Pedal Kayak Buyer's Guide

2018 Edition

 by Henry Kronk

See which pedal kayak technologies, features, and brands make the most sense for your style of fishing

It’s just like the age old saying: if you give a man a paddle, he’ll still be able to fish. But teach a man to pedal, and he’ll soon exceed the daily quota allowed by his license. Pedal drive kayaks have completely changed the fishing game. They present several new capabilities in numerous categories of the sport.

Anglers have begun to take them in waters all over the world, from small creeks to the deep ocean. We’re going to tell you why they’re awesome, why sometimes they're not, and what you should consider when making such a game-changing purchase.

Featured image courtesy Hobie France

Pedal Kayak Advantages

The drive allows you to keep your hands on your rod at most or all times depending on the type. You can also do other fun stuff while in motion, like take a sip from your beverage. But there are less obvious advantages to dedicated pedal-powered drives.

Efficiency

Put simply, pedal drives  allow for a more efficient day on the water. Human legs are just going to be stronger than human arms in any scenario. Kayaking with a paddle is a great way to work on that beach bod, but it’s also pretty darn tiring.

If the hole you’re after is several miles out, a pedal drive is a good thing to have, and at the very least will preserve as much energy as possible for, you know, fishing.

That efficiency benefit isn't limited to extending the range of capable anglers. Pedal kayaks also enable older or disabled people to range as far as their healthiest counterparts operating traditional fishing kayaks.

Fishing vs. Paddling, or Fishing WITH Pedaling

One of the biggest draws of pedal drive kayaks, especially for creek and small lake fishing, is that it allows you to hold your position and fight the fish more actively. Blocky fishing kayaks can really catch a lot of wind and quickly get turned awkwardly.

How many times has it happened that you hook a feisty striper and a light breeze blows you toward the fish and then snares you in overhanging branches by the bank? In the best case, this will just be annoying. But worst case Ontario, you’ll get caught up, lose your balance and dump.

Stealth

Another huge bonus is pedal drive kayaks allow for high levels of stealth. Sure, some of us anglers are truly deft with a double-bladed paddle, but most of us splash around like alarmed beavers. Jerry White from paddling.com says it best: “Unlike teenagers in a movie involving a haunted house, [fish] don’t investigate strange noises.”

When something out of the ordinary comes along, fish move along. That’s a big reason to switch from a motor to a paddle, and it’s also a reason to switch from a paddle to a pedal. The best drives are engineered to be very quiet and disturb the water as little as possible.



Pedal Kayak Considerations

Advantages to one side, pedal kayaks are not for everyone. They represent a welcome advancement that's seeing its "hockey stick" moment of popularity, but let us play devil's advocate for a moment. 

Cost

First and foremost, pedal kayaks come at a hefty premium to similarly equipped paddle-powered kayaks, sometimes rising 30% or more. This is due to a couple of reasons:

  • The cost of the drive itself: Pedal kayaks' drives are high technology, involving sealed bearings, special materials and alloys, and even proprietary technology. 
  • Hull reinforcement: To take the increased strain, polyethylene kayak hulls need to be bulked up significantly over their thin-skinned traditional counterparts.

Sheer Weight

Another thing to consider is pedal drive kayaks are usually significantly heavier than their paddle-operated counterparts.  Yes, there’s the pedal drive, but there’s also a lot more molded plastic and possibly flotation to make up for a smaller hull volume. 

The pedal vessels that are light enough to mount on a car regularly without leading to herniated discs down the road are few and far between. Most pedal kayaks require a trolley to get to and from the launch, and some are unwieldy enough that manufacturers recommend an auto trailer to get them to the launch.

The Sledgehammer Problem

In a few areas and types of fishing, the pedal drive kayak is simply not conducive to a good time. One of these is very shallow water. Some systems can handle in just a few inches, but that seriously limits their operation. Most require a foot or two below the hull to operate. 

Quick Tip

Some pedal kayak brands can be operated without the drive installed, replacing it with a plug. Without the drive, performance approximates a traditional kayak in traditional water.

Furthermore, propeller pedal drives don’t do great in the weeds, which are ever-present in small bodies f water. They will definitely destroy some underwater plant life if you operate your vessel through the lilies.

This comes with a caveat: Hobie’s Mirage Drive does not use a propeller, so you can take it through plants without too much trouble. If you intend to use your pedal drive kayak in plant-rich waters, you might want to go with Hobie.

