Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Finding the Right Kayak Fishing PFD - Astral Seawolf and Ronny Fisher

I have been fishing since before I can remember, and fishing from a canoe or kayak for a majority of that time.  Growing up in the 80’s, I wore your typical coast guard approved orange floatation device.  While it served its primary purpose, it lacked one thing… comfort.  If you are not comfortable on the water, you’ll either cut your trip short, or your PFD comes off.  For your typical fisherman, the PFD will leave your body before you leave the water.  This can lead to some very bad things.

As I got older, I started to realize that like many teenagers and 20 somethings, I was invincible.  I was very fit and lived a warrior’s lifestyle.  I never wore a PFD because they 1) were not functional for my style of paddling, and 2) I was in great shape.  If anything were to happen to me my physical abilities would have mitigated my need for a PFD.  Boy was I wrong! 
One day I paddled out for a surf session over a reef in the South China Sea, and experienced a commonality shared by many surf kayakers…  I flipped.  When I went over I got caught in the hydraulics of a breaking wave, while my body was tossed like a ragdoll over the coral below.  I couldn’t tell you how long I was pinned, but I can say that my paddling partner was surprised to see me surface under my own power, and not unconscious.  I got lucky, and this experience stayed in the front of my mind from that point on.

On that note, let me say that PFD not only stands for Personal Floatation Device.  It also stands for Personal Fu*%ing Decision for many folks.  While I understand both trains of thought within the kayak community, I do not want to start the debate on the use of PFD’s.  I have my personal feelings and experiences that drove me to the decision of wearing my PFD when I’m on the water.  Ill talk about what I have found to be my key factors when choosing the right PFD for my style.
NRS Chinook PFD
When I started kayak fishing a lot, I started off with an older Lotus Designs PFD, then NRS Chinook, as it was one of the best reviewed fishing PFD’s at the time.  I fished that PFD for a few years and liked a few things about it. 
  1. It is a high back PFD, making it more comfortable with SOT kayak seats. 
  2. It has large zippers don’t tend to get off track when fouled with sand or mud. 
  3. It is fairly adjustable.
  1. I was not a fan of the material it was made from.  While it was rip-stop, I found that it did rip easier than it should.
  2. It was not breathable at all.  There are no vents and I would find myself soaked with sweat to the point that I looked like I just went for a swim.
  3. The pockets are soft sided, and allow the contents to get wet way to easy.
  4. The Velcro on the front pockets loved to eat… eat my favorite fishing shirts.

The Chinook lasted me a few seasons, but I felt the need to upgrade.  So my next PFD was the Stohlquist Fisherman.  I again fished this PFD for a few years, loving some of its advantages over the NRS Chinook.  Coming in at a few dollars more, I was happy to spend the money for what I felt to be a superior jacket for my style.  The first thing I came to love was the fact that it was missing Velcro (which my shirts loved)!  Next it had hard sided pockets which afforded my gear greater protection on and off the water.  There were still some cons though, that made me continue to search for that perfect jacket.
The Stohlquist Fisherman
  1. It is a high back PFD, making it more comfortable with SOT kayak seats. 
  2. Hard sided pockets
  3. Lack of Velcro
  4. Padded shoulder straps
  5. Unique gear attachment options
  1. The zipper systems are dainty, and often I found myself conducting field repairs because the teeth were stuck or didn’t grab properly.
  2. Again, it was not breathable, and being soaking wet was a common theme
  3. Not as comfortable or easy to wear as the Chinook was when wearing lots of layers or waders.

