened the crate to the lid of the rear hatch with a couple of wingnuts which I could easily remove.  I didn’t know if this would work and didn’t want to drill more holes in the boat.  Drilling the lid seemed like a better idea and to this day I try to always do this.  Buying a new lid is simple if you need a redo.

The biggest mistake I made rigging kayaks.

Now my boat had two rods in the original holders that set out to the sides and two rods in the milk crate that stuck straight up making my kayak look like a mini trawler.  But my net was still in between my legs and with a bad habit of laying my rod down on the deck I cut a few more holes in my net until I added pvc to all four corners of the milk crate so I could use one for the net.   Now I was ready for anything!  Or was I?

It was in the middle of winter at this point and everything has moved deep into the back country up in the canals and mangroves.  I loaded up the truck and headed to the put-in.  Two rods in the holders, two in the milk crate holders and one crate holder for the net! 

The wind was up so I decided to paddle deep into the mangroves, and it wasn’t long I was hooked onto a monster snook.  Its tail danced across the water with massive head shakes hoping to throw my DOA jig head free but then quickly plunged back into the water and began screaming line off my reel.  The area was very tight and I didn’t want too much line to get out because she could burry herself in the mangroves before I figured out where she even went.  I decided to tighten up the drag and go on a little ride.  My kayak quickly shifted in the direction of the fish has she began to pull me down the canal and that is where I heard branches breaking behind me and stuff falling into the water. 

Don’t lose your gear because of bad rigging.

In the excitement of the snook doing what snook do I didn’t realize I backed right into the mangroves entangling my net into the branches.  Mangroves are knarly and love to get a hold of things so as the snook began to pull me away my net, still in the holder, was lodged into the mangroves and as the snook pulled my kayak it ripped the milk crate from the deck by popping the storage hatch from the boat only to have the entire thing slide off the net handle and into the water.  There I was, a monster snook on and about $300 of gear sinking to the bottom of a mangrove canal.

I figured I lost all my gear, so I wasn’t about to loose my snook.  The fight lasted less then five minutes seeing pulling around a 250 pound human is exhausting and I had the leader showing in no time. 

To this day it is still one of my better fish but the best memory was when I went back to see the net hanging like a Christmas ordainment from the mangroves with the handle pointing to where all my other gear was submerged.  The water was only about 3ft deep and once I got my net out of the branches I quickly retrieved my gear and called it a day.

I tried to use this set up more than once but it never seemed to be right.  I hated the net behind me in one of the milk crate holders.  It was hard to grab under normal circumstances never mind when you are fighting a net worthy catch with your paddle in your lap.  I pretty much ended up putting the net in the holder while underway but if the fish started getting big it always ended up between my legs.

What is the best thing to have on a fishing kayak?

I then met a guide in Boca Grand, Fast Freddie.  He was a back county and tarpon captain and used to ask me along during his scouting trips on days he didn’t have a client.  Fred was the salt of the earth and being on the water with him was always awesome.  His knowledge of the inshore slam was second to none and spending a day with him was like going to fishing college.  In just a few seasons I had my bachelors in finding fish.  I will never forget those days and from them came one of my favorite tools.  The Boca Grip.  Fred used this device for every fish we wanted to boat.  He also used to lip catches while we resuscitate them even under the power of a trolling motor.  Fred was a conservationist and made a big deal about keeping fish alive to fight another day.  The only thing that pissed him off more than jet ski’s was hanging a snook or trout from its jaws.  Jaw dislocation is an issue for both as their anatomy can’t support their body weight.  That’s why you always see fisherman supporting the weight of the fish by their bellies while controlling their heads with the boca.  Mastering the Boca grip is only second to throwing a cast net when it comes to Florida fishing skills.  Skip cast under mangroves is third,

Now I (hardly) NEVER use a net which makes rigging kayaks a bit easier. I am sure there are many of you  that successfully use nets all the time but I have a steadfast rule to keep anything that can get tangled in my garage as it has no business in a kayak.   This goes for not just nets, but rope, lines, chutes, sails, etc.  The end up more work than they are worth most times and if that isn’t convincing think of the safety issue when you get surprised by a rouge wave and dump all your gear on top of you. (Never paddle with your cast net in a way it can “deploy”)

With that, there is even more upside to switching to a Boca Grip.  Its better for the fish (if you don’t hang them from it) and safer for me while taking the hooks out of a still very lively fish. One of the greatest things about catching big fish from a kayak is the fight is so much shorter.  As you real you bring the fish to the kayak, but at the same time you are bringing the kayak to the fish.  So as long as you can get them to the surface quick you can snap on that boca grip and hold on to a fish that isn’t beaten to death and whos chance of survival is way higher.  I can not tell you how many times I have had a fish lipped at almost the same exact time it throws the hook.

 Nets can be more hassle then anything and for me they are just not worth the headache for 90% of my trips and I can’t recall the last fish I lost because I didn’t have a net.  When you’re in a vessel where you can reach down in the water without even leaning over getting a hold of your catch with a boca is simple after a little practice.   I will use a net from time to time.  If I know I am not going to be around the shore-line and in open water I bring my Frabill Sportsman Rubber Net incase I hook up on a honker and don’t want to run it to death. It doesn’t have any knots which is great for the fish and the rubber is also better for them plus the trouble hooks have a much harder time getting snagged.  They advertise that hooks will never get snagged… but I have proven that to be untrue.  However, it takes seconds to get them out with a set of pliers.

Rigging Kayak number 2.

My next kayak was Heritage Redfish. It was bigger, stronger and faster than the Osprey.  It also came with ROD HOLDERS and the rear deck was molded so it could accommodate a milk crate perfectly.  It also came from the manufacture with tie down, cleats, and bungees to hold down gear.  It was ready to fish the day I got it.

