Paddle Pursuit

Justin Carter catches a trout.

Powerboats can be a real hassle. An afternoon on the water can quickly turn from relaxing to stressful when engines fail, trailers rust and repair bills keep piling up.

Fishing from shore? That can get old.

It’s no wonder more and more anglers prefer to paddle.

“I got into kayak fishing because I was ready to get off the bank and stop relying on my buddies to take me out on their boats,” said Justin Carter, a kayak fishing guide. “It started out as a hobby, but now it’s a full-blown obsession.”

Saving money is hardly the only reason that an increasing number of anglers turn to paddle power when it’s time to stalk redfish and trout.

Over the past several years, kayaks and stand-up paddleboards (SUPs) have evolved into serious fish-slaying machines, high-tech platforms that allow anglers to silently slip into the extreme shallows where fish least expect to be hunted.

Kayak and SUP fishing are new only in awareness, originating with surfers in Hawaii who paddled out to the offshore reef with fishing poles and Eskimos who fished from seal-skin kayaks. Still, it was only a decade ago that most fishermen still balked at the suggestion of netting trophy fish from a kayak.

New designs that made it possible for people to stand in kayaks led to an explosion in kayak fishing and a rapid evolution of personalized fishing vessels.

SUP anglers hope their passion will follow a similar track.

“I think you’ll see all kinds of innovation and new rigging in the next few years,” said Charleston Watersport owner David Clifford. “SUP fishing will be a norm before long.”

Anglers hoping to try out paddle-powered fishing have plenty of options and decisions to make, with boat and accessory packages ranging from under $1,000 to nearly $3,000. Manufacturers such as Jackson, Perception, Hobie, Wilderness Systems and Dragonfly Boatworks offer a range of kayaks, SUPs and newfangled craft that are a hybrid of the two.

Most retail outlets selling SUPs and kayaks offer daily rentals to get a feel for a boat.

The redneck sleigh ride

“Come on and take a redneck sleigh ride/ We’ll put you on the water today/ Catch some reds and chase your blues away,” goes a cheesy but catchy tune that plays at fishing charter outfit KayakFishSC’s website.

Carter guides tours for KayakFishSC in the waters between Copahee Sound and Sewee Bay behind Bull Island. A lifelong fisherman, Carter discovered early on that it only takes one redfish pulling you on a “redneck sleigh ride” to hook someone on kayak fishing for life.

Although he owns several boats by various manufacturers, Carter’s vessel of choice these days is a Hobie Mirage Pro Angler. Hobie’s boats are unique in their incorporation of their MirageDrive pedal system, which allows kayakers to use their feet to propel themselves forward rather than relying solely on a paddle. When you’re trolling against the tide or just trying to switch out tackle, two free hands guarantees more time with bait in the water.

Carter’s set-up hardly resembles the simple sit-on-top kayaks many casual paddlers may have encountered.

“If you name it, it can be put on a kayak,” Carter said, including a battery-powered live well and the outboard engine mount that Hobie offers for the Pro Angler.

Outfitted with adjustable Scotty rod holders, a stake-out pole, a built-in cutting board and ample dry storage, Carter’s Pro Angler appears equipped for a trans-ocean voyage when fully rigged.

“If the Hobie Pro Angler went camping, it would be an Airstream,” jokes John Henderson, a manager at TimeOut Sports, one of Hobie’s local retailers. “It’s a human-powered micro-skiff.”

Tideline met Carter at Garris Landing in Awendaw for an afternoon of fishing the flats at high tide. With hands free to control the rudder and swap out lures, all that was necessary to “paddle” along the Intracoastal Waterway are one’s feet. Upon reaching the flats, Carter disengaged his drive system, grabbed his telescopic Superstick push-pole and stood up in the boat to look around.

Just a few years ago, that wouldn’t have been possible without extreme confidence in one’s ability to balance a wobbly kayak. But the wide hull of the Pro Angler and most other fishing kayaks makes standing as easy as it would be in any small johnboat.

To take full advantage of his kayak’s stability and peddle-power option, Carter brings along an arsenal of fishing rods, pre-rigged for various fishing scenarios. A few are set up for live baits, others for casting soft plastics, still other for trolling behind the boat.

Carter recommended using 7-foot poles, as opposed to the more common 6-footers, to ensure that you’ve got enough length to work a fighting fish around the boat’s bow.

Carter’s kayak-fishing lure of choice is the 4-inch Z-Man Paddlerz, manufactured in Ladson. He rigs these on 15-pound-test fluorocarbon leader with 15-pound-test braided mainline. Carter likes the Z-Man baits because of their durability — he says he once caught more than 30 fish with one soft-plastic lure.

“A lot of kayak fishermen are on a budget, so finding tackle that lasts is important,” Carter said.

Stand up and cast

Charleston Watersport owner David Clifford doesn’t mind sitting down, but he’d rather be on his feet.

“I haven’t been passionate about fly-fishing in years, but I’m about to take it back up, mainly because of these boards,” he said, acknowledging the Dragonfly Boatworks stand-up paddleboard cutting sleekly through Shem Creek beneath him. “Paddleboard fishing is one of those things that I see gaining a lot of momentum in two to five years, with competitive regional and national series emerging like they have with kayaking.”