Lastly, pedal kayaks' efficiency advantage is not helpful in small bodies of water. Put these factors together, and you have what we call the "Sledgehammer Problem" of overkill. YouTuber Aliex Fishing mentions these and other reasons why you shouldn’t meddle with the pedal, but some don’t quite hold water. 



Pedal Kayak Categories

When it comes to different types of pedal drive kayaks, there isn’t a huge amount of variation. 95% of all pedal drive kayaks are designed and marketed for people who take fishing seriously. That is beginning to change, but for now, most vessels will be equipped with various bells and whistles. Nearly every kayak has either a rails system or mounts, transducer scuppers for fish finders, rear storage compartments that can house a crate filled with additional gear, a sealable front compartment with a bucket for ice, and cup holders. The Ocean Kayak Malibu Pedal, a PDK intended primarily for recreational use, is changing that narrative. We’ll speak at greater length on that subject below.

Within the selection of pedal drive kayaks intended for serious anglers, there’s still a good deal of variation when it comes to pedal drive type, size, hull shape, and available features.

Pedal Drive Type

There are two main forms of pedal drive systems. The first is like a car. As you spin the pedals, it powers a driveshaft. Through gear transfers of power, this spins the propeller. Quietwater Films do a good job of explaining this in video format. Turn the pedals in the opposite direction, and you go in reverse. This applies to most pedal drive systems.

The second belongs to Hobie.  Hobie’s Mirage Drive system does not use a propeller. Instead, two fin-like blades swing back and forth beneath the kayak. The pedals don’t revolve in a circle; they move forward and backward. By pushing and pulling on the pedals with your feet, the two fins move side to side.

As the fins swing, their angles change, resulting in forward motion. This video helps to explain, and the accompanying music is downright inspirational.

When the pedals sit as far toward the angler as the system allows, the fins below rest in a perfectly vertical position. Push the pedals all the way forward, and they hug the underside of the hull. This allows you to take Hobie pedal kayaks into very shallow water. No, you can’t reach full speed in these conditions, but you can venture on.

For years, one of the main complaints against Hobie’s Mirage Drive was that it was unidirectional. You couldn’t just push the pedals in the opposite direction and go backward. The company recently changed that with the Hobie Mirage Drive 180. As its name suggests, this drive comes equipped with flippers that can be turned 180 degrees so that you can pedal backward. To do this, you must yank on a line that runs from the drive housing towards the captain’s chair.

Some anglers still complain about this as a significant downside to the Mirage Drive. As YouTuber SteegeFish demonstrates, however, it’s really not too difficult to yank on that cord and go in reverse, even when reeling in (see 0:51 for that moment).

Size and Hull Shape

This factor is a concern with any watercraft. In general, the larger and blockier your pedal drive kayak, the more stable it will be. It also won’t move through the water as easily and it’ll get blown around more by the wind. Slim down your boat's surface area, and you’ll move faster and track better through the wind.

By and large, most PDKs favor a more stable, blocky shape. Many of these kayaks are designed for anglers to stand while they fish, and most have a beam that exceeds three feet to maximize stability. This means that most PDKs don't have the most efficient shape for long-distance travel. If you’re looking to cover many miles in a day, then prepare for a solid  workout.

Available Features

Every angler has their own style, and kayak engineers generally try to facilitate that as much as possible. Some of the more budget-friendly kayaks will make certain compromises, such as offering only mounts, not tracks (although you could mount your own rails without too much work). Other kayaks are built to accept various modifications, such as outriggers, sails, and motors. Each of these has use-specific benefits.



Pedal Kayak Users

There are obviously some fishing scenarios where you don’t want to take a pedal drive kayak. A PDK will do you no good in a flounder tramping competition, nor will one help with trout binning, or noodlin’. But pedal drive kayaks have some pretty great uses in many settings. Keep in mind—unless you’re dealing with very shallow water, each pedal drive system is well suited for the following types of fishing. No, not all pedal drive systems are created equally, but it’s not like some are better suited for creeks and rivers, or competitions, or estuaries, etc.

Jigging, Casual Angling

Many anglers don’t feel the need to go all Ahab-intense. They just want to chill out for a second. General line casting for whatever bites is a great way to get more into your pedal drive kayak and bring home some fresh fillets. 

For these anglers, there isn't a super strong case for a pedal kayak, unless the intent is to cover long distances between launch and favorite spots, in which case the efficiency can't be beat.

Freshwater Game Fishing

If you’re after some fish that are a little harder to catch, a little more wary of the lure, a little rarer and more difficult to find, a little more fun to hook on the line, and a heck of a lot tastier when you bring them in, that’s when you’re getting into pedal drive territory.

