Going solo for river smallmouth

If there's nothing more relaxing than spending a day floating on a great smallmouth river, there isn't anything more frustrating than trying to line up an extra person to help with the shuttle of cars and canoes.

Don't have a partner? Don't want to share those sweet spots with another rod? Don't worry — there is an inexpensive and viable option.

Kayaks and one-man inflatable pontoon boats, often called catarafts, are becoming the latest rage within the smallmouth bass fishing community. Although canoes far outnumber solo boats (and probably always will), kayaks and rafts are becoming a common sight on great smallmouth rivers all over the country.

The main reason, say two hardcore river smallmouth anglers, is the overall ease of use. Jeff Little, a food service director for a nursing home, started using a kayak after he tried to run a river in a canoe by himself.

"It was real windy that day," he says. "The guy I was with was in a kayak, and he had no trouble getting around. I fought the wind all day. Then a light bulb kind of went off in my head, and I went out and bought a kayak. That was back in 1999, and I hardly ever fish out of anything else now," he says. "I can move around easily, and I can get into places most other anglers can't."

In fact, Little has become so enamored with the idea of fishing from a kayak, he goes by the handle "yakfish" on riversmallies.com, a Web site dedicated to smallmouth bass fishing in free-flowing rivers. His license plate even bears that moniker, and there's a good chance he's easing up to a hole on the Shenandoah, Potomac or Susquehanna River in his 9-foot Perception Axess right now. He takes his river smallmouth fishing as seriously as a professional bass angler takes his largemouth fishing.

Greg Phipps also owns a kayak, but for much of his river smallmouth fishing, he relies on a one-man raft, an 8-foot aluminum-framed model with two inflatable pontoons.

Although he grew up just a short cast from the New River in Beckley, W.Va., the 40-year-old sign shop owner had never floated from one point to another on this world-famous bass river. All of the time he spent on the New was in motorboats, and that limited the amount of water he could get to.

"My buddy and I figured out that in order to get to the best water, we had to get away from the places everybody else fished. But I'd never been in a canoe, so I wanted to find something a little more stable," he says.

Phipps found it in a Cabela's catalog in the form of a Creek Co. Outdoor Discovery Craft cataraft. It weighs a feather-light 45 pounds. The inflatable pontoon boat is virtually untippable, and Phipps has never even come close to taking an unwanted bath during a smallmouth float.

"I've gone through 4-foot haystacks without a second thought. I can drift right through some serious rapids and keep on fishing. My raft bumps off rocks and slides over ledges that would swamp a canoe in a heartbeat," he says.

Not only did his visions of bigger bass and better water come true, his overall catch rate increased as well — simply because he could go places he couldn't before.

Safety first

So, are these the perfect watercraft for getting to smallmouth that live in and behind serious whitewater? Nothing is idiot-proof, and anglers inexperienced with the ways of kayaks, rafts and angry smallmouth rivers must take safety into consideration first.

Little learned the hard way what his kayak can and can't do. On one of the first outings he made in his craft, the 26-year-old Jefferson, Md., resident tried to ease his boat up against a fallen tree so he could take a picture of a good set of rapids he had just run. Little had never heard the word "strainer," a common term used by whitewater enthusiasts for a fallen tree leaning into fast water that can swamp a canoe or kayak, but he was about to meet one firsthand.

"As soon as I went up against the log, the current pulled the upstream side of my boat under, and before I knew it, I flipped underwater. Somehow, I popped up underneath the tree and came out below it. I managed to grab the boat and the paddle, and I still had my fishing rod in my hand. I did lose my glasses, though, and it was in early April, so I got real cold," he recalls.

Most important, that incident taught Little a valuable lesson. He immediately enrolled in a basic kayak course, something he recommends for everyone who wants to try "yakfishing," as he calls it. In fact, Little has started a school of his own that teaches anglers the basics of kayak fishing, including safety, paddling techniques and fishing tactics. He's met all the criteria of a certified instructor. (Phone 301-473-9569.)

"You have to pay attention, even when you are concentrating on fishing. You can't let the current take you somewhere you don't want to be, or you could find yourself in a dangerous situation," he says. "I've dumped one other time and had other close calls, but only because I wasn't totally focused on the river at the time."

Phipps' only concern is a punctured pontoon bladder — a distinct possibility in a fast river with sharp rocks or junk metal. Each pontoon has a single, noncompartmentalized bladder, so if one fails, he'd better get to shore in a hurry. So far, however, he's never had to deal with that situation, and he says as long as he's careful about where he steers his raft, the thought of sitting in a raft with a flat pontoon will remain only a thought.

