As Americans we have access to more water than any one of us could float in a hundred lifetimes. The United States is home to 3.6 million miles of rivers and streams; countless lakes, 250 of which have a surface area of 10 square miles or more; and a coastline that stretches 95,471 miles. Even better, getting out there doesn’t have to break the bank. MeatEater’s “Das Boat” proves that if it’ll float, it’ll fish. So, whether you have access to a kayak, canoe, packraft, paddleboard, pirogue, dugout, duckie, or slightly rusted feed trough, there’s likely a trip you can do nearby.
There’s simply nothing more exciting and relaxing than shoving off into a remote canyon and floating away from crowded beaches, cell reception, and responsibilities. As you’re planning an upcoming overnight paddle fishing trip, be it your first or fiftieth, consider the following:
The best first overnight fishing trip may be in a canoe on a flatwater paddling trail along gently sloping, sandy banks in warm months with light tackle and eating some of your catch as you go. Less gear, less risk, and more time to relax, enjoy, and learn. On the other hand, there’s all that water to explore. As your boating and navigation skills advance, you may seek out whitewater and week-or-longer voyages to access truly pristine areas. As with many things outdoors, it’s best to take baby steps.
Assess Your Skills & Plan Accordingly
We’re talking about fishing, backcountry camping, and paddling—all in one trip. Sounds awesome, right? So if you’ve done all of these independently, you can probably throw a lot of your same gear in a boat and get after it. If paddling is new to you, though, take it slow, consider an intro to paddling lesson, and definitely practice paddling first, without your fishing gear in the boat. Whatever you do, it’s important to know your abilities and to plan accordingly.
Pick an Established Route and Fish It
You can sit down with a map to find fish and build your trip around the likely honey holes, but for a first time it’s easier and safer to find and follow a paddling route that’s well-documented by a state wildlife agency or other group. For example, Texas Parks & Wildlife has 78 mapped paddling trails through rivers, swamps, estuaries, and sea shores. Falcon Guides Paddling Series provides everything you need to know about numerous trips, including information on licenses, fees, permits, shuttles, guides, portages, and camping spots, for states from Alabama to Alaska. Many of these itineraries are targeted toward beginners. Before you settle on a stretch of water, it’s a good idea to talk to outfitters, guides, river authorities, biologists, and/or other paddlers to see what you’re getting yourself into.
Once you’ve chosen a trip, go to the respective state’s fish and wildlife agency website for information on the waterway, fishery, and camping rules. Also, check out the “local author” shelf in a nearby bookstore for regional info. Online fishing forums can be good resources as well.
Pay attention to requirements for paddling and fishing a given location. For example, if you wanted to float the Rio Grande’s Boquillas Canyon through Big Bend National Park, you’d need to plan months ahead. The National Park Service requires a backcountry permit and release form; a weekly vehicle access fee; Heath Canyon Ranch access fees and permissions; plus a fire pan and “groover” or feces bags. Many of the greatest rivers and wilderness canoe areas require permits to enter. Some are as easy to acquire as making a dinner reservation at a restaurant; some are on par with drawing a coveted, trophy deer tag. Make sure to understand that process and plan well in advance.
Make Your Float Plan
A good float plan lays out information about your group and every detail from the time you put the boat in the water to the time you take out. This will include entry and exit points, schedules, coordinates for likely camping spots, contact information for local first responders, meal plans, and more. You’ll track your progress on your copy. You’ll also give a copy to someone who’ll contact first responders if you’re late or if a natural disaster kicks off while on the water. The float plan makes your life better in three ways: First, as you make your plan, you’re thinking everything through, preparing accordingly, and investing in a good trip. Second, when you share that plan, you’re covering your ass should your ass get exposed through some mishap. Finally, it gives your family and loved ones some peace of mind.
