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Fishing Kayak Setup Made Easy: A Quick Rundown of the Essentials

Written by: Pete D
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Before your kayak fishing adventures can begin, you need to spend some time outfitting your ‘yak. 

Setup is an important step, encompassing both safety and performance. There are quite a few points to consider, and from PFDs to electronics, there are tons of important choices to make.

If you’re starting the process of setting up your kayak, we’d like to help. In this article, we’ll be discussing the most common options kayak anglers need to think through, and we’ll be offering recommendations and advice for each step.

If you want to make the process of outfitting a kayak fun and easy, keep reading!

Kayak Setup Essentials

Paddle

You’re not going far without a paddle unless you’ve purchased a kayak with a motor system. And even then, setting off without a paddle is foolish since mechanical drive systems can always fail.

Standard touring paddles can be a fine choice for kayak fishing, especially if you’ve got a long trip to your hotspot. But most kayak fishermen will find that a sport-specific design is the best bet.

Bending Branches Angler Classic 2-Piece Snap-Button Fishing Kayak Paddle; (Black Shaft/Sage Green Blade - 240cm)

Amazon 

Angling-specific paddles are always a safe bet.

Among our favorite kayak fishing paddles, you’ll find the excellent Bending Branches Angler Classic, a fiberglass-shafted paddle that provides everything you could hope for.

It’s stiff and efficient, two words you want to hear when you’ve got water to cover. It also features a two-piece ferrule that’s easy to transport and store. 60-degree feathering or matched blades are available by adjusting the shaft between three positions.

And as an added bonus, the left blade features a unique cutout that lets you grab your line, increasing your reach dramatically.

Just remember that the longer your torso, the longer your paddle.

To see more of our favorite kayak fishing paddles please visit our full buying guide: Best Kayak Fishing Paddles Reviewed: 2022 Buying Guide

PFD

PFDs are not only legally mandatory, but they’re also essential safety gear you should wear every time you hit the water, without fail.

Long gone are the days where PFDs were bulky, heavy, and hot. Now, they’re packed with organizing options, lightweight, and cool.

The most important point to consider when selecting a PFD is fit. If it’s too loose, it can slip over your head and fail to do its job. If it’s too tight, it won’t be comfortable, and you won’t wear it.

The best way to ensure a proper fit is to try on a PFD over your typical fishing clothes. Adjust the straps until it’s hugging your torso but not tight, and then have a friend try to pull it off over your head.

If they can succeed, your PFD is too loose or the wrong size.

Look for plenty of mesh, especially at the sides and back, durable fabrics, and lots of storage like pockets and D-rings to attach tools.

We also recommend bright, high-visibility colors to make you more noticeable on the water.

Bright colors, plentiful storage, and all-day comfort are important considerations when selecting a PFD.

Our favorite is the NRS Chinook OS. It’s available from the manufacturer in bright orange, offered in three sizes, and made from tough materials that’ll stand up to anything Mother Nature can throw at it.

NRS Chinook OS Type III Outdoor Boating Fishing Life Jacket Vest PFD with Pockets, X Small/Medium, Orange

Amazon 

Comfortable to wear, it’s packed with accessory pockets and tool attachments, making it a kayak angler’s best bet.

To see more of our favorite kayak fishing PFDs please visit our full buying guide: Best Kayak Fishing PFDs Reviewed: Safe Options For Kayak Anglers

Safety lights

Kayak anglers share the water with power boats, and without proper safety lights, that’s an accident waiting to happen.

Effective safety lights are a must, and even when the sun’s shining brightly, a high-vis flag goes a long way toward avoiding collisions.

Good safety systems include a pole tall enough to provide 360-degree visibility, easy attachment to your ‘yak, and a bright, battery-sipping LED lamp.

Visibility systems are critical for kayak anglers, even in daylight.

Our pick is the RailBlaza Visibility Kit. The included Railblaza star mount makes this kit easy to install on any kayak, and the pole lifts the bright LED lamp to roughly three feet above your deck.

RAILBLAZA Visibility Kit Kayak All Around Safety Light

Amazon 

That allows the kind of visibility you want for safety.

RailBlaza’s LED has three modes, a feature we just love. The first provides a very bright light that runs through your batteries in about 25 hours. The next is a low mode that provides roughly 160 hours of battery life. And finally, the flashing mode provides great visibility while saving battery power, offering more than 200 hours of battery life.

