Fishing Canoes and Kayaks — to Buy or to DIY

Lifetime Sport Fisher Kayak

No kayak manufacturer can predict all the needs of a fisherman, but Lifetime Sport did pretty well. Amazon customer photo by Juan.

Fishing from a canoe or kayak perfectly combines all the good things of small boating and paddling with all the good things of fishing. You leave the noise and the smell of the outboard behind and enter a quiet world that’s unhurried. Instead of racing to what might be a better fishing spot, you carefully explore the one you’re in, and often come home with more fish that way. One of the most pleasant parts of canoe fishing on a lake is watching the motorboat fishermen roar about, spending fifteen minutes here and ten minutes there, the whole herd bolting to follow the first one to break and head for a different spot.

Powerboat fishermen think that canoe fishermen are crazy. While unloading a canoe at a boat ramp one day in Arkansas, I noticed that the bass boat fishermen beside me were looking at me kind of funny and talking among themselves. It was a windy day, 35 mph and gusting, with whitecaps breaking in the choppy water, and I caught pieces of the discussion as I rigged the boat.

Stable, compact fishing kayak.
Milk crate optional. Leave the
other fishermen at home.

“He’s not going out in that!”

“Is he nuts? The guy’s just going to drown himself!”

“Should we stop him?”

I refrained from saying what I felt like saying, which was something like “All right, you a– holes, you try and stop me!” I don’t like it when people try to tell me what to do. But, I do understand their concern. Not every canoe or kayak is suitable for fishing. My Bear Creek Mirage was built for lake travel and I felt pretty darned cocky stroking off into the rough water while all the motorboat fishermen stared. I would not, however, try that in a river canoe without some special equipment like sponsons or outriggers. River canoes and kayaks roll. Lake canoes and fishing kayaks tip, but unless you’re a real klutz they stay upright. You fall out of them before you roll them upside-down.

Inflatable and portable,
but nothing solid to hold
rods. A simple but very basic
fishing kayak.

Before I realized there are companies that actually manufacture good fishing canoes and kayaks, I designed and built one myself. It’s not quite as difficult as designing the wheel, but it’s about as pointless, because many good men have already hammered this concept to a fine point. When you learn these things by doing, though, the knowledge sticks tightly. You’ll understand things about boats you wouldn’t otherwise know.

I like building things and I like the old ways of doing that, but I also have what I usually think are modern ideas. Looking at designs for the old birchbark canoes, with rounded and easily maneuverable hulls, I doubted that they would serve well for a fishing craft. Fishing from a river canoe built to spin on the touch of a paddle blade and work the current instantaneously is a lot like trying to fish from a bicycle that’s not moving very fast. Newcomers to canoeing are always surprised when a canoe tips. I’ve come to expect it when I’m running a river because part of the fun is taking chances. Not everyone feels that way. I met a fellow from Alaska once and we got started talking and discovered a common interest in river sports. I described a few of my epic adventures, spent about as much in the water as on it, and he just shook his head. In all his years of travel on Alaskan rivers, he’d never once dumped a boat and thought it was the mark of an amateur.

old town fishing kayak

If you're planning a short 16 hour bout of fishing, you need an open cockpit and room to stretch. Photo by Amazon customer Michelle Ziegler, Old Town Vapor 10 Angler Kayak (link at left, below).

Well, of course he hadn’t dumped a boat. He was still living. You don’t dump boats in Alaska. Most people in Alaska, at least in the old days, never even bothered to learn to swim. You only last a few seconds in that icy water so you try really hard not to dump the boat. Canoeing in southern America is a lot more disaster-friendly. I’ve dumped canoes in February in Arkansas and still managed to swim to shore, towing the boat behind me, and dry off on the gravel bar. In contrast, I’ve walked across snow-melt streams in the Northwest in early Spring and nearly died in water fifteen feet wide and four feet deep. It’s a whole different problem up there.

No matter where you are in the world, if you’re a fisherman you try not to dump the boat. All your gear is in the boat. Fishing gear isn’t expensive if you measure by the piece, but in total that’s a lot of money and it’s tough to replace. If you’ve fished for a long time, you own stuff you can’t even buy any more. I’m still looking for a fishing pole as good as the one I broke in 1983. Fishermen need boats that are stable, not always for safety reasons since many of us southern fishermen do know how to swim (at least a little bit) and hang onto floating debris in warm water. We need stable boats because we fish.

Let your fishing buddy get
his/her own boat. Kayaks
work best for one angler.

I built the skeleton of my first fishing canoe with ash ribs split from an especially straight-grained tree and shaped with a drawknife and a shaving horse. The keel those ribs connected to was white oak, a little heavy but very strong and water-resistant. I used white oak because it was the best wood I could get from my woodlot and thought of the advantages later. At that stage of construction a boat looks a lot like the leftovers from the last fish you ate, so maybe that’s where the idea came from.

Connecting the ribs of the fish required slats of straight-grained cedar sapwood, hard to come by these days and I killed some venerable trees in order to get them. As it all started to come together at bow and stern in the shape of a boat, the process started coming unglued a little bit, and there was a lot of cutting-to-fit, but I wound up with a very strong and fairly lightweight basic structure — a sturdy canoe with an eight-inch freeboard and a wide, nearly flat, bottom. Actually the bottom slanted slightly upward to either side from a central keel. It all looked good.

