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Canoe vs Kayak - Which is Better for Fishing?

Written by: Pete D
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In the right hands and conditions, both kayaks and canoes excel as platforms for anglers.

But there are distinct differences that can make one option or the other better for you. Unfortunately, there's also a lot of misinformation out there, and some of the articles you might find on the internet are clearly written by folks who've never paddled either a canoe or a kayak.

If you’re wondering which one is right for you, we’re here to help, and we’ll discuss the pros and cons of both options with reference to a lot of real-world experience in each of them.

Keep reading if you want to know whether a canoe or kayak is better for your fishing!

Canoe vs. Kayak: Pros and Cons

Canoe

A good canoe is an excellent angling platform.

Check out our top recommendations for the best fishing canoes

Fast and nimble, it can carry a lot more gear than any kayak, and typically, canoes are lighter than you’d expect, making them easy to portage and load or unload from a vehicle.

But canoes suffer from a lack of water-tight storage, and there’s no question that they aren’t as stable in rough water. Moreover, on windy days, their high gunwales catch the breeze, and they tend to get pushed around a lot more.

Let’s break down each of these pros and cons, taking a closer look.

Pro #1: Storage capacity

Easily the biggest advantage of canoes is their weight and space capacity. Simply outclassing kayaks in terms of their total load-bearing stats, canoes are ideal for anglers who may be bringing a friend - animal or human - along for the fishing trip, and there’s just no question that there’ll be room for tackle bags, a cooler, lunch, rods, and any other gear you might want to bring.

This amount of storage just isn’t available on a kayak.

Typical recreational canoes have capacities that are in the neighborhood of 800 pounds, roughly double that of an equivalently sized kayak.

In the real world, this makes canoes the much better choice for anglers who’ll be making multi-day expedition-style trips, paddling down quiet rivers, and fishing as they go. Tent, sleeping bags, cooking gear, fishing tackle: there’s space for everything, including a buddy.

Pro#2: Weight, transportability, and portaging

A Discovery 133 weighs in at 78 pounds, despite a total length of 13 feet, 3 inches and a width of 39 inches at the waterline. Compare this to popular fishing kayaks, and you’ll see an immediate difference.

Wilderness Systems’ Radar 135, at 13 feet, 6 inches, and 34 inches at the waterline, weighs in at a hefty 95 pounds, and that’s without its pedal drive system. So that you don’t think we’re cherry-picking, Vibe’s Sea Ghost 130, at 13 feet, tips the scales at 92 pounds.

Those weights make kayaks more encumbering at equal lengths, meaning that they can be a lot harder to load and unload from the roof of an SUV.

And when you need to portage, the balance and lighter overall weight of a canoe make this much, much easier, particularly on canoes equipped with a yoke.

You just lift the canoe, get your neck under the yoke, and “wear” the canoe as you walk to the next section of the river.

Tie#1: Comfort

Comfort is subjective, and what tortures one paddler may be bliss for another.

That said, canoes offer higher seating and more options for foot placement, knee angles, and shifting around, all of which matter as the minutes stretch into hours and the hours into days.

The weakness of canoes in terms of comfort is often the absence of back support, but there are after-market options that help with this and considerably enhance the comfort of long paddles.

Overall, we can’t say that canoes are more comfortable than kayaks. 

For some people, this is true; for others, the kayak is the much more pleasant option.

Con#1: Speed, maneuverability, and handling

Canoes are typically powered by a single-bladed paddle, but depending on the seat height and the canoe’s width, you can also use a double-bladed paddle, providing a bit more speed.

With a single blade, the canoe is going to be slower than an equal-sized kayak, all other things being equal. If you can manage a double-bladed paddle, however, they’ll be roughly on par.

Once you’ve mastered the art of paddling a canoe, they’re quite maneuverable, perhaps equaling but probably not exceeding a kayak.

Con#2: Steeper learning curve

Canoes have a steeper learning curve for paddling proficiency, and it takes a bit more time on the water, paddle in hand, to really learn the intricacies of maneuvering a canoe like a pro.

Kayaks, by contrast, are intuitively easier to control, and if you’re new to either option, a kayak is going to be more satisfying and less frustrating on this front.

Con#3: Organization and water-tight storage

There’s simply no question that a canoe can out-carry a kayak, both in terms of weight and available space.

