Fly fishing from a canoe is not easy, but it can be done.
Canoes are a great way to get into some spots that are difficult to access in a boat.
The Canadian style canoe can also get into far shallower areas than a pedal kayak . And the narrow width (compared to a boat) enables you to sneak through narrow passages.
But it doesn’t always make the most stable casting platform.
We’ve written a list of pros and cons about fly fishing in a canoe and tips to help you cast safely and effectively from a canoe.
What are the advantages of fishing from a canoe?
There are several advantages for fly fishers in using a canoe in certain circumstances.
The great advantage that a canoe offers when you are fly fishing is the shallow draft. The draft of a boat is just the distance below the water the hull sits when it is in the water. Most canoes have a draft of just a few inches even when loaded and this means you can cross sand bars and gravel beds and other shallow water areas to reach the spot you want to fish.
Ability to be stealthy
Canoes are also very stealthy and make very little noise in terms of actual sound, but also underwater disturbance. With a few discreet paddle strokes you can put yourself on the fish without them knowing a thing.
Unlike boats – with wiring, engines and other sensitive gear, a canoe is very simple and requires little to no maintenance except spraying some corrosion inhibitor on any metal fittings and hosing it down after you use in salt. As you can usually transport in on a roof rack (see here for some of our best canoe and kayak racks) you don’t need to worry about a trailer either.
All in all, a canoe is a very low-maintenance fly fishing platform.
Disadvantages of canoe fly fishing
While there are several advantages to using a canoe to fly fish in certain spots, it needs to be said there are disadvantages too.
The main disadvantage of using a canoe to fly fish is that they are not very stable.
Canoes vary a bit in terms of stability. Generally the more narrow the canoe, the faster it is through the water. This type of canoe is also less stable.
But even with wider style canoes, you need to be aware of the potential for high waves to whip up on a lake in heavy winds. On a river, you don’t want to be tackling too much serious white water in a canoe.
When you combine the difficulty of casting from a seated position in heavy wind and the potential for waves, it’s usually to stay home when the weather is unkind or try another form of fly fishing.
Manual propulsion only
Although you could probably find a way to fix a trolling motor on to a canoe, in general you are going to be using paddle power. This means you need a little bit of fitness and resilience to reach your fly fishing destination usually, particularly if it is windy or your canoe is a wide, highly stable model.
Paddling can be tiring, particularly on a solo canoe. Most canoes are two person models allowing you to share the load. If you get into a good paddling rhythm together, you’d be surprised how far you can go to find a good spot to fly fish.
You can’t operate hands free
Unlike with kayaks, there are no pedal powered canoes so you have to use a paddle to propel yourself through the water. This can be a kayak paddle or the traditional canoe paddle, but either way you have to use your arms so it is much harder to be moving and fishing at the same time. Much harder than in a Hobie kayak where you can move forward or backwards (if you have the advanced Mirage drive) without needing to put your rod down.
Compared to a small boat, a canoe has much less storage so it pays to fish light in terms of what you are carrying. Also, while canoes can arguably carry more in total than a fishing kayak, there are no sealed hatches to stow items and you are really confined to storing items such as tackle boxes beneath your seat or in between the stern seat and the bow seat.
Fly fishing from a canoe tips
Have good casting technique
A crisp back cast and economically casting action will help a lot to fly fish from a canoe. Fly fishing from a canoe is not for beginners or intermediates really and if you plan on doing it, work on your casting until it is second nature.
For starters, you will be casting sitting down, which makes things tricky. And because your legs are pointing forward you are already in an awkward position to cast anywhere that’s not straight in front of you. You’ll also be sometimes casting to the left and right, whereas you’ll continually be facing forward. Having a good basic stroke allows you to modify it as required to cast on those angles and to reduce the number of false casts. Every false cast on a canoe brings the possibility of tangles.
Fishing on a river introduces currents, which makes things more difficult (although wind on a lake can also move you around), as does fast water sections where you really have to wind in and concentrate on positioning the canoe to navigate the fast water safely.
Thankfully a stealthy approach to likely spots that hold fish is relatively easy with a canoe when you are fly fishing. The canoe doesn’t present a big profile or generate subsurface noise like a larger boat. So you don’t need to be casting the whole fly line. Chances are a roll cast, or just a single false cast, will give you the distance you need to present the fly to the fish.
Always wear a PFD (Personal Flotation Device), and if you are paddling in a remote area, a Personal Locator Beacon that can be activated to summon search and rescue if you get into trouble. Mobile phones aren’t enough in these situations as you have issues with reception, battery life and the potential for them to be dropped in the water.
Use the right rod and line weight
Fishing from a canoe is not usually a situation where you are wanting to land #18 dry flies delicately amid a very specific hatch. More often than not it is about throwing something big and buoyant for trout on the surface or a streamer to target deeper areas. In the salt it is usually throwing a pattern with dumbbell eyes such as a Clouser or shrimp pattern.
Lakes, bays and coastal estuaries, which are favoured spots to use a canoe, are often windy too.
So don’t take a moderate action stream rod. You need to pack enough power to throw these heavier or bulky flies with a limited backcast and awkward positioning. For me, that means a six weight or above, depending on what you are targeting, with a fast or moderate-fast action preferred.
Be neat and tidy
Even if you are just punching out short casts as suggested, you are going to end up with line piled up in the bottom of the canoe. It’s not good when you get on to a fish only to find that this line is wrapped around your tackle box or pliers and pulls tight and the fish busts off.
So stow this kind of gear beneath your seat wherever possible so that you can release line easily and get the fish on the reel. And above all, pack light. Don’t take any gear don’t definitely need. That way you avoid overcrowding in the canoe and the prospect of losing all the gear if you capsize.
Watch your partner
Fishing as a pair from a kayak is very tricky, but can be done if you are both good casters and experienced. Always be conscious of your back cast – nothing tests a friendship, or a romantic relationship – like a fly wedged in the cheek from an errant cast.
Consider outriggers for stability
Good fly casting requires some weight transfer and canoes are not the most stable craft. Consider adding outriggers to boost the stability of your canoe if you are going to fly fish from it a lot. They’re particularly useful if you are often out in any sort of waves.
Is fishing from a kayak a better option?
Fly fishing from a sit on top kayak is another good way to catch fish, particularly if it is a pedal power kayak such as a Hobie Outback or Professional Angler. These are big, stable kayaks that are good for fly fishing. But they can’t go in quite as shallow a water as a canoe due to the higher draft courtesy of the fins on the Mirage drive.
Unlike a canoe, these kayaks arguably have enough stability to stand up to cast in calm conditions.
Can you fly-fish on a stand up paddleboard?
They are relatively stable and allow you to move your feet to the ideal standing position for casting. This means you can cover all angles and casts pretty much normally. Standing to cast dramatically increases the distance you can cast and false casting is fine.
They have a very low draft compared to other watercraft, so can allow you to reach into back bays and other shallow areas.
And because you are standing, they are particularly good for sight fishing. The extra height makes all the difference when it comes to trying to spot fish with your polarized sunglasses.
Being able to stand, couple with the relatively good stability a stand-up paddleboard offers, also makes it easier to fight fish when you have hooked up.
All in all, they are a great fly fishing watercraft.
Final Words on Fly Fishing from a Canoe
Please remember, though, to be stay safe on the water and don’t push beyond your own limits and that of the canoe as a fishing platform.