Bullfrogs croaked and red-winged blackbirds trilled as seven kayakers fanned out on a small, woodsy metro lake south of Interstate 494 on a recent Friday.
“Fish on!” one of the ’yak captains shouted as Jeremy Curtiss of Rosemount pulled back on his fishing rod to reel in a largemouth bass.
This was a casual, early-morning outing among friends in the Minnesota Kayak Fishing Association, arguably the fastest-growing subgroup of anglers in the state. Since forming in 2013, the association has attracted slightly more than 900 members. And on this sunny June morning they made an excellent showing by catching lots of bucketmouths, including several that were longer than 17 inches.
The popularity of kayaks as fishing platforms in the Land of Lund and Alumacraft has surged even though the overall kayak boom in the state has tapered off. Between 2000 and 2013, Minnesota kayak registrations more than quadrupled to about 58,000 units. Since then, according to DNR data, kayak registrations have dipped to about 55,000 boats as of last year. Meanwhile, kayak fishing enthusiasts say their sport undoubtedly is growing.
“The sport is taking off here and it’s fun to watch,” said Ron Strauss, president of the kayak fishing association.
So … what’s so great about fishing from a kayak and what is the gear commitment? The answers vary from angler to angler.
Grant Carston, 31, of Montgomery, Minn.
His 13-foot-long Old Town Predator kayak is almost 3 feet wide and equipped with fish-finding electronics. Previously poised to fish bass tournaments by motorboat, he dreamed of qualifying for the pro Bassmasters Classic. But when his young daughter was diagnosed with a genetic disorder that causes her to have seizures, he quit his job to put caregiving first. Now he’s a player in the national Kayak Bass Fishing league because it keeps him close to home and spares him the big-money outlays required for a powerful boat, travel and equipment. The professional kayak fishing he does in Minnesota is scored via digital photographic entries against competitors from other states.
Carston fishes often, even when he is short on time. That is because his kayak gives him easy access to an array of productive fishing holes. He thrives on the low operational cost and the simplicity of hauling a kayak vs.a boat.
Ron Strauss, 57, of Roseville
Kayak fishing isn’t new, just new to the Upper Midwest. A strong manufacturing base has grown up around demand in Florida, other parts of the Southeast, California, both coasts, the Northwest and inland states like Missouri.
The only fuel you burn is calories, and most fishing kayaks are rigged with sit-on-top chairs. Plenty of fishing kayaks are powered by paddle, but more expensive models like Strauss’ 12-foot Hobie Pro Angler are pedaled like a bike. A pair of underwater fins propel the boat and a hand-controlled rudder steers it.
Strauss grew up a walleye angler and most members of the association target bass in their kayaks. His personal quest this year is to hook a 40-plus-inch northern. When that happens, he expects to get pulled around on the water like a bobber. “It’s more exciting to fish up close,” he said.
KP Enderle, 51, of Mound
Enderle likes the laid-back atmosphere of kayak fishing. “Boaters can be a little more aggressive,” he said. A favorite run for Enderle in his 34-inch-wide Vibe Sea Ghost 130 is to put into the Mississippi River 8 miles north of Clearwater and float-fish around the islands before exiting at Clearwater Outfitters. It’s a smallmouth bass factory if you're fishing from a kayak.
He first tried kayak fishing when he lived in California 10 years ago and loved it. He never did it again until he moved back to Minnesota in 2014, and he now finds himself in a fraternity of guys who welcome newcomers.
Pat Caldwell, 47, of Prior Lake
He operates a fleet of Perception Swifty Sports kayaks that are 9-feet-6-inches in length, weighing 44 pounds. The boats are suitable for the Active Solutions youth summer camps he runs because they are stable, easy to paddle, track well on the water, fit into a 6-by-12-foot trailer and can be handled by children during unloading and loading. And in Minnesota, boats under 10 feet long don’t need to be registered.
Caldwell sees kayak fishing as a new gateway to the outdoors at a time when recruitment of young anglers and hunters has become an important issue. Just two years ago, he started an advanced kayak fishing camp for children in middle school and high school. It’s a sport that can lead to early success and ignite passion for fishing, discovery and conservation. For young people, kayak fishing can be an outlet of responsible independence because of its affordability, safety and fun factors. In seven years, he’s only had one student flip a boat.
Jeremy Curtiss, 34, of Rosemount
You can spend nearly $4,000 on a fully loaded fishing kayak equipped with factory-installed GPS electronics, mini-solar panels, live wells and GoPro-ready side mounts. Or, like Curtiss, you can spend a few hundred dollars on a vessel and customize it with your own choice of inexpensive equipment. All together, Curtiss said he has invested about $1,200. He’s on the water five to six times a week and out-fishes many of his contemporaries. Kayak anglers often fasten a simple milk crate behind them for tackle storage. PVC pipe can be attached to hold rods. Curtiss has those conveniences and other self-styled accessories on his kayak, which is balanced at the rear with a small set of outriggers.
Like Carston, Curtiss competes in professional kayak bass tournaments. He proves over and over that ’yaks only need 18 inches of water to operate. He hugged the weedy shoreline in his 12-foot-long Current Designs Tailfin, repeatedly flipping a wacky worm into tiny pockets of open water that a motorboat could never reach before — boom! — another nice bass.