January 25, 2024
Editor's Note: Click here for a companion article on specific new models.
Paddleboarding—standing on a large board propelled by a single paddle—has ancient origins, though no one knows, exactly, its direct lineage. It’s hard to say who the first person was to climb aboard a piece of wood or reeds lashed together and start paddling but suffice it to say, it is one of the oldest, most simple, and pure forms of locomotion on the water. Many cultures, from Peru to Hawaii, depict fishermen standing up in some sort of craft. Some even say that the sport of surfing began here. Perhaps the first surfers were actually fishermen having a little fun at the end of the day.
Stand-up paddleboarding came into prominence as a recreational sport in the mid-20th century on the West Coast. As Waikiki surfer John Ah Choy got older and was unable to get up and down from his surfboard, he would stand on his board and paddle out with a canoe paddle to catch waves. His sons, Leroy and Bobby Ah Choy, and their friend, Duke Kahanamoku, started to mimic this while they taught surfing to tourists. When legendary surfer Laird Hamilton began to promote the activity in the 2000s, paddleboarding as a sport seemed to take off. Today, on paddleboards, people race, ride white water and big waves, practice yoga, and, yes, they fly fish.
Fishing from a stand-up paddleboard (SUP) is about as pure a form of fly fishing from a floating craft as you can get. You are almost completely immersed in your environment, with only a few inches of board separating you from the water’s surface and your quarry, while you glide almost silently into position for a cast—you are walking on water. It’s no wonder that fly fishing from SUPs has become increasingly popular in fresh and salt water—everywhere from bonefish flats in the Bahamas to local reservoirs with tailing carp.
Why an SUP?
While they are not for everyone, nor for every fishing situation, SUPs have many advantages that are worth considering.
Stealth. Paddleboards allow anglers to glide quietly across the water’s surface, minimizing disturbances that might spook fish. The boards push very little water, and wave slap on a board is minimal compared even to a kayak or micro skiff. As long as you go slow, you can get amazingly close to fish.
George Daniel, author and fly-fishing instructor at Penn State, uses his SUP quite a bit on his local rivers for warmwater species: “It just seems to push less water. In many cases I can sneak up on suspended bass and get much closer than in any other craft. Lately I’ve been scouting for muskies, and on a SUP I can sneak right up to them without them spooking.”
Drew Chicone (saltyflytying.com), who is the author of an ebook on SUP fly fishing, uses his for almost daily saltwater forays, whether for snook near his home in Fort Myers or destination bonefish trips to the Bahamas. “They don’t displace much water, so you can easily sneak up on spooky fish or tailers and get into some pretty skinny water that you could not access with a kayak or micro skiff.”
Packability. Unlike boats or kayaks, paddleboards are lightweight, simple to transport, and require minimal setup. They are the lightest, most packable options for a personal watercraft there is. You simply unroll them, pump them, and go. This is great for excursions where you might ship them to a destination in advance, use them off of a mothership to get to the shallow flats, or even float an urban stream where you use Uber for a shuttle. The possibilities are endless. Most SUPs come with a carrying case that doubles as a backpack, which is not only easy to carry but takes up little space in storage, making them excellent options for those that don’t have a lot of storage at home. These are really nice to have especially when they are large enough to accommodate a paddle (generally two-piece), pump, fins, patch, and other items. Pro tip: Roll the board around the pump for storage to save space.
Vantage Point. Unlike with a pack raft, kayak, or pontoon boat, being able to stand on the board provides much better visuals for spotting fish. Drew Chicone uses a Yeti GoBox for dry storage and stands on it when he needs extra visibility. “Even just a few inches can have a dramatic effect on your sight window,” says Chicone. “Of course, you need to practice these moves and slowly improve your balance over time. But gaining this height and stealth together is a lot more cost-effective than an $80K skiff.” With a seat such as a cooler or dry box, you can also sit down for a break, or if you need to paddle the board longer distances or in the wind.
The Balancing Act. For fishing, paddleboards excel in calmer water with little current. The two major downsides are overall stability and dealing with the wind. Stability is often a deal breaker for many, but I am speaking from experience when I tell you that it gets better with practice.
Plus, paddleboards designed for fishing are far more stable than the average board from a big-box store. While they take some getting used to, a few tips and the right setup go a long way in making your outing successful and fun.