To see more of our favorite kayak fishing safety lights please visit our full buying guide: Safety after Dark: The Best Kayak Lights for Night Fishing

Tools

Best Fishing Pliers for Freshwater and Saltwater Reviewed

Best Fishing Knot Tying Tools to Make Angling Easy Again

Best Fishing Knives Reviewed: Finding The Right Knife

Best Fishing Scales Reviewed: Weighing the Pros and Cons

Best Fish Grippers: 2022 Buying Guide & Reviews

You'll quickly find that the list of tools you might want on your kayak will grow beyond your capacity to carry them!

A good start begins with the essentials: pliers, a knife, and a pair of grippers for large or dangerous fish.

Pliers like KastKing’s Cutthroats are needed for everything: affixing weights to your line, changing the hooks on your lures, removing deep-set hooks from fish, and cutting light wire or heavy braid.

KastKing Cutthroat 7 inch Fishing Pliers, 420 Stainless Steel Fishing Tools, Saltwater Resistant Fishing Gear, Tungsten Carbide Cutters, Corrosion Resistant Teflon Coating, 7'’Split Ring Nose, Orange

Amazon 

Fishing pliers are necessary for pretty much every aspect of fishing.

We like this particular option for a lot of reasons. They’re inexpensive and very corrosion-resistant, and the spring-loaded jaws and rubber grip make them easy and comfortable to use. You’ll get a good grip with the teeth and cut line with ease. They’ve also got the scope you need to reach way down for a hook.

Knives are necessary for cutting line, cutting bait, and handling a variety of other tasks that nothing else does well. 

Probably the best general utility option for kayak anglers is the awesome Ontario Rat 2.

Ontario Rat II Folder OD Green

Amazon 

A sharp knife can cut line, rope, bait, or lunch.

This legendary blade is made from corrosion-resistant AUS-8 steel, which is easy to sharpen and reasonably good at holding an edge through tough work. It opens easily with a thumb stud, locks securely, clips to your PFD or pocket, and best of all for fishermen, cleans up in a snap thanks to its open design.

Large fish can be impossible to handle safely - for them or for you - without a fish gripper. And fish with a lot of teeth, like barracuda, just can’t be lipped safely.

For large or toothsome species, you’ll need a powerful, ergonomic fish gripper.

Kayak anglers will also want this tool to be as light as possible, and buoyant, too. That’s why we recommend Rapala’s 9" Floating Fish Gripper for kayak fishermen.

Rapala 9' Floating Fish Gripper 9'

Amazon 

You don’t need fish grippers to lip a largemouth, but just try that with bluefish or pike!

They’re very light and easy to store on a lanyard attached to your PFD. They grip well and should work on fish up to 30 pounds, which has you covered for the vast majority of species.

And since they float, dropping them overboard from your ‘yak isn’t a big deal - and that’s always an issue given how little deck space there is on most fishing kayaks.

Storage options

Each kayak offers different storage possibilities, from under-seat trays to removable modules. But they all share a common feature that’s eminently usable: the stern well.

Behind the seat of a fishing kayak, you’ll find a large depression that’s just asking for a storage crate. And while kayakers in years past used to reach for a humble milk crate, storage options now are both more functional and more accessible.

Ideally, a kayak crate is easy to access from your seat and loaded with organizational options.

Our top pick for a hard-sided crate is Wilderness Systems’ Kayak Crate

Wilderness Systems Kayak Crate | 4 Rod Holders | Kayak Tackle Storage | Fits Most Kayaks

Amazon 

Hard-sided kayak crates are simply awesome ways to organize your tackle and store your rods.

It has a number of features that set it apart from its competition, including separated storage compartments and adjustable rod holders. It provides plenty of space for items you want to keep ready-to-hand, as well as a larger compartment for stowing plastic tackle boxes like those offered by Plano.

Plano Tackle 4 Pack of Size 3600 Stowaways with Adjustable Dividers, 4 Pack, Fishing Tackle Storage, Premium Tackle Storage

Amazon 

Plano’s tackle storage boxes are the best in the business.

Of course, you’ll want plenty of Plano 3600 and 3700 storage boxes. Their adjustable compartments are perfect for everything from tiny in-line spinners to giant pike spoons, and they’re easy to label to keep their content instantly identifiable.

