Catfishing from a Kayak

by Ron Presley

Don’t rock the boat baby, don’t tip the boat over

Once a big cat like this took Justin for a ride, he was hooked on kayak catfishing.

Once a big cat like this took Justin for a ride, he was hooked on kayak catfishing.

Justin Johnston was born and raised in East Tennessee. Like many other anglers he initially became interested in bass fishing. He spent a lot of his teenage years targeting largemouth. Once he realized how big catfish could get and how much fun they were to catch, his passion quickly changed.

My interest in kayak fishing happened by mere chance,” explained Johnston.  I had always fished from a boat. In 2008 I went on a kayaking tour while on vacation. The entire time I was on the tour, I kept thinking how much fun it would be to catch a fish in a kayak.”

When Johnston got home from vacation he bought a kayak and mounted some rod holders on it. He was kayak fishing ready.

“After that first big fish took me for a ride, I was hooked,” recalls Johnston. “Kayaking became kinda’ an obsession. I got to where I was fishing in my boat less and less and fishing in the kayak more and more. I finally sold the boat a couple years ago and fish exclusively from a kayak now.”

“…the biggest challenge…was learning how to land big fish.”

He spends most of his time fishing on the Watts Bar and Fort Loudon reservoirs of the Tennessee River. According to Johnston the Tennessee River is perfect for kayak fishing due to the ease of access and low current flows. He says, that with the exception of the tailwaters below the dams, you can safely kayak anywhere on Watts Bar or Fort Loudon.

Johnston’s switch over to kayaks was a complete transition, but there was a learning curve to get where he is today. Safety, equipment choices, fishing techniques, and transportation issues were all on the list of things to consider.

Justin recommends getting a stable kayak for catfishing. Big fish like this will teach you why really quick.

Justin recommends getting a stable kayak for catfishing. Big fish like this will teach you why really quick.


“The biggest concern for me when catfishing in my kayak is safety,” noted Johnston. “Most of the time I am fishing deep structure in the main river channel aka the boating lanes. Kayaks have a low profile on the water and can be hard to see.  This is especially true when the sun is low on the horizon or if the color of your kayak blends in with the background.”

“I keep my head on a swivel out there. My kayak is stable enough to stand in and I don’t hesitate to hop up to give myself a bigger profile if I think an oncoming boater may not see me. I also try to wear bright colored clothing to try to make myself stand out more.”

“Pleasure boaters can also limit the techniques used in the kayak,” continued Johnston. “Anchor fishing is a prime example of this. Wake boats and large house boats that put off high and tight wakes are annoying when anchor fishing in a boat but they can be disastrous when anchoring a kayak. I avoid anchor fishing during peak pleasure boat times and always use a quick release system when I do anchor so that I can quickly detach from it if a danger arises.”

“Never anchor in fast current,” warns Johnston. “Things can go bad quickly and no fish is worth dying over.”

Personal preferences will guide anglers to equip their kayak the way they want it.

Personal preferences will guide anglers to equip their kayak the way they want it.


The fishing equipment used on a kayak can be pretty much the same as you would use in a boat. Rod holders are a tremendous help, but the large landing net used by most catfish anglers don’t work so well, as Johnston soon found out.

“For anchor fishing and suspend fishing, I use a Carolina rig,” instructed Johnston. “For dragging baits, I use a 3-way rig. Personally, I prefer the Ugly Stik catfish rods. They are strong enough for a bigger fish, but still light enough that smaller fish are fun to catch with them. It also doesn’t break the bank if I lose one overboard which has happened to me a couple times when bigger fish have gone wild after being pulled into the cockpit of the kayak.”

“I do opt for heavier line for kayak fishing. I use 80-pound test. Since I don’t use a net, I have to grab my line when landing a fish. If a bigger fish decides to roll or make one last surge while you have a firm grip on your line, that is when you are at the greatest risk of having a line or knot failure. The heavier test line helps decrease the risk of losing the fish while trying to land them.”

“I am also a big believer in using circle hooks. I am adamant about releasing trophy size catfish and using circle hooks is an easy way to help decrease the mortality rate.”

Tips for getting started in kayak fishing

Johnston’s passion for catfishing from a kayak and what he has learned can shorten the learning curve for others. If you would like to become one of a growing number of anglers with a desire to chase the whiskered critters from a kayak, he has some tips for you.

1. Always wear your PFD
If something goes wrong, that will be the one thing that could save your life. There are PFDs made specifically for kayaks that are lightweight, breathable, and have a high back that doesn’t interfere with your seat. Even in the hottest days of summer you won’t even notice them being on, so there is no excuse not to wear one.

