Flats Boat 101

Hull shape determines hull slap; therefore it needs to be a factor in determining your boat purchase. Guidelines to follow before buying your flats boat.

In the rush to compete in the skinny water marketplace, some companies built boats too large, or too heavy, or too wide, or too noisy, or from a skinny water standpoint, an unworkable combination of some of the above. Another important genre of boats emerged from the larger designs, vessels that we now call “bay boats.” And important improvements have since been made to true flats skiffs. If you’re in the market for a boat that fishes skinny water really well, here are some things to keep in mind in your search for a flats skiff.

Stealth Is Job One

East Cape Skiffs
East Cape Skiffs

The shallower the water, the quieter that boat has to be. The slightest hull slap can send an edgy bonefish, redfish, striper, tarpon, permit or seatrout packing. If you can hear any noise from water making contact with the hull, you can bet that every fish in the vicinity registered it as a loud noise and/or vibration. Sound is amplified and travels faster under water. And since most gamefish experience a lot more fishing (and unrelated boating) pressure today than ever, it’s easy to understand why they’re getting a bit high strung.

So don’t be surprised if any hull or cockpit boat noise makes fish in the shallows wary enough to stay just out of practical casting range (How do they know this?) or to simply not bite even if they don’t flee. Also keep in mind that “shallow” is a term relative to the size of the fish. A 6-foot tarpon in three feet of water is every bit on edge as a bonefish in 12 inches.

Hull Shape determines Hull Slap

Keep in mind that while all boats are free of hull slap on flat calm days, only the really good designs are quiet when it gets choppy. Hull shape is everything – sharp chines that extend above the waterline create pockets that trap moving water, and that in turn creates sound. Reverse (down-turned) chines contribute to a dry ride when the going is sloppy, but they also make a bit of noise.

Hells Bay Boat
Hells Bay Boat

Hell’s Bay boats are a very common sight in the Florida Keys – for good reason.A well-designed hull with rounded chines of sufficient radius is graveyard-quiet, and that’s what it often takes these days. But also be wary of those add-on spray rails that promise a drier ride. If they’re mounted low enough to trap even the smallest of waves as you pole down the flat, then for sure the boat is no longer stealthy.

Other Parameters

Go shopping for a flats boat with your primary fishing intentions in mind. If anything, the word “compromise” applies more to flats boats than probably anything else afloat. If you are seriously dedicated to skinny water pursuit of such species as bonefish and redfish, draft becomes the major limiting factor. Both often feed in water that just reaches your ankles. You should look for a skiff that draws six inches or less loaded (anglers, motor and gear). For most bigger bonefish (typical of South Florida and the Keys), an 8- to 9-inch draft usually gets it done. When it comes to permit, a foot or so works just fine, but zero hull slap definitely is the number one consideration with spooky permit. For big tarpon or other large inshore species, draft is less of an issue, unless you need to get over some really shallow barriers to get to the fish.

The Tradeoffs

The inescapable fact is that an absolute flat bottom draws far less water than anything else, but also yields the roughest ride when crossing long stretches of open water on windy days. And of course deep Vee hulls draw much more but also offer the best ride. As a good working compromise, hulls that have somewhat of a V configuration in the forward third of their length, and are flat from that point aft, provide a far softer and dryer ride than a flat bottom. That ride improves significantly with the added control of electric or hydraulic trim tabs on the transom. The larger the tabs the better. And if you want to get on plane in really shallow water, a tunnel hull is likely the best choice.

Modified deep V hulls are an excellent compromise for both shallow draft and a really good ride in sloppy seas. Most won’t get in less than 10 inches of water (they have to be really light to do that) but in all other respects they are hard to beat.

If the pushpole is your primary means of stalking, yet another set of parameters -length, beam, freeboard, and weight- determines how well a flats boat performs while you are fishing. A light, low-profile boat of 18 feet or less poles the easiest. If the freeboard is kept as low as practicable, it is less affected by a crosswind.

Consider that more beam, and more weight, means better stability at rest. But again, compromise is the operative word here. If you plan to use the skiff more like a bay boat than a poling skiff (inlet fishing, surf fishing, bay drift-fishing, fishing via electric motor, etc.) then a wide beam with extra length and high sides are fine. A 19- to 20-footer with a hull weight of 1,600 pounds or more is what you may need.

There are some other very real advantages in keeping the hull light. You need less horsepower, and less horsepower allows you to carry less gasoline, which is heavy. My current 17-foot Kevlar-carbon “foam sandwich” tunnel hull weighs around 420 pounds unrigged, reaches 36 mph with a 4-stroke 60, and has an 18-gallon tank. If I manage to burn 10 or more gallons in a day, I’ve spent far too much time running and not enough time fishing. Most of my trips, which cover an average of about 50 to 60 miles, require five to seven gallons. Bottom line: don’t buy more horsepower than you really need.

The interior layout in all flats skiffs is very important. It should be open and free of obstructions that catch fly lines, and allow for easy passage for walking fore and aft. Gunnels should be flat and wide enough to walk on, too. There must be a reasonable amount of below-deck stowage. And most important of all, there should be sufficient horizontal under-gunnel stowage for as many rods up to at least 9-1/2 feet as you feel you need.

