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Avenida de la Playa brings a kayaker as near to big game fishing as one can get

From the Arkansas River to Mission Bay to La Jolla Shores to San Quintin

Friends Ross Zoerhoff and Lery Espinoza in Bahia Asuncion. Ross, here gifting Lery a nice yellowtail, was always one to share the wealth. He fished his SOT kayak well into his 70s.
Friends Ross Zoerhoff and Lery Espinoza in Bahia Asuncion. Ross, here gifting Lery a nice yellowtail, was always one to share the wealth. He fished his SOT kayak well into his 70s.

In 2005, my brother Russ and I launched a couple of kayaks into the Sea of Cortez and paddled out to inter our father’s ashes off Punta Willard in Bahia de San Luis Gonzaga. After our sunrise ceremony, we paddled around the point and island, fishing along the way. We caught some nice cabrillas, and the sierra mackerel were thick. About halfway along our circuit around the island and through the spit back to our camp at Papa Fernandez, a 30-foot juvenile whale shark decided my kayak would make a great play toy. Thanks to its attentions, I had some pretty good rides sideways, and at one point, I found myself gently scratching the “harmless” giant with my paddle as it rested its flat head on the side of the kayak, its chin reaching from my hip to my toe. I was more worried about getting dumped and losing a lot of gear than anything else, but I still had to try to look calm. That thing was big.


I’ve been kayak fishing for more than 30 years, and I’ve seen some things. I’ve had an orca cow and calf swim under me off Ensenada de Los Muertos, the cow rolling over and seeming to make eye contact as she passed. I’ve had free-leaping one-ton manta rays drive me back into the bay of Yelapa, where I was less likely to wind up a pancake. And I’ve often shared my fishing grounds along the Pacific side of Baja with feeding whales. Even in La Jolla, I have been as near as a couple yards from massive grays. But these things do not deter me. These things, together with the prospect of catching big fish, keep me coming back.

Inland beginnings

My first adventures in kayak fishing took place in early-‘90s Colorado. I was building a garage on a property in Penrose, and spotted an old white and red fiberglass sit-in tandem kayak leaning against the back of a barn. The property owners were happy to toss it in on the deal, along with a paddle and a trolling motor with a bracket that mounted behind the rear cockpit. And if they were happy, I was happier, even if I never did install that motor.

The next day, I paddled out on the Arkansas River just above Pueblo Reservoir and drifted lazily, fishing my way into the breaks and eventually, the lake. Floating silently through nature while catching a good mix of white bass, smallmouth bass, channel catfish, and a couple of trout was soul-stirring. For a few minutes, a large beaver swam within 20 feet of me before wrapping up its brief surveillance by slapping its tail so hard I thought a shotgun had gone off. I lurched in surprise. The beaver dove underwater, swam away, and popped up by a beaver dam alongside an inlet stream.

I fished out of that kayak in the river and a couple of local high-country lakes until I returned to San Diego in 1997, leaving it behind. But I soon found I was hooked — pardon the pun. I started seeing articles about fishing from kayaks in magazines, and even found online chat rooms that discussed this newish addition to San Diego’s more established practices of shore-pounding, float-tubing, renting or owning a boat, hiring a charter, or riding on an open-party sportfishing boat. They called it Sit-On-Top (SOT) kayak fishing.

Soon after moving back to the place of my birth, I found a slightly used SOT Scupper Pro TW, the most popular model being customized by the few kayak anglers fishing out of La Jolla at the time. The guy I bought it from said found the idea of SOT fishing exciting, tried paddling out with some gear, got dumped, nearly drowned, and decided he would rather ride in a boat. He gave me one simple bit of advice: “Don’t die.” I didn’t plan on it; the fellow was also a head taller and half-again as wide as I was, and my balance had been pretty good in that old fiberglass boat. I knew there would be a learning curve once I got out on the ocean, but I was confident; I’d been at this a while.

A little history

I have enjoyed fishing all my life. When I was a toddler, my maternal grandparents babysat when mom worked, and one of their ploys to keep me occupied was a plastic fishing set with which I hooked hoop-nosed fish out of a big pail of water on the back patio. When I was old enough, I fished off the riprap of Mission Bay, or at Torrey Pines beach, or off one of the piers. When I was a little older, trips on boats out of San Diego and Baja weren’t uncommon. Both of my parents and all my grandparents fished, and it naturally became my major pastime — and at times, my occupation.

Another chunky catch from the kayak at 60-years old. In going on 3 decades of kayak angling, I have caught tons, literally, from my low-budget kayak.


In 1979-1980, I worked the deck of the sportfishing vessel Grande when it ran out of San Pedro’s 22nd Street landing. The boat had been refitted with a whole new drive and new boatwork bow to stern, so we had no off days for maintenance that season. When you’re working the deck on overnight trips that depart at midnight and return the following evening seven days per week, you tend to think about little else besides your work. You learn the ocean, its moods and tempers. You learn to pay closer attention to the conditions above, around, and below you. You learn about how tides affect kelp; how the attitude of the birds can signal game fish activity. And you learn about fisheries within the marine biospheres of Southern California. So yes, I knew ocean fishing. But the ocean looks much different when your butt is below the water line.