The add-ons, like the canvas hull to keep the water out, put more weight on the boat than I expected. Canvas by itself isn’t especially heavy, but enough linseed oil to soak the hull of a twelve foot canoe adds about twenty pounds of weight. Or maybe it only adds ten pounds and it seems like twenty. I caught an immense amount of criticism from my older neighbors for doing this, since they believed that if I soaked canvas with linseed oil it would burst into spontaneous flame at some point. Well, it was a boat, not a pile, and it worked ok. I do admit that it was a little scary to think of cruising over a lake studded with submerged trees, in a boat that was a thin layer of waterproofed canvas. I followed the advice of deceased ancestors from northern America and armored the hull with five keel-strips of black walnut. Actually people on the Susquehannough’s tributaries used bundles of bent limbs, but I had better tools handy and did a very neat job of it.

Old Town’s Dirigo Angler offers
10 1/2 feet of stable fishing
platform, an open cockpit, and
a built-in cup holder.

As the canoe gradually evolved into a boat, it acquired gunwales of sawn cedar, decking on bow and stern, and a cedar deck in the hold as well, all of lightweight and sturdy saw cedar only 1/4 inch thick. Some bracing seemed necessary, since the skeleton flexed if I lifted the boat, and that led to a couple of stretchers I hand forged from a piece of rebar. The result weighed almost 100 pounds, yikes. That’s a lot for a canoe. The up side of the situation was that the boat met my needs. Stable even when I was engrossed in landing a fish and some powerboater roared past me to see if his wake would flip me over — and surprisingly durable, even though I did run a stump through the hull twice in the boat’s ten-year history. Duck tape made a dependable temporary repair, enough to get me through the remainder of my fishing day and the paddle home; the Speedy Stitcher, some Tub and Tile caulk,  and a canvas patch permanently restored hull integrity.

Advice on loch fishing,
from a good Scottish
fisherman. Free on Kindle
and Kindle for PC.

This was a good boat. I used to get lots of compliments on it, seriously. Powerboaters would stop and ask me questions, like “What the Hell is a piroque doing in north Arkansas?” Well, I didn’t know I had built a piroque, it just seemed like the answer to my problem. People would idle up and talk for awhile and then roar off and come back with friends and beer. That’s a good boat. My dog, a Dalmatian who was getting on in years and couldn’t do a lot of hiking any more, loved the boat. He also hated fishing, because nothing was happening in his opinion, and he kept me mobile because if I stayed in one spot too long he’d jump out, regardless of how far it was to shore. Those were pretty good days.

dog on kayak

Dogs provide essential aerodynamics and balance for small watercraft, plus they retrieve those annoyingly useless bobbers if nothing is happening and you won't admit it. Photo by rovingl at Flickr; CC 2.0 license

The only drawback to that piroque was speed, and that’s a problem with many good fishing boats. You might call them tubs, in fact. They aren’t record-setters when it comes to getting from here to there. “There” needs to be pretty close to “here.” I’d do about twelve miles in a day, out and back, and fish along the way. It wasn’t easy, but I persisted. That’s plenty of fishing, but it does get discouraging when there’s always a headwind and whitecaps on the way home and the design of the hull brings the boat to a dead stop on every third crest. Either you learn all sorts of neat tricks to exploit wind shadows and currents, or you stay out and fish awhile longer until the wind changes.

Although I learned wonderfully important things from building that boat, I eventually applied that knowledge towards the purchase of a different boat, better than anything I could make myself. That’s the Bear Creek Mirage. It looks much like any other canoe, but the bow cuts into waves instead of smashing them, and the hull design displaces water instead of just gliding over it. That gives it the ability to grip water and hold a course in choppy, windy conditions. The Mirage scares people who aren’t used to it, because it’s not a river canoe. It does not turn on a dime. You have to start thinking about turns a hundred yards ahead of them, because the Mirage tracks. It turns with a crank, not a dime. But the hull also gives it the stability a fisherman needs, even though most visitors to the boat initially think it doesn’t. The Mirage, probably a takeoff of an old canoe style called the Maine Guide, tips and stops. People accustomed to river canoes think it’s going over, when it’s just acquiring one of three points of stability.

umbrella kayak

You thought I was joking about the patio umbrella. Photo by Amazon customer William Arthur. Lifetime Sport Fisher Kayak.

Whatever boat you have, you can do things that turn it into a stable fishing platform. Outriggers and sponsons add that necessary stability, but you’ll still have to deal with increased wind resistance and lower boat speed. If you’ve mastered the Eskimo Roll, that will come in handy if you’re fishing for seals. If you’re not working with a harpoon, and have strapped eighty pounds of tackle boxes, beer coolers and a patio umbrella to the deck of your river kayak, don’t expect the Eskimo Roll to save your ass from disaster.

“Time was, and that not so long ago, when a boatman who used to get 3s., or at most 4s. a-day, now gets his 5s. or 6s., and even at the latter figure does not think himself too well paid. In the extreme north, however, it is still possible to get a good man for 3s. a-day…” Senior, William (2009-10-04). Scotch Loch-Fishing (Kindle Locations 41-43). Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition. Well, if you’re a true Scotsman you’ll get your own boat and avoid those outrageous guide fees.

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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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