Paddling past a fly fisher along the river, I used to wonder, “Why someone would want to stand in the river, rather than float along it?!” Like many whitewater kayakers, I thrive on the constant action a river can provide. As a kid, I spent many summer days catching perch from the end of a dock with a worm, hook and stick. But, after getting sucked into the fast current of river-related adventure sports, I lost the patience to be still near water. I picked up a fishing rod again two years ago. After a few sunny, summer mornings fishing in the Balkans and a handful of rainy, winter days fishing in Canada (and after hooking a few fish), I’ve become excited by the slow pace and necessary patience of fly fishing.
A good fly fisherman/woman employs many of the same skills that make a great kayaker. And the rod and reel sport even offers the opportunity to gain new skills relevant to paddling. As a kayaker-turned-fly-fisher, I can appreciate and enjoy the physical, intellectual and skilled side of fly fishing.
These are some kayaking skills I’ve found which directly transfer to fishing knowledge, and a few fishing talents that kayakers can easily pick up.
The Fishing Skills You Already Have as a Kayaker
Reading water is one of the most basic whitewater paddling skills and goes a long way in developing fly fishing skills. The primary difference between reading water for fishing and for kayaking simply involves scale. From your boat, you’re reading water that’s big enough to influence your path down the river. From shore, (or close to it), a fly fisher reads the water to determine how it influences the path and movement of their tiny flies, lightweight lures made to look like flies and insects in various developmental stages. Eddies, currents, obstacles (rocks and trees) all behave similarly, regardless of scale.
Reading water for fly fishing just requires a keen eye and more focus. Some flies are weighted, intended to sink and travel underwater mimicking aquatic larvae, so a paddler’s ability to predict underwater currents becomes useful too. Anglers use similar terminology for reading water, like eddy lines, river right and left, holes and laterals. Just don’t forget it’s all on a micro-scale.
There is a safety element attached to reading water too, which gives kayakers an advantage, as they have an appreciation for the power of moving water, as well as experience navigating it on foot. Portaging, lining rafts and being familiar with swift water means I can assess if I’m able to safely cross thigh-deep current to get to that prime fishing spot, as well as identifying downstream hazards like strainers.
Both kayakers and anglers have the knowledge of and tolerance for the elements because we all know that neither fishing nor paddling requires sunny skies and warm weather. You can expect cold hands and feet in both sports. Near-frozen fingers still have to hold paddles and tie on flies so the ability to withstand mild discomfort and look past it to enjoy the day, is a beneficial trait.
Layering and dressing appropriately for these often changing (and always wet) sports is also an asset, as is knowledge of local weather patterns, including seasonal river levels. Navigation, reading topo maps, understanding basic geography and geology keep both anglers and paddlers from getting lost or cliffed-out while accessing fishing spots and put-ins alike.
Kayaking gear can easily crossover into fishing gear. Starting any sport requires new gear and both whitewater kayaking and fly fishing require lengthy equipment lists. By trial and error, I found out that I can re-use much of my whitewater gear for fishing! Acquiring a fly rod, reel, line and a few flies is necessary (there is used fishing gear galore online) but the initial investment is much smaller for those with whitewater gear.
I’ve never used hip waders since my drysuit keeps me just as warm and dry in the river. Zipping my back-entry Pivot drysuit around my torso, I tightly tie the empty arms around my waist, tucking the wrist and neck gaskets inside to keep them from getting dirty or torn. I usually wear my raincoat over top, except for rainy, cold days fishing on the coastal rainforest rivers of Vancouver Island where I ditch my raincoat and just wear my drysuit. I can tramp around and wade as deep as I want, (which proves extra useful when I need to un-snag my fly from underwater branches).
(Rookie) Pro tip: I’ve hooked my shoulder and back multiple times. Keep a patch kit on hand.
A river knife is always handy and I’ve carried a throw bag when doing multiple stream crossings on fast moving or flooded rivers.
