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It doesn't matter if you're a shore-bound angler who's finally getting into a fishing kayak so you can get out there beyond the ocean breakers where there's a lot more big game fish like tarpon or bull reds, or if you're a "skinny waters" kayak angler who wants to battle Mother Nature's white caps and winds for big lake monsters. There are a lot more factors to consider on how to choose a fishing kayak for "big waters" than there is for a narrow rivers or ponds fishing kayak.
Any time you are inshore, or on a big lake, or on a very wide river, you are more at the mercy of Mother Nature. You may deal with highly variable conditions including but not limited to high winds, fog, waves and wake, and of course the fish that call the deep their home. You're also going to be covering longer distances than you would on smaller waterways. This means you'll need a fishing kayak with better propulsion options – like pedal drives and motors – and much better stability and standing height (think "sight fishing"), and you'll also need more gear and storage.
There are many different "ocean fishing kayaks" to choose from which can handle most any big water, built specifically for different types of anglers who fish areas from inshore bays and marsh flats to wide open ocean, as well as certain kayaks focused more simply on price point, and each one offers varying combinations of stability, size, speed, and fishing features. Ocean or "big waters" fishing kayaks of good quality can cost between around $1,300 and up to well over $6000.
While there is definitely no one-size-fits-all when it comes to "big waters" fishing kayaks, it helps to use as a benchmark a kayak that pretty much does it all in terms of stability, sight fishing, accessories mounting, quick access to half-a-dozen or more rods, tackle storage, steering options, the ability to slice through surf and waves. It is also best to consider a boat that offers all three kayak fishing propulsion options of pedal drive, power motor, or paddle. From there, you can then decide which features are important to you in terms of where you will be fishing – whether big lake/river, or ocean, or both – what kinds of fish you'll want to go after, what kind of weather you'll likely encounter, as well as what kind of money you want to spend.
The true benchmark "big waters fishing kayak" at the perfect blend of price-point and features is the Vibe Shearwater 125 – a premium inshore and "big waters" fishing kayak of incredible stability and speed that in terms of price is at the lower range for quality "big waters" fishing kayaks, starting at $1399, but which offers all three choices of propulsions – foot pedal drive, power motor, and paddle. It's also arguably the most truly customizable fishing kayak you'll find in terms of fitting a budget that you can easily add-onto; with upgradable sight fishing features, propulsion options, on-water positioning, and tackle storage.
There are a lot of terrific options out there from a variety of excellent kayak brands to fit all angling and paddling needs and budgets, but the Shearwater 125 is a good initial overall benchmark to keep in mind as you compare boats based on how much more you want to spend, or if you have a particular type of water or means of propulsion you feel you will be using your kayak more for.
Which Fishing Kayak is Right for You?
So, now that you have an idea of what the perfect overall "big waters" fishing kayak should comprise – stability, speed, propulsion options such as a pedal drive or Bixpy outboard motor, the ability to cut through waves and surf, lots of storage such as a YakAttack Blackpak and multiple rod holders, the ability to easily attach positioning gear like an anchor trolley or Power Pole Micro anchor, and lots more – you need to decide which options are most important to the way you fish, where you fish, and the types of fish you prefer to go after, as well as what kind of money you're willing to spend. Dialing in on the answers to those questions will help you find the perfect fishing kayak just for you, because there are a lot of kayaks out there, at a lot of different price points.
The bottom line in choosing the best "big waters" fishing kayak for your needs is that there is no one-size-fits all. Before you make a final decision on purchasing a big fresh water or ocean kayak for fishing, the most important thing you can do is to take stock of where and how you plan to do most of your paddling and fishing. Identify your key needs: Will you be fishing around saltwater harbors, marshes and flats for striped bass and bluefish? Or do you plan to venture out into huge lakes or rivers and need to cut through waves and caps? Also, will this fishing kayak be strictly a fishing vessel, or do you plan to also use it for recreation and relaxation and therefore don't need all the professional-level fishing features that the more premium fishing kayaks possess?
Choosing a fishing kayak is like choosing a car. You need to decide what features are “must-haves” and which ones you can compromise on. Once you know which options you've got to have in order to really succeed at fishing and catching in saltwater – such as having a foot pedal drive to carefully and easily position yourself where the fish are hiding, and getting a motor on the back of your kayak so you can get back to shore in a hurry if Mother Nature gets angry – you can then start down the path of picking the right fishing kayak for you.