The fitting

Before I could begin fishing, or even learning to fish, from my new acquisition, I needed to fit it. I would need some rod holders, one in front for trolling and a couple more set up behind the seat but easily accessible. I would need a bait tank, as I soon learned that the most productive fishing being done by kayak anglers was slow-trolled live bait, namely greenback mackerel caught by the kelp edge. A spreader bar was in order; this would allow the mounting of my fish finder, out of the way but still in front where I could see it easily. I would also need to mount the transducer, run wiring, and have a dry storage for the battery that would run both the fish finder and the bait tank pump. The only one of these things produced commercially and specifically for kayaks at the time was the “Rhynobar,” a spreader bar made by Jeff Krieger, or “Rhyno,” as he was known by the small contingent of kayak anglers on the coast at the time.

I first mounted the transducer for the fish finder on the hull using an epoxy, as suggested on one message board. That worked well: the Garmin 160 I used could send its signal through the hull and get an accurate reading to over 200 feet deep. I made a battery storage out of a waterproof tackle bag and stowed it inside the front hatch next to the mounted transducer. For a bait tank, I bought a Coleman 24-quart ice chest that fit perfectly inside the tank well behind the seat. I added an overflow drain and intake tube fitted to a Rule submersible pump, then cut the lid in half and moved one hinge so I could have one operable side nearest me, with a secure strap over the inoperable side.

With wiring run from the battery to a seat-side waterproof toggle switch, then to a terminal block on the back of the molded seat, I could turn the bait tank pump on and off to save on battery use through the day. I didn’t buy a Rhynobar; I was adept at sweating copper, so I made my own spreader out of ¾-inch copper tubing, two 90s, and two drop-ells that served as mount points. I added a stainless “rocket launcher” adjustable rod holder to the compass platform, the cockpit, and the forward hatch, and a gaff holder on my left side — within reach, but out of the way of my lines, which I would be running to my right. Finally, I added two more rod holders to the front of the bait tank. I procured a comfortable life jacket and a whistle, and declared myself ocean-ready.

The learning curve

I started in the relative calm of Mission and San Diego Bays; I knew I needed to get used to the kayak’s balance, and to learn how to reboard easily if I did take a spill. Unlike my old sit-inside, my Scupper Pro was made for reboarding on the water. It was a diver’s kayak: the “TW” stood for the tank well behind the seat, molded to fit a single SCUBA tank. The sides were low, just a few inches above the water. I practiced first in waist-deep water, then out where I couldn’t touch bottom, and found that, done properly, reboarding was fairly easy for me.

Even so, there was much to learn. First, launching and conditions were a challenge. Colorado had sent sudden rain squalls, thunder, and lightning my way. The Pacific offered strong currents, waves against my chest, and teeth in the fish that inhabited the marine biospheres. Inquisitive, sometimes boisterous sea lions were larger than that suspicious beaver had been, and there is nothing in Colorado’s fresh waters like sharks or whales. Then of course, there was the matter of navigating the waves again as I returned from a day on the water. Waves that snuck up on me as I paddled in and sometimes toppled me. The learning curve was steep; I soon found out that a long, narrow SOT kayak won’t “surf,” but will happily go sideways in a breaking wave and roll over, so that you lose your pliers, your sunglasses, and your favorite (un-tethered) bass rod. First lesson: stow or tether everything before entering the surf in either direction.

As the ocean in general, and Baja especially, can be rough on humans and machinery, my kayak has outlasted three Jeeps and two major injuries over the past 25 years or so.

Like me, many of my fellow kayak anglers had considerable fishing experience. Like them, when I began launching my newly fitted Scupper Pro out of La Jolla Shores, I learned how much I had to learn, despite my experience. I had caught a couple large bat rays while hunting spotted bay bass and halibut in the bay, so I had an idea of what it was like to pull on fish larger than striped bass from a plastic kayak. But an idea is not an experience, and I still had to learn how to cast out, hook, and pull on a big fish without tipping. Fish fought differently when you fished from a kayak than when on a boat. Boats are large platforms that do not move much when a hooked fish is running. If you button down on the drags, you are more likely to break a fish off, especially on large sportfishing boats. On the kayak, you usually get towed around like a bobber on the ocean. In La Jolla — and fisheries that set up like La Jolla — yellowtail and white seabass tend to fight horizontally. In Baja, a lot of the areas are loaded with pronounced reef rocks where fish can break you off, and the fight is more vertical as the fish run straight down to the rocks.

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Location, location, location

It helped that I lived where I did: the particular topography of La Jolla helped the offshore version of the sport to grow, and grow fast. The access and launchability from the beach at the end of Avenida de la Playa brings a kayak fisherman as near to big game fishing as one can get on the West Coast without being taken out to sea on a “mothership trip” aboard a larger vessel. Launching in either bay and then paddling out to the kelp forests and beyond was a long trip, but from La Jolla Shores, it was only a half mile to the outside of the reserve boundary and the beginning of a fishery where large white seabass, yellowtail, halibut, and even thresher sharks could be caught. The point at Boomers kept the surf relatively small unless a large northwest swell was coming in, and you could offload on the beach and usually find parking nearby.