There’s no shortage of tournament fisherpeople who have gone pedal drive and don’t ever intend to go back. Lou Martinez, a member of the Delaware Paddlesports Team is a good example. The video he put out with Beyond The Bounds compares the Hobie Pro Angler with the Native Watercraft Slayer, but it’s one of the best videos around to help you get acquainted with the vessels in general.

The ability to stand up means increasing that line of sight. When you do that, you can sight-cast up a storm. Some manufacturers also offer support bars upon which you can lean while standing in order to increase one’s stability.

Saltwater Game Fishing

People really pushing the limit of pedal drive kayaks haven’t just stopped at hitting some calm saltwater; they’ve taken their boats out beyond the break to fish miles offshore.  A quick scan across YouTube will give you a good idea of the possibilities of bringing a pedal drive out on the ocean.

Some of our favorites include Michael Looney landing a black fin tuna off of Dustin, Florida; Peter Ritchie brought in a small marlin in New South Wales; there’s no shortage of folks landing massive tarpon; and Chew on This recorded a guy bringing in a goliath grouper.  

Saltwater game fishing in a pedal drive kayak can be downright epic. It can also be super, super dangerous. Kayak fishers have 100% been attacked, killed, and eaten by sharks. A fellow named Ryan Howell was struck twice by a 20 ft. great white and thrown from his vessel. Somehow, he survived. A man fishing off the coast of Maui in 2013 wasn’t so lucky.

If you are going to take your pedal drive kayak far off shore, we 100% recommend going with a larger, more stable vessel. Wearing a PFD and bringing along a backup paddle is also a must. Other things to consider would be hooking up your kayak with one or two outriggers, bringing along a small motor (many of which fit seamlessly into the space reserved for the pedal drive), a VHF radio, a buddy, or a conch shell that, when blown, can summon the friendly creatures of the sea to come to your defense.

Trolling

Pedal drive kayaks are great especially for trolling on freshwater lakes for bass, walleye, and trout. YouTuber VinnyjojoFish gets the big style points for flat line trolling with multiple lines using live bait and planer board. In a kayak.

The planer board attaches to each line and, as you move through the water, it pulls your line out to the side. A major advantage here is your baited line is a good distance from your drive or your paddle disrupting the water, so you don’t spook a fish as easily.

Efficient, long distance travel at constant speeds make trolling possible, exactly the type of travel where pedal kayaks shine. 



Key Pedal Kayak Terminology

While not as complicated as the terminology for proprietary electronics, pedal kayaks have their own unique lingo. These terms can be common across the industry or unique to specific manufacturers. Shoppers looking at pedal kayaks should become familiar with these definitions as they begin asking questions and making comparisons.

Click below for the full terminology list.

See Full Pedal Kayak Terminology List



Pedal Kayak Features to Consider

The Drive

By and large, the main distinction between kayaks falls to their pedal drive systems, which can be summed up as ‘Hobie vs. everyone else’ were just described. But within the ‘everyone else’ category, there’s still some variation that bears going over. For the following, we’re leaving out the Hobie Mirage Drive, because it’s one of a kind.

Exterior

The casing of the pedal drive system will play a significant role in the equipment’s lifetime. Any angler is probably going to collect some amount of nicks and dings on their vessel, and the pedal drive prop is even more exposed than the hull. You’re going to want your system to be encased by some material that’s going to last.

Another thing that most don’t consider is the possibility of corrosion. When many metals interact in a conductive environment there’s a chance they can react in a chemical sense. By and large, you don’t want this to happen, because it can deteriorate said metals. All pedal drive systems worth their salt are designed to prevent corrosion. For some, however, this means getting a coating of non-corrosive material. If that coating gets dinged up and rubbed off, you might just have a good old-fashioned chemistry experiment on your hands. Check out Boat U.S.’s post about underwater corrosion and boat motors for more info.

Attached vs. Free Drive

All pedal drive systems are locked into place with some kind of mechanism. In taking them out, however, some are attached to the boat and can be raised forward, like raising a motor prop. Others simply pop right out. Is there an advantage to either? It depends on your style.

Many take their pedal drives out to transport their kayak, which is more difficult with a fixed drive. Others don’t want to accidentally drop their drives in the lake and have them sink or float away. Old Town’s PDL System with a sealable compartment, which allows it to easily float. Other drives don’t have the same flotation.

Propeller

If you do choose the pedal route over the Hobie route, there's prop geometry to consider. Most people have no trouble going the speed they want to in a pedal drive kayak. But each propeller varies in size and shape, which ultimately translates into speed and efficiency.

