6 Best River Fishing Kayaks: Reviews & Comparison Guide

River fishing in a kayak can be difficult without excellent handling and balance. A river fishing kayak should also be able to go through rapids without tipping or taking on water.

Anglers looking for the best river fishing kayak can read through this guide to learn about the market and find the most well-suited vessel for their needs.

Preview

Product

Kayak Type

Max Capacity

Check Price

Perception Pescador 12 | Sit on Top Fishing...

Perception

Pescador 12

Sit on top

375 lbs.

Elkton Outdoors Steelhead Fishing Kayak,...

Elkton Outdoors Steelhead Fishing Kayak

Sit-in

400 lbs.

Wilderness Systems Radar 115 | Sit on Top...

Wilderness Systems Radar 115

Sit on top

450 lbs.

Lifetime Muskie Angler Sit-On-Top Kayak with...

Lifetime Tamarack Angler 100

Sit on top

275 lbs.

Driftsun Rover 120 Inflatable White-Water...

Driftsun

Rover 220

Sit-in

600 lbs.

Elkton Outdoors Auklet Sit-On Top Fishing...

Elkton Outdoors Auklet

Sit on top

500 lbs.


Common Types of River Fishing Kayaks Compared

Inflatable vs. Hardshell

Hardshell kayaks are generally more durable and present no risk of puncture, which makes them better for fast water and rapids. Inflatables are more portable and usually have a smaller draft, which means less of the hull sits beneath the water. That makes inflatables better suited for remote areas and shallow water.

Sit-in vs. Sit-on-top

Sit-in kayaks are great for fast-moving rivers because they offer better protection from spray and water coming into the cockpit, although they are harder to re-enter if they tip over. If the temperature is low, they also offer more insulation.

Sit-on-top kayaks are safer because they’re easier to turn right-side-up and climb onto in the event of a tip. They’re better for folks who aren’t used to fishing in moving water.

Single vs. Tandem

Kayaks built for two people have larger dimensions, so they’re more likely to be useful in wider rivers with deeper water. Single-person kayaks can usually get into shallower water and maneuver around obstacles better.

While tandems typically have higher weight capacity, single kayaks can usually go fast through open water.


Other Considerations Before Choosing a River Fishing Kayak

Fishing Accessories & Add-Ons

Many things may be added to a kayak to improve handling in rivers or help catch fish. Rod holders, lure trays, and fish finders are all common additions, as well as improved seats and angling attire like shoes, vests, and life jackets.

DIY builds that add fishing crates, coolers, or wheels to the craft also greatly improve the overall experience. There are prefab versions of these add-ons as well.

Comfort & Durability

While there is often a tradeoff between the toughness of a material and passenger comfort, improvements in seat quality and cockpit space have reduced the need to choose one or the other.

Common materials like polyethylene are super durable but uncomfortable to sit on for long periods. Softer PVC inflatables can be more comfortable at first but often lack support. In both cases, the seat is crucial for sitting on a kayak for extended fishing trips.

Size & Weight Capacity

River fishing kayaks need to be able to hold gear and angler weight and evenly distribute it to prevent the boat from tipping in moving water. The size of the yak also plays a part in its stability. A longer kayak is usually harder to balance because the width of the body is what adds stability. For large rivers, long kayaks will do fine, but for narrow ones, a wider kayak will distribute weight evenly.

Chine, Keel & Hull Design

Elements of the underside of a kayak determine how it handles in the water. The hull can be shaped like a V to cut through water faster or like a U to provide better balance and steering. The way the hull meets the sides of the kayak is called its chine. A rounded chine and extended keel strip give higher speed and secondary stability while a chine with harder features will track better.

Stability & Speed

Primary stability is the balance when the yak is entirely level. When the pilot is leaning to one side, the secondary stability is engaged. Flat-bottomed kayaks have better primary stability but are more likely to tip. Soft chines and a round hull are best for good secondary stability.

Length and a round chine help with speed, but propulsion with pedals help move through slow or still river sections. To move quickly through rapids, you’ll need smart paddle work.

Transport & Storage Space

Hardshell kayaks are much heavier and more difficult to transport. A kayak roof rack helps get you most of the way, but a dolly will be necessary to get the yak from the car to the launch site.

