A quick rundown of favorite fishing kayaks throughout the region.
If you’re old enough to remember the days when tobacco companies ran cigarette ads everywhere, you may recall the one that said “Tareyton smokers would rather fight than switch.” Smoking of course is very bad for you, while physical activities on the other hand – kayaking especially – are quite healthy for mind, body and soul.
Despite the ham-handed segue, the truth is that most kayak anglers I’ve met along the way would indeed “rather fight than switch.”
In years prior, The Fisherman has put together a sample layout of some of the top kayaks for review by anglers in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic. For 2023, we decided to narrow down our search for season’s top fishing kayaks by focusing on the most popular models with readers, and the brands most readily available throughout the region.
You can probably use Google or a national publication to find all the fishy kayaks out there in the U.S. market if you wanted, but in terms of brand loyalty throughout The Fisherman region, what follows are our best of the best according to our local market leaders and their loyal customers.
After screwing around with sit-inside touring kayaks in the late 90s, I personally made the switch to a sit on top Hobie Quest in the mid 2000’s. This “paddle” Hobie was perfectly laid out for fishing, with the folks at Sterling Harbor Bait and Tackle in South Jersey helping with the add-ons like fishfinder, RAM mounts for rod holders, and a track system for incorporating drift sock and anchor. I was in a transition from life at the Jersey Shore to moving out to New York, and would end up picking up a roof rack from Jerry Collins at Captain Kayak in Sayville, NY. Like the “car toppers” of old, the key benefit of the fishing kayak of course is this type of mobility.
At the time of my Quest purchase, I had considered the MirageDrive propulsion system but wanted the “purist” approach of the paddle over the pedal to keep my upper body in shape (if you’ve seen me lately, you can easily tell I spend more time now on my center console). And while a casual paddle for fish is nice, the pedal-driven MirageDrive system introduced by Hobie in 1997 was a true game-changer for hardcore anglers.
“The patented MirageDrive 180 forward-reverse propulsion system with Kick-Up Fin technology is integrated into most MirageDrive kayaks,” said the folks at Hobie, adding “Weighing in at under 8 pounds, the MirageDrive 180 produces full power in both directions and offers unprecedented maneuverability for your pedal kayak.” With the Hobie MirageDrive, anglers can pull one of two shift cables to pivot the fins 180 degrees, reverse and back again. With the patented Kick-Up Fin technology, the fins automatically “kick-up” when encountering an underwater obstacle, the dual fins providing shallow water access and easy shore landings by simply pushing one pedal forward.
Having been first to market with the “pedal-driven” kayak technology, Hobie earned that brand loyalty market early. “We brought in the Hobie brand because it’s pretty much the Harley of kayaks,” said Brian Stensland from Fishermen’s Supply, Co. in Point Pleasant, NJ. “Same as you have Harley guys who’d never ride anything else, it’s the same with hardcore Hobie kayak fishermen,” Stensland said.
In the MirageDrive lineup, prices range from low, mid to high-end range depending on model. The Passport (10-1/2- and 12-foot models) start at around $1,799 and provide a nice, relatively inexpensive intro to the Hobie MirageDrive line which makes them idea for families. The 12-foot Hobie Compass comes in at around $2,749 and was updated in 2022 to feature an anodized aluminum alloy frame seat with monomesh and ripstop nylon construction for comfort.
The 12-foot, 9-inch Hobie Outback for an MSRP of $3,649 ($3,799 for camo if you plan to do a little duck hunting too) is probably the flagship in the Hobie line with everything you need for a whole day of fishing, though the Hobie Pro Angler series with 360-degree pedal navigation in the MirageDrive 360 has its own group of loyalists – though it’s large, not easily mobile in terms of car topping, and starts at around $5,500 for the Mirage Pro Angler 12.
“The Hobie Pro Angler is the most popular fishing kayak, but the Outback is quickly taking over as the model most chosen,” said Gregg Kobrin of New England Dive in Wallingford, CT. However, Kobrin said Hobie’s latest new hybrid – a combo kayak and stand-up paddleboard called the Lynx – has been building momentum in the New England market. “The Hobie Lynx is the new lightweight kayak that a lot of guys are transforming into a fishing kayak,” Kobrin said.
“As a grab and go, you can just tuck the Lynx under your arm like a surfboard,” added Jason Szabo at Fishermen’s Supply, Co., describing the open platform Lynx with elevated seat, MirageDrive pedal system, and 36 inches of platform width a great model for mobile fishing. “It’s very stable, and has been really growing in popularity,” Szabo said.