La Jolla’s reefs are usually marked by the kelp forest, and that outer edge of kelp in 80 feet or so of water runs east to west out until it turns south outside of Boomers and runs along the coast toward Bird Rock and Pacific Beach. The most fished area is outside the reserve boundary along that stretch of kelp, and north, where, just past the kelp, the bottom turns to a tapered flat ocean floor dropping off toward the La Jolla Canyon edge at around 120 to 140 feet, where the steep edges of the canyon drop off into 400 to 600-feet deep. The La Jolla Canyon cuts in from the west about in line with Scripps Pier, then a mile or so offshore, turns southeast and remains over 400-feet deep to about one-quarter mile from the launch on the beach at Avenida de La Playa.

When you’re fishing along the kelp edge, yellowtail and white seabass will often run into the kelp and wrap you. This can be frustrating, but I found that with patience and pressure, I would get more fish than I lost. I pulled tight but not beyond the line strength, and the fish would eventually cut through the kelp. Then I could then get them to the gaff. When braid line came onto the scene, many anglers utilized what we call a “kelp cutter” rig: heavy braided line to a clear monofilament of fluorocarbon leader. But I rarely lose a fish to kelp, so I stick with monofilament and use no heavier than 40-pound test line. The reason for this is that 40-pound test is the largest weight line I can break off from the kayak. Let me explain: as a kid, I was taught never to leave a length of line in the water. Losing terminal tackle is part of fishing, but often, losing line is not. Line will typically break at the knot, so if you’re snagged on the bottom, pulling hard by hand will usually break the line at the tie. Unless I’m fishing the pinnacle reefs, like those of Bahia Asunción or Bahia de Los Angeles, most large fish I have targeted are catchable on 30-pound test. On those pinnacle reefs where fish dive straight to the structure to break you off, you have to fish heavier line to win those vertical battles, but this is usually not the case in La Jolla.

Catching on

As big fish tend to tow you around, they eventually wear themselves out. A SOT kayak will move very easily with little push or pull. Even a small yellowtail can pull you a hundred yards before tiring and beginning to turn in circles as you gradually win the battle and bring them up to gaff. To speed the process, I learned the “duckfoot,” a name I gave to the maneuver of putting my feet over the side and splaying them flat to create a little more resistance. Any fish going toward the kelp, especially, got the “duckfoot,” but when they were running out toward the canyon, I would keep my feet in and let them drag me along. Then, once the fight turned more vertical, I would put my feet out, this time for the added balance.

Back in what I call the early days, we had to figure out how to outfit our kayaks, navigate surf on launching and landing, and basically learn the art of kayak fishing. Now, you can find a bevy of tutorials about just about anything, including kayak fishing, online. But all that’s before you get on the water. Once there, no matter how much you’ve prepared, kayak fishing can be a challenging, grueling and soul-searching adventure, one that tests you, teaches you, humbles you, and broadens you.

At one point a couple of decades ago, I had a small apartment with a small garage in Chula Vista, and a boat in the marina. I also had a kayak hanging on a wall in the garage. Eventually, I realized that I went to more places and caught more fish with the kayak than the boat. I sold the boat. I wasn’t alone. Social media helped grow the sport by spreading photos of amazing catches, and people began to realize they could get out on the water on a stable boat built for one and catch fish without the inconvenience, cost, and maintenance of a more “traditional” boat. Kayak fishing grew during a period when property values shot up, rent got tougher, and earnings for many dropped against the cost of living. The fact that a kayak took up less room, had much easier portage and access, required less investment and maintenance, and required no fuel certainly helped. If you had a car, those early models were simple to launch: just roll it down to any legal fishing spot from wherever you could park. No ramps needed.

As the market grew, the technology improved, to the point where it seemed to me that kayaks were becoming something other than kayaks. The technology was often very cool: e.g., pedal drives with flippers that moved these heavier, wider, more stable kayaks along faster than most people could paddle. Some had reverse drives, and with those, an angler could cast and work edges hands-free, adjusting the kayak’s motion by subtle manipulations of the rudder. These new boats were awesome machines, with rail systems and adjustable everything, super comfy seats high out of the water, and moldings designed to fit specific accessories. Just amazing. Of course, the prices reflect all that improvement and rising demand, and the weight and design became enough to require a trailer.

I don’t think I was snobbishly “OG” about it, but I kind of went the other direction. As I moved south to Baja bit by bit — first for a few weeks at a time, then a few months per year, then most of the year and even a few years in a row — some of the DIY accessories on my Scupper Pro became obsolete for the types of fishing I was doing. I rarely anchor, so I didn’t need the trolley system that allowed me to set my angle once anchored. I didn’t use live bait anymore, and most fish I targeted were too large to fit in my ice chest, so I didn’t need the bait tank or pump. My third fish finder was a small Garmin Striker, and it mounted better between the footwells than on the spreader bar, so the spreader bar could go. My kayak is now as basic as it gets – a milk crate with a couple PVC rod holders in the back and the small fish finder and rod holder in front.

