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Hand-free kayaking takes another turn

A closeup of the propeller and pedal drive system. The unit requires a depth of about 18 inches but is removable for transport or going shallow.

DIRK SHADD | Times

A closeup of the propeller and pedal drive system. The unit requires a depth of about 18 inches but is removable for transport or going shallow.

WEEDON ISLAND — Fishing the shoreline of a "no-motor" zone by kayak can be a challenge at times.

All alone, far from the hustle and bustle of downtown St. Petersburg, I quietly paddled into position to make a cast toward a school of redfish lingering near the mouth of a small pass. It is easy to forget that the slightest sound can send fish running for cover.

The day had started off a little cool, but now that the sun was up and the water warmed, the reds might be ready to eat. Just cast that topwater plug up tide, give it a couple of twitches, and it's blackened redfish for lunch.

But as I put my paddle down to pick up the fishing rod, it landed with a light "klunk." The redfish swirled, then disappeared around a bar, which left me scratching my head and wishing I had an electric trolling motor.

Kayak revolution

Veteran kayak fishermen may laugh at the above scenario, calling my errant paddle thumping a rookie mistake. I wish it were so.

I've fished out of kayaks for nearly 20 years, and canoes for another 20 years before that, and it seems at least once every outing I do something stupid to scare the fish.

But still, fishing out of a kayak is the most effective way to work the shallow grass beds, oyster bars and mangrove islands of the Gulf Coast of Florida. A kayak is quiet, easy to maneuver and, best of all, easily transportable.

In recent years, sit-on-top kayaks have become the fastest growing segment of the market as anglers park their flats boats and pick up paddles.

Yet these molded-plastic crafts do have their drawbacks. The major one being they have to be paddled. On more than one occasion I have been faced with the choice of taking one more stroke or grabbing the fishing rod.

If only there was a way to do both.

The great debate

Pedal-powered kayaks are not new. For more than a decade, Hobie — the company that brought surfers the Peter Pan Slug and sailors the legendary Hobie Cat — has been selling a sit-on-top, pedal-powered kayak that has proved to be a hit with many kayak fishermen.

The Hobie kayak uses a "MirageDrive" fin system, which utilizes two blades sweeping back and forth under the hull, to propel the kayak forward. While the Hobie Mirage line has its devotees (the craft comes in a variety of lengths and models), until recently no manufacturer has been able to produce a kayak powered by a true propeller.

Earlier this year, Native Watercraft unveiled its "Propel" system, which utilizes a 10:1 gear ratio (one turn of the pedal translates to 10 turns of a prop) and provides the same hands-free fishing as the Hobie Mirage.

There has been much discussion on paddle fishing Web sites and forums in recent months as devotees of each system argue about the merits of their favorite brands.

Some kayak fishing purists deride both systems as abominations, saying kayaks should be paddled, not pedaled. Kayaking's true elite, those who paddle sit-inside crafts made of Kevlar or fiberglass, consider sit-on-tops as toys, not real watercraft.

Hands-free fishing

But the fact remains, it is much easier to cast, reel and fight a fish if you don't have to worry about a kayak paddle.

The pedaling position of the new Native Watercraft is that of a recumbent bicycle. Fitness enthusiasts will find this to their liking, because it is possible to sit back and see the sights, yet still get a workout.

Another advantage of the Native Watercraft is that this prop drive has the ability to go in reverse, which comes in handy when trying to position the boat for a perfect cast.

A disadvantage: The propulsion system needs a minimum of 18 inches of water depth to operate. However, the mechanism pulls up easily and stores on the deck, which gives the angler the option of poling or paddling the craft (or simply getting out and wading while the kayak trails behind on a rope).

Time will tell whether the new Propel pedal drive will take off with anglers. But one thing is for sure, if it proves a success, it may change the nature of kayak fishing for years to come.

fast facts

Ultimate MultiSport 14.5

Length: 14 feet, 7 inches

Width: 30 inches

Beam: 12 inches

Weight: 70 pounds

Propel system weight: 15 pounds

Capacity: 450 pounds

Price: $2,199

Available in a 12-foot model. A 16-foot model is scheduled to hit the market in March 2009. For information, go to www.nativewatercraft.com.

Hand-free kayaking takes another turn 11/13/08 [Last modified: Thursday, November 20, 2008 6:47pm]

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