First, let me say there is no ultimate kayak. That's right, I said it. Not one.
There is no perfect, flawless, ultimate, unbeatable, right for everybody in any situation kayak. It's about compromise. The goal is to find what works for you and makes you happy. The industry has made some vast improvements in designs. But at the same time, more experienced yak fishers scratch their heads at some 'improved' features. Others don't care about the details, they just want to get on the water. I will not get into ripping boats apart or recommend any. It's about finding a kayak you're happy with. My goal is to educate you on what to look for, so you can make an informed decision. There are factors that may limit your choices, let's start there.
When looking at weight specs in print, the numbers can be misleading. A source of frustration is the manufacturer's stated weight of their boats. Sometimes a pre-production model is used for the figure. When a running change is made, like adding plastic to strengthen an area, the numbers are not updated. Others are weighed bare, without hatches, rudders, or other options. All those 1-5 pounds doohickeys can add up. By themselves it's not much, but when you add 15 or 20 pounds to something that weighs 50 pounds you could be looking at back pain.
The bare minimum for roof topping might be foam pool noodles, with a pair of straps running across the kayak, then through the interior. I would not recommend placing a kayak directly on the roof. Aside from scratching the paint, the kayak will want to slide around. The foam is also likely to form to the yak to some extent making for a larger contact area. This should help support it while adding resistance to sliding. With any roof top method, the front and back of the kayak should then be tied to the bumpers. This is to help prevent the kayak from launching off the roof during a hard stop or while traveling at highway speeds. Yes, it does happen. In every incident I've read about, the front and back of the kayak were not secured. The fore & aft tie downs are usually just snugged up, not tight. Too much tension here can deform the hull.
The other end of the roof top spectrum is a full rack system that ranges from about $250 on up. Personally, I've spent close to $1000 since I started kayaking. That price includes adapters for 2 different vehicles, j type racks, a lift assist setup, then longer bars I unexpectedly needed to install the lift assist, the fairing I bought to cut down on the wind noise from the lifter upper that didn't silence anything... Vehicle styling will give you different options.
The next option would be a trailer. While they can be expensive and do have some drawbacks, there are some positives. Loading can be easier because they sit lower to the ground. Sometimes a locking box can be added to stow your dry gear. Depending on how the yak is carried, you may be able to leave some of your rigging in place and ready to go. When you're done and everything is clean and dry, you might be able to toss a cover over the whole setup for storage. Possible downsides could include parking restrictions where you live and where you want to launch, trailer maintenance, maneuvering, and storing the trailer. Do not assume you can park a trailer at every boat launch. Some have restrictions.
If you've got a pickup, simply tossing a small yak in the bed is another possible option. I've gone this route with yaks from 9' - 14' in a 6 foot bed with the tailgate down. I ran into some issues. First, plastic kayaks slide very easily on a plastic bedliner even when you torque down the straps to the point of crushing the hull. Second, in my case at least, the tie down points were on the high side as well as poorly placed. Third, other drivers came very close to hitting the yaks at times. A neon flashing sign might have limited that. Then, there are laws limiting how far something can be sticking out beyond the tail lights. Leaving the tailgate up and resting the yak on it will cause the hull to deform. In fact, most plastic kayaks will deform just sitting on a flat surface. Many times the hull will pop back into shape when left in the sun, but I try to avoid it. Your results may vary.
You might feel a cart is just what you need. But what will you do with it when you launch? In some instances walking it back to the car is fine. This isn't always the case, meaning you'll need to bring it along. While some carts are fairly compact when broken down making storage easy. Others are not, requiring a large hatch to get it inside. Some kayaks have hatches that are on the small side preventing any carts from fitting inside. Those big wheels that are supposed to work so well on soft sand seem to cause a lot of frustration. Strapping a cart to the deck might be an option provided you have a way to attach it securely. A cart stored on deck is exposed to the elements. This means the wind can catch it and throw your tracking off. Water will be splashed on it increasing maintenance needs. You might even get snagged on it. Freeing a snag while on the water usually isn't fun especially if you're fighting a fish.