Wading boots are expensive and cumbersome and my Crush shoes are stellar substitutions. I buy my kayaking shoes a half size too big to fit a pair of thin neoprene socks over my drysuit socks, (ensuring sand and gravel in my shoes won’t damage my dry socks). An extra pair of wool socks also helps for warmth. I have a friend who just turfed a pair of expensive wading boots for his Crush shoes, claiming kayak shoes flex and bend around rocks, providing more traction than stiff, heavy wading boots.
Being able to access the best fishing spots is way better than just knowing they exist. Kayak fishing is increasingly popular, but rarely does it encompass whitewater or even moving water. I’ve always loved gliding silently over fish in my kayak, leaning over the edge of my boat to watch them darting around. As a fly fisher, now I’m paying attention to where those fish come from and go, which pools have fish in them and what time of day I see them. Being a kayaker means I get to know a huge stretch of river and can pick the spots I want to return to with my rod–or better yet, always make sure to pack my rod in my boat!
Fishing from my kayak means I can skip from one side of the river to the next, seeking out the most beginner-friendly fishing spots, areas devoid of overhanging trees or thick bushes for me to snag on. A kayak can be a tool for exploration and experimentation while fishing, as well as transportation.
Even on foot, being a kayaker is advantageous. Fishing with non-paddling friends, I realize how comfortable I am walking on slippery rocks, or wading through moving water. All those hours lining rafts, portaging rapids or scouting lines seems to have a dual use. Being comfortable around and, especially in, moving water is helpful. Understanding how snow-fed or glacial rivers dip and spike throughout the day is also a useful fishing and safety skill. When it comes to water levels, these two sports might even complement each other. If river levels are high and the water is murky, I go paddle. If the level drops and the water visibility clears, I grab my fly rod.
We all share a respect for the river. Anyone who spends time around rivers holds an appreciation for the complexity and the beauty of freshwater ecosystems. Kayakers are privileged to play in whitewater, an element most people fear, developing a deep respect for its power and strength. Anglers and paddlers fish and float in some special places. But even in the deepest canyons and most remote gravel bars, human presence can be felt. Picking up garbage and tossing it in my kayak is easy and I do the same when fishing, stuffing nests of fishing line and old lures into my bag.
Many user groups share the river resources. Sometimes both kayakers and fishermen frequent the same stretch of river, like the Gordon River in Canada, the Soča River in Slovenia, the Deschutes River in the U.S. Through fishing, I’m becoming a more informed river-user, aware of river recreation as well as river ecology. Learning about different salmon runs, about which fish are spawning and which are migrating and what is going on underwater has opened my eyes to the complex layers of the rivers I float on. To fish, I need to research rivers to know which sections are open to fishing and ensure I have a fishing license and the correct stamps. River conservation is a group effort, and becoming a part of a different river community group means I have more motivation to protect rivers and keep them running free…and full of fish.
The Fishing Skills I’ve Had to Learn
Fly anglers use intricate fishing gear and you’ll have to learn how to use it. Paddle, boat, skirt, helmet, PFD, throwbag—as a kayaker, these are tools you can’t go on the river without. Each piece of kayak gear serves a clear purpose. But when it comes to fly fishing, there are so many gear combinations, functions and brands that they literally occupy entire department stores.
A biodegradable liquid that helps your line float and a tiny instrument to remove glue from the hook hole of a handmade fly, I had no idea so many tools existed! Mini scissors, clippers and pliers replace the river knife. A trucker hat and vest instead of helmet and lifejacket. Both sports require having all you need on or with you while at the river. Basic fishing gear, rod, reel, line, a few flies, can be easily carried along the river. I use a large, second-hand fanny pack so I can wear my tools around my waist, or sling it over my shoulder if I’m wading deep. Spend some time riverside getting your line wet and you’ll quickly figure out what you need and don’t need.
P.S. You’ll need to learn a whole new set of knots, as fishing knots are designed to be as tight and small as possible, where kayaking knots are often the opposite.
