Paddy Whackin'

California kelp holds a mother lode of game fish.

Game fish such as yellowtail often forage around floating kelp paddies, which is why successful anglers know to key on these natural fish-aggregating devices.|

Do you see what I see, at about eleven o'clock?" I asked my friend, squinting into the late-afternoon sun and hoping to catch a glint of burnt-orange on the face of the next swell. After a long, unproductive day of cruising, trolling and staring at the sea surface, I needed affirmation that the patch of kelp in front of us wasn't a hallucination.

As we drew closer, our "fish oasis" revealed itself in all its glory. We pulled in the trolling lures and positioned our 23-foot center console upwind of the paddy, then rigged our bait rods with lively sardines.

No sooner had our two baits landed near the paddy than we were each fast to a yellowtail. Minutes later, two more baits produced two more hook-ups. Jim Hendricks, who was buddy-boating with us on this early October trip, noticed we were stopped and came running in his Cabo 216, Split Decision. Soon we were both involved in an hour-long bite that provided steady action with yellowtail, yellowfin tuna and dorado.

Such is the nature of offshore kelp-paddy fishing, where you can go from zero to hero in an instant. For my money, it's one of the most exciting ways to fish the offshore waters of Southern California and northern Baja. "Paddy whackin'" combines the aspects of hunting and fishing, as you search vast expanses of open ocean looking for that one big fish haven. Even in the midst of an all-day skunking, your spirits can't help but be buoyed by the hope that a mother lode of game fish might be waiting over the crest of the next wave.

Home to Summer Exotics

Starting in early June and running through the fall, kelp paddies off the coast of Southern California serve as home to a variety of summer exotics, including yellowtail, albacore, bluefin tuna, yellowfin tuna and dorado. Actually, they're more like roadside diners for migrating schools of blue-water fish-hungry, weary travelers who know all too well that baitfish gravitate to the shelter provided by the floating mats.

"Before you can catch them, you've got to find them," reasons Greg Stotesbury, director of sales for AFTCO Manufacturing and a blue-water expert who spends much of his free time at the helm of his 25-foot Skipjack, Kawakawa. One of Stotesbury's favorite spots to hunt for paddies is an expansive area known as The Ridge-a chain of high spots running approximately from the 302 Fathom Spot in the south to the 181 Fathom Spot to the north. "Along the entire ridge there's a huge drop-off, and this kicks up a big current that gathers the paddies," said Stotesbury. For these same reasons, many popular high spots in Southern California and Mexican waters, such as the 277 below the east end of Catalina Island, or the 182, 43 and 425 Fathom Spots and 14-Mile Bank in southern waters, all have the potential to hold kelp paddies.

Get Your Whacks in Early

Most SoCal private-boaters know these areas well, so paddy fishing can become competitive when droves of weekend warriors hit the water. However, the willingness to get out there and work harder than the next guy can make the difference between success and failure.

"You need to be on the water early-sometimes long before sunrise-to improve your chances of hitting a paddy that hasn't been hammered by other boats," says paddy-hunter Jim Hendricks. "The idea is to be in the target area-which might be 30 or more miles offshore-while it's still dark. That way you're ready to start searching at first light."

Stotesbury offers a unique twist to this approach. "If there's an area I think is holding paddies, I'll run outside of it while it's still dark. Then I'll work my way back towards shore, taking advantage of the lightening sky in the east. I'm able to see paddies before the sun's even up, while it's still too dark for guys who are heading out."

No matter what time of day you hunt for paddies, it's important to have good eyes aboard your boat. Every crew member should play an active role in the search for paddies, and a good pair of 7 X 50 marine binoculars can be a big help. Powerful, gyro-stabilized binoculars have gained favor with serious offshore anglers (Stotesbury said his crew has used these binocs to spot paddies at a distance of three miles); however, they can run from $1,000 to more than $4,000 a pair.

The paddies that form off Southern California and northern Baja often hold yellowfin tuna (above), along with an assortment of other popular species, during the summer and fall.|

Getting as high as possible above the water also helps. During the paddy season, it's not unusual to see two or three anglers on a flying bridge, "glassing" the horizon with binoculars. This isn't an option on an open boat like mine, so I often buddy-boat with other small boats. By working as a team and staying in visual or radio contact, we're able to effectively cover a much larger area of water.

