The following article was published in the September / October, 2019 issue of Florida Sport Fishing Magazine
Kayak Fishing for Codgers
Like most aging anglers I’ve encountered since relocating to central Florida’s booming retirement area, I fished my entire life from skiffs and larger boats propelled by fossil fuels. Now in my 70’s and receiving a pension, I’ve transitioned to a small plastic vessel and paddle power to reach my target species, and have spent the last 14 years trying to perfect my latest addiction. Lately, I’ve observed increasing numbers of seniors doing the same, apparently opting for something a bit more adventurous than scooting after those little white balls in their electric carts.
My wife and I seem to have moved to the retirement capital of the world. According to 55Places.com, 40 of the top rated 100 active adult communities in the country are located in Florida, including 26 in the central part of the state within an hour or two drive of the Nature Coast. Paddling groups are sprouting up all over; I commonly run into folks from The Villages and Top of the World, two of the top five ranked communities on the list, launching their kayaks in our scenic lakes, rivers and inshore area. Rarely a week goes by when I don’t hear from some new retiree to our area who happened to stumble across my fishingkayaks.us website inquiring about taking up this sport.
Lots of golden agers travel here to swim with manatees in the winter, participate in the Nature Coast’s underwater version of an Easter egg hunt for scallops in the summer, and book trips year around out of Crystal River and Homosassa targeting our renowned tarpon, shallow water grouper and other fisheries. Many have begun transporting their yaks with them, and are extending their stays to explore our inshore area and rivers that haven’t been impacted by the red tide and guacamole-like summer slime events that have affected other parts of the state. Most are recreational paddlers and eco-tourists looking for a nature oriented experience, but growing numbers are bringing fishing gear along.
A series of wildlife refuges and nature preserves extending north and south of Citrus County create a contiguous 60 mile stretch of near pristine salt marsh offering extraordinary fish, wildlife and paddling habitat, giving the Nature Coast its name. Countless numbers of mangrove islands, sea grass beds, oyster bars and other structure provide nursery areas for a wide variety of marine life, and support excellent fisheries for seatrout, redfish, snook and other species. Close encounters with manatees, dolphins, rays, sea turtles, shorebirds and other critters, many seen in the wild for the first time, are a big hit with the geriatric set. It is truly a piscatorial paddling paradise.
Fishing from kayaks is not for all us pensioners. For many, the thought of casting a lure from a small plastic vessel seems more appalling than appealing. Experience has led them to believe that kayaks are notoriously too wet, tippy and confining to offer adequate comfort and support. Ergonomically unsatisfying rides associated with sitting in the traditional “L” position for hours at a time run the risk of developing or exacerbating sciatica or other back problems. Why, they wonder, would anyone in their right mind want to endure those kinds of senior moments?
Mastering the art of repetitive paddling and casting while staying comfortable and safe on the water requires too much of a learning curve for some of us graybeards. It’s physically demanding and can be physically exhausting. Bad stuff can happen out there. If you capsize, and sooner or later you will, can you muster the strength to reenter? If a flopping hooked fish sinks a treble or two into your hand or other more sensitive body part, can you manage paddling back to shore and driving to the emergency room (been there, done that)?
Living in the lightning capital of the world needn’t result in shocking experiences, but you’ll have to keep close tabs on the weather and start paddling back long before approaching dark clouds drift overhead. It can get really buggy out there and, unlike up North where you can see the no-see-ums, here, you really can’t see-um. You’ll need to cover up in the sun and learn how to handle the unfamiliar array of spiny and toothy species you’re likely to bring alongside without getting stung or bitten.
Gators shouldn’t be a problem. They generally prefer smaller bite size morsels, but you never know. There’s nothing to fear from our manatees unless you happen to paddle between mom and her calf, in which case you may get their best Shamu imitations and a good soaking from being in the splash zone. Ditto if you happen to paddle over a giant ray in inches of water.
If you have a few discs in your back or neck that no longer line up the way they used to (the dreaded Baby Boomers Bad Back Syndrome), and other of the age related Burdensome B’s (bulging belly, big butt and befuddled balance), fishing from a kayak will be more challenging. Couple that with failing eyesight, making it difficult to see the knots you’re trying to tie, a hearing impairment affecting your ability to enjoy the sounds of nature, and a few arthritic joints, and riding around the golf course may be a better option.
If, however, you’re reasonably fit, up for the challenge and, like me, afflicted with Compulsive Kayak Fishing Disorder, a new generation of reinvented fishing kayaks awaits. They are far more comfortable than their predecessors, allowing us to spend long hours on the water without getting wet or suffering from back pain, leg numbness and cramps. Some, especially a few of the popular pedal models, exceed 100 pounds, approaching the load capacity of some car tops and even pickup tailgates. So, unless you’re willing to hit the weight room to build up those shrinking biceps, you may want to get a trailer or hitch extender. For me, the bed of a pickup truck is the only way to go.
