In our previous posts on this topic, we talked about why kelp paddies are important to BTB fishermen, and how to locate them. In this post, we talk about some of the subtleties in fishing them. Our next will talk about tackle and gear.

The Approach

You’ve spotted a kelp paddy. What next?

Working a kelp paddy with a fly rod

Working a kelp paddy with a fly rod. Not too close! Click for a larger image.

  • The first order of business is to make sure that you don’t lose it. Tracking a paddy is easy in calm waters with no wind. But once the weather gets a little snotty and the swell is big, it is amazingly easy to lose track of a paddy. You should immediately mark a waypoint on your GPS. If you are fishing with other people, don’t take your eyes off of it until someone else also sees it.
  • Your next step should be to check the paddy for fish. But don’t get too close. The fish are usually using the paddy as a feeding station or a navigation reference point, not for cover. Some fish may be right under the paddy (dorado and yellowtail in particular), but a large number of fish will also be cruising the perimeter of the paddy or chasing schools of bait dozens of yards away. Don’t put them down by running over them with the boat
  • If you are trolling when the paddy is spotted, stand off at least 50 yards and circle the paddy once or twice with the trolling gear, keeping an eye on the sonar unit for deeper fish, and an eye on the surface for signs of fish around the paddy. Many of the San Diego party boats have side-scanning sonar, and may simply drive past the paddy while scanning it, only stopping if they see fish on the sonar.
  • If you are not trolling, or if you have trolled around the paddy without results, approach the paddy at idle speed. The late Captain Ray Chandler used to recommend approaching with the sun at your back, to improve your ability to see under the paddy.
  • As you move forward, you should be scanning a 50 – 100 yard circle around the paddy for signs of fish. You may see fish under the paddy, fish cruising around just under the surface, V-wakes or boils of feeding fish, the flash of larger fish moving well beneath the surface, or frightened baitfish skipping across the top of the water. You may also see fish as much as two hundred feet below the paddy on the sonar display.
  • If you don’t see any signs of fish at all, you should probably move on. However, if you can not get a good look at the paddy because of water or weather conditions, “better safe than sorry” – treat the paddy as if it is holding fish.

The General Idea…

Kelp paddy yellowtail, light tackle

Bob Bible caught this nice yellowtail off a kelp paddy near the 181. On 10lb test mono on a heavy freshwater spinning rod, no less!

  • To begin fishing a paddy, use its wind shadow to help determine which way the boat will drift. Most fishermen position the boat upwind and to one side of the paddy, so that it will come within 15 – 20 yards of the paddy as they drift past. How far upwind to start the drift depends on how hard the wind is blowing, and how deep the fish are, but in most cases 30 – 50 yards is sufficient. If the drift is really fast, we often use a drift sock to slow the boat.
  • Also keep in mind that boats tend to drift with a certain orientation relative to the wind. For fly fishermen, take into account the position and casting hand of the people that will be fishing, and position the boat on the side of the paddy that maximizes their ability to fish effectively. My boat drifts with the bow down-wind, which means that if I have a right handed caster on the bow, I will position the boat to drift by on the right side of the paddy. If I am fishing by myself, I will drift down the left side, because I will be casting from the stern (and I’m right-handed!).
  • As the boat drifts towards the paddy, the angler makes quartering downwind casts towards the paddy, allows the fly to sink if required, then starts a retrieve. Occasional blind casts should be directed away from the paddy to intercept any fish swimming out away from the kelp. Casting continues until the boat has drifted roughly 50 – 150 yards past the paddy.
  • If no one has hooked up by then, and you can’t see any fish around the boat, the boat is moved back to the starting position, and the process is repeated.

Some Thoughts for Fly Fishermen…

  • When conventional fishermen work a kelp paddy, they usually immediately begin chumming with small chunk bait, live anchovies or small sardines. This technique is very effective at exciting the fish, but indiscriminant chumming with live bait can cause problems for fly fishermen. As Captain Bowman points out, “The problem with using live anchovies or sardines as chum is that once the fish key in on live baitfish, it becomes much more difficult to get them to take a fly. The fly has to match the chum very closely and be moving very fast. Otherwise, the fish will just follow the fly, or ignore it.
  • Several different techniques have been developed to address this problem. Captain Bowman prefers not to chum with live bait, choosing instead to use frozen ground fish. This type of chum is available in 1 and 5 gallon buckets through local tackle shops, and is usually used for sharks. He places a bucket of chum off the stern of his boat, and make repeated drifts by the paddy. “The scent and bits of ground-up fish get the yellowtail and tuna excited, but doesn’t feed them. It may take 5 or 6 passes before the fish go off. But each pass creates a stair-step or ladder effect in the chum slick, which the fish follow to the surface.” says Bowman, “I have had fish follow the chum slick up from a depth of over 70 feet.”
    Mega Bonito from a kelp paddy near the 182 Bank

    Bonito can also be found near offshore kelp paddies. This guy was a shade over 12lbs

