Canoes and Kayaks – Choosing the Right Tool for the Job

I’m going to say it straight up – I like canoes. I prefer the swish of a paddle over the drone of a motor and the smell of the bush over exhaust fumes. I’m happy to take what comes and accept the craft’s limitations because the experience is just better. I’m not a technical paddler or anything fancy, but I’ve spent the last 10 years or so using canoes as my main fishing platform. I’ve spent a bit of time in kayaks as well, and what I’m about to discuss revolves around my experiences in each while fishing and travelling rivers, streams, lakes and estuaries. Everyone’s opinion differs, and what follows is mine.

While non-motorised fishing crafts are a fairly recent trend in Australia, their popularity has soared. There’s no doubt that kayaks are the driving force. They are handy pieces of equipment. But even though canoes are often overlooked in Australia, they are no less useful – in fact, the opposite can be true.

Getting in on the action - canoes and kayaks make you appreciate more than just the tally at day's end
Getting in on the action – canoes and kayaks make you appreciate more than just the tally at day’s end

The thing with kayaks; the reason they are shoved down our throats as the ‘only’ option; is because you can sell a lot of ‘stuff’ to deck one out with. Canoes just aren’t like that. You can buy stuff for them but you don’t really have to. No wonder the industry wants us to buy kayaks…

For everything other than offshore work, which is kayak country, there is no ‘best’ option. If you follow the tech-loving trend that a lot of Aussies seem to have, then perhaps a kayak suits you best. If you like simple, rugged equipment for the long haul, then canoes stand out. The staff at BCF are only going to tell you one thing, so if you’re wondering why someone spending their days in an air-conditioned warehouse is telling you what you need, read on.

Rivers, Creeks and Closed Waters

A perfect example of a closed water environment. Australian bass make places like this legendary
A perfect example of a closed water environment. Australian bass make places like this legendary

Closed waters, as I refer to them here, are those that are buffered from winds by terrestrial factors (such as bankside vegetation and landform), creating waters with limited and/or highly predictable wind patterns. Water currents may or may not be a factor, and where present are regular and easy to work with. Streams, rivers and smaller to mid-sized lakes fit this category.

From my experience this is canoe country. There is nothing better than cruising down a river or prowling bays in a lake from canoe. When you get to a spot that you can’t paddle through, or where you’re moving from one water body to another; properly designed canoes make this easy. Light weight construction and portage-friendly design (you know there is no easy way for a single person to carry a kayak any distance) are what canoes are all about.

You can't do this easily with a kayak! Off to the next lake
You can’t do this easily with a kayak! Off to the next lake

Confined spaces call for manoeuvrability. At similar lengths, canoes (particularly with a single occupant) will almost always out-manoeuvre kayaks (I’m excluding white-water kayaks which aren’t practical for much else). This is linked with seat position. A single person sitting in the rear seat of a canoe lifts the front end out of the water. This minimises resistance to a small surface area centred around the occupant; you can turn on a dime. Most kayaks, on the other hand, are designed to place the occupant closer to the centre of the craft, thereby keeping most of it in contact with the water and making it slower to turn. This has its own advantages also and I’ll go into that more below.

With no weight, keel or motor, you can just crawl right into the thickest snags and find them where they're hiding
With no weight, keel or motor, you can just crawl right into the thickest snags and find them where they’re hiding

Rivers and streams are always tempting to explore. Sooner or later you’re going to make a long distance trip just to see what’s around the next bend. Sitting all day can get uncomfortable, but canoes minimise this. You’ve got plenty of room to move around within a canoe and your hips aren’t always working to stabilise yourself as they are in sit-in kayaks. Importantly, canoes are comfier because you’re sitting in a more elevated position. In all kayaks I’ve ever been in you’re basically sitting flat with your legs in line with your backside. This isn’t comfy for extended periods. The elevated seat of a canoe allows you to stretch your legs, tuck them under or sit loosely cross-legged, or any other variation.

I will actually stand in canoes for a lot of fishing – another facet of versatility. Wider canoes with flat bottoms are the most stable for standing in, but if you’ve got good balance you can do it in most. Being able to stand provides better visibility when casting to fish and/or structure, more freedom in rod work and lure retrieval, and more opportunity to stretch and keep comfortable. Sudden takes and hard fighting fish are pretty exciting while standing up!

While it may look a bit awkward, once you get used to standing in a canoe it can be a great help to effective casting and lure presentation, and a good chance to stretch
While it may look a bit awkward, once you get used to standing in a canoe it can be a great help to effective casting and lure presentation, and a good chance to stretch

Semi-open Waters

Semi-open waters experience varying degrees of influence from wind and/or strong current. Think larger rivers, estuaries and larger lakes. These environments are a bit of a transition zone where the versatility of a canoe can also prove frustrating depending on conditions. Consider teaming up with a mate or be patient and pick your days.