Choose Your Weapon

Once you spot a paddy, the fun really begins. There are many different ways to fish the paddies with live baits or artificials. If you're trolling, pulling your lures past the paddy will often draw a strike. The most common method is to drift by the paddy while fly-lining a live anchovy or sardine on a 15- or 20-pound conventional outfit.

Stotesbury tailors his approach to each paddy by using his depthsounder. "If I've seen a lot of paddies without fish on them during the day, I'll likely meter around each one to look for bait and fish and continue on if I don't see anything," he said. "If a paddy looks really fishy, with birds on it, bait flipping on the surface or fish swimming around, I'll approach in full stealth mode."

This means slowly motoring upwind and positioning the boat to drift by the paddy transom-first. The idea is to cast your bait next to the paddy, not in it, so it's not necessary to be right on top of it. Keep your reel in free-spool with enough thumb pressure to avoid an overrun. When the bait is picked up, count to three before setting the hook.

Experienced paddy anglers usually keep a heavy chrome, blue/white or "scrambled egg"-colored jig ready to drop down to deep-holding fish. "If I'm marking fish deep, I'll drop a heavy iron down to 200 or 300 feet, then crank it back to the boat," said Stotesbury.

Slow-trolling a live sardine around the paddy can be very effective too, even after everything else has failed. "Novice boaters mistakenly believe they have to fish right on top of the paddy," said Hendricks. "Game fish tend to circle around the paddy, and you can find them quite a distance away, even a quarter-mile off." As I've witnessed many times while fishing with Hendricks, making a large circle with a slow-trolled live bait is a great way to locate fish.

"Another common mistake is giving up too easily on a promising paddy," Hendricks added. "People often soak a few baits and then move on, even if there's good sign. If I'm marking fish on my sounder or just have a strong feeling about a particular kelp bed, I'll work it really hard and try everything in my arsenal before moving on."

Sage advice, but easier said than done when you know there could be a magical "dream paddy" just over the horizon. Some days you'll find it, some days you won't. It's all part of the paddy-whackin' game.

Spinnerbaits are available in tackle stores throughout the country, as well as through mail-order houses. However, you can easily create your own by buying some add-on "safety-pin" spinners and attaching them to your favorite jigs. Hildebrant, Cabela’s and Bass Pro all sell add-on spinners. Be sure to buy big-blade models (size 4, 5, 6 or even larger) in both willow-leaf and Colorado shapes.

If you want to get fancy, try adding some strips of prismatic tape to your blades or the safety-pin arms. This can work wonders at drawing fish from long distances. The tape is inexpensive, and is available through mail-order catalogs. I'’ve found that red, chartreuse, silver and gold are good colors for reds.

TEN TIPS FROM THE PADDY PROS

Go deep: Drop down a heavy jig or live bait with a sinker and you'll pick up fish the other boats have missed.

Go light: Have a light bait rod loaded with eight- or ten-pound test at the ready for those "high-pressure" days when fish are line-shy.

Chum 'em up: Mix some chunked dead bait with the occasional live bait to keep the fish around your boat.

Fish 'em all, big and small: Don't hesitate to investigate small paddies, especially when they're few and far between.

Look for groups: Paddies tend to break apart and congregate along current lines. When you locate one, search hard for others nearby.

Get wired: A GPS/chart plotter combo can provide a useful graphic reference of where you're finding paddies, so you can establish a pattern.

Tactical trolling: Trolling with feathers or diving plugs can help you pick up fish between paddies. It also forces you to slow down and look carefully.

Vary your course: Don't run directly from point to point. Instead, vary your course by 20 or 30 degrees. This will help you fish water untouched by other boats.

Unlock your fish: If a hooked fish becomes tangled in the kelp, move up close to the paddy. This gives you a better angle on the fish, and may convince it to swim out of the vegetation on its own.

Practice paddy etiquette: Never infringe on another boat's kelp paddy. If you've had a long, desperate day, hail the skipper on the radio or approach his bow to ask if you can slide in.