The first time I saw a stand-up paddle board or SUP I remember thinking to myself: “Wow, that looks fantastic! I’d really love to try that!” However, almost immediately the more pragmatic side of my brain responded with: “Don’t be a complete idiot! You’re 120kg, have two left feet and absolutely no sense of balance. If you could stand up on one at all, it’d only be for long enough to fall off again.”
Sadly, I had to agree with my rational self, especially in light of abundant memories of earlier abject failures on skateboards, roller skates and wind surfers. I’m even a bit of a worry on a pushbike, and seem to have an involuntary attraction to trees and fences when riding one. So I never did get around to trying an SUP.
In more recent years, stories began to filter through of people fishing — apparently with some success — from these boards, and I even found one in a South African fly fishing magazine that was designed primarily with fishing in mind. Still tempted, and despite my self-confessed shortcomings, I exchanged a few emails with the manufacturers in South Africa, but it was all too hard. The boards were expensive, too heavy and too large to have shipped, at least without taking out a second mortgage. Once more, the SUP idea found itself shelved away in the back corners of my mind.
Occasionally, however, shreds of old daydreams would flit into my imaginings. How good would it be to stand up on something that drew scant centimetres of water while paddling quietly across the estuary flats, eyeballing the fish I was about to cast a lure or fly at? But each time these dreams took wings again, my rational self slapped them down.
This situation would probably have prevailed, if not for a chance event. On a visit to Capacity Sports showroom in Melbourne to pick up Jo’s wonderful new Native Watercraft Slayer 13 kayak (recently featured in these pages) my eyes spied an unusual looking craft perched high on the storage racks in the same warehouse.
“What’s that?” I exclaimed, pointing excitedly at the vessel.
“Oh,” Capacity’s owner Natalie Joffe replied, “It’s a Native Watercraft Versa Board. Basically it’s a stand-up paddle board designed for fishing. That’s the demo model… Would you like to borrow it for a couple of months and give it a try?”
“You bet!” I heard my inner dreamer blurt out, while old Mr Rational smacked his brow with the palm of his hand, moaned loudly and shook his head in total dismay. But it was done… I was now the temporary owner of an SUP!
In retrospect, the depths of a NSW south coast winter probably wasn’t the ideal time to agree to an extended field test of a craft like the Versa Board, and for the first few weeks after coming home, the SUP sat under the house slowly gathering dust and spider webs as we were flogged by one stormy cold front after another.
Eventually, one of those big, fat high pressure systems that usually characterise our southern winters slid in from the west and parked its 1030-plus millibar butt firmly over us. Nights became especially chilly, but the short days were crisp, sunny, bright and very welcoming. In short, I’d run out of excuses!
Accepting the fact that my first effort was likely to end badly, I took absolutely nothing but a paddle and a pole with me on that shake down cruise, working on the theory that if I didn’t want to lose it or at least get it wet, I shouldn’t carry it.
I started in very shallow water, and sitting on the board, with my ample rear end parked in the appropriately shaped and thinly padded seat depression. I immediately noticed two things. Firstly, the board was more stable than I’d dared to expect. Secondly, I already had a wet bum!
Next I climbed off, stood in the shallows beside the board… and then stepped gingerly up onto it. When I opened my eyes, I was amazed to find I was still upright, albeit with slightly quivering knees. Tentatively, I poked my paddle into the water and gave a gentle push. Still I remained upright.
Within a few minutes I was laughing and shouting excitedly to Jo: “Look at me! I’m doing it!”
Remarkably, I got through that entire first session without taking a dunking and I even left the jelly knees behind after a while. I paddled the Versa Board sitting, kneeling and standing and also poled it with the 5m fibreglass flats pole I’ve had for many years. Everything worked! In fact, I was already kicking myself for not bringing a rod.
A week or two later, and with a Scotty rod holder now fitted to the board’s forward accessory track, I set out for my first halfway serious SUP fishing foray. I chose an older rod and reel and carried the minimal spare tackle I’d need (a spool of leader, braid scissors, plus half a dozen jigheads and Squidgies tails), stashed in my shirt pockets.
I was still getting used to the whole concept of casting from the SUP when the first fish nailed my soft plastic. I called it for a keeper flathead, but it actually turned out to be a nice, plate-sized flounder. Sliding it onto the board was a breeze and I quickly found that one of the foot well depressions ahead of the seating position also made a perfect ‘flounder well’. In fact, by pulling out the drain bungs, it even had flow-though circulation!
