Kayak fly fishing is Ontario's exciting new fishing challenge
There are the rushing rivers along the north shore of Lake Superior, home to some of the world’s biggest, wildest brook trout. There’s the world-class tailwater fishing of the Upper Grand River, where huge brown trout gulp tiny dry flies. There are the Great Lakes tributaries, which host powerful, leaping steelhead. Some adventurous fly anglers might even think about fly fishing for northern pike, which was pioneered on the trophy-sized fish of Algoma and northwestern Ontario.
However, the province has much more to offer, including thousands of lakes virtually untouched by fly anglers. As well as four species of trout and northern pike, these waters have large populations of other excellent fly-rod species, including smallmouth and largemouth bass, black crappies, walleye and muskies. Even better, there’s a way to fish these lakes without the effort and expense of maintaining a powerboat: fly fishing from a kayak.
In recent years, anglers all over North America have been discovering the impressive capabilities of modern fishing kayaks. Designed specifically for anglers, they’re safe, stable, low maintenance and easy to use. Kayaks can be launched anywhere and are light enough to portage. Even the most expensive fully rigged fishing kayaks cost much less than traditional fishing boats, and don’t need licenses, gas, insurance or a trailer. It’s not surprising that kayak anglers are the fastest-growing demographic in all of sportfishing. What’s less well known is that kayaks are also very good fly-fishing boats, opening outstanding fishing that isn’t accessible with traditional fly-fishing approaches.
Much of Ontario’s excellent and untapped fly fishing is in medium- and small-sized lakes, and this is where kayaks excel. For fly anglers who split their time between wading in rivers and fishing in lakes and ponds, owning a big boat doesn’t make sense. That’s why there’s a long tradition of fly anglers using small inflatable boats such as float tubes (also known as belly boats) and pontoon boats. But these are only suitable for very small waterbodies. Kayaks are safer, more comfortable and have a much longer range than inflatables, making them excellent all-around fly-fishing platforms. Kayaks are also quiet, low-tech and make you feel part of nature rather than an interloper—characteristics that many fly anglers value.
If you’re ready to try fly fishing from a kayak in Ontario, here are some expert tips for selecting and rigging a boat, along with essential tackle, accessories and fishing tactics.
When planning your fly-fishing trip, remember to consult the local fishing regulations for species limits and seasons, which can vary from year to year. An excellent resource for anglers is Ontario's Fish ON-Line tool which lets you search for individual waterbodies, and then see fish-stocking records, available fishing species, regulations, maps and other trip-planning information.
How to choose a fly fishing kayak
There’s such a variety of kayaks available that choosing the right boat can be daunting. The main factors to consider are what kind of water you will be fishing, how far you will be travelling in the boat and your available budget. Like conventional anglers, most fly anglers prefer sit-on-top kayaks which offer a higher vantage point and better freedom of movement for casting. However, traditional sit-in kayaks are considerably lighter, which can be an advantage when hauling a boat into more remote lakes. It’s an important consideration, since Ontario’s backcountry lakes—even those close to roads and parking areas—offer excellent fishing, since so few anglers make the effort to reach them.
Kayak fly anglers are about evenly split among those who use pedal-powered boats, and those who prefer paddle kayaks. Pedal kayaks go farther and faster with less effort, and leave both hands free for fishing. However, the pedalling apparatus in the middle of the boat can be an obstacle when casting and managing loose fly line. Pedal kayaks also cost two- to three-times as much as paddle kayaks. While some boats are better suited for fly fishing than others, any kayak that you feel comfortable in, and is safe for the water you’re fishing will do the job.
Kayak safety gear and fly fishing accessories
All kayak anglers should wear a personal flotation device (PFD) at all times. The auto-inflatable PFDs are particularly well suited for fly fishing, due to their sleet fit and lack of tabs, zippers and other extending parts. Like all boats under six metres in length, kayaks must carry safety equipment mandated by federal regulations: a PFD, a bailer or hand pump, a sound-signalling device, a waterproof flashlight and navigation lights if the boat is on the water after dark.
