It’s 6am on a clear summer Tuesday morning and I’ve got 2 hours to fish before work. Standing on the beach in front of my house in San Diego, I’m watching terns and pelicans diving a quarter mile offshore. My heart starts to race as I paddle out through small waves on my 11-foot standup paddleboard. Most of my tackle is in a small backpack and my fly rods are locked into a crate on the front of the board. As I reach the outside edge of the kelp bed the terns are still diving 40-feet away. I pause to strip 20-feet of fly line out at my feet and lay the rod down, ready for a quick assault. Bait is boiling in small pockets all around me.
I lay my paddle down, pick up my fly rod and watch for the next series of big boils. The instant I see it I make a 50-foot cast, let the fly and line sink for a second and then start double-handed stripping my fly line.
Two seconds later my fly comes to a dead stop and it’s game on.
Fly line is peeling off my reel as the fish races around my board, under my board and towards the kelp bed. I fight back, twisting, and turning on my board, drifting quickly towards the kelp and trying to keep my balance while fighting a fish who seems to know that I’m helpless on a paddleboard. My goal is to keep the fish out of the kelp, or it’s history. I quickly sit down on the board and use my feet like a trolling motor to backpaddle my board away from the kelp while still fighting the fish. After an exciting 10-minute battle, I finally get the fish to the edge of my board, lean down and grab it.
It’s a beautiful, steel blue 10-pound bonito. Bonito fight like a mini tuna, a tough fish for its size and an admirable foe on the fly rod and stand up paddleboard. After a quick photo and release I’m back on the prowl, gliding silently along the edge of the kelp, looking for those terns and boiling bait.
That was a typical start to my day of standup paddleboard fishing here on the San Diego coastline. There are several factors that inspired me to fish from a standup paddleboard. It started with my husband, fly fisherman Conway Bowman. A month or so into our relationship he asked if I wanted to learn how to fly fish. “Sure, looks fun and you’re cute so why not?” Several days later we were two miles offshore, in a 24-foot bay boat. As he lowered a chum bucket over the side of the boat he told me, “If a mako shark happens to jump in the boat just get onto the center console and I’ll take care of it.” Hmmm, I’m pretty sure Brad Pitt didn’t mention anything about sharks in A River Runs Through It, and my surroundings looked nothing like a rural Montana trout stream, but I was game.
That day changed my life. I hooked an 80-pound mako shark and loved every exhilarating, shark-jumping, mako-tugging, release-splashing moment of it! Two years later I married my first fishing guide!
The other important factor influencing my ability to standup paddleboard fish was my passion for surfing. I started surfing in college and was immediately hooked. I surfed as often as I could and had built up a quiver of boards that covered both small and big waves.
On glassy summer days when the waves are small, my 9’ longboard was my board of choice. It could easily glide into two-foot waves and carry me effortlessly to shore. The summer after I hooked my first mako and was already very passionate about fly fishing, I stood on the shore with some of my surf buddies. The waves were tiny and we noticed a school of diving birds just outside the kelp beds. One of my buddies said, “Man, it’s so flat. We should be out there fishing today!” A few days later a handful of us paddled out on our longboards with fishing rods resting gingerly in milk crates bungeed to the nose of our boards and packs full of tackle on our backs. We fished for hours and had a blast reeling in calico bass, sand bass, barracuda, and bait fish. The only problem was that fly fishing from a sitting position on a longboard restricted my casting motion and I could only cast about 30-feet. I needed a solution. A year later I bought a used 10’ paddleboard which was actually just an extra wide longboard. Paddleboards were new to the surf scene and virtually unheard of in the world of fishing. It worked! Being able to stand up doubled my casting distance. Not only could I cast farther, but now I could sight cast and fight fish standing up on a stable platform. It was exactly what I needed.
As my passion for fly fishing from my standup paddleboard grew, I either surfed or fished every morning before work and both weekend days. When fishing conditions were just right and the surf was small, a group of my surf buddies and I paddled out together to fish. The only real hindrance was keeping tackle on the board. In a kayak there are storage holds, bait tanks, areas to tie down packs and tackle and rod holders. There were no such things on a standup paddleboard – we had milk crates and bungees. If you’ve ever paddled through a wave with a milk crate full of tackle and gotten hit by white water, the yard sale of tackle that ensues can be devastating…not to mention you almost certainly lose your sunglasses.
Luckily, I have brilliant surf buddies who saw a need and created a fishing crate that solved all of my problems. Now I could paddle out with whatever gear I needed, whether it was my fly rod and a few flies or my conventional rod, box of lures and a gaff. My gear was secure.
Many years later I’ve taken paddleboard fishing (also knowns as boardfishing) and stepped up the game. I paddle out in the dark hours of the morning at La Jolla for yellowtail and white seabass, often fending off sea lions and even the occasional drive-by from a shark. Standup paddleboard design has greatly improved in the past five years and now some are made specifically for fishing. They provide the angler with a wide, stable platform and tie downs. This means you can store your gear more securely and even bring a cooler, which allows you to be on the water all day.
There are also inflatable paddleboards in travel packs with compact paddles and hand pumps. I take my inflatable boards to the Sierras for trout and as far as the Yucatan Peninsula for tarpon and snook. The benefit of a standup paddleboard while traveling is invaluable. I can slip silently onto shallow flats and into the mangroves where deeper hulled boats can’t go, but I still have the benefit of standing up to sight cast at fish. Then, at the end of the day, I can deflate my board and store it in the corner of my hotel room or tuck it away in the trunk of my rental car. Either way, I can board-fish just about anywhere.
Standup paddleboard fishing has come a long way since I started, but now with the variety of boards available the fishing experiences are limitless. With every fishing trip I’m checking off the long bucket list of fish I’d like to catch and places I’d like to standup paddleboard fish on the fly. I can’t wait to see what they come out with next.
Check out Michelle’s previous Fishing Chick article.