  • Bowman may augment the chum slick with a limited amount of other bait. Sometimes a few live anchovies or sardines are tossed out at the start of a drift, other times chunks of dead anchovies or sardines are used. But he keeps it to a minimum to avoid feeding the fish.
  • Floyd Sparks, owner of Floyd’s Flies and an experienced offshore fisherman, takes a slightly different approach. He chums with live bait as he would with conventional tackle. But he also fishes side-by-side with a conventional tackle fisherman. In his experience, the extra activity generated by the fish hooked on conventional gear will often excite the fish enough to prevent them from keying in on the live bait.
  • A moderate-to-fast, steady strip is the norm when presenting the fly. Two handed retrieves are used when maximum speed or line control is needed, but be mindful that a fast retrieve is not always the ticket. Larger yellowtail, for example, will sometimes prefer a fly presented on a dead drift. This trait can be a blessing when there are lots of small (4-6 pound) yellowtail mixed in with bigger fish. These “rats” are very aggressive and will intercept a fast-moving fly before a larger fish can get to it. However, they will usually ignore a dead-drifted fly. The angler can take advantage of this behavior by making a long cast and letting the fly sink without stripping line. With a little luck, the larger yellowtail will pick off the fly once it clears the smaller fish. The angler needs to stay alert, as the strike may be subtle. Captain Bowman’s largest yellowtail, a fish over 25 pounds, was caught off a kelp paddy in this fashion.
  • Another approach is to cast downdrift as far as you can, and let the fly line sink with as little drag as possible. This will mean stripping out line as the boat catches and passes the fly line. Lines such as Rio’s T-14 or Cortland LC-13 sink at roughly 10″ per second, so a 60 count (or about 1 minute) will put the fly down around 50′. A side benefit of this approach is that you will likely be drifting away from the paddy by the time the fly sinks to the target depth, which will add some additional speed to your retrieve. Unfortunately, this form of fly fishing is painfully slow, and not that useful when you’re prospecting. But if the fish are really deep, this may be your only choice.
  • A third approach is to use conventional tackle to hook a fish and bring it to the surface. This often brings other fish up the water column, where they can be reached with much less effort by fly fishermen. We’re partial to using metal jigs for this approach, either the traditional heavy metal jigs, such as those made by Salas, Tady or Sumo, or the newer Japanese Deep Jigs, such as the Butterfly jigs from Shimano, or the Knife jigs from River2Sea. We’ll be posting an article soon on these Japanese deep jigging systems and their application to BTB fishing. We have to admit, we enjoy using the these system more than the traditional California yo-yo jigs, but we’re not convinced yet on their effectiveness for our conditions.

After the First Pass…

  • Fish will often follow the boat as it drifts away from the paddy, especially if you are using chum. You may also run into some of the fish that are swimming out away from the kelp. Tuna in particular, may be up to two hundred yards down-swell. How far you should drift past the paddy before firing up the motor and going back for another pass? Obviously, if you are catching fish, there is no reason to go back, unless you don’t like what you are catching. Even then, it may pay to wait. It is not unusual for a drift to “convert” between different species over time. You start by catching one type of fish near the paddy, but as the boat drifts away, the first species disappears and is replaced by a different one. This is especially true when yellowtail and tuna are both present, or when skipjack tuna are around. In the first situation, you will catch yellowtail closer to the kelp paddy, but as you drift away, the yellowtail are replaced by tuna. In the second case, you may be catching lots of skipjack, when suddenly yellowfin or bigeye tuna appear behind the boat.
    Kelp paddy GPS trace

    GPS trace from a successful stop.

  • As you drift away from a paddy, be sure that you keep track of its location. The boat could be several hundred yards away from a paddy after fighting a fish, and a small boat may get spun around by tippet pressure. If several people get hooked up, everyone will be paying attention to their fish, not the paddy, and when order is restored to the cockpit, everyone will suddenly realize that they have no idea where the paddy went, especially if the swell and wind chop are big.
  • Having a GPS on board makes it easier to find the paddy again, but it is not always a straightforward process. Boats usually drift in the direction of the wind, while kelp paddies drift in the direction of the current. Since the wind and current will sometimes have different headings, simply backtracking along your GPS track may not be enough. To find a lost paddy, return to its last recorded location, and take an educated guess at the direction of the current. Begin to circle the area in an outward spiral, starting in that direction. Increase the radius of the spiral about 25 yards on each pass. Eventually, you will find the paddy.
  • Mark its new position in your GPS. If you lose it again, use the last two waypoints to project the heading and speed of the paddy, and simply drive to the projected location. The illustration included in this article is a GPS trace from the Kidney Bank area off of Ensenada, Mexico. The kelp paddy being fished produced several yellowtail in the 13 – 15 pound class and numerous “rats”, even though the water and weather conditions were very tough – dirty green water, 4 foot building seas with 2 foot wind chop, and 15 mile per hour winds. The technique described above was used to return to the paddy several times, even though we lost track of the paddy on every drift.
  • It’s not unusual for the fish to be deep below the paddy. 50 – 200 feet is not uncommon. What can fly fishermen do in these situations? Captain Bowman described one approach – use chum or chunks to try to draw the fish higher.
    Kelp Paddy Yellowtail

    Tim Burwell with a nice firecracker (photo by Jon Nakano)

Fighting the Fish

  • Yellowtail are notorious for heading straight into the paddy after being hooked. For this reason, most fishermen will hang on to the fly line and fight the fish by hand until it has moved away from the paddy and can be safely put on the reel. When the fish are moderately large, and you are fishing close to a paddy, 13wt and heavier rods with 20lb test or heavier tippets are needed to stop the fish, along with working rod angles low and to the side to try to coax the fish to swim below or to the side of the paddy. Even then, expect to be on the losing end of the battle more times than not.
  • Tuna and dorado, on the other hand, usually stay clear of the paddy after they are hooked, and should be put on the reel as quickly as possible. Generally speaking, once the fish is clear of the paddy, you’re home free, other than the usual problems of fighting a big fish.
  • Great care needs to be taken to keep track of loose fly line, as it may get stepped on, or worse yet, trip someone moving around the boat. We find a VLMD to be a very useful tool, but many people also use stripping baskets or stripping mats.
  • Hooked fish should always be kept in front of the angler to avoid tangles. Do not allow a hooked fish to run a side angle or under the boat unless there is no one else hooked up. This may mean moving around the boat, or ducking the rod into the water to clear the keel or lower unit of the motor.

Next up: Tackle & Gear