I would have probably stayed with my Stohlquist had it not been for a series of unfortunate events in which my jacket and I parted ways (and states) for a few months.  So, instead of traveling out of state, I decided I would upgrade and that is when I went over to Astral.  If you remember I started out with a Lotus Designs PFD.  For the life of me, I cannot remember which model it was but I appreciated its comfort and simplicity. 
In searching for that jacket that model I had on the internet, I learned of a company called Astral Buoyancy, which had in all reality replaced Lotus designs in the PFD market place.  I found a company with some bomber jackets, amazing style, and based somewhat locally (in Asheville - the mountains of North Carolina).  They had just launched the Seawolf, and there was some buzz about how amazing this jacket was in the whitewater and touring community.  I looked at it and immediately knew this was a jacket I wanted to try.
Photo Credit: Werner Paddles
Upon trying it on I found some amazingly awesome features that I never thought about in a fishing jacket before. 
  1. The PFD is based to tectonics.  The waist is your anchor point, and the rest of the jacket moves based on your movement.  When paddling hard, fighting that big fish, or even reaching back to grab your gear, the tectonic body is super convenient (and comfortable).  There is also an added benefit of a fleece hand warmer at the torso.  Not a must have as much as a nice to have feature.
  2. There is no Velcro (again, my high dollar technical fishing shirts are thankful)!
  3. The clam shell pocket offers plenty of hard sided storage, without getting in the way of your paddle stroke.
  4. It is light weight, and more breathable than the NRS Chinook or the Stohlquist Fisherman.
  5. It is easy to wear over bulky clothing.
  6. The Denier material is super durable.  With a simple wash, you would be hard pressed to tell that it has been a primary PFD for 3 seasons.
  7. Side buckle closures lets you don the jacket quickly, and makes for easy adjustment depending on the clothing you are wearing.
  8. Super comfortable shoulder padding.
Photo Credit: Rob Choi
  1. The back has padding throughout, which is contradictory to what the market tells you for a SOT.  While not initially as comfortable as a high back PFD, I find that the movement the PFD has, coupled with a proper paddling posture and quality seat alleviates this concern for me.
This is by far my favorite PFD for 95% of my trips.  For those of you that wear your PFD, and paddle hard, this jacket should not be overlooked.
The Ronny Fisher and a 49" Redfish
I was fortunate enough to be invited to join the Astral fishing team in late 2013, at which time I was sent a Ronny Fisher to test out.  Being a hard headed individual, I resist change when I find a product I love.  Initially, I didn’t want to wear the Ronny Fisher because I loved my Seawolf so much.  As I took it out of the box, I gave it the once over and though, “this is kinda cool”, then it sat in the corner overnight.  When I woke up the next morning I found it staring at me, sucking me in with its intrigue.  That morning I found myself late for work because I was going through all of its features.  It is the SUV of fishing PFD’s that can go anywhere and do anything you ask it to do. 

Photo Credit: Rob Choi

Although it is not my go to PFD for my style of paddling, it has many features that are designed especially for the kayak angler.  For starters, it has an integrated hood.  At first, I was not a big fan of this feature, but one day I got caught in a pop up rain cell.  Putting the hood on helped keep my glasses relatively spot free, and while everything I would have used to clean my glasses was unusable, I was ok.  Its this type of thinking that makes me honestly believe that the Ronny Fisher is quite possibly the best fishing PFD for most kayak anglers out there today.
Photo Credit: Rob Choi
  1. It features and integrated hood that while it won’t replace your rain jacket, it will keep your head dry.
  2. 2 fold down hard sided zipper pockets that provide ample storage for tackle boxes, phones, and other amenities.  Both flaps fold down plat to provide you a solid surface to work off of if needed.
  3. A can/bottle holder that zips back into the jacket.  While I do find it cumbersome to paddle with a can of Monster in the holder, I do find it extremely useful for a VHF radio or even a camera on a retractor.
  4. A tool area that has elastic loops for your tools, and is secured with a Velcro strap that is out of the way.  The Velcro is located so it doesn’t eat up my fishing shirts like other PFD’s.
  5. 2 elastic loops on both sides of the jacket that allow for easy gear attachment.
  6. Solid zippers that seem impervious to sand and grit.
  7. A thin, vented back that helps cool you, while making the jacket extremely comfortable to wear on a SOT.
  8. Thick webbing on the shoulder straps that doesn’t dig in like thinner, flimsy webbing.
  1. It almost has too much storage, and I can quickly find myself bogged down by all I can put in the Jacket.
  2. I enjoy the side buckle closure that is found on the Seawolf more than the front zipper on the Ronny Fisher.
Photo Credit: Jack Daughtry
While I admit that I am on the Astral fishing team, and may have a little bias, that bias comes from wearing what I am comfortable putting my name and reputation on.  A company that has high standards of quality, listens to the paddler, and actually solicits input from the community when designing new products.  While brands like NRS, Stohlquist, and Kokatat make some amazing products, my search for the ultimate paddling and fishing specific PFD’s has ended with Astral.
Do yourself a favor and go to your local paddle sports shop.  Ask about the Seawolf, Ronny Fisher, or any other jacket in the Astral line.  Try them on, move around in them, and ask the sales reps for feedback they have received.  If you still have any questions, drop me or any of your local Astral fishing team members a line.  We are dedicated to helping you find the best product for your style!
Ronny Fisher - 29" Speckled Trout

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