Room for storing rods and other gear is critical. Hull storage can be great but is often hard to access while on the water. Additional room for a milk crate can give you tons more room for storage.

Price & Warranty

Warranties often protect larger investments better for more extended periods. If you spend thousands on a kayak, its warranty will probably last for years.

Lifetime warranties are occasionally available for the body of a kayak. Budget kayaks that cost a few hundred dollars may still have one or two year warranties, but it’s not always guaranteed.


6 Best River Fishing Kayaks Reviewed

1. Perception Pescador 12

Our Top Pick

Kayak Type

Sit on top

Primary Material

Hardshell polyethylene

Length

12 ft

Width

32.5 inches

Max Capacity

375 lbs.

The Pescador 12 is especially well-suited to cruising down a river in a slow current, rapids, or still water. This model has an additional 5-6 inches width that makes it more comfortable and easier to stand upon. You can even cast off of it in slow water and light wind if your balance is good enough.

While there are two inlaid rod holders behind the cockpit chair, there’s enough space in the hull storage compartment to slide a few rods in. For other smaller items, it’ll save lots of time to tether them to the lid to prevent them from rolling back in the hull. The hatch has a watertight neoprene seal and two locks to make sure it stays closed if the yak tips.

The high-density polyethylene used to construct the hull can be mended if it’s pierced or broken. If you need to transport it single-handedly without a dolly, there’s a drag bar on the keel that can be removed and cheaply replaced when it wears down. With these features and its great balance, the Perception Pescador 12 is the best river fishing kayak for beginners because it can handle accidents and won’t tip easily.

More importantly, it has room for growth once beginners start to learn more about kayaking. There’s room for a rudder kit on the back, although the rudder isn’t included. There’s also gear rails that are perfect for fish finders and a threaded accessory mount near the cupholder in the cockpit so you can put a rod holder there. Best of all, it's backed with a 5-year warranty, one of the longest available.

Pros
  • Fits fish crate or cooler
  • Gear rails
  • Handles great
  • 5-year warranty
Cons
  • Single-entry hull storage

2. Elkton Outdoors Steelhead Fishing Kayak

Best Inflatable Kayak for River Fishing

Kayak Type

Sit-in

Primary Material

inflatable PVC

Length

10 ft 10 in

Width

39.5 inches

Max Capacity

400 lbs.

This Steelhead ensures durability with reinforced layered PVC. The bottom of the yak is also drop stitched for extra support so anglers can even stand up and cast. The exterior is tough enough to handle interactions with rocks and sticks, and the overall weight is much less than other models.

The dimensions are another plus. The width is enough to be comfortable and stable, and the draft, which is the amount of the hull that sits beneath the water at the rated weight, is short enough to clear most obstacles. Since there’s no reinforced tarpaulin on the bottom, having that clearance beneath the water is a relief.

Unlike many other inflatable river fishing kayaks, this one has plenty of storage space and five different Scotty mount points built-in at convenient places. Its three separate air pockets inflate quickly, and the travel hand pump and carry pack are included with purchase. Additionally, the valves have a locking mechanism to prevent leaks.

The seat is comfortable and gives the angler a great vantage point over the water. It’s not made of the inflatable PVC that the rest of the kayak is, but rather a nice foam. Self-bailing scupper holes in the floor of this kayak can be opened in rough river currents to let water out if need be.

While the warranty on this inflatable kayak is only one year, which is shorter than some others, there is a 30-day money-back guarantee so buyers can test out the kayak and return it easily if they are looking for something else.

Pros
  • Inflates quickly
  • Perfect for shallow water
  • Carry case & pump included
  • 30-day guarantee
Cons
  • Shorter warranty
  • No exterior bottom cover

3. Wilderness Systems Radar 115

Top of the Range

Kayak Type

Sit on top

Primary Material

Hardshell polyethylene

Length

11 ft 8 in

Width

34.5 inches

Max Capacity

450 lbs.

The top of the range Radar 115 is the best river fishing kayak for customizing. Anglers can outfit it with add-ons like pedal systems, motor drives, and fishing electronics until it’s a fish hunting machine. The body is tough enough to withstand any rapids and obstacles it encounters. There are dedicated places designed to hold everything from hooks and lures to fishing coolers.

