In the long arc of paddling history, with dugout canoes and indigenous kayaks dating back thousands of years, innovative new systems have revolutionized the market of small, human-powered vessels in just the last several years.
Among the most surprising twists include companies that have kayak users actually ditching the paddle in favor of a leg-powered system. While more manufacturers have jumped into the pedal-drive game in recent years, Hobie debuted the first system 25 years ago and has continued to pave the way ever since.
“They’re probably the most unique company; I’ve never seen people keep secrets so well,” said Mike Plante, who owns Travel Country Outfitters in Altamonte Springs. “They always seem to be one step ahead of everybody else.”
Hobie’s system has fins that sweep back and forth, mimicking the way a penguin swims, while other pedal drives rotate like the crankset of a bike, turning a propeller beneath the water.
I had the chance to try four different pedal-driven kayaks with four slightly different systems at Secret Lake Park in Casselberry, thanks to some help from Plante. He’s found the appeal of pedal-drive systems has grown over time as he converts more shoppers in his store.
“I have fishermen who come in all the time who want to be purists,” Plante said. “You can be paddling to your favorite spot, but you’re fishing the whole time. People have never thought about that.”
In addition to increasing stamina by using leg power, pedaling frees up the hands to fish, take photos or check maps. Here’s how these pedal-driven vessels stack up.
The Hobie Passport is the company’s entry-level kayak in the Mirage series, which features vessels with pedal-drive systems. It would be hard to call something that costs almost $1,500 “entry-level,” but Hobie knows its audience: passionate explorers and fishers who don’t mind spending money on gear that will last.
Driven by MirageDrive GT, this setup doesn’t have reverse gear but should satisfy the appetite and needs of casual recreational paddlers. As one of Hobie’s lighter and shorter kayaks (10 feet 6 inches long), it picks up speed quickly and maneuvers well through turns.
It should also prove stable enough for occasional fishers, though anglers spending lots of time casting for big fish might look for something more purpose-built.
Also, a note on pedal-drive systems as a whole: If “driving” a kayak using pedals sounds like an odd experience at first, don’t knock it until you’ve tried it. It’s pretty fun.
Pros: The Passport 10.5 costs less than other pedal-drive kayaks. It’s also lighter in the lineup of Hobie vessels and could be transported via car top, perhaps with some help. The kayak is nimble and light in the water.
Cons: The entry-level MirageDrive GT doesn’t have reverse gear, so pack a paddle (as you should always do in case of equipment failure). It’s more suited for recreational trips than fishing expeditions.
Buy this if: You’re a recreational day paddler who wants a taste of pedal-drive technology without breaking the bank.
Weight: 65 pounds, 75 pounds fully rigged
At first glance, the Hobie Lynx resembles a paddleboard with a very flat deck and hull. And while it might be possible to stand up comfortably on this craft, this design is mostly intended to maximize stability while minimizing weight.
When considering that some pedal-drive kayaks weigh more than 100 pounds fully rigged, the Lynx provides a welcome contrast for paddlers who want to lift the vessel onto their car with relative ease.
In addition, the craft is quiet and maneuvers swiftly through the water. In this segment of the lineup, the Lynx comes standard with MirageDrive 180 and adds a reverse gear to the setup. The pedals also kick up upon impact with logs and rocks beneath the water, a feature that comes with each MirageDrive system.
The only big drawback to the Lynx is that a flat deck leaves paddlers feeling particularly exposed to the sun, so perhaps adding the optional Bimini sun shade isn’t a bad idea.
Pros: The Lynx weighs less than most pedal-drive kayaks. The flat deck makes it easy to cast in any direction and keeps paddlers at a nice vantage point above the water’s surface. There’s a good amount of cargo storage in the front and rear with bungee tie-downs.
Cons: The Lynx needs a sunshade to protect paddlers who are particularly exposed to the elements. In rough waters or swells, water could splash up on the deck with its low sides. There may be a sticker shock factor.
Buy this if: You like the design and portability of stand-up paddleboards but enjoy using pedal power.
Weight: 47 pounds, 63 pounds fully rigged
While most kayaks can be used for fishing, the Hobie Pro Angler 360 stands out as a purpose-built machine that might be sought after by fishers spending every weekend on the water looking for a big catch.
This vessel glides like a Cadillac and it’s priced similarly at $5,499. But it comes with all the bells and whistles, including a skeg that can drop down with the pull of a cord and all the controls within easy reach of the captain’s chair.
The real highlight of this setup is the MirageDrive 360, which can turn the pedals in any direction. Hook into a fish and then use the pedals to move laterally toward your catch. The lower-tier Pro Angler kayaks come with the 180 system (forward and reverse) and cost about $1,000 less.
Regardless of the pedal system, the Pro Angler offers a large front hatch for dry storage, plenty of cargo room in the back, rod storage and an H-rail to mount accessories. This is the kayak for fishers who won’t compromise on any features, many of which are built specifically with fishing excursions in mind.
Pros: Outfitted with the 360 system, the Pro Angler is unstoppable when it comes to fishing. At 38 inches wide and nearly 14 feet long, the larger version of this kayak is very stable and suitable for long days and multiday trips on the water. It has all the bells and whistles.
Cons: Weighing in at more than 100 pounds before the pedal drive system and seat are installed, this kayak is incredibly heavy and can only be transported in the back of a truck or on a trailer. In addition, it’s expensive and might leave buyers wondering if they should splurge on a motorized vessel instead.
Buy this if: You have money to buy a fishing boat but like the peace and serenity of a kayak, and if your intended use is primarily fishing.
Weight: 124.5 pounds, 148.5 pounds fully rigged
While Hobie’s MirageDrive is built with fins that sweep and pedals that move back and forth, other pedal systems rotate like the crankset of a bike and give power to a propeller underwater.
Such is the case with Old Town’s pedal kayaks, including the Sportsman PDL 106. Unlike Hobie’s fins, which have to include a separate reverse gear, the propeller can go in reverse simply by changing pedaling direction.
This method of propulsion should feel similar to anyone who’s ever ridden a bike. The downside to using a propeller system is that it might be more susceptible to hitting underwater obstacles.
Ultimately, the Old Town model is still a very capable fishing machine with plenty of features and storage, and one that costs significantly less than some of Hobie’s top models.
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Pros: The Sportsman, which comes in 10-foot-6-inch and 12-foot varieties, is comfortable and stable for water-based adventures. Even the shorter kayak has plenty of storage and features built for rod and tackle management. It’s less expensive than a Hobie alternative.
Cons: Even though this kayak is short, it’s still heavy at 76 pounds. The pedal system shouldn’t need much maintenance but might be more complicated to fix than the Hobie MirageDrive.
Buy this if: You want to enjoy fishing expeditions at about half the cost of Hobie’s Pro Angler.
Weight: 76 pounds, 107 pounds fully rigged
For more information on these vessels, visit travelcountry.com or in-person at 1101 E. Altamonte Drive in Altamonte Springs.