San Diego Super

Fishing San Diego's famed kelp paddies takes practice and patience, but the reward is worth the effort.

February 24, 2004

Finding kelp paddies

As the boat searches along a current break, all hands should keep a sharp lookout for these indicators of kelp paddies:

1. Segments of the paddy protruding above the surface of the water, brownish patches of floating debris, or loose fragments of kelp floating in the water.


2. Wind shadows: The “wind shadow” that forms in the lee of a paddy can be seen from a much greater distance than the paddy itself, especially in choppy water.

3. Birds “standing on the water”: Birds that appear to be standing on the water (as opposed to sitting in the water) will often be perched on a kelp paddy.

4. Groups of Mola mola: Ocean sunfish are a peculiar-looking species known locally by their scientific name, Mola mola (or “Mola” for short). A Mola looks like the head of a giant fish, with rudder-like dorsal and anal fins jutting straight up and down on the very back end of the “head”. Molas often cruise just below the surface with their dorsal fins sticking up into the air, and will go to kelp paddies to be groomed of parasites by resident fish. A concentration of Mola fins in a relatively small area can be an indicator of a paddy.


5. Other boats: When the fishing is a little scratchy, it is not unusual to find two, three, or more boats working a single paddy. When you see several vessels stopped fairly close together offshore, you should head over for a look. If they are fishing a kelp paddy, hail them on your radio and ask for permission to join them. If they decline, or you get no answer, move on.

Paddies sit low in the water, and are easily obscured by swells and wind chop. Heavily overcast morning skies are common during the summer, and produce flat light with a lot of glare. Add these factors to the pitching deck of a moving boat, and it becomes obvious why a boat can drive past a paddy without seeing it. Here are some things that experienced offshore fishermen do to improve their odds of spotting kelp paddies:

1. Use polarized sunglasses and binoculars: Captain Bowman feels that amber-colored lenses, rather than the gray lenses commonly used offshore, accentuate kelp color best. Captain Peter Piconi, a guide and manager of the San Diego Fly Shop, concurs, and also recommends copper when a darker color is needed, or light yellow in low-light situations. Binoculars can also be useful. Gyro- or image-stabilized binoculars are the easiest to use on small boats, but are extremely pricey. A good pair of weatherproof 7×50 standard binoculars is the next best thing. Don’t go over 7x magnification with standard binoculars, as they are much harder to hold steady in a moving boat.


2. Get up as high as possible: This increases your field of view and reduces the impact of glare. In a small boat, this means standing up instead of sitting down. In a larger boat, this means going up to the flying bridge or tuna tower. Captain Ray Chandler, a guide based out of Dana Point, may stop the boat and move to the front casting platform of his center console to gain an extra foot of height when he needs a better view.

3. Learn to time the swells: Most people on lookout scan the water in a circular pattern around the boat. As they look around the boat, they forget that the swell is moving the boat and kelp paddies up and down while the boat is moving forward. This can result in spots that are overlooked because they were on the wrong side of a swell when the lookout scanned the area. To compensate, the lookout must gauge the period of the swell, and scan each area at least twice in the time it takes the swell to go by the boat. The second pass will usually catch areas that were on the wrong side of the swell during the first pass.

4. Look close, look behind: The natural tendency is to look in a forward direction towards the horizon. However, you must learn to continually look close to, and occasionally behind, the boat. You will be surprised how many times you stumble over paddies within a dozen yards of the boat path, or discover that you drove past a paddy a few seconds earlier.


Don’t develop tunnel vision: It’s easy to become so fixated on looking for kelp paddies that you overlook other obvious signs of fish, especially when you are tired or bored. Stay alert!


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