2016 Jackson Cuda Review

Photo: Josh Reppel, Wild Louisiana Tours

Photo: Josh Reppel, Wild Louisiana Tours

Introduction:

I’ve been fishing out of a 2016 Cuda 14 for a few months now, and decided I've put in enough hours on the water with it to write a thorough review.  Prior to this kayak, I'd been paddling a 2013 model Cuda 14, which I'd had for about a year and a half, so it wasn't a huge change.  I really like the (glow-in-the-dark color!) 2013 model, but I felt like a few of the new features in the 2016 model, which I'll go through below, made it worthwhile to upgrade.  The Cuda is quite versatile and makes for a great kayak for the angler who wants to be prepared for just about any fishing scenario, from deeper open water to shallow marsh.  I love it dearly for the fact that I can comfortably paddle a few miles, arrive at a destination, and still feel like I am in a great boat for standing, poling around and sight fishing in the marsh.  Sure, there are wider kayaks are more stable than the Cuda, but to my taste, it has plenty of stability, and I really love to be able to get it moving and get from one place to the next.

Quick Stats:

  • Length: 14' 3
  • Width: 31"
  • Weight: 76/82 (Without/With Seat)
  • 2 seat height positions.
  • 26x6" center hatch w/gear tracks.
  • 2 adjustable rod holders behind seat.
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Improvements/Upgrades from 2013-2016

  • Rod Holders - I believe this feature was introduced in the 2015 version, but the rod holders are now mounted with a locking spline base, rather than a ball mount that I have on my previous Cuda.  The ball mounts were unreliable as they grew more worn, and not really usable for trolling, as they could slip when a fish hit or a line snagged, making it easy to lose a rod.  I lost a nice bait casting setup a few months back when one of mine slipped.  The current setup is much better, and I appreciate the peace of mind knowing that the rod holders are locked in place.
  • Center Hatch Cover Hinging - Jackson has made more changes to the center hatch cover over the past couple years than almost any other part of the kayak.  The original models hinged from the side, and were cumbersome to open on the water.   A small circular hatch was added, but was a bit awkward to use, and is now gone.   Gear tracks were also added at some point, and the center hatch now hinges from the front, via a very solid hinge.  It's great to use on the water, and there are a lot of options for what you want to do with the center hatch storage.  I've been using a home made live bait tank in the center hatch when I fish with bait, as well as for storing some items I like to have with me but don't need to access constantly.   You can also keep extra rods in there, even out on the water, and Jackson makes an ice chest that slides in to the center hatch, which I have yet to see or try.
  • Elite Seat - The seat has seen some improvements, most notably a looser mesh fabric that probably breathes better, and pockets sized for the 3700 Plano boxes.  It also has a much better attachment system that makes it far easier to change positions or remove the seat.  As with the original Cuda, there is a high position and a low position, and that is the extent of the adjustment options.  The low position does move the paddler a few inches forward, which can be problematic if you're maxed out on legroom.
  • Lumbar Pillow - Cudas now come with a Thermarest inflatable lumbar pillow.  Everyone really seems to like them, but I have removed mine.  It's a nice touch for them to add it, but it just didn't seem to make a difference to me, and it felt hotter than the seat itself.
  • Rudder Ready - Current model Cudas are now "rudder-ready", which as I understand it means that much of the installation work (drilling and running tubes) has been taken care of, and installation is now much quicker.  I have not gone through the process myself, so I can't say much about it, but it appears to be a time saving and well thought out addition.
  • Padded Foot Pegs - Foot pegs are padded non-slip rubber now, a nice feature.

NEW FEATURES/CHANGES FOR 2016:

  • Deckpad/Standing Pad - this is a new feature for 2016, and very much welcome.  My feet tended to go to sleep on me in the older model when standing, probably from putting too much pressure on the balls of my feet.  In any case, it’s nice having both the quieter and more comfortable deck.  Time will tell how the material holds up, but it seems pretty sturdy.
  • Storage Bag - The Cuda now ships with a Sealine waterproof bag for the back of the seat, in contrast to the mesh bag in previous models.  It's really a nice feature, and my bug spray, sunscreen, raincoat and snacks now have a home that doesn't have to mingle with tackle or other gear.  It attaches easily via Velcro straps.  It would be great if it was just a tad bigger, and I'd prefer a more solid attachment system, but it's a great addition.
  • Light Removed from Center Hatch - Although I never paddled the Cuda with the small light built into the center hatch cover, from what I understand it was more cumbersome than it was useful.  Clearly Jackson listens to their client base.
  • Accessories - The Cuda now ships with a fish grip and a line cutting ring, as well as a Jackson branded Nalgene bottle, a 3700 waterproof Plano tackle box, and one rod holder for the tracks on the center hatch.  All very nice and useful items, if not absolutely essential.  The line cutting ring from Line Cutterz has been rusting where it attaches, and probably won't last too much longer. 