Without the spreader bar in the way, I found it was easier to scooch forward and stow larger fish in the forward hatch. It was much safer to cut the gill strap, put the fish in the hull and let it kick out, die, and bleed there than trailing it along on a rope tied close but out of the way enough to paddle, as I did often in La Jolla. You can always bleach out a hull; replacing a leg lost to a larger predator attracted by blood in the water is more difficult. And if you compensate by trailing it further back, the sea lions are sure to take advantage and get you into a tug-of-war you’re better off avoiding.

Sharks and other hazards

There have been a few incidents with kayaks and sharks. The wrong kind. I know of two occasions in which white sharks have bitten kayaks right on or near those seal-ish flippers on the pedal drives. I’ve seen big sharks near my kayak, but my eeriest encounter didn’t involve a sighting. One night around 10 pm, I was trolling a mackerel while coming into La Jolla from outside the corner of the kelp, paddling maybe twenty yards of the east-west stretch of the beds, and my fish got bit. Except there was no tug: my line just went slack. My fish must be coming toward me, I thought. Nope: I wound hard to catch up found nothing but clean-cut line and no hook. I shrugged it off, tied another hook on, pinned on a fresh bait, and let it back into the water as I began paddling toward the four lights of the La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club just south of the launch.

Yellowtail have been my primary target when fishing from the kayak. They are a strong fish and make for great table fare.


I was still a few hundred yards from the reserve line and wanted to get a fish after a long, slow afternoon and evening. Again, the line went slack before I had even let the mackerel back to the 40-yard length at which I liked to troll them. Same result. Hmm. If a sea lion wanted that 12-inch mackerel, it would have left the head and the hook. They are adept at that; I have never hooked a sea lion. With pressure, a lot of toothy species like barracuda can cut through line, but 30-pound line, with no pressure and a foot-long mackerel? Gotta be a shark. So, there’s lots of sharks? Let’s catch a shark, then. If it’s a thresher and I get a decent hookset, that’s some good eats right there.

I pin on my last bait and let it back, but this time, it got eaten just ten feet behind the kayak — really, just as I set the rod in the holder and began to paddle to let the bait out. Then I heard whatever it was come out of the water, heard it thrashing in the air, and finally, heard (and felt) it land, as though someone dropped a Volkswagen right behind my kayak. Big mako? I didn’t know, I just knew I was soaked and cold and tired and scared and a long, long way from the beach. Just a few moments before, I had been sad that it was late and so the night’s fishing would soon be done. That was probably one of my quickest but longest paddles through the half mile of reserve to the beach.

Sharks, whales, gregarious whale sharks, and even pesky sea lions aside, the biggest threat for kayak anglers offshore in the ocean are the water condition and the elements. Especially in remote areas with little traffic, changing winds, strong currents, pop-up chubascos, or just a constant burning sun can turn a day’s outing to a risky adventure. There have been those who have paddled out and never made it back. Planning is everything in kayak fishing. Wind is a hard thing to paddle against, and I always plan first by wind and weather, most often heading out from my launch into the expected winds. But wind predictions can be off, and even a well-planned trip can go sideways with just a little more wind than expected.

La Jolla has this added benefit: if the wind does come up, it is usually onshore. Santa Ana winds blowing toward the west generally get stronger the further you get offshore, and unless they’re unusually strong, they don’t pause much of a threat to kayakers fishing that area. It’s just one more reason — together with ease of launch, access to a great fishery that holds species from rockfish off the canyon edge, to lingcod, sheephead, halibut, white seabass, yellowtail, and more — why La Jolla is an excellent place to fish from a kayak. I believe that modern-day kayak fishing really got a big push from the crowd fishing out of there in the ‘90s and early 2000s, and I feel fortunate that I was able to cut my teeth there.

Paddle out and catch big fish

Really, kayak fishing, once you has the basics down, proper safety gear, and a little bit of balance, is a reasonably safe adventure most any person old enough to handle a paddle can enjoy. I have had an extra yak off and on over the years, and have taken more than a few folks out after they have expressed an interest. It’s always a fun outing, and it can be cool to watch folks pick it up quickly and catch their first fish by kayak. One friend in San Quintin, Rebecca, had just learned to fish in the surf and decided she wanted to go out on the kayak. She had great fun catching sand bass in the bay, and within a month of fishing in the ocean for the first time, she would have had no problem paddling outside for larger fish. A neighbor who did landscaping and odd jobs, Luis, decided to give it a shot. He had never paddled a kayak before. His first time out he caught some nice halibut, and even won our kayak halibut tournament that year.

And, in spite of the dangers of being on a tiny craft in a huge ocean, kayaking itself is good for your health. I’ve had elbow and neck surgeries, atrophy on my left side, and various other work or accident-related ailments over the years since first paddling out. The kayak has not only been a means to get out on the water to fish, but is also my ongoing physical therapy: in general, paddling builds core strength and is a great non-impact exercise. I’m into my sixties now and a bit beat up, but I don’t see myself giving it up any time soon. Throughout my days in Colorado on the Arkansas River, to the years in San Diego’s bays and out of La Jolla, to chasing yellowtail, yellowfin tuna, and dorado off Baja, I have felt truly blessed. When I’m on the water in that old Scupper Pro TW, I have the means to what I love to do; paddle out and catch big fish. Even on the days when they’re not biting, the tally for the day doesn’t really matter; a good paddle out and I am once again alive in my element.