Lots of us oldsters seem to be moving toward a less is more, back to basics kind of lifestyle. The hassle and expense of registering, licensing, trailering, storing and maintaining gas guzzling boats, and frustration of waiting to launch at crowded ramps is something to be avoided. Many are opting for more affordable eco-friendly kayaks that they can put in at wide spots along road and paddled to remote backwater locations not accessible to the big boats. No more worries about water in the gas tank and which fuel additives to use; just how many water bottles and energy snacks you’ll pack to keep your human motor going.
What better way to get some exercise, relieve stress and enjoy the feeling of adventure exploring hidden coves, pools and mangrove shorelines with no other human in sight, except, perhaps, a fishing buddy. Finding that ten percent of water containing 90 percent of the fish in a deep backcountry pool on low tide, and providing fresh fish dinners for family and friends, are bonuses. You can count on coming back relaxed and refreshed even on slow fishing days. A great night’s sleep usually follows.
When fishing is over for the day, just give your yak a quick rinse to remove the smell of all the fish you caught. Store it outside in the shade, on the garage floor, hung from a garage wall or ceiling or in some other out-of-the-way place. They are virtually maintenance free. Should a rare crack or hole develop, even the least handy among us with arthritis can usually manage repairs.
Tandem kayaks are available for those wishing to take their grandkids out; just remember that a couple of kids throwing hooks around in close quarters can pose a problem. Sharing a fishing excursion in close quarters with Granny or Gramps can be a romantic experience; it may also result in divorce proceedings. If a waning human motor restricts your paddling range too much, most kayaks can be outfitted with small gasoline or electric trolling motors.
Before buying your first kayak, test drive as many as you can, just as you would prior to buying a new car. Try sitting side-saddle, lean over the side and rock back and forth to see how far you can go before it starts to tip. Keep in mind that strong winds, whitecap conditions and wakes from passing power boats can greatly affect balance and paddling ability. Ideally, arrange to rent one for a day of fishing to see how it works for you.
I couldn’t find a Kayak Fishing for Aging Dummies book prior to buying my first one, but did lots of research. If a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for Kayaks existed, the first one I tested, a wobbly sit-inside model, would certainly have been inducted. Drenched and returning to a chuckling shop owner following my first drenching, but refusing to give up, I tried a few higher and drier models, and soon came to enjoy the close-up connection to the water. I decided on a Sit on Top (SOT) model that I thought would be ideal. It lasted two weeks.
During my first few outings, I experienced considerable discomfort, the dreaded Yak-Back, while trying to adapt to the “L” sitting position in its unforgiving quarters. Upon returning to shore, aching and with a soggy bottom, emerging from it and attempting to stand upright took more than a few minutes and was not pain-free. If this was going to work, I had to find a more comfortable ride that would allow me to stand up and stretch out. I did, and it made all the difference.
There’s much to consider when test driving and deciding on a fishing kayak if you’re getting up there in age, may not be in peak physical condition and haven’t paddled before. A dizzying array of SOT, Sit-Inside, inflatable, pedal and hybrid kayaks are available, each with their own set of operating characteristics and features, and ranging in price from less than a hundred to several thousand dollars.
Make sure the kayak you choose is easy to lift, move around, launch and transport. Will you require cross bars, a roof rack, trailer, trailer hitch extender or other gear to secure it to your vehicle, and wheels or a cart to get it to and from the water’s edge? Will you be comfortable getting in and out of it, and mind wading in knee-deep water doing so? Will you be able to lift it onto your vehicle following a tiring day on the water? You’re not out of luck if you can’t lift heavy loads or have a space challenged sedan; many ultra-light inflatable models made of nearly indestructible PVC are available.
Be aware that pedals, rudders and other mechanisms extending below the bottom of some kayaks can be damaged when paddling over oyster bars and other structure in skinny water. Sooner or later, a hooked fish circling your yak will wrap your line around one of these protruding items.
An unstable kayak is a recipe for disaster. Generally, the wider and more flat bottomed it is, the more stable it will be. You need to feel safe and secure while seated, paddling, casting and playing fish, especially in windy and whitecap conditions, and you’ll appreciate being able to stay warm and dry, especially during the cooler months. Can you comfortably stand and sight fish, and safely return to the seated position if you feel tippy while doing so? Can you easily exit and reenter if you plan to do a bit of wade fishing?
