Decisions, Decisions (photo from fishgator.com)
Let's just get this out of the way right off the bat. Price is a huge factor for most folks. I bought my first kayak, used, off of Craigslist for $500. It came with 2 life jackets, 2 paddles, a cart, and some other goodies. I knew I got a great deal, but the boat was not for me. At 17' long it was a pain to store and transport and it barely got used. Of course, it was also during my first year at Duke, which didn't lend itself to much free time. I sold the boat at profit about a year later. That is when I bought what I consider to be my first real fishing kayak. I got it on sale at Dicks Sporting Goods for $175. It was a 10', sit-inside kayak made by Future Beach. I threw a couple Scotty rod holders on the back, bought a more comfortable seat, and outfitted it with a cheap depthfinder. In total I probably had about $300 invested in the entire set-up. It wasn't the fastest or best handling boat, but it certainly did the trick. I caught some big fish from that boat, used it in many a tournament and got every penny of worth out of it. Eventually, I upgraded and it found its way to a new home.
Of course, there are a lot of folks out there at the other end of the spectrum. I remember the first time I saw a Hobie hit the water. It was loaded on a trailer and rigged with more electronics than the average bass boat. He launched, got his pedals set, and off he went. I didn't even see him get his paddle wet. Although I am biased toward paddle power, I bet his luxuries make for awfully comfy days on the lake.
The bottom line with price is buy what you can afford. Know that kayaks do retain their value pretty well - some better than others. So if you are ever going to sell your boat and upgrade, you can expect some of your investment back, much like buying a car. Also, there are good and bad times of the year to buy a boat. Most of the new models hit the market in winter to early spring. Early spring is also the beginning of the paddling season in many areas. Avoid buying a new yak at this time, although keep an eye out for older models that might be marked down. I think the prime time to buy a new kayak is the fall. A lot of retailers are looking to downsize their inventory before winter and offer big reductions on prices (Get:Outdoors and Dicks Sporting Goods are two such stores). The fall is also the time when many impulsive buyers are looking to sell their slightly used yaks that they bought new in the spring and didn't like enough to keep.
A fishing canoe rather than a kayak, might be best for you
If there is a boat out there for under $150, I really don't know about it, but most companies offer boats from $400 to $1200 these days. Some probably go a bit higher than that. I would say the average for a new fishing kayak is currently around $1000 based on the top sellers of the past couple of years. However, these same yaks can be bought used for significantly cheaper.
Buying New vs Used
That brings me to my next subtopic - buying new vs used. New boats have perks. You know exactly what you are getting, there isn't a scratch on it, it will have a warranty and it has that new yak smell. But, new yaks also have higher price tags and sometimes, if the boat is brand new to the market, there may not be much info available about a certain boat.
You can often find great deals on lightly used boats
In my opinion, buying used can have some huge perks. If buying a used boat be sure to check it thoroughly for any signs of damage. Always ask why the seller is getting rid of it and ask follow up questions to be sure their story is legit. If you can, take it for a test paddle (more on this later). Be sure to ask about any original paperwork, warranty info, where the boat was bought, if it has been registered and if it has any known issues. Also be sure to check the serial number (usually located on the keel at the rear of the boat) and make sure it has not been removed or altered. Most folks selling used boats simply want to downsize their fleet or upgrade to a new boat. Their loss is your gain.
Searching for a Kayak
First and foremost, do a little homework. Google is your friend. I strongly encourage you to read reviews and talk to other anglers before anything else. There are a lot of great brands out there right now and they are all pushing to be as innovative as ever. Be sure to check out Jackson Kayak, Diablo Paddlesports, Native, Hobie, Wilderness Systems, Ocean Kayak and my personal favorite - Malibu Kayaks. Some other companies include Crescent, Old Town, Future Beach, Folbot and Ascend. There is a very wide variety in price among these brands as well as some differences in quality. Some, including JK, Diablo, and Malibu, are entirely made in the USA. Others may be more easily found in your area. Shop around.
There is no perfect kayak, but a good all purpose boat (like the MK Stealth 12) can do it all
There are a few things you should keep in mind when initially looking around. What are the most important features to you? These may include stability, ability to stand, maneuverability, speed, storage, price, etc. Do I want a sit-inside or sit-on-top? Most fishing yaks these days are sit-on-tops (SOTs). However, a lot of folks like sit-inside kayaks (SIKs) as well as hybrid yaks. It really is a matter of personal preference. However, if you are looking for a good all-around boat, I would lean toward an SOT. How much does the boat weigh? This is particularly important if you are going to be loading it, solo, onto an SUV or into a truck bed. What length boat is best for you? Generally, a 12' boat is a great all-purpose length. 14' and up is best for lakes, inshore, and other big water applications. Less than 12' is best for technical rivers, small flows, and ponds. Personally, I think a 12' boat is the best of both worlds. I have taken my Malibu Kayaks Stealth 12 on all types of water this year and it has consistently kicked butt. What is the weight capacity? Naturally, you want a boat that fits your build. Small paddlers may not like big boats. Bigger paddlers will need a bigger boat. The great thing is that there are boats available for every size and shape of paddler. What kind of material do I want? Most boats are made of a plastic polymer, but some are now being forged out of ultra-light materials, fiberglass, and even kevlar. The key is to again remember what you will be using it for. A fiberglass boat may not hold up well in shallow, rocky rivers, but will do great on lakes. One other material related thing to rememember is to make sure the boat has been roto-molded. Roto-molding is a process that basically pours plastic into a mold, melts it, and spins it so that it is one solid piece. Some yaks use two pieces of plastic and join them with heat or glue. These yaks are much more susceptible to issues. How comfortable do I want my yak to be? Let's face it, spending hours on end in a small, plastic boat can be hard on the back, legs, and butt. Comfort is important espcially in regard to the seat. Make sure the boat your are looking at has a comfy seat with good back support or can have a good seat added to it after purchase. Other factors to consider include shape, keel design, scupper arrangement, width, and bow height. But keep in mind that there is no perfect kayak.
MK Pro-Staffer Seth Goodrich uses a larger boat for his saltwater needs
Take it for a Test Drive
Now you have an idea of what you are looking for. This is extra-important, because when you hit that showroom floor, the sales folks are going to have at least a bit of bias toward the boat they want you in. Some stores only sell reputable boats. Others sell a mix of qualities. But even if you are buying used, hit a few stores first. Use these trips to verify everything you read online. Check out any issues you might have read about and ask the sales folks any questions you might have. Sit in the boat and hold a paddle in the boat. I strongly suggest that when you sit in the boat, wear a life jacket in order to replicate on the water conditions. A lot of seats are much less comfortable with a PFD strapped on (and you should always wear your PFD).
A test paddle is a must before any kayak purchase!
Sealing the Deal
Hopefully by now you know exactly which boat you want. It is time to shop around with only two things in mind - price and color. Some places will include a PFD, paddle, and other goodies with your kayak purchase. That can be a nice perk, so be sure to factor it into the total price. Other places may offer discounts on less popular colors. If you can deal with paddling any color boat, this can be a good way to save money. If not, search around until you find that color you really want. Again, I urge everyone to keep an eye out for used boats, whether on internet forums, Craigslist, from retailers, or from other sources. Be sure to get all paperwork and warranty info as well. If buying used, I like to get as much info as possible without crossing any awkward privacy boundaries.
And hopefully that does it. You now have a kayak and can begin outfitting it and yourself for your first trip.
Get that new yak...then go get it slimed!