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Friends Ross Zoerhoff and Lery Espinoza in Bahia Asuncion. Ross, here gifting Lery a nice yellowtail, was always one to share the wealth. He fished his SOT kayak well into his 70s.
Friends Ross Zoerhoff and Lery Espinoza in Bahia Asuncion. Ross, here gifting Lery a nice yellowtail, was always one to share the wealth. He fished his SOT kayak well into his 70s.

In 2005, my brother Russ and I launched a couple of kayaks into the Sea of Cortez and paddled out to inter our father’s ashes off Punta Willard in Bahia de San Luis Gonzaga. After our sunrise ceremony, we paddled around the point and island, fishing along the way. We caught some nice cabrillas, and the sierra mackerel were thick. About halfway along our circuit around the island and through the spit back to our camp at Papa Fernandez, a 30-foot juvenile whale shark decided my kayak would make a great play toy. Thanks to its attentions, I had some pretty good rides sideways, and at one point, I found myself gently scratching the “harmless” giant with my paddle as it rested its flat head on the side of the kayak, its chin reaching from my hip to my toe. I was more worried about getting dumped and losing a lot of gear than anything else, but I still had to try to look calm. That thing was big.


I’ve been kayak fishing for more than 30 years, and I’ve seen some things. I’ve had an orca cow and calf swim under me off Ensenada de Los Muertos, the cow rolling over and seeming to make eye contact as she passed. I’ve had free-leaping one-ton manta rays drive me back into the bay of Yelapa, where I was less likely to wind up a pancake. And I’ve often shared my fishing grounds along the Pacific side of Baja with feeding whales. Even in La Jolla, I have been as near as a couple yards from massive grays. But these things do not deter me. These things, together with the prospect of catching big fish, keep me coming back.

Inland beginnings

My first adventures in kayak fishing took place in early-‘90s Colorado. I was building a garage on a property in Penrose, and spotted an old white and red fiberglass sit-in tandem kayak leaning against the back of a barn. The property owners were happy to toss it in on the deal, along with a paddle and a trolling motor with a bracket that mounted behind the rear cockpit. And if they were happy, I was happier, even if I never did install that motor.

The next day, I paddled out on the Arkansas River just above Pueblo Reservoir and drifted lazily, fishing my way into the breaks and eventually, the lake. Floating silently through nature while catching a good mix of white bass, smallmouth bass, channel catfish, and a couple of trout was soul-stirring. For a few minutes, a large beaver swam within 20 feet of me before wrapping up its brief surveillance by slapping its tail so hard I thought a shotgun had gone off. I lurched in surprise. The beaver dove underwater, swam away, and popped up by a beaver dam alongside an inlet stream.

I fished out of that kayak in the river and a couple of local high-country lakes until I returned to San Diego in 1997, leaving it behind. But I soon found I was hooked — pardon the pun. I started seeing articles about fishing from kayaks in magazines, and even found online chat rooms that discussed this newish addition to San Diego’s more established practices of shore-pounding, float-tubing, renting or owning a boat, hiring a charter, or riding on an open-party sportfishing boat. They called it Sit-On-Top (SOT) kayak fishing.

Soon after moving back to the place of my birth, I found a slightly used SOT Scupper Pro TW, the most popular model being customized by the few kayak anglers fishing out of La Jolla at the time. The guy I bought it from said found the idea of SOT fishing exciting, tried paddling out with some gear, got dumped, nearly drowned, and decided he would rather ride in a boat. He gave me one simple bit of advice: “Don’t die.” I didn’t plan on it; the fellow was also a head taller and half-again as wide as I was, and my balance had been pretty good in that old fiberglass boat. I knew there would be a learning curve once I got out on the ocean, but I was confident; I’d been at this a while.

A little history

I have enjoyed fishing all my life. When I was a toddler, my maternal grandparents babysat when mom worked, and one of their ploys to keep me occupied was a plastic fishing set with which I hooked hoop-nosed fish out of a big pail of water on the back patio. When I was old enough, I fished off the riprap of Mission Bay, or at Torrey Pines beach, or off one of the piers. When I was a little older, trips on boats out of San Diego and Baja weren’t uncommon. Both of my parents and all my grandparents fished, and it naturally became my major pastime — and at times, my occupation.

Another chunky catch from the kayak at 60-years old. In going on 3 decades of kayak angling, I have caught tons, literally, from my low-budget kayak.


In 1979-1980, I worked the deck of the sportfishing vessel Grande when it ran out of San Pedro’s 22nd Street landing. The boat had been refitted with a whole new drive and new boatwork bow to stern, so we had no off days for maintenance that season. When you’re working the deck on overnight trips that depart at midnight and return the following evening seven days per week, you tend to think about little else besides your work. You learn the ocean, its moods and tempers. You learn to pay closer attention to the conditions above, around, and below you. You learn about how tides affect kelp; how the attitude of the birds can signal game fish activity. And you learn about fisheries within the marine biospheres of Southern California. So yes, I knew ocean fishing. But the ocean looks much different when your butt is below the water line.