But the bottom of your canoe is going to collect at least some water from paddle drips, splashes, or rain, and there’s no water-tight storage built-in. That means that anything that needs to stay dry - clothes, sleeping bags, a phone - needs to be stored in a water-tight container. 

The other issue is that a canoe’s space is only “organized” by the seating and yoke positions, with the floor completely open. That’s great for capacity but bad for organization and keeping necessary items ready to hand.

You can overcome this with the right tackle bags and storage options, but fishing kayaks will come ready with mounting positions for fish finders and plenty of dry storage options built-in.

Kayaks like Wilderness Systems’ Radar 135 come with plenty of built-in organization options and dry storage.

Con#4: Rough water stability

I love canoes, and I’ve caught more than my fair share of panfish and bass from them. But I can tell you with complete honesty that my first bad experience on unexpected rapids was an eye-opener.

I was fishing the Rivanna River in Virginia with my sister, paddling a 13-foot canoe on calm water. We were catching bluegill like crazy and had a big stringer just ready to clean and cook.

Then we hit some mean Class I to Class II whitewater, flooded the kayak, lost the fish, and finally managed to recover. But that taught me a valuable lesson.

Those same rapids would have just been a fun diversion in my fishing kayak.

By design, canoes can carry heavy, large loads. But the hull shapes that maximize this capability aren’t great once you leave calm water.

If you fish on quiet lakes, lazy rivers, and calm water, a canoe is awesome. But in rapids, on large lakes that can be choppy in a breeze, or in the salt where a storm can blow up white caps and create real waves, a canoe is just not a good idea.

Especially in whitewater or when threatened by tall, short-wavelength waves, it’s easy to take water over the gunwale. And it doesn’t take nearly as much water as you’d think to make your canoe unmanageable or to swamp you completely, which is what happened to me on the Rivanna.

As the paddlers at Bending Branches warn, “To paddle a canoe successfully in high wind and waves is tricky business. Some skilled paddlers love the challenge and even look for waves and river rapids to run. But wind and waves can quickly turn a recreational canoe trip into anything but fun.”

Their first tip if you’re facing rough water or heavy winds in a canoe: reconsider your trip.

Fishing kayaks are built with self-bailing scuppers that drain water immediately. 

Fishing kayaks, by contrast, are fitted with scuppers, holes that run completely through the hull, allowing water to drain out immediately. They’re also more inherently stable in rough water.

And if the worst does happen, they’re also much, much easier to recover if you roll them.

Con#5: Wind

Finally, because canoes are light, their high gunwales catch the wind pushing them around in a relatively light breeze. This creates some hassles, as it can be tough to stay in the exact position you’d like, though I’ve occasionally used the wind as a natural trolling motor, allowing me to drift along an area in a more or less straight line.

When that works out - great - but the reality is that more often than not, the wind isn’t your friend in a canoe. 

Kayak

Check out our top recommendations for the best fishing kayaks

Pro#1: Speed, maneuverability, and handling

My experience has been that kayaks have a slight edge on speed, even when the angler paddling the canoe uses a double-bladed paddle.

But overall weight, the specific hydrodynamics of the hull, and the quality of the paddle all matter, so there’s no hard and fast rule in this situation.

With the addition of pedal drive or electric motors, kayaks simply can’t be beat by a canoe, unless the canoe has rigged a trolling motor or outboard on a transom mount.

Where there’s no question in my mind is maneuverability. Expert paddlers might be able to maneuver a canoe with as much agility as a kayak, but even moderately-experienced kayakers can run rings around most canoes.

And with the addition of a rudder or skeg, kayaks simply track much straighter, making them easier to control in wind and waves.

Pro#2: Organization and dry storage

Modern fishing kayaks are designed with organization in mind, providing tracks and rails for mounting electronics and rod holders, as well as other mounting options in the cockpit.

Typically, you’ll find multiple rod holders, including some that are adjustable, bungee cords or Velcro straps for your paddle or rods, behind-seat storage, and dry options like hatches and trays.

These are examples of the organizing capacity of a fishing kayak.

There’s also room for a small cooler or extra tackle toward the stern of most fishing kayaks, and you’ll find the layout of the best of the bunch to be extremely effective, keeping everything you need ready to hand.

Pro#3: Rough water stability

Fishing kayaks may not equal their touring and whitewater kin on this front, but they can handle rough water really well.