Once you’ve thought carefully about what you want from an ocean or big lake / river fishing kayak, it’s time to select a handful of models that seem to match your desired criteria. At that point, make sure to go to your local dealer and see if you can demo them, or ask around to see if a local angler has the model you're interested in. Ideally, it's always best to demo a kayak before you buy it, but online reviews and social community forums also make it fairly easy to get the candid opinions and answers you need to make a good choice.
Here's a list of some of the basics mentioned above when considering your first, or next, ocean and big lake fishing kayak.
Sit On Top: Most ocean or "big waters" kayak anglers prefer self-bailing "sit-on-top" fishing kayaks, especially for saltwater fishing. Sit on top kayaks are inherently safer on saltwater than "sit inside" fishing kayaks, since Sit On Top fishing kayaks can flip over without filling with water, which can be incredibly dangerous on the ocean. In addition, sit on top ocean fishing kayaks give the ocean angler a lot more room to move around, or even throw a leg over the side for increased stability and comfort when pulling in a fish.
Propulsion - Foot Pedal Drive: Most fishing kayaks are propelled with paddle power, but foot pedal power drives are a fast growing option on more and more fishing kayaks. Foot pedal propulsion drives are popular with anglers because they free up the hands for fishing and allow easier maneuverability and kayak positioning on the water. Hobie and Vibe Kayaks are two fishing kayak manufacturers that both offer excellent foot pedal drives and high quality ocean fishing kayaks. Both of these manufacturers offer weed-free pedal drives using "fins", which don't get tangled in weeds like the propeller style pedal drives which can be problematic at times. Propeller foot drives also have the tendency to more easily hit the bottom when kayaking in shallower waters near shore where fish often hang out.
Motor Drive: Another propulsion option for select ocean or "big waters" fishing kayaks is an electric motor drive, such as the Bixpy J-1 outboard kayak motor, which can propel your fishing kayak very quickly to your secret spots or back to shore. Note that you can't as easily control your speed or turning radius quite as well as with a foot pedal drive. Most kayak motor options have propellers, which can easily get tangled in underwater weeds, as mentioned above. A jet motor drive like the Bixpy J-1, which attaches quickly to the Vibe Shearwater 125, has a cowl around it that prevents weed from getting tangled.
Stand-and-Fish / Sight Fishing Capability: On any fishing waters – but even more so on the ocean – sight fishing and the ability to easily and safely stand up in your fishing kayak and cast is more critical to being able to find and catch more fish. Wide and stable ocean fishing kayaks allow an angler to stand and sight-cast to fish in the shallows or on the wide open ocean.
Stable fishing kayaks which also have standing perches will get you even higher off the water so you can see further – an example is both the built-in gunwale perch on the Vibe Shearwater 125 and the optional Summit Seat Perch which will get you a standing platform 16-inches above the water.
Length: Typically, the longer the fishing kayak, the faster it will move and the more easily it will cover long distances. Depending on the model, the trade-off is sometimes a loss of maneuverability in tighter spaces.
Width: Wider fishing kayaks are usually more stable, particularly on the ocean with waves and surf, and can support more weight capacity. However, width is not the only factor which impacts stability. Hull design and weight displacement for a fishing kayak is also very important to stability on the water.
Weight: Weight of a fishing kayak can impact speed on the water, but it can also aid stability to some degree. A heavier fishing kayak might require a wheeled cart to move it from a vehicle down to the launch site or shore.
Storage and Tackle: Consider how much storage you’ll want and need on board your "big waters" fishing kayak. In addition to having enough rods holders so you can quickly swap up distance and bait, as well as a fish finder mount, you'll want dry bags, tackle tray slots, a weather-tight place to store your cell phone and other personal stuff, water and food, a Fish Stik, and maybe a cooler to store catches or live bait, and a jacket and change of clothing.
Seat: If you're going to be on the ocean or other big waters for hours at a time, you absolutely do not want a less expensive fishing kayak's molded-in seats or basic removable seating pads. You want a premium comfort, weather-resistant adjustable frame style seats with excellent back and bottom support. One of the most important features on a fishing kayak – which doesn't get enough attention until you are out on the water – is a good, comfy premium seat. It's worth its weight in gold to any serious kayaks angler. Two options at Vibe that are perfect for inshore-and-big-lakes-ready kayaks are the Summit Seat compatible with the Shearwater and the Cubera 120, or the Hero Seat, which fits the Sea Ghost 130 or Yellowfin 120.
So now you know what to look for when choosing an ocean or other "big waters" fishing kayak.
Take your time to find the right ocean fishing kayak perfect for you, then take comfort in knowing you made the right purchase and get out there and have fun! Tight lines, my friend.