Seeing a nearly 5-foot lake sturgeon leap out of the water is one thing.
But to feel it is quite another.
Jake Didier indeed felt it – the splash from the big fish after he hooked it doused him. The wake it created reverberated through his 14-foot kayak as he battled the large fish on the Rainy River in far northwestern Minnesota last spring.
According to Didier and many others like him, that’s part of the draw of kayak fishing. The low profile of kayaks – even from deck-type chairs popular with fishing kayaks nowadays – gets anglers down on the water, in the middle of the action.
“The thrill of being down close to the water and so close (to the fish),” Ron Strauss, president of the Minnesota Kayak Fishing Association, said of a main draw of fishing via kayak – and one of the reasons kayak fishing is becoming so popular, not just in Minnesota and the Great Lakes region, but across the country. “Getting a big pike or muskie up to the kayak – what a thrill.”
According to the National Sporting Goods Association, kayak participation has grown from 5.9 million in 2007 (the first year the NSGA started tracking kayaking participation) to 9.6 million in 2016. Kayak retail sales were at $335 million for 2016, compared to $312 million in 2013 (the last time before 2016 that the NSGA researched those numbers). According to the NSGA, canoeing participation was up only slightly from 2006 to 2016 – from 7.1 million to 7.9 million – and canoe retail sales were considerably lower than those of kayaks – $97 million in 2016, the first year the NSGA tracked canoe sales, it said.
Fishing numbers involving those personal watercraft are even more impressive.
According to Rob Southwick of Southwick Associates, which handles statistics and research for the American Sportfishing Association, 10.4 percent of freshwater anglers fished from kayaks in 2016, up from 3.9 percent in 2011 – Southwick crunches those numbers every five years. Also according to Southwick, 5.3 percent of freshwater anglers fished from canoes in 2016. That’s up less than a percent from 2011, when 4.5 percent of anglers fished from canoes, according to Southwick stats. Still, those numbers say that, combined, nearly 16 percent of freshwater anglers fished from kayaks and canoes in 2016.
So why the interest in personal watercraft – kayaks, and kayak fishing in particular – these days? According to those in the know, the reasons are as varied as the options available to kayak anglers.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that, during that outing on the busy Rainy River last spring, Didier said he was the only angler fishing from a kayak. Bigger motorized fishing boats rule the border water Rainy and connecting Lake of the Woods. Probably always will.
But kayaks are showing up in places they may not have appeared in the past, in part because anglers are finding that, not only can kayaks be completely outfitted for fishing, they remain svelte enough to go pretty much anywhere – from the crowded, often-times rugged Rainy River just after ice-out to tiny, tough-to-access fisheries across the Great Lakes region and beyond.
Unlike sea kayaks, which can be as long as fishing boats, fishing kayaks are more compact – 10 to 14 feet long or so, around 30 inches wide and, depending on accessories, less than 50 pounds.
“There are places you can get into with a fishing kayak that you can’t with a regular boat,” said Jim Edlund of Traditions Media, which counts Old Town canoes and kayaks as a client. “Overall, there’s been a lot of growth within kayak fishing. More anglers are discovering that, for a minimal investment, you can get into a boat to reach hard-to-reach waters and bigger waters, too. And they (kayaks) fish like a bass boat or multi-species boat.
“I’m experiencing new waters. It brings a little more adventure into fishing,” said Edlund, who has been kayak fishing for about five years. “With (boats) you run into crowded accesses. But with kayaks, you can go anywhere – really get off-road and off the grid. The kayak has increased the number of places I can fish. It’s good for the sport and industry because it gives more people the opportunity to get off the dock. There are a lot of shore anglers, and the kayak takes you from the bank into that same area as the big boats.”
And while those Rainy River anglers were waiting in line to launch those big boats from one of the few accesses, Didier quietly launched his kayak from a friend’s back yard just down the road.
“I’ve fished a lot of small rivers – I was looking for something I could get in anywhere I went,” said Didier. “That drew me to the kayak thing.”
Traditional kayaks – those not set up for fishing – are available for as little as a few hundred bucks and, for minimal expense by do-it-yourselfers, can be modified for fishing. Even lower-end fishing kayaks are available for about $1,000, with top-end kayaks going for around $2,000 and up, depending on options – still much more affordable than a typical fishing-boat setup.
“I think what we’re seeing is more participation because it’s affordable,” said Paul Hansen, a pro kayak tournament angler. “There will always be the guys who have income to buy the biggest and best and fastest. But when it comes down to it, it doesn’t matter what you’re fishing in.”
According to Hansen, interest in kayak tournament angling also is on the rise, with a growing number of events, including the national Kayak Bass Fishing and the Kayak Bass Series circuits.
“The beauty of kayak bass fishing is it allows bass enthusiasts to get into the sport relatively inexpensively,” Hansen said.
Brad Nelson, of Hi Tempo SnowSports & WaterSports, is seeing that growth in kayak fishing firsthand via sales at the store in White Bear Lake, Minn. But the kayak fishing “boom” didn’t happen overnight, at least not in the Great Lakes region as a whole.
“The kayak thing has blown up all over the place, with a hotbed in the U.S. along the coastal areas,” Nelson said. “For us it was a little slower to catch on. We weren’t selling many kayak fishing boats because of the culture of this area. We grew up here (with fishing boats). But now we sell more kayak fishing boats than even regular kayaks.
“What blew it up for us was the cabin scene,” Nelson added. “In the cabin world … fitness is a big deal, fishing is a big deal. They (kayaks) were for recreation – a toy for the cabin.”
Silent sports and the fitness factor
For years, paddling and silent sports like kayaking and canoeing have been a draw because of just that – participants were able to get out on the water and get some exercise along the way, without the noise of a boat motor – just the sound of the paddles cutting through the water.
“It’s bringing in more people interested in silent sports and human-powered activities,” said David Jeremiason, founder of the Paddle Folk paddling club, a group that kayaks waterways in the Brainerd, Minn., area. “There’s been a return to that. People are starting to gravitate back to human-powered activities. And I think there’s a mental health component to it, too.”
And while the club doesn’t fish on their outings, when it comes to kayaking, there is the fishing component, too, although paddling and fishing don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand.
Then along came pedal propulsion. No more having to put down the fishing rod so as to paddle to the next spot. Pedaling allows anglers to concentrate on fishing, and to troll, too.
“The trend is getting away from more pressured areas, and there’s the whole being-close-to-the-water thing, and exercise and fitness enters into it, and it’s easy to move around,” Edlund said of the pros of fishing kayaks. “If I’m fishing by myself, I’m fishing by kayak. I have two kayaks and a canoe. I take my two daughters, too. They all want to use the one with the pedals. They fight for the one with pedals.
“I don’t think there are necessarily any cons (to a fishing kayak),” Edlund added. “But there are things you’ve got to keep in mind, like safety. You should always have a personal flotation device on, no matter how stable these boats are. Water safety should always be the No. 1 responsibility.”
Pedal-driven fishing kayaks are less like a traditional kayak in that, instead of being set down in the hull of the kayak, the seat sits up higher, in front of the pedals that are essentially housed in the hull. You don’t get the feeling you’re sitting down in the water, as you do in a traditional kayak. But it’s not far removed from that, and you’re still close enough to feel like you’re in the middle of any action on the water.
So, in his kayak, Didier was sitting just above the water, with no hull around him, as he battled that 591⁄2-inch sturgeon.
“When she came out of the water she was 10 feet from the kayak,” he said. “I felt every wake. It got me wet it was so close. It’s full body got out of the water. It was shaking my kayak.
“It was unforgettable.”