Every angler uses these, and I don’t think you’ll find anyone on the water who doesn’t love them.

To see more of our favorite kayak fishing storage options please visit our full buying guide: Kayak Crates for Fishing: The Best Options for Anglers in 2022

Clothing 

What to Wear Fishing: Clothes for Every Season and Condition

Clothing is a critical choice, whether you’re looking to protect yourself from the blistering sun or freezing temperatures.

We’ve had a lot to say about kayak clothing, and we’ll keep reminding our readers that sun protection is the best way to avoid life-threatening skin cancer.

Take the risks seriously and cover up.

Most kayak anglers are out on the water in the warmer months, so that’s what we’ll discuss here.

You simply must keep the sun off your head and neck, and a good hat is the best way to do that. Our top picks include Outdoor Research’s Sombriolet and KastKing’s Sol Armis UPF 50 Boonie Hat

Outdoor Research Seattle Sombrero Black

Amazon 

KastKing Sol Armis UPF 50 Boonie Hat - Sun Protection Hat, Fishing Hat, Beach & Hiking Hat, Paddling, Rowing, Kayaking Hat,Silver Mist

Amazon 

Nothing beats a good hat for sun protection.

To see more of our favorite fishing hat options please visit our full buying guide: Best Fishing Hats

These hats are made from durable, breathable fabrics that wear hard and keep you cool. And their wide brims will shield your head, face, and neck from dangerous UVA and UVB radiation.

Increasingly, however, sun-conscious anglers are choosing neck gaiters as well, armoring their faces against the summer sun and its risks. That’s not only potentially life-saving; it turns out that with the tight fabrics, it’s cooler, too!

We really like KastKing’s Sol Armis Neck Gaiter.

KastKing Sol Armis Neck Gaiter - UPF 50 Face Mask - UV Sun Protection Gaiter Sun Mask for Men & Women, Fishing, Hiking, Kayaking Mask, Prym1 Camo, J: Prym1 Purple Tang

Amazon 

Full coverage is the smart choice.

Made from stay-cool materials, it provides UPF 50+ protection, meaning that 98% of the sun’s radiation never makes it to your skin.

This gaiter is guaranteed to not fog your sunglasses.

Don’t forget those sunglasses. KastKing’s Skidaways are priced right, and their polarization cuts glare down to nothing while allowing you a good look through the water column.

KastKing Skidaway Polarized Sport Sunglasses for Men and Women, Gloss Black Frame, Brown Base Chartreuse Mirror

Amazon 

To see more of our favorite fishing sunglasses please visit our full buying guide: Best Sunglasses For Fishing

Covering your arms, shoulders, chest, and wrists isn’t optional if you want to live to fish with your grandkids, and options from the conservative and traditional to the fashion-forward are available for anglers.

Traditionalists prefer shirts like Columbia’s PFG Bahama II. Our team at USAngler uses these shirts, and I can tell you from experience that they keep the sun from burning your skin, wear like cast iron, wash easily, and keep you plenty cool.

Columbia Men's Bahama II Long Sleeve Shirt, White, Large

Amazon 

I also like HUK’s Pursuit Camo long-sleeve shirts, especially for their high chest coverage. I’ve come back with my lower neck and upper chest burned from keeping my buttons open, and that’s not something I’d like to repeat!

Huk Men's Pursuit Camo Vented Long Sleeve 30 UPF Fishing Shirt, Mossy Oak Hydro Blackwater, Large

Amazon 

Despite the heat, we recommend that you skip shorts and look to pant options like Columbia’s PFG Blood and Guts III. Cool, easy to wear, and just as easy to wash, these fishing pants are simply amazing in the summer.

Columbia Men's Blood & Guts Iii Convertible Pant, Grill, 30x32

Amazon 

To see more of our favorite kayak fishing pants please visit our full buying guide: Best Kayak Fishing Pants

For summer kayak fishing, nothing beats Crocs’ Swiftwater Wave sandals. Built from the sole up for fishing and water sports, they’re cool and easy to wash with nothing more than soap and water.

Crocs mens Swiftwater Wave Sandal, Black/Pearl White, 9 M US

Amazon 

Cool, comfortable, and easy to wash. What more could you want?