I’ve put this to the test on a large lake in a sudden storm, where whitecaps and two-foot waves were being driven by strong winds. My kayak rode out the waves like a champ, and when water did break over the bow or stern, the scuppers whisked it away instantly.

In the salt, there’s just no question that a fishing kayak is superior, and provided you know what you’re doing, you can safely access areas that I wouldn’t consider in a canoe:

The reasons are simple: scuppers prevent swamping, even when you take water over the gunwale, and the hull design and low center of gravity of a fishing kayak makes it very stable in big waves, surf, or choppy water.

Pro#4: Wind

Fishing kayaks have a low center of gravity compared to canoes, and their gunwales are much lower to the water.

That doesn’t make them impervious to the effects of wind, but it cuts down on the need to fight every gust.

Tie #1: Comfort

This is the tricky one, and as I mentioned above, this can go either way.

The cockpit and seat of a fishing kayak is designed for relative comfort, but there’s no denying that foot positions are limited, and legroom can feel cramped. Of course, you can dangle a foot over the side, lift your legs onto the gunwales, and even sit side-saddle in your ‘yak.

I’ve done all three.

But wiggle room is minimal, and the primary seating position can get old.

Typically, kayaks offer excellent lower back support, and after-market pads and chairs enhance this comfort even further.

But, in cold weather, kayaks offer a wetter ride. From splashes that wouldn’t reach over the gunwale of a canoe to anglers whose body weight pushes the limits of the ‘yak, a little water is almost inevitable.

Scupper plugs are available to prevent water from coming in if you’ve overloaded your kayak a bit, but then they’re no longer self-bailing. And nothing will make the gunwales taller.

Which is more comfortable for you is something only you can decide.

Con#1: Weight, transportability, and portaging

As we discussed above, at equal lengths, kayaks tend to be a bit heavier than canoes, making them more of a handful to load and unload from a roof rack. If you haven't thought about using one and just tossing your kayak on the roof any old, please think twice! For safety purposes we absolutely recommending using a roof kayak rack for the truck, suv or car.

They’re also a lot harder to portage because there’s no handy yoke to take the weight off your arms, meaning that you’re carrying - or dragging - 90 pounds or so across rocks, sand, or mud. You can add a skid plate to help protect the bottom of your ‘yak, but with or without one, be prepared for some hard work.

Trust me, portaging a fishing kayak is no one’s idea of fun. I’ve done it hundreds of times, and there’s just no question that a portage is easier to manage with a canoe.

Con#2: Storage capacity

Kayaks simply can’t store as much gear as a canoe, nor can they handle the weight that a canoe can.

You can load a kayak up, use all the dry storage below deck, and pack the stern as full as you can get it, and you still won’t come close to what you can fit in a canoe of roughly the same size.

A fully-loaded kayak can carry a lot, but a canoe can handle even more.

That makes canoes generally superior for longer expeditions, as there’s simply more room and weight capacity to get the job done. Remember, your body weight counts against your kayak’s capacity, so with you in the seat, you’ll probably have just 200 to 300 pounds remaining.

For an expedition, that’s not much at all.

And if you sometimes take a buddy with you, canoes easily handle a second, and even third, paddler. If you own a fishing kayak, you already know they’re single-seaters (for the most part), and tandems, when they’re available, have almost no capacity left for tackle or gear with two paddlers aboard.

Final Thoughts

Canoes and kayaks both have a place, and when you play to their respective strengths, it’s easy to see why folks choose one or the other.

If you make multi-day fishing trips, camping as you go along slow-moving rivers or massive, calm lakes, a canoe is ideal. They’re great, too, when you know you’ll need to do a lot of portaging, or when you like to bring a buddy along and still want to carry tons of gear and tackle.

Kayaks excel when the going gets rough and are ideal for the salt, faster rivers, and lakes that can go from calm to calamitous at the drop of a hat. They’re also better overall platforms for serious anglers, as they’re ready to mount electronics, offer more dry storage, and are available with a variety of drive systems that allow greater range and speed with less effort.

Neither is better than the other, and the best way to think about the kayak vs. canoe debate is in terms of what you need from your angling platform.

We hope you learned something from this article and that it clarified which might be the better choice for you and your needs.

As always, if you have a question or comment, we’d love to hear from you.

About The Author
Pete D
Born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, Pete grew up fishing on the Great Lakes. When he’s not out on the water, you can find him reading his favorite books, and spending time with his family.
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