Ten minutes later my plastic was nailed by a much more spirited opponent. After a thrilling tussle, I knelt and comfort-lifted a 40cm tailor onto the Versa Board. Deciding to keep it for dinner, my only option was to break the fish’s neck, bleed it out immediately and then place the paddle blade across it in the opposite ‘wet well’ to the flounder while I continued to fish.
A couple more good hits failed to connect and by then my thighs were starting to tell me it was time to bring the session to an end, so I paddled back towards the ramp, smiling from ear to ear. This was fun!
My first impressions of the Native Watercraft Versa Board SUP are, for the most part, incredibly positive. It’s much easier to operate than I’d expected and surprisingly stable on flat water. I coped with a few modest boat wakes on the first fishing day while standing, but for bigger stuff I reckon I’d definitely drop into the kneeling or seated position.
Transitioning from sitting or kneeling to standing is a little heart-in-mouth the first few times, but quickly becomes second nature. Kneeling is my favourite position for covering longer distances and, in this mode, I find a standard, double-ended canoe blade better than the specialised stand-up single paddle. Poling is also a dream, although a shorter, lighter pole would probably be better than my big beast. Using the pole (and with the board’s retractable keel skeg in its fully raised position) I was able to easily traverse water that was literally ankle deep or even less.
Best of all, visibility from the standing position is superb (very nearly as good as from the casting deck of my boat) and the Versa Board seems to have a negligible ‘signature’ or presence in the water. I can honestly say I have never been able to move as close to wary fish like whiting, bream and flathead in any other style of craft, nor while wading. It’s nothing short of amazing.
On the downside, everything on board (including me) gets wet to some extent. Even sitting in the forward rod holder, the rod and reel is frequently dribbled with water as you swing the paddle or pole across above it. In reality, this is also the case in most kayaks and canoes, of course, but it’s exaggerated on a low, open SUP. Any additional gear carried would need to be stowed in a watertight container or dry bag and secured under the elasticised cargo straps.
This is also not an especially light craft at 25kg. I can certainly handle it on and off the roof racks and in and out of the water on my own, but a young person or a lightly-built woman might struggle — perhaps more with the unwieldy bulk than the actual weight. Fortunately there’s a permanently fitted wheel under the tail of the board, which makes travel across firm land surfaces much easier.
Finally, there’s no denying that operating an SUP is a bit of a workout, especially for an unfit desk jockey like me. Your ankles and thighs will certainly let you know you’ve done it, at least for the first few outings. No wonder they reckon these things are good for your core fitness levels!
All in all, I’m pretty damn excited about the Native Watercraft Versa Board, and I’m going to make Capacity Sports an offer to buy this demo model. I see so many applications for it, not least reaching those distant and largely inaccessible back flats this coming summer to chase whiting and big flathead on poppers and flies. Often, I’m sure I’ll end up mooring the board when I arrive by clipping it off to a pole or paddle pushed into the sand, then wade to fish, but it will be my magic carpet ride for getting there and back. Oh, and don’t tell anyone, but I’m also planning to take it out in the surf and try catching a few waves! Not bad for an overweight 56 year-old who could never stand up on roller skates, eh? The message is pretty clear: If I can do it, anyone can!
NATIVE WATERCRAFT VERSA BOARD
|Length:||3.73 m (12’3”)|
|Width:||0.84 m (33”)|
|Weight:||25 kg (55 lb)|
|Depth:||0.18 m (7”)|
|Load capacity:||136 kg (300lb)|
|Dealer:||Capacity Sports, 225 Bay Road, Sandringham, VIC|
|Phone:||(03) 9598 9821|
|Online:||capacitysports.com.au and on Facebook at Native Watercraft Australia|
The Versa Board is a big lump of an SUP, with a load carrying capacity to match. This board was designed very much with fishing in mind. Photo courtesy of Jo Starling.
With a fish hooked, it pays to align the rod down along the centre of the board. Even quite small opponents can pull the craft around! Photo courtesy of Jo Starling.
Success! A nice little chopper tailor landed from the Versa Board. Photo courtesy of Jo Starling.
Stand up and paddle! Photo courtesy of Jo Starling.
Poling the Versa Board allows sneaky access to some incredibly shallow areas. Photo courtesy of Jo Starling.
Kneeling and paddling is the author’s favourite way of covering longer distances. Note the rod holder. Photo courtesy of Jo Starling.Reads: 1613