my favorite Cuda featureS:

  • Versatility - At risk of sounding like a broken record, I feel like it is a good all-around kayak for those of us without room or the budget for kayaks for specific tasks.  I think it is hard to beat in the paddle category.
  • Speed - I actually LIKE paddling this kayak.  It cruises well, and I can keep up with pedal kayaks without a problem.  I don't think that would be true with a lot of other fishing oriented kayaks.
  • Storage Options and Rigging: Between the 26x6" center hatch, the waterproof bag on the back of the seat, the space under the seat and the generous back deck, the Cuda has a lot of storage room and options.  Maybe a double edged sword, but it's better too have too much storage than not enough.  Besides the storage options, Jackson includes copious amounts of bungee in strategic locations for holding rods/paddles/tackle boxes/whatever - Jackson does a great job of thinking out how a paddler might want to use the kayak, and placing bungees in good locations to be used on the water.   Seems like a small thing, but it is really convenient on the water.  In my opinion, the storage options on the Cuda are a close second in terms of its strongest feature, versatility being number one.
  • Stand Up Assist Strap - Exactly what it sounds like.  It doesn't sound like much of a big deal, but I would hate not having this feature, as it makes standing/sitting much, much easier.  I occasionally use it while standing to reach behind me to grab a second rod in the back holders, and it can come in handy when moving the kayak around as well
  • Simplicity - There are very few, if any, unnecessary features on the Cuda, and virtually nothing that could break, other than easily replaceable bungees.    Depending on how you outfit the deck, it can be a good option for fly fishing.  A few of the kayaks I've looked at recently seem to have more latches and things that could break and need to be replaced.  The seat is comfortable and has two height options, but the attachment system is very simple and quick to use.
  • Weight - For a 14' kayak, the Cuda is very reasonable, and can be put on top of a sedan by one person in decent shape.  Personally, I think that it comes in right about at the top of what I'd want to try and dead lift at 4am, coming in at 82lbs with the seat on.  For comparison, the new Wilderness Systems ATAK is 92lbs with the seat.   For those with trailers, that 10lbs is probably not an issue.


 

On the Water:

The Cuda is a joy to paddle, and a very well thought out fishing kayak.  In my opinion, it's hard to beat the Cuda in terms of one boat that is versatile enough to cover long distances, handle choppier water and also fish the shallow marsh; scenarios that are often times found on the same day fishing Southern Louisiana.   I don't think it gets much better for the kayak angler in terms of usability/convenience until you move up to the peddle kayaks.  The Cuda's primary strength on the water is it's cruising ability and tracking; it's easy to get it up to a swift cruise (3-4mph) without wasting a lot of energy zig-zagging back and forth due to the great tracking of a 14' boat.  The trade off for that great speed and tracking is that it isn't as quick to maneuver, and it does require some muscle to turn from a dead stop.   Stability is very good for a boat that paddles as well as the Cuda, and at 6'1", and 220lbs, I can easily stand and paddle the kayak either for sight fishing or just for a chance to stretch my legs and get a different vantage point.   It's actually quite possible to get the kayak moving at a decent clip while standing up, if the wind isn't fighting you too bad.   The stand-up assist strap is extremely useful when standing or sitting, although with practice sitting down without the strap is easily done.   When I'm sight fishing, my ideal process is something like this: paddle standing up and looking for fish, clip my paddle onto my belt when I spot one, grab the rod from the rod holder mounted on the center hatch cover, cast, (hopefully) set the hook, fight the fish until it is easily guided, sit down without the use of the strap, and land the fish.  A lot of times I might jam the paddle into the ground if I don't want to drift around, or I'll just throw it overboard to get it away from where I'm landing the fish (paddle leash attached).  Having the rod mount on the center hatch cover means that if I orchestrate everything well (the ol' kayak ballet), I can do it all without having to bend over and risk spooking the fish or dropping something and making noise.  The rod mount on the ball head does have a bit of a tendency to shift around, so you need to watch it to make sure your rod tip doesn't end up drooping into the water and catching on weeds.

Rigging and Practical matters:

