Using kayaks is one of the most accessible ways for just about anyone to level up their fishing game. Once I graduated from being shore bound to a mobile kayak angler, I started catching way more fish. But that posed a new dilemma for me. Where do you keep all those fish in a kayak?
After years of fishing from a kayak, I have cycled through all the ways to keep fish in a kayak. Some definitely work better than others.
The absolute best place to keep fish cool and contained in a fishing kayak is in a water tight cooler bag with ice. Stringers work but pose some problems if the water is too warm or if predators are present where you fish. You can use hard sided coolers in a kayak too, but space constraints often make this impractical.
There is a lot to consider when it comes to keeping fish in a kayak. Read on and I’ll share all the secrets you need to know to keep your catch fresh and easy to manage while fishing from a kayak.
Stringers vs Cooler bags for kayaks
On countless fishing trips I can remember heading home with an old, steel chain stringer full of fish. Once I got my kayak, it made perfect sense to use that same stringer. Just hook it onto the kayak and flip it over the side.
The stringer certainly worked but it quickly became apparent that fish stringers are not as good as cooler bags in a kayak and here’s why.
- Stringers add resistance when paddling a kayak. It’s hard enough to troll, fight current and steer a kayak as it is. Add a stringer full of fish dragging alongside and it gets much harder.
- Stringers don’t keep fish fresh in warm water. Once the water temperature gets above 50° F, fish won’t stay fresh very long. During summer temperatures you can expect fish to keep on a stringer for an hour or less before the meat starts going soft and you loose flavor.
- Stringers with fish on them attract predators. Dying, bleeding fish floating by your kayak are sure to attract some unsavory attention. Now this isn’t a problem everywhere, but saltwater kayak anglers could encounter sharks or seals and anglers down south might find gators eyeing their catch.
Cooler bags eliminate every one of the above problems associated with stringers. If you are fishing from a kayak, give up the stringer and switch to a cooler bag with ice.
What about hard sided coolers
Hard sided coolers are an obvious choice for most anglers when it comes to storing fish. The problem is there is generally not much room on a kayak to securely put one. Small foam coolers are your best bet if you go this route. They won’t weigh you down and you can find a variety of sizes to fit your needs.
Also, foam or hard sided coolers are only practical in certain kayaks. Sit-on-top kayaks usually have sufficient deck space for mounting a small cooler to put fish in. The Ascend line up from BassPro Shops or the Old Town Predator 13 on Amazon are excellent fishing kayaks with space for a hard sided cooler.
Keep in mind that a hard sided cooler really limits the size of fish you can put in there. Avid saltwater or salmon anglers will likely run into problems with a foam cooler suited more for perch or eater size walleye. Hands down, cooler bags hold bigger fish.
Where do you put a cooler bag in a kayak
So, you’ve decided to get a cooler bag for your next kayak fishing trip. Now, you just need to figure out the best place to put it. You’re going to have limited options in the small confines of a kayak but there are a few things to consider.
- Keep it within easy reach – Put your cooler bag immediately in front or behind where you sit. That way you can toss fish in without the risk of dropping gear or flipping over.
- Don’t bury it – Leave your cooler bag accessible. You should not need to sort through a tangle of rods or undo hatches to access it.
- Make it secure – You’re going to put heavy, flopping fish in the bag so strap it down or make sure it is placed on a flat portion of your kayak. Keep a tether attached so you don’t loose it if you flip.
- Size it right – Makes sure to buy a cooler bag that is appropriately sized to the fish you keep most often. Remember, space is limited so avoid oversized bags that take up precious cargo space.
Placement by kayak style
Sit-on-top kayaks: Sit-on-top kayaks are among the best fishing kayaks made. They come with ample storage space and are geared towards anglers. This makes it easy to find a spot to put your catch. The ideal spot to put a cooler bag on a sit-on-top kayak is right behind your seat on the flat deck space. It’s easy to reach, out of the way and easily secured to the boat in that location.
Sit-in kayaks: Sit-in kayaks have more limited space than sit-on-top models but finding a spot for your fish is not too difficult. We find that the best place for a small or medium sized cooler bag is in the cargo space up front between your feet. With soft sided cooler bags, they fold down and fit in that space with room to spare. It is also easy and fast to reach.
How do you kill a fish in a kayak
The last thing you want is a thrashing, slimy fish flopping all over your kayak and gear. Before you bring a fish into your kayak, you’ll definitely want to dispatch it quickly and humanely.
