May–June 2023

Fishing from the Waterline

Kayak fishing is booming as a stealthy, low-hassle way to get on the water with a rod and reel.

Hiroto Hayashi

I once took my fishing kayak to a walk-in-only lake that rarely had watercraft on it. One side of the lake was covered in thick cattails and willow brush that made it impossible to fish from shore. I carried my boat in, paddled alongside the vegetated shoreline, and enjoyed hours of incredible largemouth bass angling in a location that very few people had fished.

Most folks just couldn’t reach it. In a kayak, there wasn’t a section of that lake I couldn’t throw a lure to.

On that summer day I was enjoying the portability, simplicity, and flexibility that have drawn increasing numbers of Minnesotans to kayak fishing on the state’s waterways. Eager kayak anglers are hauling in catches that rival those caught by bigger craft. Some are outfitting their boats with customized gear, competing in kayak-specific tournaments, or learning new tricks from guides who cater to this niche angling audience. Others are quietly slipping into obscure backwaters on their own and discovering favorite new fishing holes they’ll never reveal.

“Starting around 2020, Minnesota saw a boom in the number of kayak anglers,” says Ron Strauss, president and founder of the Minnesota Kayak Fishing Association, which has 3,000 members. “That growth has not abated.”

Early each year the group sees an uptick in interest, gaining 10 to 25 members a week in February, March, and April. “People start to get spring fever,” he says. “We see people join year-round, but those three months are prime time.”

Besides those joining the association, an untold number of Minnesotans are taking up the sport independently or under the watchful gaze of a friend or family member. 

A Growing Passion. As an outdoor instructor who taught kayak angling, I found it to be an easy and accessible entry point for anglers who want to fish from the water. When I spoke with more experienced kayak anglers, I found that many of them had grown a passion for the independence, quiet travel, and closeness with the natural world that they found on their boats. They felt that a kayak connects us to nature in a direct, refreshing way. 

“I love that part of it. There’s no oil or gas to add or a motor that might break. It’s just me, the kayak, and fishing. I fish from a kayak for the gratitude and the solitude that it brings me,” says Dan Meer, a local kayak angling guide and owner of Clear Waters Outfitting Company.

Indigenous people have long traditions of fishing from canoes and kayaks, watercraft forms that they invented. In 1934, a sunken hand-dug canoe was found in Lake Minnetonka and estimated to be 1,000 years old.

Today’s highly specialized, purpose-built fishing kayaks are a relatively recent innovation in paddle craft.

“If you go back to 2010, 12-13 years ago, a fishing kayak was just a recreational kayak with a rod holder,” says Meer. “They were nothing like today’s fishing kayak. They weren’t as comfortable and well equipped as they are these days. Just over the decade, kayaks have now gotten so comfortable and so nice for fishing.” 

The modern version of the sport has its roots in coastal communities where anglers embraced the kayak as a viable fishing vessel.
“All these manufacturers started to figure out that kayak fishing is going to be a big thing. That’s when they started to make dedicated models as fishing kayaks,” says Strauss.

People are coming to kayak fishing “from two ends of the spectrum,” Strauss says. “Either the shore anglers who want to take things to the next level and get out on the water, or the boat owners with expensive powerboats who want something they can get out quick with by themselves.”

Easy Access. Compared to full-size motorboats, fishing kayaks are simple to carry, store, and transport. They can be hauled on top of a car, in the back of a pickup, or on a dedicated trailer. If there’s water close enough to home, even carless kayak anglers can get to their launch spot by carrying the boat or wheeling it on a kayak cart.

The portability of a kayak means anglers can access waters that don’t have dedicated boat landings. This is significant during the long summer days when many large lakes are humming with high-speed motorboats and personal watercraft. 

“There’s a lot of lakes in St. Paul and Minneapolis that are kayak access or nonmotorized access only, and it allows me to be spontaneous,” says avid kayak angler Harrison Tiffany.

Kayak anglers don’t need a lot of special gear to get started.

“You need a kayak, a life jacket, and a paddle at minimum,” says Meer. “You can use the same fishing equipment that you would normally use whether you’re on a kayak or not.”

Entry-level kayaks that run around $300 are many people’s first kayaking experience. The widespread use of these budget boats as rentals makes them a familiar sight. That said, experts agree not to cut corners when it comes to selecting a kayak for yourself.

“One mistake new kayak anglers make is they want the cheapest way in just in case they don’t like it,” says Strauss. “So they’ll buy a low-quality kayak and feel like it’s tippy and uncomfortable. They don’t have a kayak that’s showing what the sport’s really like.”

I know what he’s talking about. When I first started kayak angling, I used a $400 recreational kayak with a terrible seat. It was not adjustable, and my legs would fall asleep as I paddled. Over time, the numbness became a sharp pain in my lower back, and I had to use a different kayak. When I first experienced an angling kayak with a more adjustable, ergonomic seat, the comfort was night and day.

