The Kayak Conversion

In our COVID-burdened world, kayak fishing has never seemed so attractive. Ethan Neville got in touch with expert Laurie Pottinger to see how boat fishermen can safely and successfully transition to the ‘yak.

When Alert Level 4 hit NZ a few months back, all of us fishermen and boaties were left land-locked for several weeks. Level 3, however, saw every ocean-going Kiwi rummaging around in their sheds or under the house for that kayak they hadn’t used for a year or two, but were pretty sure still floated. For the kayak fishing specialists, it was a dream come true. They could paddle out to their favourite inshore spots without being terrorised by boat noise and wake, which are close to constants if you launch from an Auckland ramp in a COVID-free world.

Laurie Pottinger is one of these specialists. He has been at the top of his game for a number of years now, and is a prominent figure at kayak fishing clubs and tournaments throughout the North Island. I, on the other hand, was one of those guys who dusted off their kayak for a Level 3 fish. Boat fishing has been my focus for the last few years, but after a couple of successful trips in Level 3, I was quickly reminded of all the great things kayak fishing offers which can’t be replicated on a boat. Knowing there were plenty of anglers out there in my situation in Level 3, and also knowing there are a few others wanting to get prepared for any potential future lockdowns, I got in touch with Laurie to learn more about how boat fishermen can successfully and safely make the transition to the kayak.

Why kayak fish?

Laurie has always been a keen fisherman, and like most Kiwis, his fishing started on the boat. But when his growing enthusiasm for soft-baiting, which was increasingly leading him to nudge his boat further into the shallows, coincided with a major downturn in the dairy farming industry, purchasing a kayak was the next logical step for Laurie. And therein lie the two key advantages of switching from boat to kayak: it’s the most effective way to target trophy fish habitat and it’s substantially cheaper.

First, kayaks allow you to target areas which boaties only dream of – Laurie calls these spots “kayak terrain”. Their manoeuvrability allows the angler to quietly move right up into gutters and awkward coastlines, which are typically the places big mooching snapper call home. Of course, the biggest downside of kayak fishing is that you can’t access these places fast – there’s no lowering the outboard and shooting out to a new spot if things aren’t working. But for Laurie, this doubles as another advantage.

Travelling at paddling pace means, in Laurie’s words, “you have to learn to fish an area more thoroughly… you become more observant and in tune with the environment. The speed you travel and the fact you’re constantly watching the sounder allows you to identify where the prime fish holding habitat is.”

The second key advantage is how cost-effective it is, and this barely needs an explanation. There are no fuel costs (apart from driving to the ramp), no outboard servicing is required and it’s a minor upfront cost to get set up compared to buying and fitting out a boat. When you are eating fish for dinner after a kayaking session, you really have saved money by getting out on the water – and the same can’t often be said about boat-fishing after all costs are considered.

While these are the two most obvious advantages of making the switch, Laurie has no shortage of reasons for jumping in the kayak. It’s hard to move past the physical benefits (paddling is great for the body), the greater range of launching opportunities (most beaches will do) and, of course, the more exhilarating fights. It’s this last point that draws me back to the kayak. Nothing beats being towed a couple hundred metres by a kingie or big snapper on light gear.

But before you hit the water…

While kayak fishing has some quite obvious advantages, there’s always two sides to a coin. The very same things which make kayak fishing attractive – manoeuvrability, paddle-power and thrilling fights – also pose a few challenges. In such a small, open vessel, you are always exposed to the conditions. If it suddenly roughs up, there can be a real risk of the kayak tipping. In these situations, there’s no engine to get you out of trouble; you are completely reliant on your own strength. When the current and wind are against you and you’re not “paddle fit”, I can assure from my own experience, exhaustion comes into play and it takes a fair bit of effort not to be pulled out to sea with the tide.

To mitigate some of these challenges – and to ensure you are safe on the water – Laurie has a few important tips.

Purchase a quality kayak.When Laurie changed from his basic kayak to one specifically designed for fishing – in his case the Viking GT – he experienced instant improvement. The keel design of Viking kayaks in particular, Laurie notes, means they hold in a straighter position, which makes casting a simpler task. His current Viking Reload, he assures me, is exceptionally comfortable and can handle extreme weather, resulting in longer days on the water. Laurie has been known to do 15 hour-days, so we can probably trust his advice on this matter.

Grab yourself a carbon fibre paddle. This one’s simple. According to Laurie, a carbon fibre paddle makes it 50% easier to get from A to B.

Get the necessary equipment. Once you’ve got your kayak and paddle sorted, there are some safety essentials you need to purchase. First among these is a PFD (personal flotation device) – also known as a lifejacket. There are PFDs specifically designed for kayak fishing which won’t hinder your paddling and are well worth the extra cost. It’s also essential you buy a leash for your paddle and rods – as Laurie says, “leash it or lose it.” Finally, always carry two forms of communication. A mobile phone can be one, but a handheld VHF is also essential as there are plenty of popular fishing spots with no cell reception.

Practice the essentials. Before you traverse the open seas to tackle your favourite fishing spots, head out in a calm bay and work up a bit of paddle fitness. One important thing to practice is getting back onto a flipped kayak. It may seem easy to slide back onto a kayak, but when you’re exhausted in rough conditions, you want muscle memory to kick in.

There is much more to be said about the subtleties of kayak fishing, but if you follow Laurie’s advice as a starting point, you’ll be well-equipped to take on the big shallow water fish. With the best snapper-fishing month of the year ahead of us (November), there’s no better time to chuck a ‘yak on the roof and take it for a spin – once you’ve been towed 50-odd metres by a big red, there’ll be no looking back!

Article by: Laurie Pottinger