You can see what the American Canoe Association has to say about planning your paddling trip and use this float plan template from the U.S. Coast Guard to get you started. As you build your own plan, pay particular attention to weather and water conditions. U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) gauges give real-time river conditions across the country. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Tides & Currents resource gives predictions from around the coastline. Outfits like the Lower Colorado River Authority, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and other relevant bodies give reservoir levels, dam release schedules, and gate operations.
Be sure to monitor weather and water conditions and check them immediately before you launch. It can make the difference between a great trip, an uncomfortable night, or a rescue.
Your gear needs are driven by your group size, composition, and experience level along with fishing objectives, portage requirements, water and weather conditions, and trip duration. Think these through. The good news is that a boat is like a big-ass backpack, so you can take what you need—just don’t overdo it. And figure out how to keep it all dry.
Your boat, your water, and your conditions will shape your list of paddling gear. But whatever you’re doing, you’ll need paddles or oars, PFDs, dry bags, water shoes or boots, water clothes, shades, hat, sunscreen, toiletries, map and paddle plan (in a Ziploc), a mesh bag to collect plastic trash, and enough line (rope) or cam straps for the bow, stern, for tying down bags, plus a little extra.
Your means of propulsion depend both on preference and type of watercraft. Many canoeists will obviously choose a single-blade canoe paddle, but some instead select a two-bladed kayak paddle, which can make fishing easier and splash less water in the boat. Many rafts and driftboats are designed to be rowed, so paddles would be difficult. Still other craft might employ a push-pole or SUP paddle. But no matter your method, make sure to bring a spare.
You can fish any kind of way you want to from a canoe or small craft. Fly fishing, oh yeah. Conventional, absolutely. Limb-lining, of course. Handlines, spears/gigs, and machetes, yup. Canepoles and their very well marketed cousin: tenkara, yes indeedy. I’d never paddle across a lake without trolling a spoon behind. And, you can target everything from panfish to trout to shallow-water redfish to pelagics.
How you want to fish will dictate the gear. At a minimum you’re going to need your basic tools of the trade: fishing license, rod, reel, line, spare line, fishing licenses and permits, fillet knife, hemostats or pliers, lures/flies/bait, GoPro or waterproof camera, all preferably contained in a fishing vest or a soft tackle box at your feet. Just be sure to take everything you need; there’s no running back to the truck for split-shot.
If you’re on a meat trip and plan to bring fish home, you’ll want an ice chest and sufficient ice. Otherwise, you could forego the cooler and chill that watermelon or beer in the creek. Small, soft-sided coolers are a nice balance of light and packable while preserving perishable food and fish.
Camping, Cooking, and Eating Gear
The camping gear you need for a paddling and fishing trip is pretty much the same as the gear you need for any camping trip. Food and water (or purifier), large water container, and gear for sleeping, starting fires, setting camp, cleaning game, cooking, eating, drying off, pooping, and lounging. It’s just easier to bring in a boat because all that weight isn’t on your back. But, if your route requires portaging between lakes or around large rapids or falls, you will have to put that gear on your back, as well as your vessel. The fewer bags, the better for portages.
If you’re a camper, you know what you need. Otherwise, pull what makes sense out of MeatEater’s What’s in Your Hunting Pack and work your way through our Tips for Cooking in the Backcountry, How to Put Together a Basic Backcountry Menu, Tips for Staying Comfortable in the Backcountry, and Hydration in the Backcountry. For the what it’s worth, I’ve been running the Hennessy Hammock for 15 years to sleep out on canoe trips. It’s pure gold.
For folks new to river camping, just remember that high and dry is where you want to be. Inside bends of meandering waterways offer the best sandbars or beaches for camping. Guidebooks and satellite images can help you find promising campsites. Make sure to understand the stream access laws of your particular state as they relate to camping below the high water mark—or locate public parcels using onX.
Great campsites will scream at you. They’ll give you easy access and sufficient elevation to keep dry while you’re sleeping. Plan to get to your campsite with plenty of time to pull the boats up, tie them off, and unload them, pitch camp, start a fire, cook, eat, and relax before the sun sets. You can have as many “one last casts” as you like once the works done.