With plenty of scupper holes in the cockpit and the rear storage bin behind the captain’s chair, this yak is great for tackling rapids. It’s also long enough to get up some good speed in wide-open water and handles well in narrower rivers, even if the water is moving slowly. The chine in the hull is round but not too round, offering both steering and speed. It’s rockered more than most other kayaks, which not only gives it better handling in running water but also seams flawlessly into a curved bow that keeps river spray from getting inside.

In-hull storage via the bow hatch is conveniently located, but perhaps one of the only shortfalls in the design of this kayak is the size of that hatch. It’s large enough to fit just about any gear inside, but a bit more room in the opening itself would make it much easier to access out on the water. Even the chair in this kayak is better-built than just about any other on the market. It’s got breathable mesh on it and sits high up.

The initial investment might have some anglers worried, but this kayak comes with a top-tier lifetime warranty for the hull and deck. If you’re interested in a kayak that will last as long as possible, this is the one to look at.

Pros
  • Rockered chine
  • Dedicated storage
  • Plenty of scupper holes
  • Breathable seat
  • Lifetime warranty
Cons
  • Small bow storage hatch

4. Lifetime Tamarack Angler 100

Best River Fishing Kayak for the Money

Kayak Type

Sit on top

Primary Material

Hardshell polyethylene

Length

10 ft

Width

31 inches

Max Capacity

275 lbs.

One of the safest river fishing kayak options, the Tamarack Angler 100 has a flat bottom and chine rails that make turning and standing up no problem in slow and still water. It’s more straightforward than some more costly kayaks, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's any less sophisticated.

It has two separate storage containers that have plenty of room. They’re also marked off from the hull, so there’s no need to worry about objects and gear rolling to the back of the body in a fast-moving river.

The polyethylene used to construct this kayak is UV-resistant, which means it should last longer in sunlight without getting a bleached look. There are three built-in rod holders, two of which are flush-mounted. A paddle keeper on the side and shock cords in the front and rear make it easy to stow gear and go hands-free.

While it may not have as high of a weight capacity as other kayaks, it does have a comparatively shallow 5-inch draft, which paired with its mostly flat bottom means it should coast easily in shallow water as long as there’s enough water to paddle. There’s a 5-year warranty to back this product up as well.

Many river fishing kayak reviews have also singled out the scupper holes in the seat as problematic since they let water through and can leave the pilot sitting in a certain amount of water while they fish.

There are many DIY methods for plugging these holes up fairly cheaply, which is great because this is dollar for dollar one of the best fishing kayaks out there, and the necessity of expensive modification would dampen that somewhat.

Pros
  • Great in shallow water
  • Independent storage containers
  • 5-year warranty
  • Easy to DIY mod
Cons
  • Holds less weight
  • Scupper holes in seat

5. Driftsun Rover 220

Best 2-Person Inflatable Kayak for River Fishing

Kayak Type

Sit-in

Primary Material

Inflatable PVC

Length

12 ft 6 in

Width

36 inches

Max Capacity

600 lbs.

The tandem version of the inflatable Driftsun Rover, the 220, is a robust and portable kayak that’s great for paddling around and for serious fishing alike. Its tarpaulin bottom covering can handle jabs from submerged obstacles, so coasting on a river current is worry-free, even up to class III and IV rapids.

Inflating the Rover 220 with the included hand pump goes pretty quickly, inflating in a little under 10 minutes. The floor and side sections feel solid when they’re pumped up to the proper PSI, and the valves don't indicate that they'll leak air. With a total weight of just 28 pounds and the included carry case, there’s no better way for two river anglers to get out on the water in a single vessel than this kayak.

It holds a surprising amount of weight and has places to stow gear that is usually missing on blow-up kayaks. The standout feature is its action camera mount, which will help anglers who want to use their footage to study later or share information with fellow enthusiasts. There aren’t many places where fishing rods can be stowed, although the cockpit is roomy enough for a few, and there are some ways to tether things to the six carry handles along either side of the yak.

All in all, there’s plenty of room for two people aboard the Rover 220, and it can sail down curving rivers and rapids with ease. It’s comfortable and has room, although it does lack some of the dedicated space you might find in a comparable hardshell model. Still, it’s without a doubt at the top of its class for the ease of transportation.