By far, the easiest way to humanely kill any fish in a kayak is to cut the gills with sharp scissors. It is best to do this while the fish is still in your net and in the water. Simply remove your hook and then slip scissors under the gill plate. Snip a few gills and hold the fish in the water using the net. After 20-30 seconds, you can put the fish in your cooler.
Not only does bleeding improve meat quality, it is far better than clubbing fish on the head.
For smaller fish like panfish and kokanee, you can toss them straight in a cooler bag without much fuss. However, cutting the gills will still result in better tasting meat.
5 best cooler bags for avid kayak anglers
There are a bunch of cooler bags to choose from out there. Yet, only a few will suit the needs of devoted kayak anglers. We put together this short list of cooler bags actually worth the money. From no regret budget models to those specifically designed with anglers in mind, here are the best cooler bags for kayakers.
BUILT delivers high quality coolers without the steep price tag of other coolers. While the price may still seem high, you get all the features kayak anglers need for a day on the water. Made with rugged materials and a leak proof liner, the large BUILT cooler will keep your catch cold all day. Even in extreme heat.
We love the smooth zipper closure which makes opening fast and easy with one hand. There are also ample strapping point to help secure the cooler to your kayak.
The BUILT large cooler bag measures 24” long by 14.5” tall and 10” wide. Its got plenty of space for trout, walleye, panfish or smaller salmon. When you need a premium cooler for your fishing adventures, BUILT is hard to overlook.
Of all the cooler bags on this list, Canyon Fish Coolers have clearly prioritized the needs of anglers when designing their bags. Their simple style is big on function. Heat sealed seams will never leak and the fiber-laced skins won’t stain so clean up after a fishing trip is a cinch.
A double layer of one inch of foam keeps ice longer than any other bag on this list. Canyon coolers also have the widest selection of sizes to match any kayak’s space constraints as well as match any size fish. Kayak anglers chasing trophy fish should consider Canyon Fish Coolers.
Our only complaint is the lack of tie down spots for securing to some kayaks. Yet, we can easily overlook that since few other bags have the same level of durability and function as Canyon Fish Coolers.
There are 17 sizes to choose from but we recommend 20” X 24” or 15” X 24” bags for keeping most types of fish in kayaks. Scale up for big fish.
For a low profile and customized feel, you can’t beat the Seattle Sports Kayak Catch Cooler. It’s perfect for either sit-in or sit-on-top kayaks. Attach it on the deck top or just slide it between your feet. Either way, this cooler bag has more versatility than other bags on this list.
The catch cooler is well made with a surplus of attachment spots and a removable liner bag for easy washing. We find the insulation sufficient for a full day on the water. The inner liner seals tight to prevent leaks but getting fish in is not as convenient as other bags.
It measures 19” long by 12” wide and 5” deep so it is best suited for smaller fish like trout and eater sized walleye.
Our price balanced pick for kayak cooler bags is the Arctic Zone Titan Deep Freeze. It boasts excellent insulation and a durable stain resistant outer shell. The leak proof inner shell is rugged enough to resist puncture from fish spines and easy to wash when your fishing trip is over.
This cooler is ideal for anglers targeting panfish, walleye and stocked trout. The 17” X 13” X 8” interior dimensions will hold enough ice to keep your catch fresh until you get home.
The shoulder straps are great for lugging it from your boat to the car and the two side handles are positioned just right to strap the bag to your kayak seat. All in all, it is higher quality than what you would expect for similarly priced cooler bags.
5. Ozark Trail Thermal Tote Bag
If you are still not sure about cooler bags on a kayak, then consider the Ozark Trail Thermal Tote Bag. It’s perfectly sized for any kayak and an even better fit for your wallet. This is our “no regret budget pick” cooler bag.
At only $4, you can’t go wrong. It has a leak proof inner liner that we found to be quite durable against sharp fins on a fish. The zipper is sturdy and opens easy while the outside material resists most stains. However, the fabric will dirty over time.
The Ozark Trail Thermal Tote Bag was our first cooler bag for kayak fishing and it served us well for years. It held up well to full loads of trout, walleye, surfperch and pink salmon. At 20” X 18” X 8”, it has more than enough capacity. In our experience, ice will last nearly a full day. Overall, it is a functional cooler bag and a phenomenal value.
Unfortunately, you won’t find it online but you can check to see if a Walmart near you has them in stock. We found ours in the sporting goods section.
Check your local Walmart.
Summing it up
Fishing out of a kayak is an awesome experience and the best way to round out a full day on the water is to bring home a tasty meal. Do yourself a favor and invest in a cooler bag so you’ll have the freshest tasting fish possible.