Not too long ago, I was just about to buy a new kayak paddle. Due to the bilateral cervical radiculopathy from which I suffer tremendously, paddling had become increasingly painful. I was losing range, speed, and…most of all…enjoyment. I realized that a big part of the problem was that I was paddling with a longer and heavier paddle than I should be given my medical condition, and I needed to invest in a paddle that was as light, powerful, and versatile as possible.
I fish from a Freedom Hawk Pathfinder, which is a kayak that can require a greater than average amount of energy to propel and maneuver. It is an extremely versatile and stable kayak made for the express purpose of open water transits and stand-up fishing. The kind of fishing in which I often engage. Paddling a kayak is, by definition, a repetitive motion that puts a good amount of pressure on the same spots on the hands, keeps the arms in the same relative positive, and requires low to medium intensity exertion of the same muscles over and over again to repeat the same tasks for relatively long periods of time – sometimes all day. Prolonged or repetitive stress are exactly what inflames the nerves in my shoulders, arms, and hands. On the other hand, this same sort of activity prevents me from losing motor skills and blood circulation due to the same injury. The key is to find a way to do the activity without inflammation. It’s all in finding balance, which can be tricky to say the least.
So I did a lot of research into kayak paddles and the state of the market today: what is available, price range, professional and amateur reviews, technical specifications, design implications as they would apply to my medical condition for things such as bent shafts vs. straight shafts and feathering of the blades, and a range of other issues. Finally, I settled on a paddle and went to shopping for the best price. The paddle was the Bending Branches Slice Hybrid Plus.
In order to triple check my decision on shaft length, I returned to the Bending Branches website one last time right before ordering the Slice Hybrid Plus from one of the kayak industry’s biggest retailers. I was puzzled for a second to see a totally different page load than what I expected. But there before my eyes was an entirely new line up of Bending Branches Angler paddles. Well, that certainly threw a monkey wrench into my plans! Now I had several new paddles to study before I made my purchase, but I really didn’t expect to change my mind. I had learned that paddles marketed as specially designed for kayak anglers generally were pretty silly. Even the previous offering from Bending Branches was a Slice with a ruler marked off on the shaft and a goofy cutout in one of the blades that I really would never use, but sure could be a hassle. For this, BB charged a few extra dollars to fishermen who wanted the ruler on their paddle shaft. No thanks.
I had to admit right away that the new line of Angler paddles from Bending Branches were quite good looking. Aesthetics weren’t going to make my arms feel any better. But I did want highly visible blades for added safety on the water. During the day, bright moving blades are one of your best defenses against other boaters out there who may not see you. In the dark, a reflective surface or decal on the blade could save your life for the same reason. Our vision is tuned to sense motion before it detects contrast. The combination of motion and contrast is a clear “eye catcher,” and good hi-viz paddle blades on a kayak paddle work much like reflectors in the spokes of bicycle wheels work for cyclists in the dark. So this was another feature I was looking for at the same time. My current paddle was solid black.
The next thing I noticed was that the Bending Branches Angler Pro in an appropriate 220 cm would allow me to reduce my paddle weight by over 50%. At 30 ounces, the Angler Pro was a few ounces heavier than the lightest paddles on the market. But its hybrid construction would be a stronger design than a purely carbon fiber paddle could offer, too. I knew this translated into less energy per stroke to get the same work output. The blades would also be less likely to crack under moderate stress, and fishing just requires a few things of a paddle now and then that touring really never should. This seemed like a good balance of features to me, very similar to the Slice Hybrid Plus.
Of course, the Angler Pro did come with the obligatory fish measuring ruler tape on the textured carbon fiber shaft. The shaft was only available in a straight version, but I had decided to go with a straight shaft. It also avoided the variable ferrule, which I considered a positive thing. (I don’t need or trust adjustable ferrules. Just give me the old-fashioned three position feathering holes version and I am good to go!)
What was missing on the Bending Branches website was pricing information. A web search yielded nothing, of course. The paddles had just been introduced an hour ago. So I picked up the phone and called Bending Branches.
I explained who I was and what I was doing. I told them what had just transpired and that I wanted to test the new Angler Pro. Now, I’ve been a major figure in the hunting and fishing equipment review world for the past decade, and I can tell you straight up that I never know how a company is going to respond to that sort of communication. I have a better shot than most, but I figure my odds are still about 50/50. You would be amazed how many people contact every manufacturer in the industry every day asking them for free stuff. It’s crazy! Some companies have to hire an employee just to handle these requests. On average, manufacturers and retailers turn down about ninety-five percent. It requires considerable skill and professionalism just to get enough of their attention to actually consider your request.
Bending Branches liked what I had to say and the way I formatted the proposal. We followed it up with an agreement via email and they shipped me the paddle the same day. It arrived about five days later.
Let me explain how I generally work with manufacturers when I review their equipment. They send it. I use it for awhile. If I am impressed with it enough that I want to add it to my primary gear, then I will review it and keep it. If I am impressed enough that I think it is good for some folks, but not really what I want for some reason, then I will usually review it and send it back if they want it back. If not, I will sell it. If I do not like it, I will almost never write the review. Now, if the product (or service) is a rip-off I will write that review. That is the risk companies take and they know it. Yes, they often get upset and they’ll never deal with me again. Big deal. They aren’t worthy anyway. Some have actually had very good attitudes about it and made huge changes as a result of my feedback. One company went out of business after a major big box retailer cancelled a contract for 40,000 units of their product after reading my review. I had declared…honestly…that I believed their product was hazardous to the public. They threatened to sue me – but I gave up waiting to be served the papers about a decade ago.
Well, I’ve used the Bending Branches Angler Pro for about a month now. In short, it exceeds all of my expectations. The reduction in weight has relieved the pain in my arms caused by paddling by about 50%. The paddle is plenty strong and if you don’t abuse your gear it is quite durable for a carbon-fiberglass hybrid paddle. Down-sizing from a 250cm to a 220cm paddle, I would estimate that I have given up perhaps 10% of my propulsion capacity. That is an acceptable trade off for the amount of pain relief and improved convenience I’ve gained!
The Bending Branches Angler Pro’s blades are the most visible factory stock paddle blades I have ever seen. They are two shades of hi-viz green with a high intensity reflective tape logo decal on both sides of the blades. The blade design is one of the best I’ve used. It’s extremely versatile. The ovaling and diameter of the shaft are excellent and I really like the texture. The measuring tape and graphics are attractive. Even the drip guards are more effective than most.
At Austin Kayak, the Bending Branches Angler Pro currently retails for $299. That is a very competitive price when you compare this paddle to similar performing paddles from other top manufacturers, but I think the Bending Branches Angler Pro has a few distinct advantages. Unless you want a bent shaft, I would recommend you strongly consider the Bending Branches Angler Pro.