They’ve got great grippy soles that will help you keep your feet in your ‘yak. They’ll also protect your feet from the sun as well as from bumps and knocks from your paddle.

To see more of our favorite kayak fishing shoes please visit our full buying guide: Best Kayak Fishing Shoes

Mounting systems and rod holders

I don’t know a kayak angler who doesn’t use rod holders, and whether you prefer to troll for species like walleye or crappie or just need a firm rest for your rod while you paddle, the top brands are roughly equivalent in performance.

YakAttack’s Omega is compatible with a relatively wide range of mounting hardware.

In short, you’ll be delighted with the performance of rod holders from Cannon, Scotty, RailBlaza, and YakAttack, but keep in mind that with the exception of the latter of these, they’re only compatible with mounting hardware from the same company.

In the real-world, that means that what really sets these rod holders apart is your choice of a mounting system.

Rail mounts are a great option, allowing for a wide range of accessories as well as multiple, customizable set ups. Typically, they’re available in a variety of lengths, giving you options for the sides of your ‘yak.

For instance, YakAttack ‘s GearTrac Top Loading Aluminum Kayak Mount Track is available in 4-, 8-, 12-, and 16-inch lengths, accommodating ½-inch mounting hardware of all kinds. It’s easy to install and screws securely in place.

YakAttack’s aluminum rails are some of the best out there.

But Scotty and RailBlaza make their own tack systems as well - and they’re far from alone. Do your homework, find one that you like, and make sure the accessories you buy are compatible.

To see all of our favorite kayak rod holders please visit our full buying guide: Best Kayak Fishing Rod Holder for 2022: Which is the Right Pick for You?

Anchor systems

Staying put in a current or breeze isn’t as easy as it seems, and getting pushed around a lake or river isn’t a recipe for awesome fishing.

Many kayakers discover this the hard way. Don’t be one of them.

You’ll want a good anchoring system for your kayak, and the first question to ask yourself is “How deep will the water be?” Only then can you pick the right option for you.

In shallow water, an anchor or pole is the way to go. 

Mushroom-style anchors are perfect for soft bottoms.

For soft, muddy bottoms, you’ll want a mushroom-style anchor, typically in the range of 3 to 5 pounds. We really like Newport Vessels anchors, and they grab and grip easily. 

For even more shallow situations, skip the anchor and use something like YakGear’s YakStick, essentially a push pole that’s been designed to be driven into the bottom. Not only does the YakStick float, alleviating a serious problem should you drop it, but it’s also strong enough to hold you in place and double as a push pole when a paddle just won’t do.

A long push pole like the YakStick is perfect for very shallow water and soft bottoms.

For hard bottoms in shallow water, you’ll want a folding grappling-style anchor. Seattle Sports Kayak Anchor Kit is the perfect choice, and it holds well on gravel, rock, coral, and other hard bottoms.

Whichever anchor is right for you, just be sure to set up an anchor trolly. This simple solution lets you change your heading while at anchor, adjusting the direction your bow faces. That’s critical for accurate casting, and it makes life a lot easier when the wind is shifting directions constantly.

For water that’s too deep for an anchor - anything more than 20 feet or so on a kayak - the best option is a drift sock. These act like parachutes, opening to create drag and slow your kayak’s movement. Inshore or on open water like the Great Lakes, they’re simply unbeatable.

Lindy’s Drift Control Drift Sock is perfect for kayaks, and the company recommends you use the 18- or 24-inch in light breezes, the 25- or 30-inch in moderate wind, and the 36- or 42-inch in heavy wind.

Drift socks are ideal for deeper water.

To see all of our favorite kayak anchor systems please visit our full buying guide: Best Kayak Fishing Anchors

Fish finders

Odds are you’ll be thinking about mounting a fish finder to your kayak. That’s something we can heartily recommend!

But despite what you may read elsewhere, big screens and tiny ‘yaks don’t play well together. There’s some wiggle room here, especially on pedal-driven kayaks intended for big water, where side-arm casting and paddling aren’t going to cause any trouble.

But for most kayak anglers, most of the time, something in the neighborhood of a 7-inch screen is about the most you should consider. It’ll provide plenty of visibility without compromising space or causing problems.

Keep in mind, too, that you’ll need a 12v battery to power your electronics, and these take up considerable space, weigh a lot, and need cables to connect to your fish finder.