Wind is also not your friend. Paddleboarding in even a slightest breeze can be frustrating until you dial in your technique, fin type, and anchoring system. Of course, you can still use the board to get to where you want to fish and hop out, or double up with a partner who can paddle while you fish.
But if you accept these limitations and consider situations where they might be right, then you just might find the perfect craft for your next fishing adventure.
The essence of SUP fishing is of simplicity, but modern boards designed for fishing offer a lot of storage space if needed. A paddle is essential. Most are adjustable and break down into two pieces for storage; some brands also sell a blade that replaces the top handle end for when you sit down and paddle the board like a kayak. You’ll also need a pump that fits the specific valve type on the SUP, which should come with any board you purchase. But aside from that, you really don’t need much to get started other than a few items below.
In general, less is more. The fewer things you have to tangle your line, weigh down your board, or require you to lash down, the better. Daniel takes a minimalist approach to his kit: “When I am on the SUP, I am a minimalist. I like keeping it simple. I have a waterproof backpack with accessories like phone and camera. A lanyard with tippet, nippers, and fly box with a day’s flies . . . that’s it. I like to have everything I need right at hand.”
Rod and paddle holders. Investing in a solution for your rod and paddle is a huge benefit when you’re trying to control the boat and fish at the same time. When Daniel approaches bass or carp, his system allows him to switch easily between paddle and rod without much effort. “Anytime you have to lean over, you’re creating movement that could potentially tip the boat or spook fish. I have my rod and my paddle holder set up on my lean bar so that all I have to do is grab either while I’m standing. I can quickly grab my rod and store the paddle without having to make too much movement.”
Ever the mad scientist, Chicone’s hack for storing his rod ingeniously relies on toe separators (the kind they use when giving a pedicure) glued to the nose and middle of his board so that he can set a rod into them and they don’t blow off. “I keep my paddle leaning against the lean bar—in between a cup holder that I put on there for that purpose and the bar—so it is always handy. When I get to an area I want to fish, I pick up the fly rod and just make small adjustments with the paddle while I look, so that I don’t have to go up and down.”
Lean bar. Some boards come with one; others do not. Regardless, it is easy enough to purchase a lean bar and install it on your board. This gives you something to aid in balance, but also provides a home base for your rod and paddle holder, drink, and any other items. These lean bars are most often removable (the Scadden boat has one integrated into the board) which is nice if you just want to use the paddleboard as a regular SUP on a Saturday with your family.
Anchor and stake systems. Anchors are important for keeping your SUP in one place while you cast and fight fish. Depending on the type of fishing you do, you have the option to outfit your boat with an anchor, a stakeout pole, or both. Lightweight (three to four pounds) grapnel anchors store compactly and provide better holding power per weight ratio and are excellent for broken bottom surfaces—but they are also more prone to snagging on the bottom. Mushroom anchors (8 pounds is a good starting point) are best for sandy bottoms or situations where you don’t want to snag. Your anchor should be deployed and attached near where you are standing to minimize movements.
Some anglers prefer a stakeout pole in shallower water. These poles slide through a fitting or sheath on your board so that you can simply push the pole into sand or mud to stop the boat, and in shallower water it is much faster and quieter than deploying an anchor.
Fins. Your paddleboard will most likely come with one fin, or a set of fins, that slides in and out of a track on the bottom of the board. These small, removable keels for your paddleboard help you track straight when you are paddling. Most of the general-purpose fins you see are shaped like a dolphin fin. In general, the larger the fin, the better the tracking and stability; however, the less maneuverability. For fly fishing, fins that are fairly short are essential for getting into extremely shallow water. If you don’t need that, then go with a longer fin for better tracking and stability. If your board doesn’t come with the fins that you want, you can modify them yourself or purchase aftermarket ones that do.
Storage. A good onboard storage system is critical, whether you are a minimalist or want to stow your gear neatly. A waterproof solution that you can lash down is essential. This can be as simple as a dry bag clipped to a D-ring, but something like the Yeti GoBox 30 is perfect not only for dry storage but serves double duty as either a seat or something to stand on if you want an even better vantage point.
You can also buy various meshes that attach to D-rings to keep your gear safe, but try to keep most of that stuff in the back of the board or clear of anywhere your fly line might go. No matter what, make sure you tie everything down in case the board flips.
