For  most fans of the plastic angling armada, July 17, 2014, came and went with little if any fanfare, but it was a day worth remembering. On that day, out of more than 700 products and accessories entered by 253 companies in the New Product Showcase at ICAST, the American Sportfishing Association’s industry trade show, the product that was named  “Best of Show” was a kayak. 

The Old Town Predator XL kayak by Johnson Outdoors Watercraft, was voted by buyers and media as the best product in both the boat category and the overall show. It wasn’t the first time a kayak garnered high praise from the outdoor media, nor was it the first time a plastic boat won Best of Show at ICAST. In 2012, Hobie’s Mirage Pro Angler won Best of Show honors, and Hobie kayaks won boat category awards in 2009 and 2011.

Randy Vining of Griffin, Ga., a pro-staff member for Johnson Outdoors’ Ocean Kayak brand, was instrumental in the design of sister company Old Town’s new hybrid model kayak: the Predator XL. This year’s winner and previous Hobie winners share a feature that draws mixed reviews from the paddling set: both are designed to be hands-free. The Predator comes with the Modular Console System for rigging electronics and power that allows for the mounting of a Minn Kota trolling motor as an optional plug-in accessory for hands-free fishing. All of the Hobie winners also touted Mirage drive systems that allow anglers to pedal rather than paddle, also freeing the hands for continuous casting.

“While I am very proud of the fact that Old Town won Best of Show, I don’t think my kayak-fishing friends understand what just happened,” said Vining. “Yes, it was Old Town, but the fact remains a kayak won Best of Show. I mean, think about that for a minute. For those of us who have a passion and have been doing this for a long time and getting stupid looks from other fishermen when we said we fish from a kayak, we just got an award that truly legitimizes our sport. Of all the new products shown at the largest fishing show in the world, a kayak was the Best of Show. 

“I may still get some crazy looks when I say I fish from a kayak, but you can bet there are many more fishermen who know of our sport and want to try our sport after last week. You are going to see a lot more kayak fishermen out there in our future.”

True to form, the Predator XL sets a new standard for fishing kayaks. Although several manufacturers have provided options that allow after-market trolling motors to be attached and steered, the Predator XL is the first successful blend that integrates the function of the motor into the design of the kayak. The plug-and-play feature also allows the motor to be unplugged when traditional paddling is desired. This is a useful feature for anglers fishing in tournaments where only human powered vessels are allowed. The folks at Johnson Outdoors see this as a giant leap for the single-manned craft. 

“The Predator XL will set a whole new bar in what consumers expect in a fishing kayak,” said David Hadden, brand director for Johnson Outdoors Watercraft. “With the Predator XL, we wanted to bridge the gap between fishing kayaks and bass boats and shallow-water skiffs. The game changer is the combination of the Minn Kota motor and foot-controlled rudder system, which allows you truly hands-free fishing.  Now, you can work your local shoreline like a tournament bass angler, moving and casting at every dock, stump or over hanging limb without taking your hands off the rod to reposition your boat.”

Perhaps it’s inevitable that innovation and technology steer the traditional paddling set in new and advanced directions. Despite fear from traditional paddlers that souped-up propulsion systems are diluting the true spirit of the sport, newbie anglers are flocking to kayak fishing pursuits in droves.

Who knows what the future will hold when it comes to additional modifications that will turn a simple plastic boat into a futuristic fish-chasing machine? Until then, we’ll simply enjoy the ride as we continue Palmetto Paddling.