Good Idea, Bad Idea: Kayaking Done Right and Done Wrong

The phone sat on my desk and buzzed on an early Spring day. I was trapped in the office; my buddy was excitedly calling me about a pair of kayaks he just picked up. Hang on, we’re going somewhere.

That was several years ago now, and you better believe I scrambled out of the office a few hours later a little nervous, a lot excited and fully intent on learning what this kayak thing was all about. I had never been in a kayak before and my friend John’s extensive paddling experience was limited to about an hour of middling about in a swimming pool before I arrived. Being new to the sport and somewhat limited on waterway options, we naturally crammed the two cheap boats into the back of a pickup and embarked on the closest water we could find—the Mississippi River.

Yes, the Big River, the Mighty Mississippi, Old Man River. The 2,300 mile artery of America can at times measure three or four miles across and up to 200 feet deep here in Memphis. John and I had no life jackets, no paddling experience and no idea what the current would be like.

This was foolish.

We put in just north of downtown Memphis at the confluence of a small tributary (the Wolf River) and the main channel. So excited were we to begin our voyage that we had only a loose plan: avoid death-by-barge and float our way down to a takeout point not far from Beale Street and the new Bass Pro Shops Pyramid.

I’d like to tell you that John and I immediately regretted the decision as soon as we hit the big water, but that isn’t true. Instead, we were just two kids in our early 20’s paddling in circles, splashing around and testing the strength of the current. Aside from the barges, we were fairly oblivious to the dangers of the river—whirlpools, floating trees and flying carp. It was a great time, and I immediately understood the growing appeal of kayaking. Not until one of those carp was spooked by a paddle stroke and nearly took off my head did I begin to even think about having a life jacket.

Thousands of people have died in the Big River near Memphis. Memorials on the shoreline testify to the saviors of some. If you walk the eastern side you’ll find yourself in Tom Lee park, named for a man who saved the lives of 32 drowning steamboat operators in 1925.

John and I really had no idea what we were doing, and we were lucky. Very lucky.

But our story is not unique. This week, the U.S. Coast Guard rescued one ambitious kayaker 19 miles off the coast of the Big Island in Hawaii. He had no life saving equipment on board. And back on the mainland, the Coast Guard suspended the search for a missing kayaker near Gulf Shores and Dauphin Island, Alabama. They found the kayak—but not the paddler—floating three miles off shore.

Kayak fishing is amazing

That naive Huck Finn adventure down the Mississippi hooked me on kayaking for life, and it wasn’t long before I had purchased a boat of my own and loaded it up with rods and tackle. The experience of landing a big fish in a kayak is unlike anything you will ever feel in a boat. It’s primal, it’s even closer to nature. But to do it right, it’s important to remember to be safe.

Cameron Gatlin is a pro-staff kayak fisherman for Caney Fork Outdoors in Silver Point, TN and an ambassador for Bending Branches Paddles. Gatlin fishes a half-dozen kayak bass tours each year from his base in Chattanooga. He says that PFD’s, above all else, are the most important safety tool a kayak fisherman can use.

“We read so many stories and hear about so many that just keep happening. People go out without their life jackets on,” he notes. “You don’t know when you’re going to have a heart attack or when you’re going to get into trouble. People think, ‘oh, I’ll just grab it. No you won’t.’ All you’re thinking about is trying to stay above water and how to keep from flipping.”

PFD’s, by the way, don’t have to be uncomfortable. Gatlin uses a NRS Chinook style PFD. The back of which is cut out to go over the back of your seat. “You can wear it all day long, no problem. And it doesn’t matter how hot or how cold it is because they are breathable.”

Gatlin also recommends using LED lights on the side of your kayak, as well as high visibility beacon poles like the ones made by Yak Attack. Those help, he says, to make boaters more aware of a low-profile kayak because,”let’s face it. It’s hard to spot us when you’re going 60mph.”

  • Bring a friend with you, if you can’t, always tell someone exactly where you’re going.
  • Always, always wear a PFD.
  • Use beacon poles especially in the early morning or before dark.
  • Utilize rod storage systems like ram mounts, bazooka tubes or a crate to keep your gear secure while paddling.
  • Bungee your gear down.

A few weeks ago, Gatlin was fishing with a group of friends on the Collins River—a 67-mile tributary of the larger Caney Fork River in Middle Tennessee. The Collins has fast moving water, and he says the trip soon made the group thankful for their PFDs.

“One of the most experienced anglers was running a drag chain to slow him down, and he forgot about it. It got him wrapped up in a tree in the middle of the river and it flipped his kayak. He was underwater for at least 10 seconds. If it hadn’t been for his lifejacket, I don’t know if I would have ever seen him again.”

That’s the moral of the story. It’s a tale of two rivers—one big and one small. The novice paddlers on the big water were lucky. The experienced paddler on the smaller one wasn’t. On a kayak, you never know what’s going to happen.

As kayak fishing continues to grow, as more anglers discover and enjoy this exciting sport, tell them take Gatlin’s advice.

“It’s pretty much of a mater of when you’re going to flip. Everybody does it sometime.”

Be sure you or your customers are ready when you do.