The fitting

Before I could begin fishing, or even learning to fish, from my new acquisition, I needed to fit it. I would need some rod holders, one in front for trolling and a couple more set up behind the seat but easily accessible. I would need a bait tank, as I soon learned that the most productive fishing being done by kayak anglers was slow-trolled live bait, namely greenback mackerel caught by the kelp edge. A spreader bar was in order; this would allow the mounting of my fish finder, out of the way but still in front where I could see it easily. I would also need to mount the transducer, run wiring, and have a dry storage for the battery that would run both the fish finder and the bait tank pump. The only one of these things produced commercially and specifically for kayaks at the time was the “Rhynobar,” a spreader bar made by Jeff Krieger, or “Rhyno,” as he was known by the small contingent of kayak anglers on the coast at the time.

I first mounted the transducer for the fish finder on the hull using an epoxy, as suggested on one message board. That worked well: the Garmin 160 I used could send its signal through the hull and get an accurate reading to over 200 feet deep. I made a battery storage out of a waterproof tackle bag and stowed it inside the front hatch next to the mounted transducer. For a bait tank, I bought a Coleman 24-quart ice chest that fit perfectly inside the tank well behind the seat. I added an overflow drain and intake tube fitted to a Rule submersible pump, then cut the lid in half and moved one hinge so I could have one operable side nearest me, with a secure strap over the inoperable side.

With wiring run from the battery to a seat-side waterproof toggle switch, then to a terminal block on the back of the molded seat, I could turn the bait tank pump on and off to save on battery use through the day. I didn’t buy a Rhynobar; I was adept at sweating copper, so I made my own spreader out of ¾-inch copper tubing, two 90s, and two drop-ells that served as mount points. I added a stainless “rocket launcher” adjustable rod holder to the compass platform, the cockpit, and the forward hatch, and a gaff holder on my left side — within reach, but out of the way of my lines, which I would be running to my right. Finally, I added two more rod holders to the front of the bait tank. I procured a comfortable life jacket and a whistle, and declared myself ocean-ready.

The learning curve

I started in the relative calm of Mission and San Diego Bays; I knew I needed to get used to the kayak’s balance, and to learn how to reboard easily if I did take a spill. Unlike my old sit-inside, my Scupper Pro was made for reboarding on the water. It was a diver’s kayak: the “TW” stood for the tank well behind the seat, molded to fit a single SCUBA tank. The sides were low, just a few inches above the water. I practiced first in waist-deep water, then out where I couldn’t touch bottom, and found that, done properly, reboarding was fairly easy for me.

Even so, there was much to learn. First, launching and conditions were a challenge. Colorado had sent sudden rain squalls, thunder, and lightning my way. The Pacific offered strong currents, waves against my chest, and teeth in the fish that inhabited the marine biospheres. Inquisitive, sometimes boisterous sea lions were larger than that suspicious beaver had been, and there is nothing in Colorado’s fresh waters like sharks or whales. Then of course, there was the matter of navigating the waves again as I returned from a day on the water. Waves that snuck up on me as I paddled in and sometimes toppled me. The learning curve was steep; I soon found out that a long, narrow SOT kayak won’t “surf,” but will happily go sideways in a breaking wave and roll over, so that you lose your pliers, your sunglasses, and your favorite (un-tethered) bass rod. First lesson: stow or tether everything before entering the surf in either direction.

As the ocean in general, and Baja especially, can be rough on humans and machinery, my kayak has outlasted three Jeeps and two major injuries over the past 25 years or so.

Like me, many of my fellow kayak anglers had considerable fishing experience. Like them, when I began launching my newly fitted Scupper Pro out of La Jolla Shores, I learned how much I had to learn, despite my experience. I had caught a couple large bat rays while hunting spotted bay bass and halibut in the bay, so I had an idea of what it was like to pull on fish larger than striped bass from a plastic kayak. But an idea is not an experience, and I still had to learn how to cast out, hook, and pull on a big fish without tipping. Fish fought differently when you fished from a kayak than when on a boat. Boats are large platforms that do not move much when a hooked fish is running. If you button down on the drags, you are more likely to break a fish off, especially on large sportfishing boats. On the kayak, you usually get towed around like a bobber on the ocean. In La Jolla — and fisheries that set up like La Jolla — yellowtail and white seabass tend to fight horizontally. In Baja, a lot of the areas are loaded with pronounced reef rocks where fish can break you off, and the fight is more vertical as the fish run straight down to the rocks.

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Location, location, location

It helped that I lived where I did: the particular topography of La Jolla helped the offshore version of the sport to grow, and grow fast. The access and launchability from the beach at the end of Avenida de la Playa brings a kayak fisherman as near to big game fishing as one can get on the West Coast without being taken out to sea on a “mothership trip” aboard a larger vessel. Launching in either bay and then paddling out to the kelp forests and beyond was a long trip, but from La Jolla Shores, it was only a half mile to the outside of the reserve boundary and the beginning of a fishery where large white seabass, yellowtail, halibut, and even thresher sharks could be caught. The point at Boomers kept the surf relatively small unless a large northwest swell was coming in, and you could offload on the beach and usually find parking nearby.

