Select Page

River Fishing with a Jackson Kayak Flex Drive

I. Overview of the FD Mark IV

Rivers are like us: they come in all shapes and sizes, their moods change and they rarely stop moving. We share other bonds, too. Our ancestors built most of humanity’s great cities along their banks; as if to be good neighbors, rivers carry us around with our things. Have we also been good neighbors? Not always. But over the last few decades in North America, we’ve taken much better care of our rivers. We finally seem to understand how important they are. In most states and regions, we now look to rivers as sources of sustainable economic activity. Kayaks of all types have played no small role in those new riverine economies.

And whenever you put a kayak in the water, an angler is sure to follow. Jackson Kayak has innovated fishing kayaks for river fishing and paddling for nearly two decades, making the brand a leader in designs for fishing and navigating rivers. The Jackson Coosa, named after a great Southern River, is the perfect example of such a vessel.

When we think of navigating rivers, however, we think primarily of paddling as the only means of propulsion. And while it remains the primary means in most rivers that contain any sort of rapids, kayak anglers have also discovered that sit-on-top kayaks with pedal drives can safely be used in some rivers (for this reason, among others, Jackson offers the Coosa FD as a pedal drive option). But if you fish rivers that do not present much difficulty in terms of navigation or obstructions, then most of Jackson’s fishing kayak models will do.

There are differences between those models, of course. For example, if the river you want to fish does not offer many engineered launch areas, you will have to consider portability over rough terrain. In such cases, the lighter and shorter pedal-driven Bite FD may be the best option. If you are fishing big water that has heavy boat traffic or wave activity, then the Knarr FD is probably your best bet. If you plan to run some faster water, then the Coosa FD is likely the boat for you.

Michael Jenkinson wrote in Wild Rivers of North America, the best thing to do “is try different kinds of boats before purchasing one.” Choosing the right boat may be tricky because most dealers do not hold demos on rivers. Will a friend maybe let you borrow their Knarr, Coosa or Bite for a river run? Maybe. If they do, they are a good friend. Can you learn some things about a kayak in still water? Yes. But there is nothing like taking one out on the river.

I have fished, paddled and pedaled in rivers extensively from both a Coosa HD and Bite FD. The Knarr has yet to take me for a spin, and because it is designed for big water, it probably won’t happen soon. For practical purposes, I will use the Bite FD as my primary example. It doesn’t handle fast water with the same dexterity as the Coosa but it handles it well, and its pontoon hull is great for navigating and fishing rivers that are wide and slow. Some call it the best all-around kayak on the market; I tend to agree. The reason I do is because I have fished it in many different rivers many times, and with both generations of Jackson pedal drives. For this article, I will focus on the new Flex Drive Mark IV pedal drive.

II. Safety with a pedal drive

Rivers are like us: some are good and some are bad, and some contain a little of each. So before I proceed, a note about river kayak safety. Paddlers and anglers should never launch on or navigate rivers that are unfamiliar, or attempt to go on rivers that present dangerous conditions for which they are unprepared in any way. You should know your river well, be trained in all safety and recovery techniques, have the necessary gear and use it at all times, and avoid unnecessary risks. When you are in danger or require rescue, you also place rescuers and first responders at risk. Learn the AWA’s International Scale of River Difficulty and how it applies to your river, know how to consult the USGS gauges on rivers and streams, and remember at all times that a fun day on the water can easily turn into a nightmare when a river changes its mood or mind.
And please don’t think that launching with only a pedal drive for propulsion is sufficient. Always bring a paddle with you in case your drive unit is damaged or rendered inoperable in some way. When you are stranded in current, you are at its mercy.

III. Pedaling the River with the Flex Drive

I live near the Cape Fear River, and I will use it as my test case because it isn’t one river but many. The Cape Fear forms from the confluence of the Haw and Deep rivers below Jordan Lake. I have kayak fished its headwaters, its rocky middle sections and all the way to its estuary on the Atlantic Coast. At times it is a slow, blackwater river, at others it is a braided mess of islands and rapids. Sometimes it can be both within a short distance.
I have fished the river for two decades. In recent years, my Bite FD has gotten to know it, and I even fished some tournaments on the river. My kayak cart has tracked through the grass and rocks on its banks and my hull has tracked its waters, driven by both pedal and paddle power. I have fished it in moderate current and low water levels, run its rapids and portaged around debris. I’d go so far as to bet a fair share of my fishing tackle that no one has fished as much of that river from a pedal driven kayak as I have.

Here are the major lessons I have learned:

1. Stealth. The Flex Drive Mark IV Drive is quiet. Sure, everyone knew that. But on a river you must be able to hear trouble coming (as when you approach rapids or old dams). The advance notice afforded by the Mark IV lets you pull up the drive’s lower unit, buckle down gear, grab your paddle and choose your route through the water (or the portage lane around it).

2. Durability. A Flex Drive’s lower unit kicks up when it touches an object like a rock or stump. This is a useful feature of the drive unit on rivers because you don’t always see a submerged object. Jackson fishing kayaks do have good sight lines and the Bite’s low bow may be the best of them. But you still can’t see everything when there is current or glare.

3. Accessibility. The recess that holds the raised the lower drive unit is accessible through a hatch in front of the seat. If you suspect there is damage, you can quickly and safely inspect the drive, or open the hatch to clear vegetation or fishing line from the prop. Additionally, the unit is easily opened or removed for repair or simply to lighten the load for a paddle-only excursion. This is important if you know you will navigate some faster water or light rapids, because you can move the upper drive’s weight to the back of the kayak, thereby slightly raising the bow and improving weight distribution. Because a drive adds weight to a kayak, I always scale back other gear so as to not overload the boat when I am on the river.

4. Responsivity. The Mark IVs combined thrust, combined with the Jackson FD 3D rudder, makes Jackson’s fishing kayaks very responsive to turns and adjustments. This is very important in current. It is also an art, and you will have fun learning how to make those slight adjustments to keep you in optimal fishing locations, or to keep your hands free as you enjoy the scenery or take photographs on the river.

5. Stability. When you paddle, you move your core muscles and shoulders, and you might shift weight from side to side. A pedal drive moves a kayak differently because it keeps your body straight as you turn the pedals. This balanced stability when pedaling helps to prevent spills, which happen most often when we lean too far to one side.

IV. Review of the Jackson FD

In all, a pedal drive can be useful in most river situations, it can increase fishing time in relation to paddling and the pedal drive can help move through current in ways that paddling cannot. Provided the angler is versed in safety and considers the different scenarios that a river presents, the Mark IV pedal drive can be used in current. There are of course scenarios where a pedal drive’s lower unit could be damaged, so some may not want to take the risk. In such cases, Jackson’s fishing kayaks all paddle well, so anglers can leave the upper drive unit at home, grab their paddle and still enjoy the river or catch some fish.

About the author: Henry “Hank” Veggian started kayak fishing from a Jackson Coosa in 2011 and has been a member of the Jackson Kayak Pro Staff Team since 2019. A tournament director for Carolina Kayak Anglers, he is Communications Director for Kayak Bass Fishing, an educator and ambassador of our sport, and an accomplished tournament angler. His writings on kayak fishing have appeared in numerous publications and a list of his Jackson blog posts can be found here. He currently fishes out of a Jackson Bite FD.