Where do you plan on using it most? If your answer includes small ponds and slow, twisty rivers, something under 14' is a good bet. In a tighter area a smaller kayak is much more enjoyable due to the maneuverability. Results will vary with different hulls and exactly how tight of an area you plan on fishing. I've paddled a 14' kayak on a small river. Some back paddling on one side was required to turn in spots. I didn't find it too distracting, some might. When it was purchased I wanted the extra length for paddling larger bodies of water, which is where I spent most of my time. I've also paddled my 16 footer in smaller areas. It was nice to get where I wanted to be a touch faster, but was very annoying pointing it in the desired direction when I completed a drift or needed to turn around. A smaller yak would be great for that situation. We're almost safe saying: small water, short kayak; big water, long kayak. Yup, almost safe. A smaller kayak can get you on bigger water. One big difference is less straight tracking and speed compared to a longer boat.
The speed part is something to consider if covering a lot of water is a regular occurrence especially if you're not trolling along the way. Remember, speed is relative. Most people troll around 2 mph, casual paddling might range from 3-4 mph, while a sprint can be above 5 mph for short bursts. The term fast boat usually refers to a combination of sprint and sustained speed. While the actual numbers may vary greatly between paddlers in one boat, the same paddler in 2 different boats can give a realistic comparison. A fast boat might mean less exertion in the course of a day, even when paddled at an average pace. In actual fishing use, you might never see the difference between a fast boat and a slow boat. However, if an overwhelming number of people use the term 'barge', when describing paddling characteristics of a kayak, I strongly urge you to take it for a test run & compare it with something else. The term barge is also used to describe a kayaks weight, and occasionally the overall size, not just the speed.
At this point, hopefully, you have the field narrowed down somewhat. Now look at what will fit you, meaning your weight, height, inseam, and also shoe size if you're looking at a decked boat. Don't forget about all the stuff you'll want to bring with you. It adds up quickly.
A major complaint you will hear in different venues regarding sit on tops, is standing water in the cockpit. I have been one to complain in the past. The phrase "it is a water sport, you should expect to get wet" doesn't satisfy me. The phrase "rub a dub dub, short fat guy in a tub" is more appropriate when I demo some boats. I do expect to get wet; I do not want to paddle a puddle. A small amount of water does not bother me, in fact, I expect it. In all fairness I go about 240 pounds. That puts me towards, if not in, the large paddler end of the spectrum. Sometimes I'll jump in a boat just to see how much standing water there will be for future reference.
The actual amount of water in a given kayak will obviously increase as the load it carries goes up. When comparing standing water between similar kayaks with the same load, there may be a big difference. When the cockpit floor is close to the bottom the chances of standing water will increase. A difference of one inch of height can appear dramatic.
Lately, I'm thinking most of us aren't looking at the whole picture when we try to guess which kayak will be dry or wet. I feel hull shape plays a big role in how low in the water a loaded kayak will sit. Along its length, a kayak that has a narrow entry and slowly widens near the cockpit before tapering off to the stern has a smaller footprint than a boat that widens rapidly at the bow and maintains most of that width all the way back. The smaller footprint will sit lower in the water when the two are put side by side with the same load. Also, if the hull cross section is narrow below the waterline, I would expect it to sit lower when loaded.
Scupper plugs are used by many to avoid wet cockpits. In my opinion, they are a good option for calm areas. When water starts washing into the yak, you should pull them immediately. Forget about using them for a surf launch. That means, you need a way to bail the cockpit out after you've launched and want to use them. Don't forget, you will bring water into the cockpit when you hop on, felt soled boots hold quite a bit of water.
Another way to look at it, sit on top kayaks need to be a smidge wider then a sit inside kayak of the same length to have similar stability, and that can rob speed. The extra width is likely to offset the slightly higher seating position, which also means higher center of gravity which equals less stability. To make a kayak a notch faster it gets made an inch or so narrower. To offset the loss of width and stability, the seat, cockpit and maybe the tankwell are pushed down closer to the hull bottom. Now the footwell area of the cockpit is closer to, at, or below the waterline. You can't try a 12' yak and assume a 14' model from the same company, in the same model line will be drier. Trust me.
Details to Think about
Some kayaks have foam sprayed inside the hull. The foam will need to be CAREFULLY ground away to mount a transducer inside the hull for your fishfinder. Other hulls have a foam core that, to my knowledge, elliminates the possibility internal transducer setup. Internal mounts, if done properly, work almost as good as an external mount. The benefit of mounting internally is protecting it from rocks, barnacles, etc. Not getting tangled in weeds is another plus.
