No piece of gear is more essential to a kayak angler than a good PFD.
A personal floatation device that works as it should can mean the difference between coming home to exaggerate the size of that cobia you landed and not coming home at all. Especially on big water, safety is nothing to skimp on.
The best options offer floatation, high visibility, and plenty of storage, doing double-duty as PFDs and mini tackle bags.
But if you don’t know where to start, we’ve got you covered!
Below, you’ll find a complete buying guide as well as reviews of the top kayak fishing PFDs.
Quick glance at the best kayak fishing live vests:
Table of Contents (clickable)
SIZE - CHEST
SM/MD - 33” - 39”
LG/XL - 40” - 46”
XXL - 46” - 52”
There’s a lot to like about Stohlquist’s Fisherman, explaining why it’s been one of our favorites for the last few years.
Kayak anglers need things that most paddlers don’t, chief among them being plenty of storage options. And Stohlquist clearly had fishermen in mind when they designed this PFD.
Two large zippered, draining pockets ride on the front of this vest, offering plenty of options for stowing gear and keeping it ready to hand. Inside, you’ll find ample mesh inner pockets and a handy D-ring for tool attachment. The zippered fronts of each pocket provide enough structure to hold small items like flies, lures, split shot, and the like.
That’s a bigger deal than it might seem, given that deck space is typically at a premium on a ‘yak.
You’ll also find two D-rings at the bottom of this PFD, offering still other attachment points.
The Stohlquist Fisherman offers storage options that are very hard to beat.
Wearing a tough shell of 500 denier Cordura nylon, the Stohlquist Fisherman is ready for whatever you can dish out while angling. Inside, you’ll find more skin-friendly 200 denier oxford, a nod in the direction of comfort.
Fit is typically very good with this PFD, especially if you follow the sizing chart, and it’s adjustable in all the right places. No complaints there.
There’s not a lot of mesh on this PFD, but then, there’s also not a lot of space for it given that it’s Type III approved by the US Coast Guard.
If there’s something I don’t like about this product, it’s that although there are two color options available from Stohlquist, it’s virtually impossible to find the mango option, leaving a low viz green as your only realistic choice.
And while the neoprene padded shoulder straps are comfortable, they only wear a tiny strip of 3M reflective material.
My verdict: this is an awesome vest for locations where visibility is not critical, meaning places where there will be no boat traffic at all. That’s not as uncommon as you might think, and I’ve fished plenty of lakes where no power boats were allowed.
If that’s something in your future, the Stohlquist Fisherman might be the right choice for you.
SIZE - CHEST
XS/M - 30"-42"
L/XL - 42"-52"
XL/XXL - 50"-56"
The NRS OS Chinook is a kayak angler’s dream PFD, offering unbeatable storage and safety.
Like the Stohlquist, the high viz orange can be hard to come by unless you go straight to the manufacturer (not an option for Stohlquist, unfortunately), and it’s undoubtedly the best option for safety, especially if you’re a big water angler.
And NRS clearly thought this PFD through for us kayak enthusiasts. With zippered pockets for a VHF radio and plenty of space for everything from pliers to a knife, this safety essential works double duty as a small tackle box. Expect plenty of attachment points for gear and plenty of internal storage options to help keep you organized.
The OS Chinook is packed with storage options, including a VHF radio pocket.
It’s simply awesome on this front.
Comfort is good, as well. The OS Chinook skips the mesh panels, for the most part, relying on clever design instead. What you’ll find is lots of air instead of mesh, leaving the competition behind.
What’s better than mesh? Air!
The fit is excellent if you measure and select the appropriate size. The OS Chinook offers plenty of adjustment points to get the right fit for you.
Expect 400 denier ripstop nylon on the exterior and softer, less abrasive material on the inner next to your clothes.
Finally, that high viz orange is matched with multiple strips of reflective material, increasing low-light visibility tremendously.
For my money, there’s not a better kayak fishing PFD out there.
SM/MD - 30” - 42”
LG/XL - 42” - 54”
UNIV - 30” - 54”
Fly anglers love to see storage options designed specifically for their needs, and the Stohlquist Piseas is ready to please.
In addition to plenty of attachment points for tools like hemostats and pliers, you’ll find two large zippered front pockets, one having a mesh inner pocket and the other featuring a fly organizer that’s perfectly suited for the job.
Details like this really set the Piseas apart from its competitors.
For me, that matters--and I think it will for you, too.
Rather than recovering a fly box, opening it up, and getting a fly out, just unzipping and grabbing is much, much more convenient, and it’s details like this, plus the D-ring at the rear for a landing net, that makes this vest perfect for fly fishermen.
Expect excellent fit if you measure and choose the appropriate size. Of course, you’ll find plenty of buckles to customize the Piseas’s fit.