La Jolla’s reefs are usually marked by the kelp forest, and that outer edge of kelp in 80 feet or so of water runs east to west out until it turns south outside of Boomers and runs along the coast toward Bird Rock and Pacific Beach. The most fished area is outside the reserve boundary along that stretch of kelp, and north, where, just past the kelp, the bottom turns to a tapered flat ocean floor dropping off toward the La Jolla Canyon edge at around 120 to 140 feet, where the steep edges of the canyon drop off into 400 to 600-feet deep. The La Jolla Canyon cuts in from the west about in line with Scripps Pier, then a mile or so offshore, turns southeast and remains over 400-feet deep to about one-quarter mile from the launch on the beach at Avenida de La Playa.

When you’re fishing along the kelp edge, yellowtail and white seabass will often run into the kelp and wrap you. This can be frustrating, but I found that with patience and pressure, I would get more fish than I lost. I pulled tight but not beyond the line strength, and the fish would eventually cut through the kelp. Then I could then get them to the gaff. When braid line came onto the scene, many anglers utilized what we call a “kelp cutter” rig: heavy braided line to a clear monofilament of fluorocarbon leader. But I rarely lose a fish to kelp, so I stick with monofilament and use no heavier than 40-pound test line. The reason for this is that 40-pound test is the largest weight line I can break off from the kayak. Let me explain: as a kid, I was taught never to leave a length of line in the water. Losing terminal tackle is part of fishing, but often, losing line is not. Line will typically break at the knot, so if you’re snagged on the bottom, pulling hard by hand will usually break the line at the tie. Unless I’m fishing the pinnacle reefs, like those of Bahia Asunción or Bahia de Los Angeles, most large fish I have targeted are catchable on 30-pound test. On those pinnacle reefs where fish dive straight to the structure to break you off, you have to fish heavier line to win those vertical battles, but this is usually not the case in La Jolla.

Catching on

As big fish tend to tow you around, they eventually wear themselves out. A SOT kayak will move very easily with little push or pull. Even a small yellowtail can pull you a hundred yards before tiring and beginning to turn in circles as you gradually win the battle and bring them up to gaff. To speed the process, I learned the “duckfoot,” a name I gave to the maneuver of putting my feet over the side and splaying them flat to create a little more resistance. Any fish going toward the kelp, especially, got the “duckfoot,” but when they were running out toward the canyon, I would keep my feet in and let them drag me along. Then, once the fight turned more vertical, I would put my feet out, this time for the added balance.

Back in what I call the early days, we had to figure out how to outfit our kayaks, navigate surf on launching and landing, and basically learn the art of kayak fishing. Now, you can find a bevy of tutorials about just about anything, including kayak fishing, online. But all that’s before you get on the water. Once there, no matter how much you’ve prepared, kayak fishing can be a challenging, grueling and soul-searching adventure, one that tests you, teaches you, humbles you, and broadens you.

At one point a couple of decades ago, I had a small apartment with a small garage in Chula Vista, and a boat in the marina. I also had a kayak hanging on a wall in the garage. Eventually, I realized that I went to more places and caught more fish with the kayak than the boat. I sold the boat. I wasn’t alone. Social media helped grow the sport by spreading photos of amazing catches, and people began to realize they could get out on the water on a stable boat built for one and catch fish without the inconvenience, cost, and maintenance of a more “traditional” boat. Kayak fishing grew during a period when property values shot up, rent got tougher, and earnings for many dropped against the cost of living. The fact that a kayak took up less room, had much easier portage and access, required less investment and maintenance, and required no fuel certainly helped. If you had a car, those early models were simple to launch: just roll it down to any legal fishing spot from wherever you could park. No ramps needed.

As the market grew, the technology improved, to the point where it seemed to me that kayaks were becoming something other than kayaks. The technology was often very cool: e.g., pedal drives with flippers that moved these heavier, wider, more stable kayaks along faster than most people could paddle. Some had reverse drives, and with those, an angler could cast and work edges hands-free, adjusting the kayak’s motion by subtle manipulations of the rudder. These new boats were awesome machines, with rail systems and adjustable everything, super comfy seats high out of the water, and moldings designed to fit specific accessories. Just amazing. Of course, the prices reflect all that improvement and rising demand, and the weight and design became enough to require a trailer.

I don’t think I was snobbishly “OG” about it, but I kind of went the other direction. As I moved south to Baja bit by bit — first for a few weeks at a time, then a few months per year, then most of the year and even a few years in a row — some of the DIY accessories on my Scupper Pro became obsolete for the types of fishing I was doing. I rarely anchor, so I didn’t need the trolley system that allowed me to set my angle once anchored. I didn’t use live bait anymore, and most fish I targeted were too large to fit in my ice chest, so I didn’t need the bait tank or pump. My third fish finder was a small Garmin Striker, and it mounted better between the footwells than on the spreader bar, so the spreader bar could go. My kayak is now as basic as it gets – a milk crate with a couple PVC rod holders in the back and the small fish finder and rod holder in front.

