Rigging your kayak to fish "with it" instead of "from it”
Any 10’-13’ sit-on-top or hybrid-style kayak is suitable for this method of fishing. Of course, the more appointed and/or lightweight the kayak, the more pleasurable the experience. If you think of the kayak as a large, mobile tackle box, rigging isn’t much different than most angling kayaks—rod holders and places to store and access the necessary gear when needed. But there are two essentials not all kayakers have:a strong, reliable tether for both the boat and the paddle. The boat tether allows the angler to wade (up or downstream) and fish with the boat tethered from the waist, floating in the current, out of the way. Attachment of the tether to the kayak depends entirely on the kayak configuration, but is usually done with some sort of pad eyes along or on the bow. Tethers are secured to the angler via a slipping loop that can easily be opened or tightened while on the water. Tethering your boat to your waist in moving waters is no doubt controversial and not usually recommended in most kayaking forums, as it does have its risks. Having done it routinely for at least two decades without incident, it seems pretty safe to me.
Tethers should always be constructed from the highest quality mountaineering cord available in 1/4” to 5/16” diameters, and attached with at least two securing points. They should be routinely inspected for abrasions and weak spots, as you cannot afford to have the tether break and have the kayak float helplessly away from you down a swift river. Additionally, the total length of the tether when around your waist should be at least a few feet longer than the boat. This allows unfettered access to all parts of your floating tackle box while tethered to it. I’ve found that tethering your paddle is essential, as well. As you wade around obstacles (deadfalls, large rocks, etc.)a carelessly-placed paddle can be extracted from the boat by limbs or bounced out as the kayak hits obstacles while tethered. Just like losing the boat in current, losing your paddle in current isn’t recommended.
Accessing and navigating medium to large rivers
If a river has wadeable water (as most rivers that flow from 50 to 5,000 CFS have) and you can find legal access to the shoreline, then that river is a candidate for “Fishing with a kayak”. I define wadeable water as any water in which you can comfortably stand waist-deep or less and walk safely across the bottom. Of course, the swifter the river and the slipperier the bottom, the stand comfortably and walk safely depth might only be knee-high. Even cold, swift, free-flowing rivers like the Yellowstone, Madison, Lower Big Hole, and Missouri River tailwaters in Montana have wadeable water, especially at the edges.
My typical routine is pretty much the same, no matter which river or section of river I plan to fish. Get the kayak and gear to the river. Don your waders and good wading boots suitable for the streambed you will encounter. If the weather is suitable for wet wading, you still should wear quality wading boots. Attach the tether to your waist and begin. If the water is deep at the put in, get in the kayak and paddle upstream to shallower water, get out, and begin wading upstream with the kayak behind you. Once you reach fishable water, start fishing. If there’s fishable water at the put-in, just start fishing. One of the most useful characteristics of most kayaks is that they can be easily paddled upstream against currents, especially if you take advantage of shoreline eddies and riffle corners. As you move upstream and encounter shallow riffles and eddies, you can easily exit the kayak and begin fishing or walk along the edge of the riffles. When you encounter waters too deep to wade or obstacles that can’t safely be waded around, you enter your kayak and paddle around them.
On a great many rivers, wading anglers are stymied by obstacles and trespass laws that limit access to the river across private land. A tethered kayak is the solution to both those problems. Many of our larger rivers, such as the Yellowstone in Paradise Valley, can’t be crossed on foot during most of the season. On the Yellowstone, I know of only one section that can only be crossed during low water (1,000-1,200 CFS) late winter/early spring conditions, and even that crossing is a tedious wade across multiple riffles associated with a large island. However, with a kayak you can easily get in and cross most rivers to fish the productive waters on both sides of the river at will. Even wading swift water is enhanced by the tethered kayak, which acts a lot like a wading staff. While crossing a fast riffle or pool tail-out, grasping the tether line with one hand and using the steady pull as a brace makes wading swift water with slippery bottoms much more secure. You have to experience it to see how it works.
The other big advantage of fishing upstream with a tethered kayak is the security it brings while wading and the confidence it instills when wading deeper waters. I find myself wading into deeper, more productive waters with the kayak at hand to escape when room runs out—waters that I’d probably never wade in without it. It allows you to develop a lot more intimacy with the rivers you fish. In rivers that have a fair bit of mid-stream shallow structure, such as gravel bars or ledges that can’t be reached by wading, the kayak become the perfect tool. Paddle to the structure, get out and wade, then get in and paddle to more wadeable water.
