The new generation of ultra-light flats boats takes anglers into the skinniest of water, inaccessible to heavier craft.
By TERRY TOMALIN
It’s easy to run aground when you are chasing redfish through the shallows of the Indian River, where locals consider 2 feet to be fairly deep for fishing. Like all boat owners, I pray I never hear the sound of oyster shells grinding against a fiberglass hull. As the owner of a 20-foot vee bottom, I stick to marked channels, lest I leave my outboard’s lower unit lying somewhere on the bay bottom.
On a recent trip, my host vowed that wouldn’t happen as we motored along one of Florida’s most undeveloped coastlines. “Trust me,” Mike Holliday said. “All this boat needs is about five inches of water.” I was a little apprehensive as Holliday, an East Coast guide and director of communications for Maverick Boat Company, slid his 17-foot Hewes Tailfisher flats boat onto plane and blazed off into the great unknown. “This is a go-anywhere boat,” said Holliday, who often fishes the backcountry of the 156-mile long estuary. “This will take you into the really skinny water.”
The Maverick Boat Company, which manufactures Maverick, Hewes and Pathfinder boats, knew it needed a lightweight, fiberglass flats skiff capable of running in less than a foot of water that was within the financial reach of most anglers. In August 2004, Maverick unveiled the Tailfisher Tunnel Hull, a 750-pound flats boat that, when matched with a Yamaha 60-horsepower outboard, lists for about $19,000.
“A lot of our customers told us that they wanted a boat that would serve a specific purpose,” said Scott Deal, Maverick’s president. “These guys fishing the redfish tournaments want to get into the really skinny water. That is all they want to do.”
Maverick also makes a carbon/kevlar flats boat, the Mirage HPX, with a hull weight of 425 pounds. Because of the materials used, the HPX series, available in vee or tunnel hull, costs about $9,000 more than the the Tailfisher.
“Right now the 17-foot Tailfisher Tunnel Hull is our No. 1-selling flats boat,” said Holliday, who oversees the company’s professional guide program. “It is a great boat for the price.”
These days, saltwater fishing has become a highly-specialized sport. Most anglers either fish inshore or offshore, unless they are fortunate enough to own two boats. Many inshore anglers around Tampa Bay target a specific species, such as tarpon, snook or redfish. Of those three, redfish anglers need the boats that allow access to the shallowest water.
Several manufacturers are building ultra-skinny boats that are sometimes called technical poling skiffs, which are also great in the Florida Keys for bonefish and permit.
Anglers use a long pole, typically fiberglass or graphite composite, to sneak up on fish after motoring to the skinny water. Trolling motors are also an option, but they can scare fish in clear, shallow water, and the batteries for a trolling motor add considerable weight.
The poling boats need less power because they are so light – anywhere from 400 to 800 pounds for a 17-foot hull – and most will run 30 to 40 mph with a 60-horse outboard.
Different makes of boats vary greatly in the level of comfort and finish, but they are all designed with one thing in mind: Allow an angler to get into the skinniest water, both on plane and by pole, to catch fish that are out of reach to boats that need more than 10 inches to float.
Typical flats boats are much heavier, some weighing as much a 1,500 pounds. They have more options, such as larger baitwells and more comfortable seats, and bigger skiffs can be smoother and drier in choppy water. But the heavier flats boats need more water to run and float, and the larger motors required to push the weight burn a lot more fuel, adding considerably to the cost of a day on the water.
Poling skiffs come in a wide range of prices, starting around $8,000 for a 15-foot boat with tiller motor and a trailer, soaring to as much as $40,000 for a tricked-out 17-footer.
The Tailfisher Tunnel Hull is indicative of the new poling skiffs geared for anglers interested in competing on one of the many redish torus. The Tailfisher’s 6-foot, 1-inch beam with an 18-gallon gas tank and a 70-horse Yamaha motor is light enough to be poled for hours and still provides good range. The tunnel hull allows the motor to be raised above the deepest part of the hull, providing an even shallower ride on plane.
Hewes, named after the legendary Bob Hewes, an industry pioneer who began building shallow-draft boats in the mid 1950s, also manufactures the heavier Redfisher series, which comes in lengths of 16, 18 and 21 feet.
Hewes boats have an excellent finish and an established market after decades of building solid skiffs, but there is growing competition for shallow-minded anglers.
“We are always busy,” said Tony Mitzlaff, general manager for the Jacksonville-based Mitzi Skiffs. “We have got our own little niche.”
The company started with a 15-foot, two-man skiff and added a 16-footer, a 17-footer and ST tunnel models, which are advertised as “the perfect blend of a vee hull ride with the shallow running ability of a tunnel hull.” The Mitzis don’t have the opulent finish of some other skiffs, but they are less expensive than most, with a 17-foot hull that weighs 560 pounds costing less than $15,000 for boat, 60-horse motor and trailer.
Titusville’s Hells Bay Boatworks, founded by Hal Chittum and world-class fly-rodder Flip Pallot, is marketed as a boat that can take a professional pounding by a guide who works 200 to 300 days a year. The company offers many models of poling skiffs ranging from a 14-foot, 8-inch Devilray that weighs 260 pounds to the 18-foot Marquesa hull that weighs 625 pounds. These are some of the most popular poling skiffs and among the most expensive, with some fully-loaded models costing more than $35,000.
Bass boat manufacturer Ranger of Flippin, Ark., has a new bare-bones boat called Banshee, which measures 16-feet, 8-inches with a hull that weighs 543 pounds. Advertised to run in less than five inches of water, a Banshee with a 40-horse motor sells for $11,250. Ranger also makes the Phantom, which offers more features and a more refined look at 650 pounds.
In St. Petersburg, Renegade Marine builds two popular tunnel-hulls, the 17-foot Skate, with a 825-pound hull, and the Skate 20, with a 975-pound hull. The Skate is marketed as an economical option to the Hell’s Bay boats.
And more manufacturers are getting involved as they discover that some anglers will do anything to get into ankle-deep water without getting their feet wet.
For more information on the boats mentioned: