Setting up a true fishing kayak really allows you to enjoy the sport to its fullest. There’s an understandable joy in hooking into a great fish and having everything you need from secure rod holders to landing equipment and storage right at your fingertips. Making your kayak such a joy to fish from takes a bit of planning but goes a long way in making your experience a positive one!

As in fishing from a boat, a fishing kayak reflects a wide spectrum of different techniques, gear, and rigs suited to the method of fishing and personal preferences of the angler. Due to the rapid popularity that kayak fishing has experienced in recent years, many kayak manufacturers offer specially-equipped “fishing models” featuring built-in rod holders, compartments, and layouts especially suited to the kayak angler.

For starters, the most popular fishing kayaks are those with a forward compartment for dry storage and a rear tank-well, or deck recess, that allows for placement of tackle equipment like a crate with rod holders, bait tanks, or fish bags. My kayak is an Ocean Kayak Scupper Pro TW.

For those thinking of going at kayak fishing as a true team, check out our friends, the Uyeda brothers' slick tandem fishing kayak!

Rudder or No-Rudder?

The jury is out on the necessity for a rudder but I find a rudder invaluable when trying to paddle against adverse winds or currents. Additionally, I thoroughly enjoy working my rudder to “follow” the fish as I’m fighting it… and they will pull you! Despite the potential for snagging my line on the rudder, the benefit of increased efficiency when conditions worsen well outweighs the negatives for installing a rudder.

Starting at the bow, I’d recommend bungee lashings, or “bungee trees” as they’re usually called. These serve as a paddle holder and allow you to stow your paddle in an instant, a handy feature to have when you get a strike. My fishing kayak is equipped with bungee trees on the bow and in the cockpit the latter which conveniently holds my tackle box right in front of me.

If you’re thinking positive (and you should be!) you need to have something to land and store your catch. For smaller fish a landing net will do and for larger fish a gaff would be more appropriate. Some folks keep a catch bag in their hull which requires opening up the hatch to place their catch into the bag. My preference is an insulated bag (the one in the photo is made for use on a fishing kayak) which I store in the rear tank-well. This setup is very different from our mainland counterparts most of which tend to utilize the aft space on their kayaks for storing crates with rod-holders and/or live bait buckets.

Kayak fishing in Hawaii involves quite simply, bottom-fishing, trolling, whipping, or jigging. I do very little bottom fishing or whipping (casting) from my fishing kayak as I really enjoy the constant movement that trolling offers, not to mention the simplicity of rig that we use!

In setting up for bottom fishing, whipping, and jigging there really is no special set-up as all you’re needing is a floating platform from which to deploy your line. It’s a good idea to get a drift chute which can significantly reduce your drift while doing any of these stationary fishing methods. I rig the chute amidships so it holds my kayak perpendicular to the direction of the current or wind, whichever might be pushing me away from the area I’d like to remain in.

Rod Holders – In Front or Behind?

For trolling, my rod holders are set up in the front of the cockpit. This is probably the biggest difference from many of our mainland kayak fishing colleagues that seem to prefer placing their rod holders in back of their seats. I prefer being able to watch the tip of my pole as I’m trolling as frequently, smaller fish will shred the bait without taking pulling on the line for the ratchet to sound. When a fish does hit, the transition from paddling to setting the hook is one smooth transition as I quickly place the paddle in the bow lashing then grab my rod.

When placing your rod holders in front of you, be sure to check your maximum forward extension when paddling so as to assure you won’t hit the rod holders or rods when stretching forward in your stroke.

Wherever you decide to place your rod holders, be sure to include a safety line to your reels to prevent losing them in the event you capsize or if the rod holders should fail. On three occasions (I’d rather not talk about how…) I flipped my kayak and, if not for the safety lines would have lost my favorite Penn Reel and rod! On another occasion, having insufficiently tightened the nut on my rod holder, my entire rod holder gave way when a fish hit and my reel and rod went right into the water, thankfully, only as far as the safety line.

Tackle Box & Landing Tackle

My preference is to keep things as simple as possible and the size of my tackle box probably reflects that. All of my lures and pre-set leaders are stored in a small waterproof box that’s strapped into the bungee cords right in front of me.

A long nose pliers hangs off the side of my seat so I don’t have to go fumbling for it when I’ve got a fish struggling in my lap or thrashing about on the side of the kayak!

Depending on where we’re fishing, I would either have a gaff or landing net and, often, I’ll stick them in the extra rod holder for convenience.

Fishfinders & VHS Radios

An increasing number of fishing kayaks are being rigged with fishfinders that are water-resistant and very well-suited to kayak fishing needs. One of our buddies has a fishfinder on his kayak and he swears by it!

You can choose from a portable fishfinder that allows for the needed transducer to be mounted with a suction cup or doing a permanent mount that requires epoxying the transducer to the hull. As of yet, I haven’t outfitted my kayak with a fishfinder but I’m getting awfully tempted!

Of course, while we’re on the subject of electronics, a good investment would also be a VHS two-way-radio so you have both boat to boat and coast guard emergency channel access. Submersible handheld VHS radios are available nowadays starting at around $170 and up.

Each fishing kayak reflects the preferences and priorities of the individual angler and you'll find almost as many different set-ups as there are fishermen. I hope this gives you a starting point from which you can add or detract... depending on your own fishing goals.

Tight lines!