2. Demo a kayak before buying it
Your height, weight, sense of balance, physical ailments, personal preferences, etc. all play a factor in how comfortable you are going to be in a particular kayak. It is impossible to know if a kayak is going to be a good fit for you just by looking at it or going off of other people’s reviews.
You need to get some seat time to make sure you will be comfortable in it. Comfort is very important when considering a particular kayak. If you aren’t comfortable in it, you won’t use it. Also, you typically get what you pay for so avoid the big box store kayaks. If cost is an issue, opt for a used kayak from a reputable brand over a new kayak from the local sporting goods store.

3. Get a kayak you can stand in
As I mentioned above, being able to stand will give you a bigger profile to help you be seen if a boat is headed toward you. There are other advantages for catfishing as well. The extra stability will be helpful when landing heavy fish. It will also give the option of using a cast net if that is how you get bait. Also, us catfishermen are often times fishing with multiple rods a long distance away from the shore. It isn’t always convenient to paddle to shore when you have to pee. Having the ability to stand in your kayak is a nice luxury when you gotta’ go.

4. Think about transportation
Put some thought into how you will transport your kayak and how far you will have to carry or drag it to get it to the water. Fishing kayaks range in weight from 70 to 140lbs. If you are car topping or have a long distance to drag your kayak to get to the water, you may need to get a lighter kayak than someone who is trailering it or has easy access to the water.

Fishing Techniques

Catfish anglers have been improving techniques for catching big cats for years. Those same techniques will work from a kayak, but personal choice usually determines what each angler uses.

“My favorite way to fish for catfish in the kayak is suspend fishing,” said Johnston. “When a big cat slams your bait, and doubles your rod over, it takes the side of your kayak down with it. That is an adrenaline rush like no other. That rush is what got me hooked on kayak fishing and is just something you can’t get from fishing in a boat.”

Justin learned early on that gripping a big fish by the mouth was the best way to land them in a kayak.

Justin learned early on that gripping a big fish by the mouth was the best way to land them in a kayak.

“Suspend fishing is also the easiest way to fish in a kayak. It doesn’t require any extra equipment to be carried in the kayak such as an anchor and it also limits the amount of times you get snagged since your baits aren’t on bottom.”

Bait options are another item that doesn’t change when you kayak fish. It will depend on the waters you fish and preferred bait for that area. Since Johnston fishes mostly on the Tennessee River his favorite bait is no surprise.

“The majority of the time I use cut skipjack,” reported Johnston. “It just seems to be the best bait for the waters I fish. I will opt for shad, white bass, or bluegill when skipjack are hard to find.”

“Fishing with live bait in the kayak can be difficult. The limited storage space and weight capacity prevents you from being able to have a large bait tank suitable for keeping shad alive. I have a homemade bait bucket that I use for hardier baits like bluegill and white bass.”

The biggest test for kayak anglers is when they hook the big one. The stability of the kayak as opposed to a boat and the maneuverability of the angler are limited. I suspect that first big catfish in a kayak is a real learning experience.

“Initially, I think the biggest challenge for me was learning how to land big fish in the kayak,” revealed Johnston. “In a boat, I would just get the fish up to the surface and drop my net under it. I could then easily lift the fish into the boat. When I started kayak fishing, I quickly realized my huge catfish net wasn’t going to work out.”

“The storage area in the kayak is limited and a big net takes up a lot of space. In addition to that, the net was always getting hung on something. It is pretty frustrating to have to try to reach behind you to get your net untangled while a trophy size blue is thrashing around at the side of the kayak. It didn’t take long before I decided to ditch the net and land fish by hand.”

“Kayak fishing also forced me to change my mindset on how I would reel in the fish. In my boat fishing days, I could net a fish that was still full of energy and let him flop around in the floor after I landed him. With kayak fishing, I have to be much more cautious and take my time with landing fish. The last thing you want to do is bring a big fish, that is still green, right onto your lap. I think the fact that I don’t have a net or a partner to land fish adds to the excitement though. Getting a fish to the surface used to be the end of the fight when I was fishing in a boat. In the kayak, it is just the beginning of the battle.”

“I love the simplicity of kayak fishing. There is no gas or oil to buy. No motor to breakdown. No maintenance to be done. They are lightweight so you don’t need a truck for a tow vehicle. I can launch it pretty much anywhere. The kayak also allows me to be able to fish in any body of water, whether it be a small creek or offshore in the ocean.”

“For me, the real benefit of fishing in a kayak, versus a boat, is just the fun factor. It is so much more fun to hook into a big fish in the kayak. There is an excitement and adrenaline rush that just can’t be matched in a boat.”

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