Kayak Fishing Milk Crates: Ultimate Hacking Guide

A milkcrate is the Swiss Army Knife of onboard kayakfishing gear and tackle storage. The tradition originates with the longboard fishermen, precursors of the SOT-yakkers, who bungeed milkcrates to their surfboards and deep-water fished with handlines (and you thought you were crazy!). Many kayakfishing purists have a “thing” about not drilling any unnecessary extra holes in their boats, and a properly-rigged milkcrate can help get around this.

Will they fit your kayak? Real (commercial-grade) milkcrates come in two basic shapes/sizes: the square or four-gallon crate (nominal OD 13W x 13L x 11H and nominal ID 12W x 12L x 10H), and the rectangular or six-gallon crate (nominal OD 13W x 18-1/2 x 11H and nominal ID 12W x 18L x 10H). But bear in mind that many kayaks have a tankwell with slightly sloped sides, so make sure you’re looking at the dimensions of the bottom of your tankwell. The depth of your tankwell may place serious restrictions on where you
can externally mount accessories to your crate, too.

Your crate (or bucket system, or cooler hybrid, if you so prefer) is you, partner. You can hack it and tweak it and customize it to death. You can have different crates for different types of trips (freshwater or saltwater sportfishing, crabbing, shrimping, scalloping, frogging, etc.), and just slap on what you need and go. As you become more experienced at kayakfishing, you may find yourself becoming a true minimalist — but for now, go ahead and get it out of your system. Spend many maniacally happy hours tinkering with that PVC milkcrate-mounted radar antenna, that crankbait-launching mortar, that bimini top, that tuna tower, that hand-cranked daggerboard windlass…..Who knows? You might even invent a totally new and really useful kayakfishing accessory.

Milkcrate Ethics

Those milkcrates cost somebody some serious money. The real problem isn’t people like us, it’s the professional rustlers who steal large quantities and the recyclers who turn a blind eye. Visit your local grocery and/or convenience stores and ask. Many places will cheerfully part with one or two. (Also, you should be advised that milkcrates as we know them may not be around much longer — major retailers are now experimenting with cheaper alternative systems, so you hardcore craters may want to start tucking a few extras away.)

If you have to (or feel obliged to) pay for milkcrates, you can order commercial-grade crates — and special liners and dividers — in different sizes and colors. A Google search will turn up a cornucopia of information. And don’t forget our rigging forums!

Many traditionalists, however, insist that liberating a poor milkcrate, otherwise condemned to a life of alternately being rained upon and shivering in some heartless dairy cooler, and leading that unfortunate container to a life of gliding over sparkling water in the company of true sportsmen, is an act of heroic rescue not unlike pulling a helpless child from a burning building. Only you can decide.

Working With Plastics

Like woods and metals, different plastics are suitable for different applications. Most commercial milkcrates are high-density polyethylene (HDPE). Complete properties charts for most plastic materials are readily available on the internet, so there’s no excuse for not knowing exactly how your materials will perform in a given environment. You don’t really need power tools to do complex work with most plastic materials. As an old-time trim carpenter, I can tell you that your best longterm investment for this stuff would be a good-quality coping saw (a wide variety of blades are available) and a small hand drill or brace with a good variety of bits (including paddle bits and a cheap holesaw set). The difference with hand tools is a lot like the difference between a kayak and a stinkboat. Quiet, low-cost, low-maintenance, minimal fuss, as green as it gets, and infinitely more satisfying at some primal level. A few plastic spring clamps, a decent work surface at a comfortable height and a selection of sandpaper grits should give you everything you’ll need for basic work. Safetywise, obviously, breathing any dust or vapor is highly likely to be not good for you, so take simple, common sense precautions. If you’re working outside or in, say, an open carport, get the wind at your back when you cut or sand. Indoors, you should probably wear a paper filter mask.

