Bill Howard recently had retired from the Air Force when a television program caught his eye. Actor Ewan McGregor of Star Wars: Episodes I and II fame and a friend set out from London atop matching BMW motorcycles to ride across Europe, Russia, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Alaska and Canada. The six-episode series, Long Way Around, chronicled McGregor's epic adventure. "I thought to myself that is really cool," said Howard, a 46-year-old Apollo Beach resident. "I have got to do something like that. So I decided why not paddle and fish my way around the bay?"
An avid angler
Howard grew up fishing the lakes and ponds of South Carolina with his father.
In 1972, at age 10, Howard's family moved to the eastern shore of Tampa Bay, where the youngster discovered a whole new world on the grass flats of Florida's largest estuary.
"I fished everywhere," he said. "That is all I did growing up."
The Air Force took Howard away from home for 20 years. But he pursued his passion, fishing for walleye in North Dakota and saltwater species in Hawaii, Japan and Wake and Midway islands.
"All of those places are special in their own right," Howard added. "But there is nothing like fishing where you grew up."
Returning to Apollo Beach in 2000, Howard was eager to re-discover his roots. So he bought a flats boat and started fishing for redfish, trout and snook.
Howard was fishing one day when he saw some kayak anglers slipping into spots where his shallow-running skiff dare not go.
Howard sold his flats boat and bought a sea kayak.
"It seemed like a natural fit for me," he said. "I could combine two things I loved, paddling and fishing. Once I tried it, you could say I was hooked."
The local paddle fishing community is a tight-knit group of dedicated anglers. Catching fish while contending with weather and tides in a human-powered craft is not easy. That is why kayak anglers tend to share the tricks of the trade and, in general, welcome newcomers with open arms.
"We stay in touch on the message boards," said Howard, also president of the Tampa Bay chapter of the Central Florida Kayak Anglers. "Everybody is real friendly"
Following a dream
Howard talked about his plan with some friends and sketched out a route.
He broke the trip down into 18 legs and set out Feb. 2 with friends Peter Poletti, known as "Mako" on the paddle fishing forums, and Ken Mignogna, who goes by the nom de plume KPMiggs.
"When we started off, the fishing was really good," Howard said of his first outing, from the South Skyway to Bishop Harbor. "It really makes a big difference with the wind at your back."
Over the next two months, Howard worked his way around the bay, paddling and fishing some of the area's best inshore spots, including Cockroach Bay.
Along the way, he had to battle the elements and the inevitable, fish that refused to cooperate.
"Some days, the conditions just aren't any good," he said. "When the wind is blowing, you spend more time paddling than you do fishing."
For the heart
But Howard is committed to the 20-weekend, 100-mile paddle around the bay.
"I am doing this for charity," he said. "I hope to raise money and public awareness to help combat heart disease."
Howard lost his mother and father to congestive heart failure. His sister is currently battling it.
"Kayaking is such a heart-healthy exercise," he said.
"You can enjoy the outdoors and do something good for your heart."
Supporters have rallied around his cause. His paddling buddies have shown up to help fish his way from stop to stop, and friend Jay Place designed a Web site, paddlearoundthebay.com, so the public can follow his adventure.
Kayak manufacturer Wilderness Systems donated a new Tarpon 160 for Howard to use.
"When I am done, I hope to auction it off and donate the proceeds to the American Heart Association," he said.
Howard has made it about halfway around the bay. Saturday morning, he hopes to paddle from Cypress Creek Park to the boat ramp on the Courtney Campbell Parkway.
"Hopefully the fish will be biting," he said.
"Either way, I'm paddling."