Sit-On-Top Vs. Sit-In for Kayak Fishing

Once you start checking into kayaks for fishing you’ll learn there are basically 2 types of kayaks. There are Sit On Top (SOT) and Sit In Kayaks (SIK). Each type has models that fish well and ones that don’t. The SIK is the traditional style of kayak that comes to most people’s minds when they envision a kayak. The occupant sits inside the kayak and there is usually a skirt that goes around the waist and seals the inside of the kayak from the elements. Without a skirt the kayak becomes a fair weather craft as any water entering the kayak becomes trapped and has to be physically removed. This is accomplished while out on the water by the use of a sponge (for small amounts) or a pump that is carried in the kayak. SIKs are considered traditional kayaks and make up the majority of the kayaks purchased around the world. They’re used for touring, general recreation and whitewater. SOTs are the new breeds. They’re essentially glorified surfboards. Rather then sitting in the kayak, as one does in a SIK, you sit on the kayak. The kayak is a hollow tube that has posts that run from the top of the kayak to the water. These posts are called scupper holes. They are what make a SOT kayak what it is because they allow water that enters the kayak to drain. There isn’t any need for sponges or pumps as the kayak is self-bailing. SOTs were created as recreational kayaks that were originally used at warm water resorts as play vessels. They’re popularity has been increasing each year and besides resort use they’re also used for general recreation, kayak surfing and fishing.

SOTs are the reason kayak fishing is growing the way that it is. When the first southern Californians started flirting with the sport back in the 80s they initially used surfboards and paddled out beyond the breakers with a fishing rod and some gear. You can’t take much with you on a surfboard and when they started investigating something better the SOT kayak is what they found. The ability of SOTs to transport the fishermen and their gear into the ocean is why this sport developed. So even though the SIK has been around for a long time it’s the SOT that’s responsible for the sport, as we know it now.

We most often hear from fishermen considering the sport that they’re looking at a SIK because they want to be protected from the elements. This is a flawed view of kayak fishing and shows that they really haven’t considered the sport as it’s practiced. Kayak fishing is a water sport. If you don’t want to deal with water either stay on land or get a boat. A kayak is not a boat so don’t think of it as one. It is one of the most versatile vessels you’ll ever use and will allow you to access all kinds of places, which hold fish.

The majority of fishermen who purchase a kayak for fishing do so because they want to catch fish and sometimes the best place to catch fish isn’t while sitting in the kayak.

Flats Fishing: One of the best things about a kayak is the access to shallow flats that it provides. There are lots of these types of environments especially on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. Some flats are shallow and don’t have much of a tidal differential. The farther north you go the more differential. Imagine that you’re fishing a flat and you’d like to get out and wade fish. There are a few reasons why you may wish to do this.

  1. You’ve been sitting for a while in the kayak and its nice to get out to both walk and stretch. It’s a good idea to take every opportunity you can to get out of the kayak. It greatly prolongs the amount of time you can spend out fishing, as sitting in a kayak all day gets old and tiring. Your legs and back will thank you for it.
  2. There’s a breeze or wind. It isn’t easy to control the kayak in such conditions. Fishing is a hands on sport and stabilizing and positioning your kayak will require the use of the paddle. You can’t work the paddle and cast at the same time. So hopping out eliminates the need to constantly adjust the kayak.
  3. By standing you’re higher up then sitting in the kayak. The higher you are on a flat the more you’re going to see. This is a big advantage on the flats.

So you’ve decided to get out of the kayak. Depending upon where you are makes a big difference. If the water’s warm it doesn’t matter nearly as much but if its cold then you’re most likely going to be wearing some sort of protection from the elements. The best item for wading is waders. Nothing comes close. It’s what they’re designed for and do the job extremely well. If the water depth is only a foot or so this doesn’t present a challenge in either type of kayak. Now lets see how things change in a couple feet of water with an incoming tide. There’s a good chance when you decide to get back into the kayak it could be 3 feet deep. In a SOT you sit on rather than in the kayak so getting in and out is actually getting on and off. It’s easy to do. Conversely in a SIK it isn’t so simple and your chances of capsizing the kayak is much greater. It’s also much more difficult to do. I’m fairly athletic but I wouldn’t want to be getting back into a SIK in 3 feet of water. Getting back onto a SOT is easy under the same circumstances. Now imagine that you’re wearing waders, which raises the degree of difficulty.