I find that on most of the rivers I fish, I cover two to three miles of water going upstream before heading back to the put-in. That’s actually a lot of productive water when fished with discipline and appropriate techniques. What’s really nice is that floating anglers miss most of the best spots as they hurry downstream, or can’t fish them effectively. Even floaters who stop and wade are limited to the water they can cover if they don’t have a tethered boat to bypass obstacles or deeper water. The added bonus of this approach is that it’s perfect for solo anglers who don’t want to (or can’t) organize shuttles between put-in and take out points. When you’ve finished going upstream, you just turn around and float back to the put-in. A big advantage of this upstream approach is the solitude you experience on the river. Floaters may have to go five to ten miles before they reach the few miles you are fishing. Even on the busiest of rivers in the peak of their seasons, fishing upstream with your kayak will provide you miles of lonely water.
Fishing techniques when “Fishing with your kayak”
In Part I, I talked about upstream spinning with ultralight tackle. Although I am an avid fly angler, at times the upstream spinning technique with ultralight gear just can’t be matched for its effectiveness at nailing good fish. Of course, when and where you are fishing, and what you are fishing, for has a lot to do with the type of tackle you chose. For the last fifteen years, I’ve used only one setup for Montana trout (as well as bass and sunfish in southern rivers). A fast, 5’ ultralight spinning rod, Tennessee handle, a Shimano “Stradic 1000” reel, 4lbtest Fireline and either #2 Mepps or Blue Fox “Vibrax” spinners. The combination has proven to be a prescription for success. The short, fast rod is light and easy to cast accurately at distance, and stores nicely inside the kayak. The reel provides a 6:1 retrieve ratio that is essential for retrieving spinners slightly faster that the swift current. 4lb test Fireline will carry #2 spinners a long distance, doesn’t twist, is no-stretch sensitive so that anything that comes close to the moving lure will be felt by the sensitive rod, and is more than strong enough for most trout I encounter. Although there are a lot of inline spinners out there, I’ve come to rely on the Mepps and Vibrax as the most durable and effective for the fishing I do.
Although flows and season will determine where the fish are holding, all the normal places can be approached and fished carefully by the wading angler with a distinct advantage over the floating angler. Three prime holding areas in medium to large rivers can’t be fished effectively from a moving boat. The first are those areas of swift pool tailouts that spill into shallow riffles flowing away from the shoreline. The floating angler typically can’t reach them with long casts as they float swiftly through the deeper sections of the riffle. The wading angler has the advantage, as he can wade quietly up the edge of the riffle, get within range of the tailout, and toss a spinner or fly upstream close and parallel to the bank. You’d be surprised how many large trout and bass hold tight in this shallow but fast-moving food stream.
Riffle corners are equally difficult for the floating angler to fish effectively, as the floating boat encounters the swiftest water at the pool tail outs. The angler approaching the corner from below can slowly and effectively work her lures or flies up the seam between the riffle and slack water. Most medium to large rivers have shorelines with banks that are undercut or littered with deadfall or riprap. If the waters are flowing well along these types of banks, they will hold fish that find both food and cover. In my experience, the floating angler can only cover about 10% of this type of prime water as they float downstream. In between every cast, whether using lures or flies, the boat moves farther downstream, and the next cast leaves yards and yards of productive water untouched. The wading angler, with the security of his tethered kayak, can move along these types of banks (if they are wadeable), casting upstream and cover every inch of holding water. In the cold waters of late winter and early spring, nymphs are far more effective than spinners. Trout don’t move far to feed in extremely cold water, but with the security of the tethered kayak, fishing with nymphs in these deep runs is just as effective as upstream spinning. The dry fly angler also has an advantage when fishing upstream with the kayak. When various hatches or terrestrials are concentrating fish in the eddies that form on these types of banks, the wading angler can fish dry flies to rising trout far more effectively than the floater can.
There are some river sections that are fished more efficiently with a downstream approach, and even in those the tethered kayak is an advantage. There is a seven-plus mile section of a very productive local river that is completely surrounded by private land. To remain legal, a wading angler must stay below the high-water mark at all times. While 90% of the water is safely wadeable along the edges, there are enough extremely deep troughs with treacherous muddy bottoms that are serious obstacles to wading anglers. With a tethered kayak, one can wade and fish streamers downstream all the way to the take out, with the ability to use the kayak to float through the deep sections safely.
It might seem obvious, but with that big tackle box tethered to your waist you can have multiple rods rigged up ready for the various conditions you might encounter. In the height of the season, you’ll find me on the water with an ultralight spinning rod, a 5wt, 6wt, or 7wt fly rod with a sink tip line ready to fish a streamer, and a 4wt with floating line to deal with those obvious dry fly or nymph situations. I generally keep all my fly boxes, lures, tippets, and other gear in the boat, with only a camera and forceps on my person. It makes for very comfortable wading, with quick access to any gear and other stuff I might need.
Many times as I get close to the point where I’ll turn around and head home, I’ll encounter other anglers floating down the river in drift boats or canoes. After the usual pleasantries and fish stories, someone always remarks to me, “You’re going the wrong way!” I am generally polite enough not to say it, but I’m always thinking, “No, you are!” Be contrary. Fish with your kayak, upstream.