TopKayaker.Net: Guide To Kayak Fishing

Kayak Fishing:

Launching & Landing In Surf

First appeared in Pacific Coast Sportfishing - updated by the author.

By Jim Sammons of La Jolla Kayak Fishing and The Kayak Fishing Show
Browse Basic Safety at Tom's TopKayaker Shop.

Jim Sammons Surf LaunchI consider kayak fishing to be a very safe sport. Your time on the water can be very relaxing and extremely productive. There is one aspect of kayak fishing, though, that tends to keep some people from experiencing the beauty of the open water and relegates them to the bays and flat waters: launching and landing their kayak through the surf.

One of the benefits of fishing from a kayak is the ability to launch your kayak right where the fish are, but without the skills necessary to negotiate the surf zone you can get yourself in a lot of trouble. (Photo: by Paul Lebowitz)

More gear is lost or damaged and people injured in the surf zone than in any other aspect of kayak fishing. I have seen all to often the kayak fishing neophyte succumb to the call of the big water, loading up their new kayak with their best fishing gear and charging into uncharted water only to be knocked back to the beach by an unforgiving sea, their gear spread across the beach like a yard sale. Usually to the laughs of the tourists standing on the beach, the new kayak fisherman must scour the bottom looking in vane for their favorite rod and reel. The reason for this, generally, is that people never spend the time learning the proper techniques to keep them and their gear safe. The ocean is a very unforgiving place and taking the time to learn these skills will serve you well.

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Getting Started

One of the smartest things you can do for yourself is to become intimately familiar with the characteristics of your kayak. Every kayak acts differently on the water and in the surf zone. Take your kayak out on flat water with no fishing gear and just play. Climb all over the kayak, sit with your feet off the bow, spin around in the seat, try and stand up, lay down, see how far you can lean your kayak on its edge before you flip over.

You should also know how to reenter the kayak in open water. Then do the same thing in a surf area, although you don't want to surf a loaded fishing kayak, doing so in an unloaded boat is not only fun but will prepare you for the times when you mis-time a set and end up gliding down the face of a larger wave. There is a saying in kayak fishing "dress to swim and rig to flip" this is especially true in the surf zone.

Having a kayak with large hatches in which you can put you rods and other gear will protect them in the event you get dumped in the surf. Always wear a PFD; getting hit in the head or ribs is a major concern when getting bounced down the face of a wave and a good PFD can save your life.

Although conditions at different beaches can vary, and all kayaks have different characteristics, the following tips should help you get started in offshore kayak fishing.

The Launch

It is a common misconception that launching is the hard part and landing is the easy part of negotiating the surf zone. The reverse is actually true. The most important thing you can do for a successful launch is to assess the conditions and evaluate whether you have the skills to handle the surf conditions. Sometimes it is best to drive to another location or just go home. If the surf is of a size that you feel you can handle, observe the waves to see where the channels or rips are and time the intervals between larger sets.

Start in water between knee and thigh deep. Too shallow and you take a lot of small waves in the face; too deep and it is difficult to board your kayak. Timing really is the key to a successful launch, so the time you spend observing the waves while rigging is well spent. When you see your window of opportunity you should be ready to charge forward. It is very important that you keep your forward momentum; if you get pushed backwards by a wave you will often get flipped, so paddle hard. As the bow of your kayak approaches a wave lean back to get the bow going over the wave not through it. As the wave passes under you give a hard stroke to keep the kayak moving forward.

Keep the kayak going straight; you don't want to get hit broadside by a wave.


As stated earlier, landing the kayak through the surf really is the tricky part. Most fishing kayaks are fairly long and not designed to surf a wave. That and the fact that you may be carrying a considerable amount of weight in the bow of your kayak - consisting of your gear and, hopefully, several nice size fish - the bow of the kayak wants to drop down the face.

Like launching, landing your kayak involves good timing. Ideally you would follow a wave in without ever having to surf the kayak. Of course what we want and what we get are often two different things. Just a slight miscalculation can find you hanging ten down the face of a large wave, and this is where you need to have the proper technique to stay on top of your kayak. Even if you don't catch the face of a wave, a following wave will catch you and turn the kayak sideways dumping you and your gear in the drink if you don't know how to handle the kayak.

Jim Sammons Surf LaunchIf you do find yourself starting to slide down a wave the first thing you should do is drag your paddle to one side, this will cause the kayak to drop down the face of the wave at an angle decreasing the chance of the bow burying at the bottom of the wave. Once the kayak is sideways you will not get it straight again. Now the trick is to keep from getting flipped. Many people will flip trying to get the kayak pointed straight to the beach, forget it you can't do it.

Resign yourself to being sideways and ride it out all the way to the beach. Place your paddle into the base of the wave and LEAN on it. If you place your paddle into the face of the wave above your shoulders you can get hurt. The flat of the paddle blade should be at the base of the wave. There is a lot of pressure under the blade and you can really lean on it. Using the paddle as a shock absorber in this manner will keep you on top of your boat. (Photo: by Paul Lebowitz)

Just because you made it through the worst part of the wave doesn't mean you are home free. I have seen many people make it through huge waves only to get dumped by a one footer right next to the sand. You can relax after you get off the kayak, until then always pay attention.

Additional safety precautions you should take:

  • If you do come off your kayak in the surf zone never let your kayak be between you and the wave. The force of the wave combined with weight of the kayak can do some damage if it hits you.
  • Never use a paddle leash in the surf zone; you don't want to get tied to your kayak.
  • Always wear a PFD.
  • Never exit your kayak towards the beach; if a small wave hits the kayak you don't want it running over your legs.

These are just a few tips on handling your kayak in the surf zone, but reading it doesn't mean you can do it. You need to get on the water to get a good grasp of these techniques. Whether you take a class or decide to go it on your own, take the time to practice these skills without your fishing gear on board and you will be ready to take on any situation that may arise.

La Jolla Kayak Fishing offers surf survival and kayak skills classes for on the water instruction as well as our local kayak fishing tours and Baja adventures. Kayaks and all gear are provided. We also have available a full line of kayak fishing accessories. We can be reached at 619.461.7172 or visit our Trips page for more information.

About the author: Jim Sammons is an IGFA certified, and California Department of Fish and game licensed guide and runs La Jolla Kayak Fishing Adventures instructional trips locally as well as guiding trips to northern and southern Baja. A contributing writer with several fishing publications Jim loves the opportunity to give tips and relay stories of successful kayak fishing adventures. You can also find Jim on on World Fishing Network (WFN) throughout 2010 at The Kayak Fishing Show - January 11th to April 12. Mondays 4:30 am, 10:30 pm Tuesdays 6:30 am, 2:30 pm Sundays 8:30 pm, 4:30 am. (see video-right)

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