Pros
  • Inflates quickly
  • Handles rapids
  • Tarpaulin bottom
  • Built-in camera mount
Cons
  • Lacks dedicated storage space

6. Elkton Outdoors Auklet

Best Pedal-Powered River Fishing Kayak

Kayak Type

Sit on top

Primary Material

Hardshell polyethylene

Length

12 ft

Width

31 inches

Max Capacity

500 lbs.

Building up a fast pace in a steady river flow is easy in the Auklet thanks to its pedal-powered propulsion. The pedals have a good gear ratio, so it doesn't feel like you're constantly pumping your legs the whole time.

Of course, pedaling your way makes this an excellent option for getting through inlets where the water slows or stops. Having a built-in rudder is also helpful if you want to keep the kayak on a certain course while you cast out for fish.

The center module where the pedals are is also a hugely convenient bit of design work. There’s a built-in cupholder for whatever kind of drink you like and space to mount additional rod holders or lure trays.

There are plenty of rod holders elsewhere on this kayak, but it’s nice to be able to place a rod at the most advantageous spot in a pinch. Just past the center console is the yak’s dry storage. The hatch for the dry storage also has locks on it so that it won’t open accidentally, even in the event of a tip-over.

Aluminum reinforces the pilot's chair without taking away any of the comforts. The chair has four adjustment points to suit any angler, and there’s plenty of space behind it for a milk crate or a fishing cooler to keep your catch fresh. Eight scupper holes help keep water drained from the craft, and none of them are underneath the seat, so the pilot stays dry.

While the hardshell build does make this kayak heavy, it’s simple enough to attach wheels or a dolly to the rear so a single person can pull it to the launch site. Plus, the rotomolding of the polyethylene hull is what gives it such good tracking on the water.

Pros
  • Built-in dry storage
  • Adjustable seat
  • 8 scupper holes
  • Pedal & rudder included
Cons
  • Heavy

River Fishing Tips for Beginner Kayakers

  • River Fishing Kayak Setup
    Make sure you have a PFD, and if you’re going through rapids, a helmet. Ensure that gears won't shift, and fishing rods are well out of the way when you paddle.
  • How to Get In a Kayak
    Point the nose of the yak toward the water and position it so that about half of the body is in water. Plant both feet in the cockpit and lower yourself in with your arms. To exit, secure the yak near the river bank and do the same process in reverse.
  • Steering & Paddling Techniques
    Always keep your weight forward to avoid tipping. Maintain a steady rhythm with an active paddle in the water. Your hips should be loose. Steer the yak with opposite side paddling and propel it with simple forward or “J” strokes.

Important Safety Concerns for River Kayak Fishing

Look well in advance at obstacles and turns coming up in the river and try to travel in the natural V of the currents.

  • Don’t ever lean back when kayaking on a river, as this can cause tipping. 
  • Always wear a life jacket and a helmet. If you tip over, try to swim to shore.
  • The kayak can be used as a floatation device if you aren’t able to get back in the cockpit.

Frequently Asked Questions

How much does a typical river fishing kayak cost?

There are budget kayaks that cost a few hundred dollars, and they will definitely float you down a river. However, for serious anglers, the higher-end kayaks that cost one or two thousand dollars will last the longest and hold the most gear. Most folks are somewhere in the middle, and there are kayaks around 500 bucks that do just fine for them.

What regular maintenance does my fishing kayak require?

Hardshell kayaks should have UV sealants applied about once a season. Any kayak should be cleaned of debris, dirt, and corrosive salt with a freshwater spray down after each use. Never store the kayak resting on its hull as this can cause serious damage.

Does the river difficulty rating apply for river kayak fishing?

Kayaks are usually rated for what class of river rapids they can handle. Class II or III are common rating levels for the best river fishing kayaks, although some models don’t include any sort of rating at all. Make sure to match the rapid rating with your intended river, especially if you plan to use an inflatable.

Can I get these large items shipped to my address easily?

Hardshell kayaks are classed as oversized items by USPS, but they can indeed be mailed, even long distances. Sites like Amazon manage to ship hundreds of models every season, mostly without issue. The important part is making sure it’s properly packaged to prevent scuffs or other damage.


Conclusion

River fishing requires a kayak that handles well, has plenty of room for gear, and can be upgraded with add-ons. The Perception Pescador 12 has all this and a reassuring 5-year warranty, which is what makes it the best river fishing kayak on the market.