Slowing down might be the hardest adaptation for a kayaker, but could also be the most rewarding. Fishing is not a sport you can rush, so it offers paddlers a chance to forge a new, slower-paced, relationship with the river. My attitude changes when I put down the paddle and pick up a fishing rod. Instead of crashing through the forest carrying my boat to the put in, I walk slower, opening my eyes to the river environment as a whole.
Selecting the correct fly means observing which bugs are hatching. Finding the right spot to fish means sitting on the river’s edge for a moment, paying attention to tiny ripples of fish rising to feed. Like kayaking, there are many moments of solitude in fly fishing and times for camaraderie too. And I like that. But the slow cadence of the sport is something I never thought I would appreciate so much. Even crave sometimes.
There’s a learning curve to every sport’s slang. Kayakers have their own language. “Boof the siphon and meet me in the last chance eddy,” to a non-kayaker could sound like plans to rob a bank. Fly fishing has its own lingo too.
To ‘set’ is when you tug the line to secure the hook in the mouth of a fish, not a group of rapids. A ‘bar’ is a gravel deposition in a river which you can walk and fish along, not where you order beer. Anglers also refer to a bar as a ‘run,’ so don’t confuse that with a kayaking lap. And ‘mending’ is positioning your fly to float freely on the water, not what you do to your boat after you piton. Listen to other fly fishermen and women converse and ask questions during tailgate beers. The local old boys sure won’t give up their secret spots, but passing on fly fishing knowledge is something they will share.
To ‘think like a fish’ was the most valuable fishing advice I’ve been given. “Where would you position yourself to get the most food, for the least amount of effort,” a friend told me. Think like a fish. This advice runs through my mind when I’m picking a spot to fish or deciding where in the river to stand or cast. To think like a fish means identifying their attitude as well as feeding patterns, which can change with the weather and time of day. I won’t start thinking about food until the end of a day of kayaking. When fly fishing, all I do is think about food. The difference is, I’m thinking about fish food.
Understanding moving water is one step, but (trying) to understand the motivation of fish, is another. Are fish hitting because of territory and aggression like BC’s steelhead salmon? Use an invader fly, bright and flashy to aggravate fish. Are fish feeding at the surface, like trout on Slovenia’s Sava Bohinjka River? Use a dry fly that floats on the water, emulating the winged insects fish are nipping from the waters’ surface. Or should I try a wet fly, nymph or streamer to attract fish that jet out from behind eddies underwater to nab food floating by? Trial and error. And close observation helps me get to know the fish species, and even allows me to pay attention to the health of a river on some level.
And finally, as a kayaker, I have to practice patience. When I run a clean line in my kayak, the satisfaction and enjoyment are instant. But when I cast a perfect loop with my fly rod, it doesn’t mean I’ll catch a fish. Patience is necessary when fly fishing. From casting and tying a fly on, to just waiting for fish to bite, to have a good day fishing, you can’t get frustrated. I’ve lost more flies to trees than to fish or snags. And learning perfect timing of setting a hook is akin to learning the timing for a boof. Both take time—lots of time—and are learned by feel and practice. Fishing isn’t about the size or number of fish caught, just like kayaking isn’t about the grade or number of rapids run. Both sports are about good times on the water.
I used to grow bored and restless when the rapids ended and a river mellowed out. Since starting to fly fish, the long gravel bars, swift channels and shallow eddies intrigue me. I’m alert, searching for fish under my boat, enjoying the river in a new way. As a fly fisher, a class II rapid has been transformed into a whole new playground.
Can fly fishing make you a better kayaker? Not likely. But it can open up a new river world, a new perspective and pace. I believe that the slow hours spent standing in the river contributes to a well-rounded river-lover. I’m not going to give up kayaking for fishing. But I like having the options to choose tight lines in my kayak in whitewater. And tight lines with a fishing rod in whitewater.