Deeper into South Jersey where back bay, salty river sod bank fishing reigns supreme, Justin Schenker at Fin-Atics of Ocean City, NJ said the Lynx is a lighter, easy to manage hybrid that has generated a lot of interest since its introduction at ICAST last summer, especially for those interested in a paddleboard and a kayak. “I pretty much view it as a paddleboard-slash-kayak,” Schenker said, explaining “You can take the seat off, pop out the MirageDrive and now you can use it as a paddleboard.”
“Number one for us though is the Hobie Outback, it’s easier for a single person, get down to the water, it’s easier to get in the truck,” Schenker said, explaining how Hobie redesigned the Outback a few years ago to make the craft more open so that you can sit or stand, plus you get tons of tackle storage. “There’s just so much open room in this boat, and it tracks great in the water. For the size of that boat, it’s about the fastest one.”
As for the evolution of the Hobie user, Schenker described the Hobie Passport as “an entry level MirageDrive, at an entry level price, but it’s way beyond entry-level quality,” while adding “they made this boat for anybody to be in it and be comfortable.”
According to Michael Levine from Ramsey Outdoors, kayak anglers can find several makes and models to choose from at their Succasunna and Ramsey, NJ locations but tabbed the Hobie Outback as the most versatile. “It comes with all the necessary features you need to fish, so you don’t have to add many modifications,” Levine said, adding “It just seems to fit the bill for all types of fishermen, freshwater or saltwater.”
“The bread and butter in the Hobie Line is the Outback first, and then the Pro Angler,” Levine said, explaining how the Outback is great as a cartopper, while the roomy Pro Angler may require a small trailer or pickup truck to cart to your favorite waters.
I mentioned ICAST before – the international tackle show that’s held in Orlando every year – back in 2020 the new product showcase award winner in the Boats and Watercraft division was the Old Town Sportsman Autopilot. Available in two sizes, the Old Town Sportsman Autopilot 136 and 120 both use fully integrated Minn Kota 45-pound thrust trolling motors with Spot Lock.
“This is great for some of the fishing I love to do in New England where there’s a really strong ripping current going out of the mouths of the river,” said Ryan Lilly from Old Town Kayaks of Maine while taking us through a video tour last summer during ICAST ’22. “What’s awesome about this platform is you don’t have to pedal, you don’t have to paddle, you have an integrated Minn Kota trolling motor that’s saltwater ready with Spot Lock,” Lilly said.
Taking its name from Old Town in Maine where the company is based, the small boat builder has a pretty significant line of fishing kayaks ranging in price from around $4,850 for the Sportsman AutoPilot 136 down to just $1,149 for the paddle-only Sportsman 106. But in speaking with some of the regional Old Town dealers, the award winning AutoPilot series in the Old Town Sportsman line is a game-changer.
“There is no other kayak on the market that comes to your door rigged with a trolling motor,” said Matt Stone from Black Hall Outfitters in Westbrook, CT, adding “There are many kayaks that are called ‘game-changers’ but few live up to that moniker with the exuberance of the AutoPilot 120. It is truly in a class of its own.”
With an MSRP of around $4,350, the AutoPilot comes loaded with accessory tracks, two rear-facing and two front-facing rod holders, and a massive tankwell. “With the push of a single button on the iPilot remote, the motor will use your GPS location to lock in place, holding you despite wind and current and letting you fish for longer and with more effectiveness,” Stone said, explaining how this particular 12-footer from Old Town also provides plenty of stability, “to not only stand, but fight big fish while doing it. For the angler that wants to leave no stone unturned, this is it.”
Still coming in at 12 feet in length, the Old Town Sportsman Salty PDL (PDL being Old Town’s proprietary pedal-drive system) weighs under 100 pounds and come in at around $2,500 MSRP, offering agility for coastal anglers and freshwater fishermen alike. “The 10:1 gear ratio of the maintenance-free PDL drive will provide plenty of power and speed to cut through current and chop, and it’s a really fun kayak to pedal, quick to respond and easy to manage both in and out of the water,” Stone added.
To celebrate its 125-year anniversary in 2023, Old Town is offering a limited-edition Gray Ghost color in five key Sportsman Line models, with only 125 of each model being produced. According to the folks from Old Town, the Gray Ghost color is a nod to the timeless Gray Ghost Streamer fly pattern pioneered by Maine Guide and fly tier Carrie Stevens and Old Town’s founding family, the Gray family. Much like each Gray Ghost Streamer, every limited-edition kayak is expertly crafted and will come stamped 1 through 125 to mark its authenticity.
“The Old Town has been gaining popularity in recent years,” Ramsey’s Levine said, adding “Some of their price points for basic PDL kayaks are priced pretty nicely.”
Price and performance, the two key points in just about any big ticket purchase. The question is do you want to pedal, paddle or Spot Lock? Once you choose the hardcore kayak angling path, you may rather fight than switch!