Like the Stohlquist Fisherman, however, don’t expect this PFD to be as cool-wearing as the NRS--that’s just not in the cards. There’s a mesh panel at the back and as much open air as Stohlquist can manage.
A 420 denier Cordura rip-stop nylon shell wears like cast iron while being easy to clean. And as delicate as your flies may be, your vest will shrug off the elements season after season, year after year.
This crimson-colored PFD is pretty high visibility, but don’t expect much in the way of reflective material.
SM/MD 36” - 42”
LG/XL 42” - 50”
XXL50” - 5”
Kokatat’s Bahia Tour is a great fishing PFD for anglers who take long paddles to and from their fishing spots.
Designed primarily for intense paddling sessions, the Bahia Tour leans more toward comfort--meaning large arm holes and plenty of room for shoulder rotation--than ideal storage. But for anglers who have to push themselves every time they hit the water, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Two zippered, side-entry pockets give you some storage options, but they’re not the best for tackle. That said, there’s a nice VHF pocket on the front right, which is essential for the big water anglers who might choose this PFD in the first place.
Fit is excellent, and comfort is good, with perhaps the best options for a customizable fit of any PFD on our list. That only makes sense given the design parameters of this vest, and you can count on the Bahia Tour to work with rather than against you on long, tough paddles.
Wearing 210 denier nylon both inside and out, this isn’t the toughest PFD on our list by a long shot, but it is perhaps the brightest. The orange is really easy to pick out from the water and sky, and there’s enough reflective material to make you easy to see even in low light.
That’s a really big deal when you’re a mile offshore, the sun’s setting, and fishing boats are running back to the marina and launch!
Overall, if you’re a hardcore kayak angler who chases big fish on big water, it might be worth trading storage for comfort.
Every PFD on our list is US Coast Guard approved, and you shouldn't buy or use a vest that’s not. It’s that simple.
The Coast Guard rigorously tests PFDs to ensure that they work as they should, designating different types of personal floatation device.
Note that all these vests are Type III, meaning that they’re designed for constant wear in activities like kayaking. But Type III PFDs will not turn unconscious paddlers face up in the water.
Heavier, bulkier PFDs are designed to do this, but they’re not designed for activities like paddling and fishing.
Most of the people I know who refuse to wear a PFD make that decision because of comfort. And it’s true that a poorly fitted vest really can be a pain.
But it’s not that hard to get a PFD that fits well, offering comfort and life-saving buoyancy.
Keeping in mind that a loose PFD won’t necessarily do its job in the event of an emergency. Measuring yourself is critically important.
Be sure to use a tape measure, wrapping it around your chest at its widest point.
Some tips that will help you get the right size:
This video provides a great basic tutorial to ensure you get the right fit for your body and shape:
A quality fishing PFD offers features that are good to have on any vest, but also some things that are specific to angling, such as storage options like pockets.
I like to see safety features like bright colors and reflective materials. If the worst does happen, you want to be easy to see and simple to find, even in low light. And if you’re paddling and fishing in big water, being easy to spot from the air is essential.
Let’s face it--a PFD is never going to be cooler than none at all. But you should be willing to trade a bit more sweat for safety.
I like to see plenty of mesh on the sides and back, with attention to letting heat escape and sweat evaporate.
Fabrics are rated on a denier system, with higher numbers indicating thicker, tougher weaves.
Given the abuse that the sun, wind, and water will dish out, you want a tough PFD. Look for 400 denier nylon--or heavier--to ensure a long service life.
We also look for strong, easy-to-use zippers that don’t catch fabric as you close them.
From D-rings to zippered pockets, a good fishing PFD is a tool as well as a survival essential.
I like to see some storage options and even some attachment points for tools like pliers. That’ll keep your gear ready-to-hand and ready to use.
Blood, slime, scales: your PFD is going to get nasty fast!
Look for one that’s easy to clean and take good care of it.
Some dos and don’ts with a PFD to keep in mind:
The latest trend in PFDs is the ultra-low profile automatic inflating style that minimizes material and maximized all-day comfort.
That’s an awesome idea if you’re willing to forgo storage options, and I might just be into that trade--if these PFDs were 100% reliable.
They are not!
A tragic death in 2018 highlights this failure, and it’s worth quoting the official report. Jon
Santarelli’s “life jacket, which was reported as set for automatic inflation, never inflated and he was never seen to try to manually inflate it.”
If this was a unique event, I’d take a different view, but this is unfortunately far too common. Until the failure rate is zero, I can’t recommend these as safety devices.
Choosing the right PFD means weighing your options and assessing your angling needs.
I hope that this article has helped you narrow the field and find the right choice for you.
If it has, I’d love to hear about it!
Please leave a comment below.