Plan, measure, and then measure again!

Our pick for a kayak fish finder is constantly evolving with the tech, and our current favorite is the Lowrance Elite FS 7.

Lowrance Elite FS 7 Fish Finder with Active Imaging 3-in-1 Transducer, Preloaded C-MAP Contour+ Charts

Amazon 

This amazing fish finder is packed with bleeding-edge tech like Active Target while keeping a mid-range price tag.

Marketed as a more price-conscious alternative to the high-end HDS Live lineup, it’s almost impossible to find fault with the Elite FS.

With a 7-inch diagonal screen, you’ll be amazed by image clarity and an intuitive user interface.

Target separation, image quality, and side-scanning functionality are simply excellent, and Lowrance includes awesome mapping, course charting, and GPS software. You’ll also get access to the C-Map Genesis website, where you’ll be able to download tens of thousands of accurate topo maps.

Add to that features like Active Target that provides live, full-motion video produced by sonar, and you can see why we recommend this fish finder so highly.

To see all of our favorite kayak fish finders please visit our full buying guide:  Best Kayak Fish Finders: Real Reviews by Kayak Anglers

Trolling motors

Kayak anglers who have a pedal drive might balk at the idea of a trolling motor, but for long trips and stiff currents, they can’t be beat.

But the needs of kayakers and bass boats don’t overlap a whole lot, and super long shafts and high thrust numbers aren’t ideal for ‘yak fishing. Instead, you’ll want to look for motors with the shortest shafts available, and even modest thrust numbers are more than enough.

A good trolling motor makes short work of long trips.

One of our top picks is the Minn Kota Endura C2 30. Specifically designed for fresh water, it’s probably best to keep it there, though plenty of anglers use it inshore as well. Just take care to rinse it thoroughly once you’re done for the day.

Minn Kota Endura C2 30 Freshwater Transom Mounted Trolling Motor (30' Shaft)

Amazon 

Weighing in at just 17 pounds, and providing 30 pounds of thrust, the Endura C2 is the perfect size and weight for transom mounting to a kayak. Its five forward and three reverse throttle settings are easy to find and maintain, and in lower settings, this little motor sips juice from your 12v battery.

To see all of our favorite kayak trolling motors please visit our full buying guide: Best Trolling Motors for Kayak Fishing: 2022 Buying Guide and Reviews

Batteries

Best Marine Battery - Dual Use, Starting, and Deep Cycle Batteries Explained and Reviewed

Best Trolling Motor Battery: Dedicated Batteries To Keep You Moving In 2022

Finally, whether you’re looking to power your fish finder or you’ve added a trolling motor to lessen the work of paddling against a stiff current, you’ll need a reliable, powerful 12v battery system.

Battery tech has come a long way over the last few decades, and the old wet-cell batteries of yesteryear just can’t compete.

If you’re running a trolling motor, our favorite battery is the VMAX MR127

VMAX MR127 12 Volt 100Ah AGM Deep Cycle Maintenance Free Battery Compatible with Boats and 40-100lb, minnkota, Cobra, sevylor and Other trolling Motor (Group 27 Marine Deep Cycle AGM Battery)

Amazon 

With a trolling motor, you don't need cold cranking amps or the instant power to turn over an engine. Instead, you’ll want a reliable long-term flow of power from a battery that can be safely discharged to very low levels.

The AGM technology in this deep-cycle battery is perfect for that purpose, and it’ll run a trolling motor longer than almost anything else out there.

The one downside to 12v batteries for kayak anglers is weight, and the VMAX MR127 is no exception. At 68 pounds, you’ll want to locate this battery carefully and really consider your kayak’s capacity.

But if you need a battery to run your fish finder and don’t use a trolling motor, something like the 12V 10Ah Lithium LiFePO4 Deep Cycle Battery is perfect. Just a fraction of the size of a 12v, this battery weighs just 2.64 pounds, making it ideal for kayaks. 

12V 10Ah Lithium LiFePO4 Deep Cycle Battery, 2000+ Cycles Rechargeable Battery, Maintenance-Free Battery for Solar/Wind Power, Lighting, Power Wheels, Fish Finder and More, Built-in 10A BMS

Amazon 

It’ll provide reliable power for your electronics all day - and probably a lot longer than that - while being easy to recharge.

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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