Without the spreader bar in the way, I found it was easier to scooch forward and stow larger fish in the forward hatch. It was much safer to cut the gill strap, put the fish in the hull and let it kick out, die, and bleed there than trailing it along on a rope tied close but out of the way enough to paddle, as I did often in La Jolla. You can always bleach out a hull; replacing a leg lost to a larger predator attracted by blood in the water is more difficult. And if you compensate by trailing it further back, the sea lions are sure to take advantage and get you into a tug-of-war you’re better off avoiding.

Sharks and other hazards

There have been a few incidents with kayaks and sharks. The wrong kind. I know of two occasions in which white sharks have bitten kayaks right on or near those seal-ish flippers on the pedal drives. I’ve seen big sharks near my kayak, but my eeriest encounter didn’t involve a sighting. One night around 10 pm, I was trolling a mackerel while coming into La Jolla from outside the corner of the kelp, paddling maybe twenty yards of the east-west stretch of the beds, and my fish got bit. Except there was no tug: my line just went slack. My fish must be coming toward me, I thought. Nope: I wound hard to catch up found nothing but clean-cut line and no hook. I shrugged it off, tied another hook on, pinned on a fresh bait, and let it back into the water as I began paddling toward the four lights of the La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club just south of the launch.

Yellowtail have been my primary target when fishing from the kayak. They are a strong fish and make for great table fare.


I was still a few hundred yards from the reserve line and wanted to get a fish after a long, slow afternoon and evening. Again, the line went slack before I had even let the mackerel back to the 40-yard length at which I liked to troll them. Same result. Hmm. If a sea lion wanted that 12-inch mackerel, it would have left the head and the hook. They are adept at that; I have never hooked a sea lion. With pressure, a lot of toothy species like barracuda can cut through line, but 30-pound line, with no pressure and a foot-long mackerel? Gotta be a shark. So, there’s lots of sharks? Let’s catch a shark, then. If it’s a thresher and I get a decent hookset, that’s some good eats right there.

I pin on my last bait and let it back, but this time, it got eaten just ten feet behind the kayak — really, just as I set the rod in the holder and began to paddle to let the bait out. Then I heard whatever it was come out of the water, heard it thrashing in the air, and finally, heard (and felt) it land, as though someone dropped a Volkswagen right behind my kayak. Big mako? I didn’t know, I just knew I was soaked and cold and tired and scared and a long, long way from the beach. Just a few moments before, I had been sad that it was late and so the night’s fishing would soon be done. That was probably one of my quickest but longest paddles through the half mile of reserve to the beach.

Sharks, whales, gregarious whale sharks, and even pesky sea lions aside, the biggest threat for kayak anglers offshore in the ocean are the water condition and the elements. Especially in remote areas with little traffic, changing winds, strong currents, pop-up chubascos, or just a constant burning sun can turn a day’s outing to a risky adventure. There have been those who have paddled out and never made it back. Planning is everything in kayak fishing. Wind is a hard thing to paddle against, and I always plan first by wind and weather, most often heading out from my launch into the expected winds. But wind predictions can be off, and even a well-planned trip can go sideways with just a little more wind than expected.

La Jolla has this added benefit: if the wind does come up, it is usually onshore. Santa Ana winds blowing toward the west generally get stronger the further you get offshore, and unless they’re unusually strong, they don’t pause much of a threat to kayakers fishing that area. It’s just one more reason — together with ease of launch, access to a great fishery that holds species from rockfish off the canyon edge, to lingcod, sheephead, halibut, white seabass, yellowtail, and more — why La Jolla is an excellent place to fish from a kayak. I believe that modern-day kayak fishing really got a big push from the crowd fishing out of there in the ‘90s and early 2000s, and I feel fortunate that I was able to cut my teeth there.

Paddle out and catch big fish

Really, kayak fishing, once you has the basics down, proper safety gear, and a little bit of balance, is a reasonably safe adventure most any person old enough to handle a paddle can enjoy. I have had an extra yak off and on over the years, and have taken more than a few folks out after they have expressed an interest. It’s always a fun outing, and it can be cool to watch folks pick it up quickly and catch their first fish by kayak. One friend in San Quintin, Rebecca, had just learned to fish in the surf and decided she wanted to go out on the kayak. She had great fun catching sand bass in the bay, and within a month of fishing in the ocean for the first time, she would have had no problem paddling outside for larger fish. A neighbor who did landscaping and odd jobs, Luis, decided to give it a shot. He had never paddled a kayak before. His first time out he caught some nice halibut, and even won our kayak halibut tournament that year.

And, in spite of the dangers of being on a tiny craft in a huge ocean, kayaking itself is good for your health. I’ve had elbow and neck surgeries, atrophy on my left side, and various other work or accident-related ailments over the years since first paddling out. The kayak has not only been a means to get out on the water to fish, but is also my ongoing physical therapy: in general, paddling builds core strength and is a great non-impact exercise. I’m into my sixties now and a bit beat up, but I don’t see myself giving it up any time soon. Throughout my days in Colorado on the Arkansas River, to the years in San Diego’s bays and out of La Jolla, to chasing yellowtail, yellowfin tuna, and dorado off Baja, I have felt truly blessed. When I’m on the water in that old Scupper Pro TW, I have the means to what I love to do; paddle out and catch big fish. Even on the days when they’re not biting, the tally for the day doesn’t really matter; a good paddle out and I am once again alive in my element.

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