Fishing from Canoe or Kayak: the Sea Anchor


fishing, canoe fishing, albert bierstadt

Albert Bierstadt's Fishing from a Canoe

Using the sea anchor for fishing from a canoe, plus a story about my first boat . . . .

I designed my first canoe for fishing. Since I didn’t have a lot of money I used an old frame and canvas design, splitting wood for the ribs and keel and gunnels from straight grained ash and oak and bending them to dry with the proper curves, like the skeleton of a fish.  Although it started out light, it got heavier when I stretched canvas over it and painted it with linseed oil for waterproofing. A gallon of linseed oil doesn’t lighten up much when it dries. Every final touch required something more — resawn cedar floorboards so I wouldn’t put a foot through the bottom of the boat and some decking over bow and stern to give the boat a little rigidity for pounding into waves. It was a good boat when I finished it, though it weighed about 120 pounds.

I think I received harsh criticism from everyone I knew for building that fishing canoe. People told me the light canvas I used wasn’t strong enough, that I couldn’t waterproof it with linseed oil, that I’d sink the boat on the first stump I ran into, and even that the boat would spontaneously ignite because as everyone knows, oil soaked rags burst into flame on their own. I was still fairly confident, because this is a very old way of making a good boat. I designed it for stability, with a wide flattened bottom and a single keel, intending to do short lake trips in it rather than river excursions.

Even though I was fairly sure of the boat’s good qualities I wasn’t sure how easy it would be to poke a hole in it, and the lakes I intended to fish were Corps of Engineers impoundments about forty years old and filled with slowly decaying submerged forests. I would definitely be hitting stobs.

The first time out was a fine Spring day with a good breeze blowing across the half mile of winter-chilled water between me and the downwind shore. I was a little uncertain about heading out, not knowing how the canoe would handle, but the breeze was light — five to ten mph — and I gingerly climbed aboard. Downwind the boat handled well and made excellent time, but the return leg of the voyage was trickier. The single keel rib gave such little purchase in the water that the canoe spun like a leaf in the little puffs of wind, and I only got back by tacking back and forth across the wind and paddling madly.

At the workshop I used an old trick from birch bark canoe days when to traverse rocky rapids the fragile shells of fishing canoes and kayaks were reinforced with outer ribs of split branches, lashed tightly to the hull. I added four more keels to the boat, planing them from straight black walnut to a cross section a half inch wide at the base and tapering to three eighths inch. One center keel nearly the full length of the boat, with two side keels about two feet shorter and two more even shorter keels at the outer edges of the hull gave the boat impact protection and genuine traction in the water. Back in the lake, the boat finally held a course well.

Fishing turned out to be quite a challenge, since the stability came from forward motion. If I stopped in open water to fish, the canoe — or piroque, as a knowledgeable fisherman in a bass boat called it — kept slowly rotating and moving nearly as fast as the wind. Fishing was a constant ballet of twisting and turning and passing the rod behind my back.

As many fisherman before me have done, I quickly invented the sea anchor. My holding tank was a five gallon plastic bucket, and since I didn’t as yet have fish in it I tied a line to the handle and tossed it over the side. The boat drifted well enough that if I tied the bucket off to the stern, there was enough drag to keep the boat steady. It wasn’t perfect — the bucket oscillated from side to side — but it worked well enough to allow fishing.

That’s the first lesson you learn when fishing from a truly small kayak or canoe:  it’s very hard to stay put. You’re at the mercy of wind and current and unless you have partners to wield the paddles and keep the boat steady, you really can’t fish without a sea anchor. In the open ocean they’ll keep a sailboat steady in a wind so strong you can’t raise sail. On a lake they provide a slowly moving point of stability. With strong following wind and waves, dragging a sea anchor behind you keeps the stern from being blown off course — you slow down but don’t have to fight so hard.

I don’t recommend a five gallon bucket, because to a smaller degree that oscillation does transfer to the boat. Cloth sea anchors allow some water to pass through the anchor, creating a drag that doesn’t wander. If you insist on doing such things yourself you could make one with a split wood hoop and a cloth bag open at both ends. Fix the forward end securely to the hoop and adjust the other end with a drawstring.

If you’d like to avoid the tweaking you’ll certainly have to do if you design and build this yourself, just buy one. They aren’t very expensive and the commercial models work first time out. If you expect to fish from a canoe or kayak, this is the first special piece of gear you’ll need.

More to come about canoe fishing soon.

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About JTHats

Avid backpacker and outdoorsman with old skills and interests in old ways of doing things; equally fascinated by electronics, from the days of Sputnik, to the Zilog Z80A, to the present day of black box circuitry. Sixty years of experience with growing my own food and living simply. Certified electronics technician, professional woodturner, woodcarver, and graduate of two military survival courses -- Arctic and Jungle.

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