Other Essentials. For a quick outing, I like to fit a Yeti lunchbox inside a GoBox to keep drinks and snacks cold, but many manufacturers make smaller coolers that are perfect for SUPs. Just buy one that you can lash down, such as the Tundra 35. Another overlooked item is footwear. For comfort and for safety a good pair of water shoes is essential if you want to get off the board to fish or if you flip and need to reset. Coral bottoms in the salt and sharp ledgerock in freshwater rivers can really cut up your feet if you don’t have proper footwear. Chicone likes the Astral Loyak (astraldesigns.com/products/loyak-ms).
Tips for Success
Fishing techniques from a SUP is a whole different article, but most of the experienced paddleboarders I’ve talked with echo a few tips for beginners that are worth passing on. A point worth repeating is that you should be realistic. For fishing, SUPs really are best for somewhat placid water. While people do surf down rivers in them, know your limitations and always keep in mind that you can sit and paddle through any nonoptimal conditions (faster water, wind) and stand only when it makes sense to do so.
Slow-moving rivers and lakes are excellent spots to work out the fundamentals without the distractions of also trying to catch fish. “The best advice I got from a friend,” George Daniel says, “is to start paddleboarding first, don’t try to paddleboard and fish. I spent two or three days just getting familiar with the SUP, working on standing up from a kneeling position, practicing getting on and off the board, before I even attempted adding a fly rod to the mix.”
Don’t multitask. “The whole exercise, until you get comfortable, is a lot like juggling chainsaws,” says Chicone. “There’s just a lot of moving parts. The board is moving, you are trying to cast, the wind might be blowing. But if you can take a few of those factors out, it makes catching fish and landing them much easier.”
When Chicone first gets to his spot, he drops his 8-pound mushroom anchor (which is tethered to 15 feet of paracord). He’ll most often tie off to the middle of the board to prevent spinning. Not only does this provide control for casting, but it also helps fighting the fish. “It turns into a real rodeo if you hook a fish and it goes through the mangroves and you don’t have a way to stop yourself. The first couple of snook I caught that were north of 30 dragged me right through the bushes, knocking me off the board.”
Daniel echoes this theme when he relays one of his first lessons. “The first mistake I made was when I got hung up on the bank throwing streamers. I tried to free the snag from the board and it was a real problem. Line was everywhere, and I couldn’t control the boat. I learned quickly to break the fly off, gather up all your line and stow the rod, and then paddle over to free the snag.”
Drew Chicone is a firm believer in making things as easy as possible to reduce any unnecessary movements on the board. “As Lefty Kreh always said, fish are caught the night before, and the more you can have systems in place for a line container, place for the paddle, place for your rod, the better off you are.”
Casting. Balance is key on a SUP, so when casting you want to minimize any rocking motions to prevent you from tipping over and also keep from spooking the fish. You want a shoulder-width stance on the board that is relaxed and comfortable, but keep your casting motions minimal.
“Everyone tends to rock their body and use too much movement when they cast, and on a paddleboard this is a problem,” says Daniel. “My SUP has made me a far better caster. I focus on relying a bit more on my forearm, a little bit more on my upper body, and just reduce movement overall so I don’t rock back and forth.”
Safety first. The upside of a paddleboard is that it brings you closer to nature; the downside is that nature can, well, be fickle, surprising, and at times dangerous.
Always have a PFD (NRS and other manufacturers make excellent fishing PFDs with lots of pockets, or you can opt for a low-profile inflatable one), and a whistle, and any other mandatory safety gear depending on your local regulations.
Be aware of weather. Sudden storms, wind, and wave action can all spell disaster if you are not prepared.
Have a repair kit in case of punctures. These boards are extremely durable, but you should have a plan in case you tear or get a hole in a craft with only one air chamber. The time to learn to patch PVC is not when the puncture happens.
Stay in tune with your environment, including the animals you are sharing it with. If you are in the salt, this means everything from sharks to manatees. In freshwater it can mean otters or alligators. There’s no playbook for dealing with these situations, but you must be aware of the possibility of an encounter.
Jay Nichols is the Fly Fisherman Northeast regional editor, fly-fishing editor for Stackpole Books, and publisher of Headwater Media Group. He lives in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.