The Hull Truth: shape alone can’t determine the best boat for you. 
Hull Materials

Maverick Boats
Maverick Boats

While hull shape by far plays the greatest role in stealth, some hull materials are much quieter than others. Aluminum is definitely the noisiest of all, but it is also the lightest and the least expensive. And that?s why it is still so popular among the skinny water crowd in some areas. Years ago I had a 16-foot V bow aluminum jonboat, and it ran very nicely at speeds of up to 30 mph. with a 2-stroke 35. It also drew four inches with two anglers aboard. I was able to decrease its noise potential substantially by adding plywood floorboards and outdoor carpeting along the insides to deaden cockpit noise. I also found it poled somewhat quieter from the bow, except when heading directly into a chop of six inches or more. Some anglers have reported a significant decrease in hull slap by gluing a wide strip of outdoor carpet right along the forward half of the at-rest waterline, but high enough to keep it out of the water when on plane. I have not tried this myself, but it sounds like a possibility.
Otherwise, most hulls are fiberglass, Kevlar or Kevlar-carbon, or combinations thereof. Fiberglass is the least expensive of these, but also the heaviest. The lightest hulls are made of thin layers of vacuum-bagged Kevlar-carbon on both sides of a thick layer of high-density foam. This, of course, is a lot more expensive than plain fiberglass. All of these materials are much quieter than aluminum.

There is no one single boat that is perfect for all shallow-water applications, so you must make your own choice based upon how you intend to use it, and definitely plan to spend some time water testing your choice(s) before you plunk down your hard-earned cash.

Bay Boats

Most of today’s better bay boats are essentially a larger version of a flats skiff, complete with flat casting decks at both ends and lots of dry storage (or livewells), and rod storage under the gunnels and alongside the center console. The sides are typically a bit higher, and the bottom has a little more V to handle rougher water. There are typically more ponies on the transom too, whether as a single or twins.

The “crossover” point seems to be around 19 feet, and most boats intended for bay/nearshore fishing are 20 to 24 feet. Nineteen feet is usually a bit long for flats fishing unless it is uncommonly light and designed specifically with that in mind. Nevertheless many of these smaller bay boats can still be used along the deeper edges of the flats, drifting with wind and tide, the direction of movement controlled with an electric motor or occasional push of the pole. It is also not uncommon to see bay boats fishing offshore far enough to reach blue water if weather conditions permit.

The Technical Poling Skiff

Mike Conner Pompano
Mike Conner Pompano

Currently the ultimate in stealth, these easy-to-pole flats boats are typically ultra-light and constructed with the latest high-tech materials, such as high- density foam sandwiched between two very thin but ultra-strong layers of Kevlar-carbon. Typically less than 18 feet in length with a relatively narrow beam, they are so light that they draw less than five inches and plane easily and quickly with 35 hp or less and reach speeds of 25 to 30 mph with two anglers aboard.


FLTA asked leading technical poling skiff makers to tell us what makes their skiffs so quiet on the pole.

Kevin Fenn, of East Cape Skiffs, says prospective customers commonly ask about the company’s skiff’s stealth factor. “Poling quiet is foremost of their minds,” said Fenn. “And the simple answer is our skiffs are silent because our our chines are below the waterline everywhere. Not just at the entry like most poling skiffs, but from the stem to stern and port to starboard side. Everywhere.” Fenn went on to explain other characteristics that come into play. “The angle of the hull’s sides where they meet the bottom is also important,” said Fenn. “We have the optimum degree of angle to deflect water from rolling back and then over after coming in contact with our hulls. Even the back end of our transom has just enough angle and curvature to deflect that little rip when anchored in a bay, or ocean-side for tarpon. It’s a formula in design that we feel makes our boats quiet, if not unique.”

Chris Peterson, president and owner of Hell’s Bay Boatworks stresses that it is important that a skiff make no unnatural sounds or movements. “If you were to observe gamefish from the bank of a shallow shoreline where nothing else, such as boats, are in the vicinity, and there are only natural sounds such as mullet jumping or bait being busted, it does not seem to spook those fish,” said Peterson. “Any movement, anything that displaces water sends out a pressure wave, whether a manatee or another large fish, and the gamefish continue to hunt for food, seemingly unconcerned about anything else. When poling, you must move into casting position without that fish spooking or becoming wary. Thus your skiff must not produce any unnatural sounds or movement. It will send out a slight pressure wave, but that is tolerated by most fish. The unnatural sound of wave slapping on a fiberglass hull simply sounds an alarm.  I liken it to that funny creak, pop or scrape in the house that awakens you at night with a jolt. Yet you sleep right through sounds you are accustomed to, such as your dog’s collar scraping the floor, or an hourly chime of a clock.” Peterson says that eliminating unnatural sound-making characteristics  from hull design takes some science, plenty of art, a lot boat building magic.

Chine Graphic

The “lines” of a boat hull don’t just make them pretty, they are functional and modify boat performance. photo swiped from iboats.com“At Hell’s Bay our whole team lives and dreams this everyday,” said Peterson. “First you must find a way to eliminate the sounds of the boat moving in the water. No hull slap, no gurgle, is acceptable. Also, the boat’s pressure wave must at most mimic that of natural creatures, which have streamlined and efficient bodies.”

Charlie Johnson, Director of Marketing for Maverick Boats chose to describe the stealth factor built into the company’s Mirage HPX-S skiff.

“This boat is extremely quiet due to the curvature of its hull and stern which dissipates the energy of wavelets as opposed to directly deflecting them,” Said Johnson. “There are no hard edges close to the waterline to catch the waves. The water has a greater tendency to ‘wash over’ the exterior surface rather than bounce directly off of it. Further, because it tracks so well and spins so easily, a minimal amount of movement and effort is required from the person on the pole. And we know that excess movement on the deck, and especially from the platform, only produces undesirable fish-alerting pressure wakes in the water.”

Johnson concluded by pointing out that the skiff has no transom sponsons, which typically trap water when spinning on the pole and collect stern-to waves, making them reverberate and slap between the hard surfaces and corners like wakes in a small pool.  –Mike Conne, Editor-in-Chief, FLTA

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