Nylon Bolts, Nuts and Washers

When you see most rigging projects involving crates, buckets, coolers, etc., you’re most likely to see any attachments made with either stainless steel hardware or the ubiquitous zip-tie. Why use any more metal (stainless or otherwise) in your crate than is absolutely necessary? Modern hardware stores can provide you with super-tough connecting hardware made entirely from nylon — lightweight, super-strong, non-corrosive and non-conductive. The superior tensile strength of stainless steel really isn’t relevant in most crate/bucket/cooler applications, since any force able to shear a short, properly-fitted nylon bolt is most likely going to tear your crate right out of the boat anyway (and probably trebuchet you all the way to Cancun). “Plastic fasteners” may be made from a variety of materials. Nylon 6/6 — widely available and fairly cheap — is almost always your best bet for most kayak-crate applications, being inert to fungus or mold; resistant to petroleum products and alkalis, etc.; and self-extinguishing to UL 94V2. ALWAYS use Nylon 6/6. Do NOT use acetal copolymer, polycarbonate, PPS, polypropylene, HDPE, LLDPE or any of the other materials that plastic fasteners are sometimes available in. You can save a lot of money down the road by simply bulk-buying one all-purpose longer-length/size of bolt, and trim them to length (a coping saw works great, or you can snip them off with a nipper) inside the crate after snugging them down. To minimize the possibility of items stored in the crate snagging on the nut, just “round them off” with a dab of hot-melt glue and a (very) wet finger. With the availability of nylon parts ranging through standard/specialty screws, bolts and rivets, retaining/finishing washers, spacers, bushings, nuts/wingnuts/acorns, clips, hose/cable clamps & ties, vent plugs… well, the odds are good that you can find ANY weird parts you might need. Additional Tips: Always use washers. The weak link in bolting together any two thin and/or fairly weak materials is in the materials, not the fasteners. Washers increase the area that pushing/pulling forces are being exerted upon. If your application requires spacers, simply get a small piece of stiff nylon tubing with an ID closest to your bolt’s diameter, and snip off whatever length spacer/collar you need. Available in virtually any hardware store. Nylon fasteners are your best bet for attaching accessories (rodholders, whatever) through the sides of hardshell coolers, too. If you use metallic bolts (e.g., stainless), you have essentially equipped your cooler with “heat pipes”, which will significantly increase your loss of cold. Use nylon hardware, gloop the bolt with some slow epoxy, shove it through and washer-and-nut it before the epoxy sets up (and wipe off any excess). Do not use nylon fasteners for through-the-hull connections (padeyes, handles and so on).

Oversized Plastic “Washers” and/or Backing Plates

Sometimes you need to really rigidly secure (e.g., bolt) something to an area of the crate that is either all “diamonds” or solid but non-reinforced, and a cable-tie setup simply won’t do. For round shapes, use a hole-saw bit with your drill (you can get a nested set of umpteen different sizes for two bucks from a junk-Chinese-tools dealer at most flea markets), and go to town on a variety of cheapo plastic items (e.g., dollar-store plastic cutting boards, the flat-thin- plastic sections of spare crates, 5-gallon bucket lids, etc.). A hole-saw bit cuts the disc and the center (pilot) hole in one quick operation. Sets usually have 7 to 9 stepped sizes from around 1″ to 2-1/2″. Thicker plastic melts if you get it too hot, so drill through thicker stuff in small increments or at lower speeds. Square, rectangular, trianglar or really odd shapes can be cut with a jigsaw or coping saw, again from crate or bucket scrap, or one of the potential sources mentioned above.

Lids & Compartments, Shelves and Dividers

Since milkcrates are designed for vertical nesting, you can saw off one crate’s bottom and turn it into a lid for another crate. Cutting off the bottom third just above the reinforcing rib will make an open “lid” a few inches deep, and if you have three crates available, you can make a really nifty combo. Just remember that, in the latter example, you will be able to anchor items like rodholders only to the front and sides of the main (bottom) crate, in order for the lid(s) to open — and vertically-protruding fixtures secured to the back or hinged side (e.g., a light pole) will require a standoff of several inches for the lid(s) to open fully. A broad range of cheap shelf/divider material is available in the dollar stores, from plastic cutting boards (many with built-in handles, handy for clamping or tying things to) to a wide variety of plastic containers(of varying sturdiness). Anything you can take out of the Great Wastestream is a win-win.