But as a kayak fisherman I had to tinker and try to make things better.  I took a bunch of pvc and plumbed a framework of rod holders that wrapped around the crate holding six rods.  Four up straight and two angled out to the side so I could set up for trolling like my first boat.

I also wanted to improve my anchor and add a fish finder.  The anchor was simple I got two plastic pulleys from the hardware store and a few d-clips.  Anchor trollies don’t have to be complicated.  You just want to get the mounting point for the anchor to the aft tip of they kayak.  I attached the pullies to d-rings and the d-rings to the side and end handles.  I then took some paracord and the last d-ring looping through the pullies and back to the d-ring.  I then drop anchor, get it set then tie a loop about a foot above the surface and hook it to the trollies d-ring and at the kayak drifts it will naturally pull the d-ring to the back of the kayak.  To retrieve it I would just pull on the trolley returning the d-ring so I could easily grab the anchor line.  If for some reason it got hung up I would just back over the anchor line and grab it with my paddle.  So make sure you put out enough line so if you paddle directly over the anchor there is plenty of slack to grab the line with your paddle.

Another thing I did to this boat was put a rod holder between my feet.  I mounted a Scotty combination mount between my ankles.  It was important to keep my seating area clear in case I needed to reenter especially under duress or emergency conditions.  Basically, I like to keep the middle of my boat clear so I can just flop into the boat any lay there in whatever position without something injuring me making things even worse.

Adding a Scotty Rod Holder was a great idea.

I added a Scotty Locking Rod Holder and now my lap rod had a place out of the water.  In the new boat things were much dryer but having the rod between my feet was perfect.  It was well out of the way for paddling and I could even swivel it 90 degrees and use it to troll which came in handy when I actually wanted to see the hit.  Another great thing that came out of putting my rod here is I would point it straight off the bow and use it for navigation to track a straight course.  It helped me become much more efficient with the paddle which resulted in speed and a longer range (and maybe even more fish).

This led to my next rule and probably the most important rule on any vessel.  Do EVERYTHING you can to make sure everything had more than ONE function.  If I put something on my kayak it HAS to do more than one thing, or I would seriously consider going without.   

With that I upgraded my anchor trolley to 500 lb para-cord so it could be used as a grab hold if I capsized.   I also switched from a mushroom anchor to a grapnel so it could be used as a survival tool if I ever found myself marooned or having to spend the night in the backcountry because I ran out of light before finding my way back.  I rigged my portable running lights to be mounted in my scotty deck mounts or my flush mount holders.  Lights are pretty much single use but making them able to be put anywhere makes them multifaceted, so the function of the craft becomes higher. 

Try to make sure everything can do more than one thing or can be combined with other items to serve other purposes.

I also combine items so together they serve other purposes.  I keep a USGA throw cushion with 30ft of paracord wrapped stuffed under the bungie netting for all the what-ifs.  If I ever find myself outside the boat and unable to get in I can pull the cushion out and have plenty of line to keep me attached to my kayak.  Of course, everything is attached with d-clips so I they can be simply disconnected if need be.  However, I have never used this cushion except for seating by putting it on top of my upside down milk crate while I make a small campfire on shore to cook lunch.  This I have used many times.

I have also used or made live wells, Kites, Sails, Drift Socks, Anchor Poles, Push Poles and drag anchors.  All of which have been abandoned and put on the pain in the ass list right under a landing net.  All of which I will share at some point.

Keep things simple and PLAN!

Yakfishin is all about two things.  Simplicity and Planning.  Don’t try to make a kayak have all the same features as a 30ft center console so you are ready for anything at any given moment.  It is a specialized craft and should be set up for a very specific task. When I say specific, I mean things like “fishing for snook, reds, trout in the mangroves on a calm spring day” or “fishing in the open bay with 10k west wind drifting edges for snapper while keeping an eye on the surface for cobia or even a shark”.  These two situations mean I set my boat up two different ways.  In the mangroves I want four rods minimum, 1 top water, 1 hard bait, 1 jig head, 1 spinner.  I will bring my float cushion and a vest but keep them tucked under the bungies most of the day because I will be pretty much in waist deep no motor zone water.  Will bring plenty of water and an overnight emergency kit in cast I get turned around in the backcountry and have to spend the night (its never happened but been close enough that it scared me into always bringing gear).

When I am out in the middle of the bay I will bring 3 rods, 1 for snapper, 1 floating, and my heavy surf rod with wire leader just in case something big and nasty swims by…  I will also use my fourth rod holder for a shade umbrella which can extend my day by 2x on the hot Florida summer days.  I don’t worry about an overnight kit cause the bay is surrounded by marinas and condo so worse case I drift a shore and borrow a phone to call my wife.  The point here is depending on what you’re doing just bring that stuff.  Plan ahead, know what’s biting, where the bait is, what the wind and water is going to do.  I spend 3x as much time planning for a day on the water in my kayak than I ever did for a day on the water on my bay boat. 

Have an epic day fishing from a Kayak

With that an epic day is very rewarding. When you plan the perfect day and it does become perfect there is nothing more satisfying.  I have had many 50+ fish on my bay boat, burning gas up and down the miles and miles of grass flats, mangroves and oyster bars of my local waters.  But once you know all the spots its not hard racing from one to the other until you find the bite. But on a kayak you have to figure out where to put in, where to paddle and where to fish in a very small range. If you do it wrong you day is done before you even park your truck.  So, having an epic day in a territory 10% of what I would cover with a 225hp Yamaha is something every kayak fisherman can take pride in doing.

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