If you plan on doing surf launches, getting your fishing rods inside the kayak and being able to retreive them while on the water is important. One dump in the surf can break rods, fill the reels with sand, rip out rod holders and even break the kayak. Not to mention getting hurt yourself. Some kayak designs make it easier than others. For example, my 14' sit on top had a decent sized front hatch. I was able to get a 9' fly rod inside without breaking it down, but when I shimmied up front to reach it on the water, there wasn't much freeboard. Chop could have easily crashed inside if I wasn't carefull. Other complaints I've heard include hatches that are too small or hard to put on.
Sit Inside or Sit on Top?
They both can be fished from. You can find angler models in either. I've owned and fished from both types all in the recreation category. I've caught fish, lost fish, surf launched, landed, dumped, just plain paddled and had a blast with all of them. This choice for most is pure preference. My preference is for a sit on top, but that's me. I like the freedom of movement. Jumping off & climbing on are easier for me. It might be the only real option to get on the water for some.
From a safety standpoint, I feel a sit on top has the edge. Why? Let's say you manage to flip over. It does happen for various reasons, usually in the surf zone, which is one spot you do not want to hang around in. Your gear is always leashed to the kayak, so no need to worry about losing it. With a sit on top, you might need to flip it upright, then climb on or drag it up the beach while the water drains through the scuppers. Help might be required for the climbing part. A paddle float, or loop of rope to put your foot in can go a long way. Help will also be required to clean up the yard sale if nothing is leashed.
With a sit in kayak you might be able to do an eskimo roll if you learn it, the water is deep enough, the gear attached to the deck doesn't create to much resistance to overcome, your skirt is on and you don't panic. The likely scenario in a recreational kayak would be a wet exit. I hear the exit part is easy to do. You pretty much fall out of the kayak under water after releasing the skirt. So you get out easy enough, but now the kayak has a few hundred pounds of water in it. Forget about running up the beach with a flooded kayak, even with help. If the water is deep hopefully there's enough floatation in it to keep it from sinking. Even better would be if it floats high enough to keep any waves from washing inside adding to your misery. The best scenario would be if you purchased float bags or have some sort of equivalent that will prevent at least few gallons from going in. Sealed bulkheads can help if they are truly sealed. You now need to break out the bilge pump or maybe a bucket. You'll need a decent chunk of time to empty it out. Once it's empty enough to climb in and finish the process, you attach the paddle float to the paddle, secure the paddle to the rear deck of the kayak, then try to get back inside. As with a sit on top help may be needed for the climbing part. Once your back inside it's time to finish the bailing process. This is not intended as a how to. My point here is that it can take more time to get out of a potentially dangerous situation with a sit inside kayak. There are also some other options for the re-entry part that are beyond the scope of this article.
Some prefer a sit inside when it gets cold out since your lower body is out of the wind (you do have your skirt on, right?). You need to dress accordingly no matter what type of kayak. The skirt can also be used as a stripping basket or work surface to some extent. Sit inside kayaks are offered in narrow touring models. I would think experience with them is required before you try to fish from one.
The best thing you can do here is try both types and see what you like. Don't forget to look into safety related items before you purchase. It may alter your decision.
A bit about my learning experiences
The new 14 foot sit on top that I thought would be right, also wasn't the best choice. It was a combination of my weight and all the gear I like to take along. In calm spots I was happy with it using scupper plugs. When it got rough I found I didn't want to use it at times. Also, I cheaped out and skipped the rudder, big mistake. Constantly paddling harder on one side to counter the wind gets old real quick. If I was able to demo it I would have passed on buying it due to the wet cockpit.
I'm now on yak #4, a 16 footer. I bought this one without a demo as well. I was able to compare it side by side on the ground with my previous sit on top kayak. I carefully compared cockpit height from the ground on both boats among other features. It looked like a winner in the standing water category. First launch revealed it was. There was a little towards the front, but it was acceptable to me. It tracks great even without the rudder in the down position. It takes more effort to turn than my previous yaks, but it’s not a big deal. I'm mostly in large open areas. Finally, the ultimate yak for me....until I moved. Now I need another for small areas.