Miscellaneous Parts & Connectors

Don’t overlook the possibilities of PVC conduit clamps for securing tubular fixtures (flag and sternlight poles, etc.). They’re cheap, light, strong and readily available in a broad variety of sizes. These provide much better attachment than, say, bolting directly through holes drilled through PVC pipe. And, properly fitted, can even be used to allow things like light poles to slide in and out. Sometimes you need little spacers, standoff blocks, “I-beams” or “L-brackets”, or God knows what else, to properly mount certain additions to your crate. Once again, crate or bucket scrap can come to the rescue, especially the ribbed or reinforced sections. All you need is a saw and a little sandpaper.

Other Milkcrate Storage Options

On many of my crates, I’ve used mil-grade first aid pouches (with the Alice clips removed and replaced with zip-ties). You can secure a “line” of these around the inside of your milk-crate, anchored through the “diamonds”, or fill a few otherwise blank areas on the outside front of a crate for fast and easy access to small but potentially critical items. All of my crates have a pair of these on the outside front wall; between the two, they contain a highly-compact but pretty comprehensive med kit, including one field dressing, one tampon (very effective for deep and broad puncture wounds), a tourniquet, a suture set, and a small selection of disinfectants and critical short-term meds. Other pouch-mountable items might include a small but high-quality monocular or pair of mini-binoculars; that factory belt-pouch that comes with many headlamps; small tubes of bug juice and sunscreen; a disposable space blanket and/or poncho, or… well, you get the drift. Just remember that you can literally wind up “going overboard” with this stuff. Think “vertical center of gravity” and “weight penalty”. If you use a fish billy (I’m 100% catch-and-release, but I habitually tote a red oak tireknocker), you can secure it to clips or sheath it in a bottom-capped vertical PVC tube on the outside (or inside) of your crate. (But make sure to include a small drainage hole for any tubed storage.)

Milkcrate Flotation

Although potentially a real space-killer, sections of pool noodles can be zip-tied to the inside or outside of crates. Bear in mind that 1 foot of standard noodle provides about 2-1/2 pounds of flotation. You might also want to do a little research into denser closed-cell foams; some are available in flat sheet form, and might be used to line crate bottoms or sides with a little less space penalty.

The Crate-to-Kayak Connection

Yes, you want your crate tied securely to your kayak. No, you do not want it tied so securely that it won’t break away under a fairly massive amount of stress. Something — anything, hell, I don’t know, a tree limb, a suicidal billfish, anything — that can snag your crate, can potentially flip your kayak or even drag it under. The generic term for such an object is a “deadman”. Can you guess why? There are umpteen billion possibilities involving bungee cords (or cordage and “cam caps”) that will work just fine. Yes, your gear is precious to you. So is your kayak, but you don’t strap yourself to it with a seatbelt… er, do you???

Yeah, But Can You Get To It??

OK, you’ve finally managed to design The Ultimate Milkcrate — on paper, anyway. It wasn’t easy. Those constant visits from the police about the maniacal laughter emerging from your workshop, the neighbors sadly shaking their heads as you tested that chum-catapult prototype on the front lawn, the endless paperwork securing that permit for your stakeout pole shoulder holster, those suspicious looks from the staff at the plumbing supply store as you asked them if they carried any 11-1/2 degree 5-way elbows… but now it’s showtime, right? Wrong. Before you start assembling all the parts, invest in a bag of reusable zip ties. Hang the fixtures where you think they should go. Sit down on the floor, place your milk-crate the appropriate distance behind you, and practice! Unsecure and open the lid, extract a particular item, close and secure the lid. Repeat, stowing the item away. Learn to do it with either hand. From either side. Without moving the milk-crate. In the dark. Good. Now you can start doing permanent attachments. And when you get done, go test the whole rig in your kayak, on the water.

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