Health & Safety Gear
Even water that doesn’t look like much can quickly put an inexperienced paddler or a distracted river rat in a world of hurt. If something goes wrong, you only have your fellow paddlers to count on. So, yes, pack (and wear) the required lifejackets, but also pack the safety gear that makes sense on your trip: first aid kit or IFAK, NRS Rescue Throw Bag, map, SPOT or other personal locator beacon, weather radio, sat phone, GPS, hat, sunscreen, sunglasses, bug repellent, hand sanitizer, paracord, fire starter, machete, fixed-blade knife, toiletries, cell phone, dry bags, and other necessities. Check out our piece What’s in Your First Aid and Survival Kits.
Organizing the Gear
If you pack and stow your gear well, the gods of paddling, camping, and fishing will look kindly upon you—and if they don’t, at least your gear will be dry and you’ll be able to get to the first aid kit in a hurry. Dry bags of various sizes and colors will help you keep all your gear dry and organized in a way that is easy to track and easy to strap smartly into the boat. When a canoe flips, everything that isn’t tightly tied down will fall out and rapidly head downriver.
A small red dry bag might hold the IFAK, float plan, PTL, and anything related to safety, survival, and navigation. A large dry bag of another color may hold clothes and sleeping bags. Another dry bag or tote could contain food and cookware. Whatever your system, label the bags by contents and owner.
If you want extra security, seal sleeping bags and warm clothes in a contractor-grade garbage bag before putting it into the dry sack. Consider a couple extra dry bags for moving things around as needed and stowing wet clothes and gear separate from the dry stuff.
Loading the Boat
To get the best glide out of your canoe, load the heaviest dry bags along the center line and towards the middle of the craft. Stack lighter bags on top and toward the bow and the stern. This’ll help the boat run true and that low center of gravity will lessen the risk of flipping. You’ll want the fishing gear, water, snacks, hat, PFD, paddle plan, first aid kit, maps, etc. within easy reach. Practice loading the boat at home. It’s easy to bring too much stuff and have to leave half of it at the put-in. When the boat is loaded in the water, grab the bowline, and watch as the boat floats out. If it lists, revise and then tie the bags down. You never flip until you do.
Fishing while Paddling
Paddles kind of demand two hands. Fishing rods do, too. So, the two activities can run up against one another—especially if you’re floating solo and things are getting good. But if you plan and stick to the basics you can usually do them both without getting wetter than you want to be. A few tips:
With pig roasts and paddling, low and slow is the way to go. So stay low and tight to the boat’s centerline. Try not to lean or make big, sudden movements. Always watch ahead for log jams or other hazards so you can prepare calmly. (Note: Don’t be too proud to portage. When in doubt, get out.) When you’re casting, cast forward when you can, and always keep upright with your elbow tucked so you’re not giving away balance. When you snag a limb—and you’ll snag many— immediately open the bail, pay out line, and put the rod between your feet, so you can maneuver over to the hook. If you don’t let the reel free spool, a supple limb and line creates a bow and it can shoot a hook into your neck, snatch the rod out of the boat, or help you flip the vessel. Finally, when that strike comes, if you set the hook as hard as you can you’ll be testing out those drybags. Instead, keep your elbow tucked and pop the rod tip up. It quickly becomes second nature to fight and land fish without breaking centerline.
Rod holders mounted on the gunwales make trolling and storing rods much easier. You’ll find other ways to secure your rod by jamming the butt into seat pockets or gear straps. With practice, you may discover that you can, in fact, maneuver a canoe or kayak paddle one-handed, leaving the other hand free to stay tight on a fish. But if you have two folks to a boat, it works way better to take turns fishing and paddling.
At the end of the day, it’s just fishing and paddling and camping. But the combination gives you access to places, fish, solitude, and experiences that just aren’t available any other way.
Feature image by Captured Creative.