"My buddy popped one, but only because he overinflated it. It started leaking before we even got to the water," he recalls. "Now I just carry a spare bladder lashed onto the frame of my raft. They are real easy to change, and I would rather do that than try to actually patch a leak on the river."

Both anglers are quick to point out that neither of these types of watercraft automatically allow you to run through places you would have never gone in a canoe. Catarafts and kayaks do handle big water better, but the overall safety of the boat boils down to the guy working the paddle or oars. Both men always wear their life vests, and both have become accustomed to fishing with their personal flotation devices securely snapped on their bodies. In fact, both agree that it's nothing short of foolish to run a river without wearing a vest.

The upside

Phipps calls his craft a "chair for wading anglers." Indeed, the aluminum-framed raft has a comfortable seat that, on a mild spring day, could serve as an easy chair perfect for an afternoon nap. He can turn on a dime and, except for the strongest current, he can get back upriver to fish a hole that he overlooked on his way down. And he can get across deep holes to work areas unreachable by wading anglers.

"I added an anchor and a couple of homemade PVC rod holders, and spent less than $350 for the whole thing," he says. "That's half the price of a good canoe."

Little can also slide back upriver against a pretty stiff current, even going through water that Phipps and his cataraft would never make. In fact, he regularly goes against the grain to refish a pocket that surrendered a large bass earlier in the day. Little also makes solo trips in his kayak, paddling upriver and then fishing his way back down to his truck. He doesn't need to worry about a second person or a shuttle to get back upriver, where he launched.

Perhaps most important is the way a kayak allows Little to fish. He's convinced that big smallmouth can sense the presence of a canoe or larger boat, but they have a much harder time detecting the presence of a kayak. He can ease up to a hole as quiet as a floating log and flick a tube into the pocket without making a sound. Big bass are the first to flee at the mere whisper of danger, and two anglers sitting in a canoe can present a pretty ominous profile to wary bass. Little's head sits only a few feet above the surface of the river, an added advantage to his kayak.

Both Phipps and Little can glide over ledges and flats in as little as 2 inches of water without scraping bottom, and Little can slip through seams and channels not much wider than a man's shoulders. Try doing that in a 16-foot jet boat or a canoe loaded with gear.

Pack light

The biggest hurdle some anglers face when they make the jump from canoe to kayak or cataraft is the limited space. No more suitcase-size tackleboxes, armloads of rods or bags full of incidental gear. It's like moving from a mansion to a shoebox apartment. Still, both Little and Phipps have learned how to pare down their equipment to the bare essentials, and it hasn't cost either of them numbers of fish or quality fish.

In fact, Little's catch rate of quality bass has actually increased, mostly because less gear meant that he had to choose his tackle wisely and learn how to fish it more thoroughly.

"I've whittled down my lure selection to the ones I found myself using most often. I carry lots of tubes in about 10 different colors, a couple of spinnerbaits, a few topwaters and some Senkos," he says.

Despite the limited amount of storage, both anglers say they rarely find themselves wishing for more stuff. Little can cram all sorts of gear in the front and back of his craft, he can lash tackle to the straps on the kayak's front and back decks, and he carries more gear in a small daypack he wears over his shoulders. A rod holder mounted on the kayak right in front of him allows Little to paddle without having to worry about holding his spinning outfit.

"I take an extra change of clothes and some emergency gear in a dry bag. I take an extra reel and some spare spools, some food and water, and that's all I really need," he says.

Phipps usually takes two rods, and he typically straps a cooler, a dry bag stuffed with a change of clothes and some emergency gear and a tacklebox to a flat tray behind the seat. Pouches on the pontoons hold a pump, patch kit and other gear.

"The only disadvantage to my cataraft is that I can't move as fast as a guy in a kayak. I'm really at the mercy of the current," says Phipps.

But when you're all alone on a classic smallmouth river, who wants to be in a hurry?

All decked out

Think a kayak will limit you to a rod, a couple of lures and a candy bar? Think again, says Randy Fugate, who, along with partner Travis Boaz, started a business that rigs kayaks specifically for fishing. Both use these watercraft for all types of fishing, and Fugate even has an electric motor and a retractable anchor system on his.

"Travis sometimes uses a depthfinder," adds Fugate. "We'll install as many as four rod holders, an anchor, a mounting plate and the wiring for an electric motor so it can be worked without having to turn around. We'll use dry bags on the decks and in the space inside the kayak for all our gear. You just need to keep a low center of gravity."