Most propellers have only two blades, which allows them to slip between the narrow opening in the kayak’s hull. Jackson Kayak’s propeller, which has a different set up and doesn’t slide through the hull, has three blades. To clean the debris you might collect, there’s a small hatch that allows you access to the prop.  

Maintenance Autonomy

One thing that’s going to vary considerably between pedal drives is both the maintenance required and the tools you’ll need to do it. This category should not be understated. Some manufacturers, such as Old Town, claims no maintenance is necessary. If anything breaks, they ask customers to send their drives in for maintenance. Others, like Native Watercraft, require some pretty specific tools, like spanner wrenches in different sizes. Still, it’s better than paying someone to do a job you could knock out in your garage. Others still, like Jackson Kayak’s Flex Drive, can be serviced almost entirely with an Allen wrench set.

We recommend keeping your pedal drive system well lubricated. Sure, this will lead to greater longevity, etc., etc., but it will also keep your drive nice and quiet.

Outfitter Tip

What’s the number one mistake people make when buying their first pedal kayak for fishing? They don’t try it before they buy it. With today’s variety of brands, models, pedal drives and accessories, a properly outfitted fishing kayak can be customized just for you. The first step in the process is to find a kayak specialty store with water access.

- Frank Ferraro, Marketing Director

Nautical Ventures Marine Superstore

Other Features

Hull Design and Tracking

Every kayak is shaped differently. By and large, PDKs prioritize stability. This means they’re wider and tend to plow through the water more than other vessels. The pedal drive will be easier on the cardiovascular system than paddling, but still, these kayaks can get blown around. Some, like the Native Manta Ray, have a slimmer, less stable design but sacrifice stability.

Storage

Every manufacturer knows you might want to bring a lot of stuff with you. Most maximize storage capabilities on their PDKs as much as possible. Make sure to investigate how well closed compartments form a seal. If they don’t, you might be taking your valuables for a swim.

Attachments

Many anglers love to bring out their trusty gadgets like fish finders, trolling arms, and cup holders rail mounts. Kayaks tend to vary widely in this category. All will have some combination of mounts and rails/tracks.  

This is where personal preference really factors in. Some anglers just come out with a cup holder. Others load up their tracks with rod holders, tethered fishing knives, fish finders, etc. Some kayaks (ahem, Hobie) have proprietary attachment and mount systems that lock you into added cost.



Leading Pedal Kayak Manufacturers

One point bears stating: you’re not just buying the pedal drive system. You’re getting an entire kayak-based fishing command center. So we’re going to briefly discuss each individual manufacturer from both a pedal drive standpoint along with the whole package.

Hobie Fishing logo including a pedal kayak

Hobie 

When you buy a Hobie Mirage Drive kayak, you’re buying Hobie’s trusted engineering, customer service, and reputation. You won't lose any sleep at night over whether or not you can trust the manufacturer, and local dealers tend to be top-notch.

The Mirage Drive is quite a nifty little device. One great part about it is that it is a non-enclosed system on the top side, allowing for easy maintenance and lubrication. On the bottom side, there isn’t really anything to protect. The fins can be pressed flush with the hull and tend to glance off obstacles in the way. The fins also don’t catch too many reeds.

One of the great things about Hobies is you can really customize them to the nth degree. Many choose to pick out larger rudders for more control. You can also hook up larger pedal drive fins so you can go faster. As this exceedingly 90s-style video attests, you can even hook up a Hobie Mirage Drive vessel with outriggers and a sail. Those guys are seriously hauling! Also, if you’re after fish that weigh more than most small children, outriggers would be a great idea.

Hobie has the largest selection of pedal drive kayaks. Models include both molded plastic and inflatable hulls. The Outback is a great mid-range kayak, while the Pro Angler is considered by some to be the best of the best.

The major downside of the manufacturer is that they kind of subscribe to the "printer inkjet' business model. Hobies don’t have track-style rails, they have proprietary ‘H-Rails.’ And only H(obie) products can attach to said H-Rails, but they also provide a universal mount that can accept any device with some light modification work. Hobies are expensive to begin with, and the accessories system will add to that cost.

Native Watercraft logo

Native Watercraft

Native Watercraft developed the first propeller-style pedal drive a few years back. They hands down make some of the best pedal drive kayaks around. When the pros match up propeller pedal drives vs. the Mirage Drive, they usually choose a Native Watercraft craft as an example of the former.

The Propel Pedal Drive system requires spanner wrenches in two different sizes to service, but maintenance isn’t a huge deal with this gear. This video goes over some best practices for maintaining the drive. By and large, the most work you’re likely to put in will be some lube every few months.