  The Cuda has a high and low set position.  I typically leave the seat in the higher position, although it does paddle slightly better in the low position.  The high position provides access to the under-seat pockets, and I typically store my water bottles, marine radio, fish grips and anchor under the seat as well (also my default "junk drawer").  It's also a bit easier to stand and sit from the high position, as well as providing a slightly elevated viewpoint.   In certain occasions where you know you're in for a long paddle, it makes sense to drop the seat down to the low position.  The two pockets under the seat hold two Plano 2700 boxes - one with tackle (hooks, jig heads, etc), one with lures.  I hang my leader material on the rod holder on my left, so I can usually re-rig without having to dive into the center hatch.  I have an anchor trolley on the left side - paddle leash is clipped to that in shallow water, anchor in deeper water.  AO cooler goes in the back, with room directly behind the seat for the small Pelican case that I use to store my Fujifilm camera and GoPro.  When I think trout are a possibility, I bring a (floating) net and keep it on the front of the hull.   When standing and sight fishing, I use rod holder on the gear track on the center hatch to stage a rod - from there I can easily stow my paddle and grab the rod without bending over or making any movement to spook a fish.  I typically do not use the front storage hatch on fishing trips, although it has proved useful when camping.  It is accessible on the water via carefully kneeling on the deck.  I have considered using it to store fish, to cut down on the wind resistance and create a more balanced weight distribution overall.  When the cooler has a good number of fish in it on the back deck, the back end does tend to sag into the water a bit.   Off the water, the center hatch provides great access to the hull, and I store my paddle in the hull.  Rods also easily slide in, although I tend not to store them that way because I am car topping the kayak and the rods could be easily damaged.  In the future I plan on using a trailer to transport the kayak, and the ability to store rods in the hull will be great.  I've also kept an extra rod in the hull while on the water, and getting it into and out of the center hatch while seated isn't difficult.

 

Photo: Josh Reppel

Photo: Josh Reppel

Concerns and Suggested improvements:

Handles - I don't like the front and back handles.  They’re attached via rope, and they don’t center the boat’s mass, so picking up a loaded kayak and putting it in the water (with two people) is annoyingly tricky due to the off-center balance.  Some of their other fishing models have the hard handles, so I’m not sure why they haven’t changed this feature.  I’ve also noticed that with both the 2013 and 2016 models, the screws that hold in the side handles need to be periodically tightened.  

Seat/Trim/Fit -  The seat still has the front pocket between the legs, which continues to be basically useless because the strap to tie the seat down passes right in front of it, cutting off access to it.  I have never understood the reasoning there.  The engineering solution to keep the Plano boxes in their side seat pockets doesn’t really cut it either.  It consists of a bungee loop on the bottom side of the pocket that latches on a plastic button on the side of the seat.  Unfortunately, the buttons aren't fixed and they slide around, virtually guaranteeing that the bungees don't stay.  For the most part, I think gravity will keep the Plano boxes in one place, but I'd really prefer another solution.  I may just permanently fix the buttons in one place.  The Plano boxes also don’t seem to be accessible with the seat in the down position.  One other seat issue with the Cuda that I would love if Jackson considers would be making the seat system more adjustable front to back, so that on a return trip with a cooler full of fish, you could trim the seat up forward to balance weight out better.  My guess is that the Cuda has reached a point in it's lifespan that it won't get major changes like that though.  Although I've made it work, it's worth noting that the distance to the foot pegs changes by about 4 inches (forward) when you put the seat in the low position.

Rod Tip Protector - I have taken this item off of both of my Cuda’s.  in my experience, while it’s a nice idea, it serves as more of a hindrance than anything else.  I like to lay rods down on the deck momentarily while shifting hands/paddling/etc, and the bungees that hold the black plastic piece down seem to be magnetically attracted to treble hooks.  Once you have a lure embedded in the bungees, it’s pretty much impossible to get it out, and the very front of the kayak is tough to reach while on the water.  I think it could be easily included as a no-charge option when ordering.  If you don’t keep a bunch of rods on the deck, and/or don’t fish a lot of rivers with overhanging brush, the rod tip protector just doesn’t seem that useful.

Paddle Holder - This is another feature that I just can't use.  With the seat in the high position, even with the foot pegs fully maxed out, my legs are bent enough that the paddle hits my shins long before it reaches the paddle holder.  This is another head-scratcher for me; you would think that Jackson would assume that a person paddling a 14'3" boat would easily be 6'1". 

Scupper Holes and Plugs - The scupper holes are an odd shape (I believe to reduce noise), and they are hard to find scupper plugs for.  The Jackson brand scupper plugs have a strap that looks like it requires a rivet, or would have to be cut off, or dangle.  My solution has been to use foam golf balls, which allows water to drain out a little more slowly, while keeping me from dropping tackle and accessories down the holes, and keeping out any major splashes.  Native makes some nice scalloped scupper plugs, which would be lovely for the Cuda except that they aren't the same oval shape.  The other major concern for me about the scupper plugs is the location of the two closest to the seat, which just happen to sit right about where I naturally put my heels when standing.  It's not bad with the golf balls, but standing right on the scupper holes for a few hours is not pleasant.  Seems like they could avoid that pretty easily, but I have worked around it with the golf balls and by moving my standing position farther forward.

Center Hatch Tray - While this is a nice item, I just can't quite understand why Jackson wouldn't have made it as deep as the actual opening.   There is a lot more room there than is utilized by the tray.  There may be a reason for the design, just doesn't suit my tastes.