In Austin and surrounding areas, where I fish most of the time, the water is full of pimped out kayaks, glowing with LED lights and other gadgets but this is not a typical, man-style over-exuberance for shiny gadgets. This is a tool and in some cases, can be life or death!
Wait. What? Life or death?
While the lights help to see the surroundings better, attract baitfish and let’s face it they look cool, that’s not the big reason many are flocking to get LED lights. Safety is the biggest reason. Being seen is important especially when you are on the water when ski boats, pleasure boaters and rowers are out. On Lake Austin the wake board boats, throwing their three and four foot swells start running as early as 6 AM and will run as late as 10 PM. They can’t see a kayak with a 360 degree light against all the other boat dock lights very well and especially if they are fighting the haze of alcohol. Down here the waterways aren’t super wide so being seen is being safe. That’s not to say accidents won’t happen but a huge light display is going to be avoided more easily than a small flashlight especially at 30 MPH.
Here’s the other big secret. All LED lights are NOT created equal. Most of the LED lights that are sold to fishermen and even kayak fishermen are either a type 3528 or 5050. These numbers derive from the size of the chip used to run the lights. 3528 lights have a chip that is 3.5mm X 2.8mm. A 5050 is 5.0mm X 5.0mm. See where the name came from? Here is a 5050 compared to a 3528:
5050 on the left and 3528 on the right
As you have probably guessed by now, a 5050 is brighter in almost all scenarios when compared to a 3528. A big part of this is because the 5050 has three LED chips in one housing as compared to the one chip per housing of the 3528. Because of the size of the chip in a 5050, the number of LEDs per foot could be less than a 3528 but rarely is. Most companies sell 20" strips that have 30 LEDs regardless of the chip.
Another thing to consider is the wire that is attached to the LED strips and the extra wire that may come with it. Is it marine grade? Are the connections heat shrink sealed? Is it tiny little 28 gauge wire? 22? 16? Remember the lower the number the thicker and usually more durable it is. A marine grade 20 gauge wire will outperform a non-marine grade 20 gauge wire in water applications. It may outlast a non-marine 18 or 16 too. LED lights typically go one of two places: inside the boat or outside the boat. The outside lights are the ones you should think about when you ponder wear and tear. How is the casing built? What adhesive is used? Is it filled with silicone, resin, nothing or is it open air? How are the ends capped? The better made case will be the one you want.
I have used a set of 3528s on a Cobra Navigator I used to own. I bought what I thought I could afford which was about $50. Only 5 of the 6 worked out of the box. Within two months I had busted the casing on two more. They were not the greatest but they worked. I just wished they had worked longer. But for $50, what can you expect?
After that I switched to 5050s. I didn’t want to have to redo the lights every six months. I need something for the long haul. That’s when I went to Super Nova Fishing Lights. I looked at lots of different options but the ones I went with are actually made and sold by a guy here in Texas. He is a fellow kayaker and sponsors several kayak events every year. When you start looking for LEDs, stop looking at price first and look at components first. After you are comparing apples to apples, then look at price.
Next time you see lights on a kayak, don’t think of it as a gaudy display but rather a fishing tool and a safety tool. Being safe and being seen is the name of the game, especially when night fishing.