Choosing a River Fishing Kayak

Posted on August 20, 2007

Guest Review by Peter Pfotenhauer

Given the huge number of kayaks out there, how does anyone decide which boat is the best choice for their needs? Frankly, selecting a yak is a bit like dating: there’s no accounting for tastes. If you decide on a few criteria, however, finding a boat that matches your needs isn’t as tough as it seems. Keep in mind that NO one kayak does everything well, so you need a clear idea of what you want a boat to do before you buy. At the recent Appomattox River Company demo day I was able to weed through over 100 boats and find one that works very well for my types of fishing. Here’s how I did it, and my impressions of a few of the boats I tried out.

I looked at several functions for my second yak: weight capacity, maneuverability, safety, comfort, storage, speed, and accessorizing. I wanted a boat that would handle my large load without riding too low in the water. I specifically wanted a maneuverable boat for floats with more frequent rapids, which meant a shorter kayak. As less experienced friends might well use this boat on trips with me, it needed to be a SOT for safety reasons; I didn’t want to have to rescue a pinned friend, and the idea is that they enjoy their experience and want to do it again. I also wanted a comfortable boat that was easy to get in and out of. It needed to have enough storage to haul fishing gear, but could be less of an SUV than my Tarpon 120, as I planned to use it on trips where I took less equipment because of the rapids. Speed wasn’t a big factor, as I was willing to trade off flat water cruising speed for better control in bumpy water, which again pointed to a shorter boat. Lastly, I did want a boat that I could mount a couple rod holders on, and use my thigh straps in the strong class II rapids I plan to float the boat through.

Dagger Approach
Honestly, the best paddling boat I tried at the demo day was the Dagger Approach. I am certain it’s a terrific boat for chasing smallmouth in up to class III whitewater, but I had concerns about the level of back support of the back band style seat on an all day fishing trip. In fact, just trying to get in and out of the Approach reminded me why I went to SOTs for my fishing and have never looked back. If yaks are seats, a SOT is a couch and the Approach is a child’s car seat. It’s definitely a whitewater boat, which a paddler wears as the boat locks you into place to brace and improve control in strong current. Even though the skeg allows much improved tracking when down. Still, I could see a new paddler getting frustrated with the boat’s handling in long stretches of flat water. While it met all my criteria for me, it wasn’t the boat I wanted for inexperienced river anglers. If you’re looking for a high performance fishing yak for trips with frequent class II and occasional class III rapids, this boat is the one.

Hobie Revolution
Next I plopped into a Hobie Revolution. I did not spend long in this boat and hated it, frankly. I’m sure I could get used to pedaling instead of paddling, but the feeling of turning without a paddle to brace on was upsetting. Plus the rudder control button was so close to me to require I reach under my left thigh to make a right hand turn. Despite the obvious speed and tons of storage, this boat just wasn’t what I needed for a river craft. Not to mention that the Mirage drive would not work well in shallow rocky water. If you want a lake or flatwater boat, this one will do nicely for the thin fisherman.

Hobie Quest
On a previous demo day, I spent a good bit of time in the Hobie Quest, which does not have the Mirage Drive. Hobie’s paddle only propelled yak is a terrific boat. The front hatch is the easiest kayak hatch to get into of anything out there; it’s not a problem at all to open and close on the water. The mesh side pockets along your legs allow easy access storage for small lure boxes, pliers, or other frequently needed but hard to carry items. The round center hatch now can be equipped with a plastic divided tray that is designed to store popular lures and make them easy to access. If I paddled flat water frequently, I would likely own a Quest. It’s a totally dry ride for my wide load, and is fast and stable. While I’ve seen guys paddle it down a rapid filled river, it’s not my first choice for that environment simply because of its 13 foot length. It doesn’t turn quickly at all, but on a straight sprint it will easily outdistance shorter boats.

Liquid Logic Manta Ray 100
I spent a good hour in the Liquid Logic Manta Ray 100, and was initially impressed. Its capacity and maneuverability were terrific, and there are lots of flat places to mount rod holders and other accessories. The front hatch is oval shaped, which allows a decent amount of gear to be placed inside, probably including rods up to 7 feet, but I didn’t have one to try. But the longer I sat in the boat the less I liked the seat, specifically the back. It didn’t give as much support as I wanted. Sitting side saddle on the boat became painful after a few minutes as the sides of the boat pressed into the back of my knees. Finally, while the sides have indentations for a paddle, there are no bungee cords to hold the paddle in place, and the other outfitting just didn’t impress me. I would have to add eyelets to use thigh straps with the boat. I did like the sliding foot pegs however.

Native Watercraft Ultimate
I’d wanted to try the new Native Watercraft Ultimate for some time, and this is a great boat for flat water. The seat is unbelievably comfortable, and you can haul the kitchen sink in it if you choose. Standing would be easy to manage once you adjust to the behavior of the boat, and it tracks well. I had concerns though about how easy it could turn in fast water; even with the skirts the company makes I don’t think this is a whitewater friendly boat. And for my style of fishing with frequent exits to wade, this boat was surprisingly hard to enter and exit. The low seat position and high sides made it a chore to climb in and out of with my short legs.

Tarpon 100
I finally sat down in a Tarpon 100 and this is the boat I wound up choosing to buy. While the molded in foot rests were a concern at first, they did not rub my calves as those on Ocean Kayak models did. I realized too that if that became an issue, I could easily glue some thin foam over the offending areas for cushioning. The boat had less water in the foot wells than I expected based on my T120, and I could spin the boat with minimal effort. Sitting side saddle was no problem, as the sides curve down. Storage is a bit limited inside the boat because of the small round hatch up front, but the tankwell has plenty of room for gear. The new seat has padding for your bottom and back, and a neat storage pocket on the seat back. I’d like to see a bungee cord in the cockpit as the T120 has, but that I can easily add myself.

Overall my demo day experience was valuable. Choosing a boat was easier than ever, as I measured each one against my criteria and chose the one that best met all my needs. No one yak will ever be perfect for each paddler or all situations, and that’s a great excuse to justify a second boat to the controller of family funds.

While the chart summarizes my ratings of each category for these boats, keep in mind that each category isn’t evenly weighted when you make a selection. My need for a maneuverable boat meant I paid little attention to the speed category and extra attention to maneuverability. Use my ratings as a guide only, and keep your criteria for a boat in mind.

Copyright © 2007 Pete Photenhauer
Published on with permission.

Pete “bassmanpete” Photenhauer is a regular at

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