Canoeing - Start Slowly

by Louis Bignami

Canoes put fly fishermen on the best fishing water for less money, less effort and less risk than you probably expect. Most experts feel canoes rank with bicycles as effective "people-powered" transport. Best of all in this too often loud and confused world, canoes relax and refresh the mind and do not overtire the body. All you need to do to enjoy this splendid recreation is to overcome unfounded fears about canoe stability, locate a rental agency on an easy river or sheltered lake and go for it. Then, when you get hooked, it's nice to know that you won't bust your budget as you shop for your own canoe and optional motor, sail, single paddle, double paddle or oar power option to get to fine fishing.

An inexpensive Grumman aluminum canoe gets you onto the action


I started canoeing years ago. Today, my partner and I pack our canoe with camping gear and enjoy remote boater's only campsites right where the fish bite best. I paddle or sail to prime spots to fish rivers and lakes. I add a camo cover and shoot ducks and geese from our boat. When tides ebb we canoe to clam flats. In the spring we often spend an afternoon floating down moderately frisky whitewater. Even a short trip across the lake to a shore picnic more than repays our effort. Best of all, we pay no slip rentals, and need neither a boat trailer nor a launch ramp as we launch and retrieve our canoe down banks without much trouble.

However, canoes do have a price, and that's expertise. You need to learn how to paddle and the basics of canoing before you add your fishing gear. You can learn to paddle on a lake to gain confidence, but after you master basic paddle strokes, move to rivers where currents do 80 percent of the work. You can plan tidewater and flatwater trips to take advantage of tides and/or winds. The best way to do this is with lessons from someone like the red cross or your local whitewater shop. Lessons to start radically improve your comfort and safety! To get your feet and, most probably, other portions of your anatomy wet, you might want try an easy downriver day with a rental canoe.

Try to start on a nice 75 to 80 degree day on water at least 60 degrees so you stay warm and comfortable. Note: safety experts say you need wet suits if the sum of the air and water temperature isn't at least 100 degrees.

Once you locate or reserve a canoe, pick paddles long enough to come up to your armpit while you stand -- paddles run short at rental agencies so you need to search -- to more easily reach the water. Note: before you buy single paddles for your own use, try double paddles that get you there faster and seem easier to use. Make certain that you have and wear life jackets. Sit on flotation cushions to pamper posteriors if you like, but wear life vests or jackets so you float if you dump. Children need special jackets with straps under the legs or other attachment arrangements. It is lots easier to fish out gear in case of an upset if a jacket keeps you afloat!

A good way to see this is to deliberately dump empty canoes in warm water on warm days to practice getting back into and emptying water out of the canoe. Pick a calm spot with little current upstream from a shallow. Realize that, in current, you should always be on the upstream side of your canoe so you do not get caught between the proverbial rock and hard spot.

Do cover up. Sun reflects off the water and the bright inside of the typical aluminum rental canoe and those who wear bathing suits or shorts fry fast! Long sleeve shirts and long pants, a broad brim hat and tennis shoes -- bare feet mean bone bruises when you hop in and out of your canoe -- do the job. Add a windbreaker if you plan an all day trip and always bring bug dope. We find Ben's 100 and other 100 percent DEET effective. Add an extra set of dry shoes and socks -- a complete change of clothing if pessimistic! -- and you are just about set.

Bring a lunch to break up a three or four hour trip during the middle of the day when the weather's warm. A small ice chest -- we like the new Coleman model -- tied into the canoe keeps things dry even in the unlikely case of an upset. You might want to add a short length of line, just in case you want to tie up or an anchor if you plan to fish.

Try to start around nine or ten in the morning when the weather's warm. On moving water figure three to four hours actual paddling time. Most beginners paddle a mile or two an hour and you can add another mile or two per hour for the current on rivers. Don't forget to add in time to portage or enjoy lunch or fishing breaks. The key to first day enjoyment is minimal effort for maximum fun so a short route is best.

Do realize that the key to upright canoeing remains a low center of gravity. If you sit on the bottom of a canoe it's almost impossible to upset it. If you kneel -- a padded cushion protects knees -- your center of gravity is lower than if you sit on the seat.

However, upsets are not likely if you gradually build skills. For example, like many long-time canoeists who fish, I sometimes stand to flycast and to pole my Coleman Scanoe@ upstream on fastwater. Poling, a traditional East coast method, moves a canoe upstream faster than paddles, but it requires special skills best learned by more experienced canoeists. Don't try this to start!!

Two paddlers fit canoes best; three's a crowd, but you can stash kids or duffle midships. If you plan to paddle a canoe alone, sit facing the rear on the front seat and you keep the center of gravity more in the center of the boat as you paddle "backyards -- obviously this won't work with square stern boats. You may need to add a rock or full water container at the opposite end of the boat for balance even here.

Don't get too ambitious to start. A slow stroke, pause, stroke glides you farther for the same amount of effort. Try paddling in a straight line and some easy strokes to each side. You will find two should paddle on opposite sides of the boat and that changing sides from time to time reduces arm fatigue.

As a rule the "captain" sits in the stern and adjusts his or her stroke to the bowman who's responsible for noting underwater hazards. TIP: if traveling downriver, put the heaviest paddler in the bow so the canoe stays in line with the current.

If you take these simple measures, review a canoeing book if you have time and start your first trips with rental craft on safe waters, there's little question but that you might want to own your own gear. To insure this, start with canoe classes at your local YMCA, think about joining the American Canoe Association or your local canoe club. Get hooked, get a canoe and you can canoe for years. How long? I regularly share downriver trips with a couple in their late 70's! With the canoe carrying the load you can relax and enjoy, that's the reason you should find you too can canoe!

Only then should you add fishing gear and discover that canoes are faster than float tubes, carry more than any paddle cat, go faster than inflatables and cost a lot less than anything else. A square-stern Scanoe® that takes a gas sipping motor might set you back less than $400. That's a considerable savings.


  • MAKEN'S GUIDE TO U.S. CANOE TRAILS; James Makens; where to find canoe waters.
  • INTRODUCTION TO CANOEING; Angier & Taylor; good inexpensive introduction.