Choose the right pedal drive kayak that fits your needs, fishing style, and budget.
To pedal or not to pedal; is that the question? Not so much anymore, as pedal-drive kayaks have come to dominate kayak fishing. Whether buying your first fishing kayak or upgrading an older model, you’re more likely to be asking yourself, “Which pedal kayak should I pick?”
Why pick a pedal kayak?
There will always be traditionalists who prefer the simplicity and stealth of paddling. And, there is a connection to the water that comes from dipping a blade, along with a level of fine control and maneuverability, that cannot be achieved without a paddle in your hands.
There are also a few drawbacks to using a pedal fishing kayak compared to a paddle fishing kayak. A pedal-drive kayak hull is almost always heavier than a sit-on-top kayak of the same length, so if you need an ultralight kayak for back-country fishing or portages, look at paddle options.
Also, a pedal drive must be removed or retracted when navigating the shallows, so it’s not the best choice if you are planning to specialize in fishing super-skinny waters. Additionally, a pedal drive does require some maintenance, at least more than a paddle, and can be costly to fix or replace. In fact, if you have a tight budget, first look at paddle kayaks since pedal kayaks are generally more expensive than paddle kayaks of similar lengths with similar features. However, for most fishermen, the drawbacks are easily exceeded by the advantages. Most people have more strength and endurance in their legs than their arms and shoulders, so a pedal fishing kayak allows them to go further and stay out longer. And, any single item on the con list is far outweighed by the number-one benefit of pedal-powered kayaks: your hands are free for fishing. Nothing beats being able to keep your rod in your hands for trolling, casting, and fighting fish without having to pick up or put down a paddle.
What is the best pedal fishing kayak?
There are more options than ever before when it comes to pedal-drive fishing kayaks. If you take nothing else from this article, remember this: there is no single “best” kayak for fishing. Every kayak design is a balance of pros and cons specific to the user. The key to happiness is to settle on a kayak that best fits your needs and your fishing style. Start by asking yourself some questions. Do you place greater value on speed or stability? Do you want to be able to stand and fish? If you do plan on standing up, you will want a stable fishing kayak. What kinds of waters will you be fishing, what species will you be chasing, and what techniques will you be using? Do you want to add electronics and accessories? How will you be transporting your kayak?
Your answers to these questions will help determine which brand and model of pedal kayak is right for you. But, first, an overview of the options in pedal-driven kayaks.
The Pedal Drive
The idea of a pedal-powered kayak took flight when Hobie released their Mirage Drive in 1997. Based on the swimming motion of a penguin, it uses flexible fins that scissor below the boat, connected by a chain drive to pedals that are pushed back and forth—not in a circular motion like a bicycle. The Hobie Mirage Drive was a revelation, a true feat of engineering, and over the years it became the choice of serious kayak fishermen.
The obvious drawback of the Mirage Drive was that it could only go forward, not in reverse. Hobie solved this when they introduced the Mirage Drive 180 which, with the pull of a toggle, reverses the fins and moves the kayak in full-power reverse. Their latest introduction, the Mirage Drive 360, allows the fins to operate at any angle, making sideways motion possible when navigating in tight areas.
Another issue with the original Hobie Mirage Drive was that running into an underwater hazard, like a tree stump or boulder, could result in a bent mast—the rod that extends down from the front of the fins. Hobie’s new kick-up fin technology automatically protects the drive if you bump into an underwater hazard.
Hobie still offers their forward-only “Glide Technology” GT drive in their entry-level Passport kayak. If you fish a lot of tight quarters inshore or in freshwater, you’ll probably want to be able to pedal in reverse to hold yourself in position while casting at structure. However, if you plan to do a lot of open-water fishing or trolling and want to save some money, it might be worth the compromise.
Hobie’s patent on their original Mirage Drive expired in 2017, and in 2018, Pelican International launched a pedal-driven fishing kayak with a drive that looks similar to Hobie’s Mirage unit. The Catch 110 and 130 Hydryve lowered the entry-level price point for pedal drive kayaks.
Propeller-drive kayaks, where a bicycle-style circular pedaling motion spins an underwater propeller, became popular with the launch of Native Kayak’s Propel system in 2008. The obvious advantage of this style of pedal drive, in comparison to the classic Mirage Drive, is the ability to instantly reverse by pedaling backward.
Today, propeller-drive kayaks are available from Old Town (PDL versions in their Sportsman line kayaks), Native Kayak (Propel models), Wilderness Systems (Helix PD pedal-drive models), and others.
Some fishermen prefer a cycling motion over a back-and-forth motion, but that’s a personal preference. The various pedal drives perform differently in real-world conditions, so test drive before buying, if you can. Also, do some research on maintenance, dependability, and service when comparing the different drive types. A reputable dealer should be able to advise you on warranties specific to a pedal drive and hull.
The Kayak Hull
Pedal-driven kayaks tend to be heavier because they are constructed to handle the unique stress and torque created by a pedal drive. Beyond that, the same design tradeoffs to consider when buying a paddle kayak apply to pedal kayaks.
In general, longer, skinnier kayaks tend to be faster, shorter kayaks are nimbler, and wider hulls provide greater stability. These measurements don’t make for perfect comparisons, however, since differences in hull design, such as a traditional V-hull versus a tunnel or catamaran-style hull, also affect stability, speed, and turning.
Hull shapes also perform differently in varying conditions. Some designs perform better in calm inshore waters, while others excel at breaking through ocean chop without taking on water. Think about where you plan to fish and the type of fishing you expect to do. Standing up and sight-fishing inshore? Trolling for stripers? Sprinting after breaking fish? Ask yourself these questions before you start comparison shopping.
Again, a reputable kayak dealer should be able to help find the best fishing kayak options for your style of fishing and answer any questions you have.
How you transport your kayak may also affect which model you purchase, especially when it comes to larger, heavier pedal-powered kayaks. Will you be hoisting the kayak on top of a tall SUV, placing it in a pickup bed, or trailering it on a kayak trailer?
Once again, you may have to weigh out the pros and cons, then make compromises. A longer hull might be ideal for the open-water fishing you plan to do, but if it is difficult to transport it with your vehicle, perhaps compromise with a shorter model.
When car-topping a kayak, weight is not the only factor to consider when gauging how difficult it will be to lift a kayak onto a roof rack. In my experience, some shorter, wider kayaks, while lighter, were more awkward to lift. On the other hand, I have a much easier time getting a 13-foot kayak onto my SUV because I can place the bow on the rear of the rack with the stern on the ground, then “lever” the back of the kayak up and slide it forward.
Whichever kayak you choose, if you do some homework beforehand, I can assure you that you will not regret your purchase. I bought my first pedal kayak, a Hobie Revolution, in 2012, and have never missed my paddle-kayaking days. Over the years, I’ve been able to test-drive and fish from a number of pedal kayak makes and models. While they were all different, they all had one thing in common: they were a ton of fun to fish from.