The lower sections of creeks and rivers flowing into estuaries are what I'd class as semi open waters - and each craft has it's uses here
The lower sections of creeks and rivers flowing into estuaries are what I’d class as semi open waters – and each craft has it’s uses here

Here, the high-sided profile of a canoe (especially when riding solo) can quickly drive you mad. All that surface area for wind to work on makes it bloody annoying to go out when there is even the slightest breeze. Many times on the water while I’m being blown up and down and in circles, Dick will be sitting pretty in his kayak with only a slight (and perfect fishing) drift.

Kayaks have a low profile that wind just glides over with minimal impact. In fact, the biggest wind catcher for the kayaker is the paddle! The Inuit fixed this by making long knife-like paddles rather than the common spoon-shaped ones we use today – keeping surface area the same while minimising wind resistance. If you’re into making your own paddle, consider this design for a kayak on larger waterways.

Changing position to the centre of a canoe or adding weight to keep the front end down is more user friendly in windy conditions; but working with a mate is the easiest option. One can control the canoe while the other fishes, and covering ground is a lot less work for two people.

Manoeuvrability isn’t as critical when you’ve got room to play and if you’re traveling distances longer kayaks can be quite useful. The increased tracking capability (maintaining a straight line while paddling) achieved by a long narrow contact with water is great for covering ground efficiently. The double paddle is also a benefit here.

Open Waters

Open waters need little explanation. As soon as you leave the mouth of an estuary into the sea, you’re in open water. Include ocean shorelines and very large lakes. There’s a reason that kayaks evolved as part of life in these environments.

Sea kayaks are often very long and narrow. This allows the paddler to cover ground quickly with minimum effort while also creating a very stable craft that can cut through wind, waves and swell like a knife.

Anyone heading out into these conditions needs to know a thing or two about keeping safe. Personally, I haven’t ventured into these places and am not particularly interested in doing so, so I wouldn’t presume to know anything about the subject. All I can say is know your limits and stick to them – have the necessary gear, know how to use it and keep it handy.

Out of the Water

One of the main drawcards of canoes and kayaks is that they are supposed to be easy to take places you can’t take a boat. In my mind that means something you can throw on top of a vehicle easily by yourself and carry across country into hidden waters. Properly designed canoes fit this description best. Proper design needs one thing – a yoke. I can’t believe canoes don’t have them in Australia; as simple as it is the canoe yoke was a revelation to me when I came to Canada. This is obvious for carrying the canoe over land – turning an awkward tub into a well-balanced unit rested on the shoulders – but even simply for lifting it on and off the roof racks! A yoke would save a lot of potential back injuries, scratched paintwork, busted canoes and colourful language.

How have we not got these in Australia? Canoe yokes change the entire dynamics of the craft
How have we not got these in Australia? Canoe yokes change the entire dynamic of the craft

Kayaks aren’t easy to lug about by yourself. They are heavy and awkward all the time. Don’t even get me started on the floating railway sleepers that are the current generation of Hobie kayaks. On the other hand, kayaks are durable, with most manufactured out of heavy plastic. This means you can drag them from place to place – as wild river bass fishers know well. Even so, I don’t want to trade places with Dick while he hauls his kayak through slippery boulder fields in the dark.

A typical bass river in NSW - pools interspersed with riffles that have to be dragged through
A typical bass river in NSW – pools interspersed with riffles that have to be dragged through

Overnighters

When you make that epic journey, you’re going to need extra gear and supplies. That means you’re going to need a canoe. Try fitting food, sleeping quarters and other camping equipment into a kayak. I’m flat out getting a second rod into the ones I use, and if I do it’s in the way.

This is what canoes are made for - getting to the places we dream of exploring
This is what canoes are made for – getting to the places we dream of exploring

Choose for Practicality

Here in Australia we are limited for choice in canoes as they have just never taken off in popularity. That’s a real shame, but stems from a couple of inherent vices of Aussies. I’m going to cut deep here and say that laziness is the main one. I was looking at Old Town canoes a while back – a make that I see with some regularity on Canadian lakes and which has Australian distributors. Where, in a North American market Old Town there would be a yoke for portaging, the Aussie market has fitted an esky with built in stubby holders… that says something about our priorities.

At the end of the day, as I’ve been saying, it’s a matter of deciding what you want to get out of your craft and how you want to do it. Several grand’s worth of Hobie doesn’t necessarily make it the best option on the market. Remember that the point of these water crafts is affordability, practicality and versatility – let’s stick with those facets before buying into the jargon that’s out there.

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