To that end, Clifford organized June’s Stand Up & Cast SUP Fishing Tournament with Dragonfly and Haddrell’s Point Tackle and Supply. Billed as the first SUP fishing tournament of its kind in South Carolina, the event drew 10 competitors and produced catches of trout, redfish, bluefish and blacktip shark.

Clifford’s custom Dragonfly board includes tie downs on the bow, a screw-in cooler that doubles as a seat and mounted lights that allow him to gig from his portable platform. For rod holders, he uses a milk crate outfitted with PVC tubes that provides extra storage and fast access — a handy do-it-yourself piece of gear that can be used to turn almost any kayak or SUP into a fishing vessel.

Vero Beach, Fla.-based Dragonfly builds molded, hollow-hull SUP boards that provide both the buoyancy and stability necessary to safely cast and fight a. Their most notable innovation may be their 12-inch long, 3-inch deep fin, which provides incredible stability and solid tracking while allowing the board to navigate through as little as 4 inches of water.

“I can get into places that even kayaks can’t go,” Clifford said. “I’ve been out with kayakers who were kicking mud up while I cruised over the top. I was spotting fish for them and telling them where to cast.”

SUP boards balance the advantage of a flats boat’s higher viewpoint with the stealth and accessibility of a kayak. Clifford has even used his paddleboard for duck hunts, and he plans to target marsh hens in the near future. He sees SUP fishing as a tool to round out the arsenal of an all-around waterman.

“It’s not going to replace your boat, and it’s not meant to. SUPs are meant to add to your opportunities and accessibility,” Clifford explained.

Ease of use is key.

On his way to work on Coleman Boulevard, it’s not uncommon to find Charleston Watersport’s Clifford dropping his SUP into Shem Creek for a few quick casts before heading back to the office. Unlike unloading and maneuvering a boat and trailer, a paddleboard can get you on the water in minutes.

When it comes to gearing up for a paddleboard trip, less is more,” Clifford said. “I’ve probably got 500 pounds of tackle, but on the SUP I bring a couple of Plano drawers and that’s it. You’re not going to bring the whole kitchen sink with you.”

Clifford keeps his paddle wedged underneath his cooler/seat while he’s fighting a fish. His best advice for staying dry is simply not to think about it — the boards are designed to balance you, so falling in requires gross human error.

“Start by going out without all your gear, until you get used to it,” says Clifford. “Once you’re comfortable, you’re more in touch with the water because you can see everything around you. That’s what gets me pretty stoked about the whole fishing side of paddleboarding.”

Sit, stand — whatever

It was a rare cool summer evening, the night before the longest day of the year. There was hardly a breeze, yet the mosquitoes seemed to have forgotten to come out and feed as we cruised along the grass line of the Folly River on Native Versa Boards.

Designed as a hybrid between a kayak and SUP, the Versa Board may be the most versatile paddle-powered fishing vessel currently available. What it lacks in the Hobie Pro Angler’s bells-and-whistles or the Dragonfly’s sleek design it makes up for in sheer usability. Anglers can use it as a stand-up paddleboard or sit-on-top kayak.

TimeOut’s Henderson often recommends this board for beginners.

“Wearing your swim trunks and jumping in can be half the fun, but if it’s winter and you don’t want to fall, the Versa Board is a solid, stable option. With this boat, I know I’m not going to go over.”

Like a SUP but thinner, the Versa Board is easier to throw on car roof racks than a kayak and can even be stashed on your motorboat, opening up options for a full day on the water.

Fishing tips

Perfect conditions for SUP or kayak fishing generally mimic those you’d look for in a small motorboat, although wind can be even more of a factor when you’re self-propelled. Look for days with no more than 10 mph winds and minimal chop on the water surface.

Both high and low tide offer their own benefits.

The higher tides of the new and full moons are ideal times to fish super shallow, pushing into flooded marshes and mud flats that don’t normally hold water at a regular tide. Redfish flock to these low-pressure feeding areas for the chance to score an easy dinner of fiddler crabs.

Even at low tide, a kayak or SUP can open up access to expansive flats that may still hold 4 to 8 inches of water, yet be unreachable with even the best flats boat.

“You’re looking for a firmer, sandier bottom with shorter grass,” explains KayakFishSC’s Carter, who recommends starting along the ICW behind Sullivan’s and continuing north all the way to Bulls Bay. “That whole area is loaded. Look for channels that run from taller grass out into the shallow grass.”

Once on the flats, look for three things. When redfish are sucking a crab out of its burrow, their tell-tale tail flitters at the surface of the water. Other times, their dorsal fin will break the surface of the shallow water or the fish will leave tell-tale wakes as they aggressively move about looking for food. Finally, listen for the obvious splash when a big fish slams school of finger mullet or shrimp in the shallows.

When you spot fish moving through the water, standing on a kayak or SUP gives you the opportunity to cast into the fish’s track.

“Fish don’t want to waste energy chasing after bait,” said Carter. “Throw it out in front of where the fish is coming by and then bring it into its field of view. Make it look natural and easy to catch.”

At lower tides, kayaks and paddleboards have advantages around docks and in open rivers and creeks. Whereas a motorboat has to work out and around docks, a kayak or SUP can maneuver along the grass line and scoot under boardwalks, maximizing the time bait stays in the strike zone.

Whatever the tide, anglers on kayakers and paddleboards should find plenty of fish.

“There are thousands of square miles of waterway on the East Coast that have fish but that you can’t get to in a boat,” Clifford said. TL