In terms of features, Native really has every inch of their kayaks dialed down (with one exception). They have bow to stern tracks and they can accept most kinds of accessories within said tracks. Natives also tend to be more on the stable side of things, allowing for stand up fishing and midday on-water calisthenics.

Native Watercraft happen to have an Achilles’ heel across the line: their rudder system. It rests on the underside of the stern and can only be raised enough so that it is flush with the underside of the hull. This leaves it pretty exposed, and if you need to drag your kayak or pilot it through a minefield of deadheads, it will likely suffer a few direct hits. This is our only complaint. 

Old Town Canoes and Kayaks logo

Old Town

While the company has over one hundred years under its belt, they’re pretty new to the pedal drive scene. Their PDL system is tried and trusted. It has a watertight box attached, allowing it to float and, like all propeller pedal drives, it can go forward and reverse.

We raise our eyebrows at the fact that Old Town does not want its customers servicing or maintaining the pedal drive. But some people like that. Some people prefer to leave the tinkering to the manufacturer. When it comes to major operations, this is probably a good idea. But if it’s just tightening a loose bolt or something minor, we’d prefer to just do it ourselves. 

At the moment, Old Town only offers the Predator PDL when it comes to pedal drives. It’s got a trusted Old Town made in the U.S.A. build. (For the record, all of the kayaks mentioned here are made in the U.S.) While the Pro Angler and the Slayer are fairly blocky, the Predator has a sleeker profile and can move through the water more efficiently without really sacrificing stability.

Perception Kayaks logo

Perception

These guys are bigger players in the world of white water. They were one of the first companies to come out with rotational plastic molded vessels back in the ‘70s, and they definitely carry a hefty reputation. They certainly know how to make a kayak. 

Their only pedal drive offering is the Pescador Pilot, which is notable as one of the more affordable PDKs around. Although it has just one entrant in the category, we consider the value of this kayak to be very high. As anglers save hundreds on this vessel, they don’t sacrifice that much. No, the kayak won’t beat the competition in really any categories except cost, but it also won’t lose by a significant margin.  

Given the trend of the industry, we wouldn't be surprised to see more offerings from these guys in the years ahead.

Jackson Kayak logo

Jackson Kayak

Like Perception, Jackson Kayak comes to the pedal drive from the white water scene. Unlike Perception, their Flex Drive system is kind of revolutionary. Only the top part of the drive, which holds the pedals, can be removed entirely from the kayak. The bottom propeller prop retracts into the hull. As its name suggests, the drive shaft on this system is flexible. It can be lowered fully, raised to just below the hull for shallow water conditions and, when it strikes an object, it can bounce back into the hull, avoiding significant damage.

If low water and underwater obstacles are a constant concern, the Flex Drive is probably a better option than even the Hobie Mirage Drive. For now, the only Jackson PDK is the Coosa FD, which has every feature most anglers would want.

Ocean Kayak logo

Ocean Kayak

For an honorable mention, Ocean Kayak’s Malibu Pedal is not marketed as a fishing kayak. It’s just for recreation. We think this is a neat idea and, if we were to look into our crystal balls, we might just see lakes full of casual kayakers in the future pedaling around and around.

Instead of making their own drive, they use Old Town’s PDL System for the Malibu Pedal. It's an interesting twist that may may become more common from manufacturers just dipping a toe in the waters.



The Bottom Line

It would be incorrect to say that we’re currently experiencing a pedal drive kayak Renaissance. A rebirth implies that there was an initial birth before it. What we’re seeing right now is the development and diversification of the pedal drive space. The pedal drive kayak is still developing and changing to suit the varied styles of fishing we practice.

Soon they should hopefully begin to decrease in price, like all new technology after the hype dies down. It’s also likely they’ll continue to expand outside of fishing, like for casual use, or sailing. Who knows, maybe one day there’ll be a 200 meter pedal drive kayak sprint in the summer Olympics.

One really great development that has come to fruition is how widespread these kayaks have become. Five years ago, it would be tougher to get to a retailer that could help out with service. There wasn’t much of a used market for anglers on a budget. And the resale of PDKs has become far easier as well. So congratulations, there’s never been a better time to get into the pedal driven game. Pedal steady.

Quick Tip

When in doubt about any tech purchase, it's better to go with the choice you perceive as most affordable while still meeting your minimum requirements. Tech buyers report higher overall satisfaction on a perceived good deal than a stretch purchase, regardless of features.