Accessing the Ocean: When you fish the open ocean you’re either going to need to get to it via an inlet or launching through the surf. Sometimes the surf is so calm that you’d think you were at a lake however this is unusual. It’s great when it happens but don’t count on it. So you need to anticipate and be prepared for waves. As you go out through the breakers a wave might break over the kayak. When a wave comes over the bow of a SOT the cockpit briefly fills with water and then it drains. It happens quickly and by the time you’re beyond the surf the water that came into the cockpit is no longer there. Once beyond the surf you retrieve whatever gear you’ve stashed below and you’re ready to fish. Having the ability to store gear away from the elements below deck is invaluable in keeping items protected. Should a wave knock you off a SOT you’re just off and your gear is where you left it. All you need to do is repeat the process. Conversely a SIK needs a skirt to go through even moderate surf. Otherwise should a wave come over the bow of the kayak it will fill with water and by design it doesn’t have the ability to drain. Once beyond the waves you’d have to remove the water from the kayak. This would require pumping the water out. Should you go through the surf and misjudge the wave it could flip the kayak. The best thing that can happen is that you and the kayak part company. Should this happen then the skirt will pull away from the kayak and go with you. It would be impossible for the kayak not to fill with. So figure that the kayak will fill with water if you have a mishap in the surf. Many SIK models don’t have bulkheads, in other words all the gear is now exposed to the water and the surf. Any gear that was in the cockpit is either floating around in the surf or on the bottom. In or rather on a SOT you simply fall off and go retrieve the kayak. In a SIK you are in the kayak and should you flip none of the consequences are good. In the very least you have a kayak full of water and in the worst scenario you’re upside down and still in the yak with your gear bouncing around with you in the surf. When a SIK flips the popular wisdom is to do an Eskimo roll. That’s OK if you’re in calm water’s with a narrow kayak but most SIKs that are used for fishing are often wider and they don’t roll under ideal conditions and the surf is as far from ideal as you’re going to get. We don’t know about you but we’d rather not be in such a situation.

Shallow Rivers: A kayak will take you into so many environments that are difficult if not impossible to reach via any other means. A shallow river is just such a place. Sometimes you can paddle and at times you’ll need to drag the kayak up, around or through objects. These obstacles can be rapids, waterfalls, trees, logjams, and all sorts of things. Often you’ll find that you’ll be getting in and out of the kayak a lot. It’s much easier to get off of a kayak rather than out of one if you’re doing it on a regular basis. In some situations it will be like our flats scenario and you need to get on or off in a couple feet of water or more. The more you find yourself leaving the kayak the more appreciative you’ll find a SOT.

Keeping Fish: If you like to take fish home than you need a place to keep your catch. If its smaller fish this isn’t a big deal but if the fish are big it is. In a SIK it’s either in the cockpit or on a stringer. A stringer is OK in freshwater areas where you don’t need to travel very far. A stringer full of fish provides drag and isn’t good if you need to cover distance. In some places it can attract predators. In the south you have to be concerned with alligators and in the salt its sharks. Neither is a good way to encounter these animals. A tank well is a great place to keep fish. You can either place a cooler in the tank well or simply put the fish in it and cover them with a wet burlap sack. Many SOTs come with tank wells. Another place to keep your catch is inside the kayak. The water is generally cooler then the air temperature and under these circumstances provides a cooling effect. A soft cooler is a great way to go as it can conform to the space you have and with the addition of a few cool packs works extremely well inside the hull. Obviously the larger the hatch the easier it’s going to be to put a cooler inside the kayak. Hatches vary significantly from kayak to kayak. Some are enormous while others are so small that they’re impractical.

Comfort: A SIK is an enclosed vessel and because of this your freedom of movement is restricted. Your legs are stuck and you don’t have much choice on where you can put them. Since you sit on a SOT its easy to change positions. You can sit sidesaddle and put your legs over the side. In hot weather the SIK can really heat up. With a SOT it’s easy to dip one’s feet in the water and on a hot day it feels fantastic. SIKs come with a fixed seat. Some are very comfortable but some are awful. With few exceptions SOTs utilize after market seats. These seats run the full gambit from basic to incredibly posh and comfortable. Some models even have pump up lumbar supports.

Both types of kayaks will enable you to catch fish. A SIK is like only fishing with top water lures or using a floating fly line. You will catch fish, but oftentimes there’ll be the need to go deep to catch fish. SOTs allow you to fish all environments. So if there’s an environment you want to fish your kayak won’t limit your ability to do so. The greater the versatility the more fish you’ll catch.