To get the most out of their kayak, new kayak anglers should look for kayaks in the $800 to $1,200 range. This price point generally offers kayaks that are stable and have good seats, gear storage space, and built-in rod holders. 

Those who can spend more or who have gearhead tendencies will find they can outfit their rig with amenities including fish and depth finders, live wells, smartphone mounts, and power ports. Some fishing kayaks keep both hands free with a bicycle-like pedal drive system or stretch the definition of kayak with a built-in electric trolling motor.

Tiffany urges new paddlers to resist the urge to splurge.

“Keep it simple and don’t overcomplicate things. Some people spend so much money on their stuff and their gear,” he says. “There are some really fancy kayaks out there, and I think ‘just keep it simple’ is good advice for anyone.”

The View from the Seat. Besides its accessibility, kayak fishing has advantages over motorboat angling. Larger boats can be loud, and when fishing from one, an angler’s high profile casts shadows that can spook wary fish like crappie. A kayak’s low profile and ghostlike presence make it the best tool for sneaking up on watchful fish, even in high-pressure areas. 

Since kayak anglers are close to the water and in a much smaller craft, when they hook into a fish, not only do they get close-up action; sometimes they also get a ride.

“Wrestling with a 40-inch pike in your kayak is an adventure,” says Strauss. “There’s a term we use while kayak angling called a ‘sleigh ride,’ when you hook into a fish big enough that it just starts pulling you around. It’s just incredible.” 

Landing a fish can be a learning experience for first-time kayak anglers. “The biggest thing that I think people overlook is that you’re not only fishing but you’re paddling,” he says. “You sometimes have to switch between your paddle and your rod.”

Kayak-curious anglers might wonder about catching eating-sized fish including favorites like walleye, bluegill, and crappie. Those who know say they have no problems catching enough for the next neighborhood fish fry.

“I can go out to a popular lake that’s seven minutes away from the Midway area of St. Paul and catch a limit of nice fish really quickly,” says Tiffany.

Most kayak anglers agree that the beauty of kayak angling is in the community it fosters and the sense of calm it invites while on the water.

“It’s a silent sport. I enjoy being in the solitude, the quietness. I’m just being there in nature—fishing—and it’s relaxing,” says Meer.

How to Get Started. If you want to try out kayak angling, you’ll benefit from making connections with folks who know what they’re doing. 

Here are a few ways to literally test the waters as a novice kayak angler:

  • Try out kayaks at your local kayak dealer.
  • Borrow a kayak from a friend or neighbor who can show you the ropes.
  • Join a kayak club or organization.
  • Watch YouTube videos for how-to tips from expert kayak anglers.

Don’t hesitate to reach out for advice, says Strauss.

“One thing about kayak anglers is they’re not bashful about sharing stuff,” he says. “It’s a very friendly community. So jump in by getting into a club, go to the local dealers and touch kayaks, feel them, and talk to people that are actual kayak anglers.”

A mentor can be a vital resource. Seasoned kayak anglers draw from years of experience that could help the new kayak angler find their footing. 

Where to Go. With Minnesota’s countless lakes and many miles of river, this state offers a wealth of places to launch a kayak. 
To take full advantage of your fishing kayak’s capabilities, look for these locations, designations, or attributes when planning your next kayak angling trip:

  • Lakes with no access ramps. Access ramps allow large watercraft to enter the water. Without them, only smaller watercraft like kayaks and canoes can get in. 
  • No-wake zones. No-wake zones require motorboats to reduce their wake.
  • Nonmotorized boating. This refers to watercraft that are propelled by hands or feet. These areas don’t allow gas or electric motors.
  • Electric only. Electric motors are usually small enough that they don’t cause wakes. Trolling motors are often used in these areas. 
  • Hand-propelled/hand-launched watercraft only. This refers to watercraft moved and transported by one’s body and often includes kayaks, canoes, small paddleboats, and belly boat

Wherever you go, keep safety in mind and always wear your life jacket.

Take It to the Next Level. If you get hooked on kayak angling and are wondering where to go next, here are a few ideas for stepping up your kayak angling game.

  • Join a club. Minnesota has many kayak angling clubs that exist online via websites or social media groups. “The best thing that’s come out of this for me is that I’ve just made so many friends,” says Strauss.
  • Enter a kayak fishing tournament. These events are a great way to test your skills against like-minded and competitive anglers in the community. 
  • Fish bigger waters. For experienced anglers seeking a new challenge, some of Minnesota’s largest and fish-rich lakes can be fished with the right gear. Strauss has fished Lake Mille Lacs and Lake of the Woods in a kayak that’s 14 feet long and 36 inches wide. “These are big lakes, but these bigger kayaks are extremely stable,” he says. “We’ve been out in three-foot waves.” 

Side Bar

Gear Up for Kayak Fishing
The Essentials

Life jacket
Fishing license
Food and water
Polarized sunglasses
First-aid kit
Dry bags
Safety whistle
Bright flag on pole for visibility

Nice to Have
GPS device
Fish finder
Rain jacket
Kayak cart for transport