When it comes to optional fly-fishing accessories, the most important is a fly-rod holder or two. Many kayaks come with rod holders installed, but these typically won’t accommodate fly rods. Fortunately, several gear companies make adapters that allow standard holders to work on fly gear. It’s also quite easy to install your own fly-specific rod holders or have it done by a kayak dealer. It’s a good idea to try fishing from your boat a few times before adding permanent accessories like rod holders, just to get an idea of the best places to install them. Ideally, they should be unobtrusive, but still easy to reach.
Another important accessory is a crate or gear bag to go behind the kayak’s seat, and keep loose items contained, but close to hand. Fly anglers who are new to fishing in lakes sometimes look suspiciously at sonar/GPS units but having one in a kayak is very helpful. Even with specialized gear, fly angling is only effective to 15 or 20 feet deep, so it’s handy to know the depth of water where you’re fishing. Sonar also helps you find submerged reefs, rocks and weedbeds. In Ontario, these are all key holding locations for popular fly-fishing species such as trout, bass, pike and walleye.
Tackle tips for fly fishing from a kayak
For fly anglers accustomed to a lifetime of wading or using inflatable boats, fishing from a kayak offers the luxury of carrying more gear. This is handy because lake environments are more varied than rivers. So, during the day you might want to fish both shallow and deep water or for different fish species. That’s why most serious kayak fly anglers carry more than one rod. The size of your fly outfit depends on the species you’re chasing, but a six-weight rod is a versatile choice for trout, smallmouth bass, small pike and walleye. An eight-weight outfit is perfect for largemouth bass and larger pike and walleye.
When the fish are in fairly shallow water the basic tackle set-up for kayaking is the same as most fly anglers use in a river: a weight-forward floating line. Shallow-water fly-fishing species are found literally all over Ontario, and include trout, walleye and northern pike from the spring through to early summer and in low-light periods, plus bass all summer long. When fish are deeper than about six feet, as tends to happen in summer, it becomes much more productive to use a sinking fly line. Today’s sinking fly lines cast well and sink up to 20 feet in depth. This opens a lot more water and gives fly anglers access to most of Ontario's prime gamefish, for most of the season. Changing fly lines is time consuming at the best of times, and very difficult in a kayak, which is why it’s so handy to have both floating and sinking rods already rigged. Since fish in lakes aren’t especially spooky, stick to a six-foot mono leader when using floating lines, and a 30-inch leader for sinking lines.
Key strategies when fly fishing from a kayak
Anglers using spinning gear from a kayak can fire off casts and crank back line without a second thought. Fly anglers need to be more deliberate. For consistent success, kayak fly anglers must keep two factors in mind: fly-line line management and boat position. As every fly angler knows, a loose fly line seems to get caught on every possible obstacle and spontaneously leap into tangles. To minimize this, keep the area where you dump fly line (typically the kayak floor, between your legs) clear of accessories and loose objects. Another option is using a stripping basket to contain and control your line. Carefully managing your fly line takes a little practice at first, but quickly becomes second nature. Also bear in mind that one of a kayak’s greatest advantages is stealth. Exploit this by getting close to the spots you want to fish. Moving in close lets you make shorter, more accurate fly casts and results in less loose line at your feet to get tangled.
Since casting and retrieving a fly is slower than using conventional gear, you want to make every cast count. Before casting, take a moment to think about the spot you want to fish, your kayak’s position and how your boat might drift during the cast and retrieve. If you’re not in the right spot to make the best possible cast, reposition your boat or redirect your drift. No matter how eager you are to get your fly in the water, taking a few seconds now is better than spending several minutes recovering from a sloppy, ineffective cast. It’s one of those small things that makes a big difference.
Ontario is a kayak fly fishing hot spot
Ultimately, fly fishing from a kayak is never going to be as straightforward as using conventional tackle. But no one chooses fly fishing out of a deep-seated drive for efficiency.
Fly anglers love the sport’s elegant rods, reels and flies, the history and lore of fly fishing and, most of all, the unique challenges. Kayaking is a way to extend the challenge of fly fishing into new waters and go after fish that rarely see a fly, from sparkling brook trout to boisterous and powerful northern pike.
With tens of thousands of lakes ripe for fly fishing, there’s nowhere better to take on this challenge than in Ontario.
Last updated: October 10, 2023