Fishing kayaks become more sophisticated every day. Although conceptually a minimalist sport, kayak anglers are now incorporating many of the features found on modern powerboats.

One such feature is a GPS unit, be it handheld or mounted to the ’yak. While most coastal kayak fishing takes place within fairly close range from the launch point, many find themselves traveling several miles into the Louisiana marsh.

And sitting below the marsh line makes it difficult to see beyond your immediate fishing area.

Anglers certainly don’t want to have to constantly stop and stand to get a view of what’s beyond the next turn. Worse yet, you don’t want to paddle some distance only to find that it’s not a through route or that you can’t get to your intended destination and have to turn around.

The use of a GPS with a quality map feature lets you know exactly where you are, see where you want to go and gives a pretty accurate idea of how far it is to get there.

Waterproof charts are an inexpensive option for kayak navigation, but lack the many interactive features available on electronic devices.

Smart phones

One of the easiest options for kayakers to add electronic navigation is by using a smart phone. Most fishermen already have one of these devices and usually carry them while out on the water. Several good apps are available to smart phone users that work well for coastal navigation, and the average cost is $5 to $20. Some lower-featured apps are available for free download.

One of the more-popular apps is from Navionics, which offers several options for detailed maps from across the country and provide the ability to add tracking, routes, waypoints, distance and wind forecasts. Other interactive features allow the addition of geotagged photos to appear on your map.

The same detailed maps used on the best GPS plotters are available on your phone.

Motion X is another popular mobile-based navigation app.

While convenience and low cost are pluses for the use of smart phone navigation, there are some drawbacks.

Most smart phones are not waterproof and do not float. Kayak fishing is a harsh environment for small electronics and might require the purchase of an expensive waterproof case to protect your phone. Smart phones are expensive and have become essential to daily life, as they contain a wealth of your information. The risk of damaging the phone by either getting it wet or losing it overboard is a real concern.

Additionally, some features might not work if you are out of cell phone range.

GPS units/OEM maps

Handheld GPS units have the advantage of being portable and can be used for a variety of other activities. The primary limitation is the small screen that makes little details hard to see.

Generally, less expensive than full-sized units, some kayakers choose portable units if they need the device for other uses, such as hunting, camping or hiking.

Permanently mounted GPS units offer screen sizes that range from just a few inches up to those that resemble flat-screen televisions. Newer, high-end models offer convenient features like touch-screen functions.

Kayakers use a variety of 12-volt batteries to power these units. The larger the unit, the more battery power it consumes. However, advances in battery technology allow for smaller, lighter batteries that can power most reasonably sized units for a full day’s trip or even a couple of trips before recharging. 

All GPS devices, whether handheld or vessel mounted, come with a version of the manufacturer’s map. These are basic maps, and usually delineate land versus water with a color change and resemble most common nautical charts.

However, most of these maps leave a lot to be desired for coastal Louisiana fishermen. The coast changes fairly rapidly, and these maps are often out-of date, showing you on land when you’re in the water and make it fairly difficult to get a visual confirmation of your actual location. 

Various levels of map upgrades can be purchased with your unit or from aftermarket sellers. Again, Navionics is one of the more-popular nautical chart-type map products. Although they are good quality maps, however, they are a little difficult to get comfortable using along the Louisiana coastal marsh.

Aerial maps

The best innovation in navigation technology is the availability to add high-resolution aerial maps to your GPS unit. Legend Cartography and Standard Mapping make SD map cards that can be used in several models of Lowrance, Simrad and B&G GPS units.

Lowrance units are popular with kayakers, and offer models with screen sizes from 5 to 12 inches that are compatible with the satellite map cards. Five- and 7-inch models are most popular and practical for kayak use.

You need to check your particular model for compatibility before purchase.

The Legend “Louisiana Unleashed” card retails for $199.99 and the Standard Mapping Louisiana One cards retails for $399.99 (recently on sale for $299.99).

Both cards offer high-resolution aerial maps that cover coastal Louisiana from Texas to Mississippi on a single card. Standard also offers single and multiple section “E” cards that cover smaller sections of the coast.

There’s just something about looking at your screen and seeing exactly where you are. Every ditch, cove, island and camp is there for you to see and orient yourself.

I recently used the Legends Louisiana Unleashed card in Delacroix at the Adventure Fishing World Championship, a unique kayak fishing tournament that is a grueling test of strategy, endurance, angling skills and navigation.

At start time the morning of the tournament, anglers were given a rudimentary paper map that had five stars marked at locations spread miles across the Delacroix marsh. No coordinates, no further descriptions. The goal was to navigate to each  checkpoint, retrieve a token, catch a fish and photograph it on a provided ruler with the token.

You then had to return the token to that checkpoint and move on to the next one.

A minimum of three checkpoints were required in order to turn in a valid score. Only one of the 52 teams reached all five checkpoints during the tournament’s 11-hour time frame.

The route taken and order of hitting each checkpoint was up to each team of two anglers and a big part of their planning strategy. Using the Louisiana Unleashed map in our Lowrance units, we were able to pinpoint nearly the exact location of each  checkpoint.

We successfully navigated close enough to visually see the flag and the tournament official sitting on a chair in the middle of nowhere.

The aerial map allowed for calculating a fairly accurate distance between  checkpoints, and we were able to zoom in and see obstacles like rock dams and wooden weirs that blocked our intended path. Visually seeing the entire tournament course on the screen made a huge difference in our ability to strategize and plan the most-efficient routes to the checkpoints. 

With the trail feature enabled on the Lowrance GPS unit, a pink trail was laid down as we covered the marsh from one end to the other (some places several times), all the while being able to see where we were on the screen.

At the end of the day, we had hit four of the five checkpoints and finished in ninth place. Our total distance travelled during the tournament was 15.8 miles.

You will likely have many kayak fishing trips where a GPS unit is simply not needed. However, if you want to explore new areas farther from your launch site, having a GPS with a quality map is both invaluable and an added safety measure. 

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