Try to avoid a kayak requiring sitting in the “L” position because of the pressure it puts on the lower back. Check to see that it has a foot rest to provide support and help cushion your back when bouncing around in the waves. Is its weight capacity more than adequate to safely carry you and your gear?
You will not want to feel cramped, but instead have enough room to occasionally stretch and change position. Ideally, you’ll want enough space to store and secure all of your gear so that it stays dry and within easy reach, including from behind. I practice catch-release fishing using artificial lures only, so I don’t worry about packing a fish cooler or live bucket. If you’re part of the catch, cook and consume crowd and use live bait, you’ll need space for these containers.
Is your seat elevated and adjustable while seated? Does it provide good lumbar support and is it comfortable even with a life vest on. Does the backrest restrict access to gear stored behind you?
You will want to rig your kayak for silent running, recognizing that the slightest tap of a paddle or piece of gear on the top or side can spook fish in shallow water, turning off the bite. Can you move around, handle gear and alternatively paddle and cast with a minimum of noise, and, ideally, none?
Are rod holders and a paddle holder conveniently placed? Ideally, arrange to have two rod holders located out of the way behind you, but easily reachable, and protected from saltwater splashing. Are adaptations available and conveniently located to mount various accessories and an anchor or anchor pin. Can all your gear be conveniently placed and secured out of the way while playing and landing fish?
Is it easy to paddle and does it track and hold position well while fishing? Make sure your paddle matches your height and the width of your kayak. Notched paddles come in handy for grabbing branches when retrieving lures from errant casts, which, sooner or later, will happen. Storing a spare mini paddle on board is a good idea in case of emergency.
How will you mount a motor and battery if they’re desired? Some kayaks have built in systems, and others are designed to facilitate installation.
Color shouldn’t matter. If you want to stand out, yellow is a good choice. Green and camo colors make it easier to sneak off to your secret fishing hole without being observed.
Following my experiences with traditional mono-hull models, I settled on the twin hull Wavewalk W500 I refer to as my sit-on-top-inside yak. It allows me to stretch out, stand up to sight fish, easily move fore and aft and even lie down for quick naps during slow bite periods. It weighs a manageable 60 pounds and contains 14 cubic feet of storage space, much of it covered, providing for all of my carry-on items to be stored and secured within easy reach, without requiring one of those unwieldy milk crates. It has a spacious work area in front of me and tracks nicely without requiring one of those annoying rudders. Its maximum payload is 360 pounds, more than enough to support the 200 pounds me and my gear weigh.
Like bicycles and a variety of all-terrain vehicles, it has an elevated saddle and no backrest. My feet are situated directly below my rear rather than extended out in the “L” position, thereby, providing support and cushioning for my lumbar region with no unnatural pressure points created. Unlike other kayaks, I can turn 180 degrees on the saddle to face the opposite direction. If I feel a bit uneasy while standing, I simply sit back down on its high saddle much like sitting down in a chair, with no fear of taking a swan dive over the side.
Handles located at the tips of its four hulls allow for easy two-handed dragging to and from the water. It provides a high and dry ride and facilitates stealthy paddling (a must when stalking fish in skinny water). With the aid of foam noodles placed along its rim, repetitive casting and paddling is a breeze without making a sound. Most importantly, after several hours of fishing, I can emerge from my Wavewalk upright and walk to my vehicle pain free.
When pushing off from shore, I simply enter from between the rear hull tips, often without getting wet. Upon returning after a day of fishing, I scoot to the rear of the saddle thereby elevating the bow while paddling onshore, allowing for a dry exit between the front hull tips. The higher saddle and enclosed cockpit provide good protection against waves and water spray. I can dress comfortably with little fear of getting wet or cold.
Rain or wave splash accumulating in the interior can be minimized by arranging a makeshift sprayskirt around the cockpit using plastic sheeting, but I just don’t go out if rain is in the forecast. The Wavewalk’s higher profile makes it more difficult to paddle in windy conditions, so I normally stay home when wind speeds are projected to exceed 10 mph, unless I know I’ll be in a protected area. It will take up to a three horsepower motor, but I prefer the quiet and exercise paddling provides.
While it’s possible to tip the Wavewalk onto its side by extending oneself far over the edge, foam noodles like those used for swimming attached to the cockpit rim keep it from filling with water. Righting the kayak and re-entering from between the hull tips is relatively easy, even for an old codger like me.
Test driving and ordering a Wavewalk is a challenge with only one dealer in Florida (in Key Largo). If you order factory direct, the company doesn’t accept credit cards or PayPal, so you’ll need to send a check in advance and accept its product warranty, service and return policies (see wavewalk.com).