As mentioned in Part I, I spoke to several skiff builders and their owners during my search for a new boat. Let me say right off that all of the major higher-end skiff builders have good products, and some of them have great products.
The notable names in skiff building now–Chittum Skiffs, Hell’s Bay, Maverick, East Cape, Spear Flats Skiffs, Dragonfly Boatworks–all produce attractive boats that excel at one thing or another. And there are a dozen or so other companies that either carry on a once-famous brand (e.g. Shipoke, Dolphin Boats, Egret), have targeted the “affordable skiff” market (e.g. Ankona, Mitzi), or are trying new and interesting blends of multi- and special-purpose skiff (Panga, Towee, Solo Skiff, Sterling, Beavertail). Plus there are the new entrants like Skull Island, Bohemian, Bonefish and others trying to carve their own niches.
It’s enough to make the head spin.
In Part I, I listed my expectations for fishing performance, ride, price and aesthetics. Additionally, I wanted a skiff that could safely handle big seas, have reasonably good top speed, and still pole very well.
As I refined my thinking about the purchase, I found myself also thinking about practical realities. When I was guiding, I once calculated the amount of time spent over an entire year on boat maintenance. It worked out to around 30 minutes a day. Something’s always breaking. I also thought about how I might deal with manufacturing defects. Spending most of the year in Colorado, I didn’t want to imagine taking a boat back to the factory for fixes or warranty work. So how well the skiff was made became a top consideration, and predictability–being sure that the boat I ordered left the factory without surprises–became as important as almost any other feature.
With all that in mind, over the winter my attention began to focus on Maverick Boat Company’s soon-to-be-released Mirage 17 HPX II (2013). The only differences between the new skiff and the previous model are changes in cap design and storage/livewell layout, but the changes are good ones: much more storage upfront because the gas tank is shifted back under the deck, a centralized live well, no need to lift the seat cushion to access rear storage, and an easier-access rigging hatch in back. Plus the lid troughs in all the hatches have been deepened to 3” for drier wells, and the lip of the aft deck protrudes over the cockpit bulkhead, allowing for a padded handhold for passengers.
I had owned four previous boats in the same line, beginning with one of the original Mirages, which had been my favorite of the bunch. Why was the original such a great boat? I’m not entirely sure, except that it was deadly quiet–probably because it had more structural foam in it than some later models. In my estimation it also had not yet been tainted by the need to satisfy the desires of the general market. It was a poling machine, much like the original Dolphin Super Skiff.
So I was intimately familiar with the performance of the Maverick hull. I had driven it in 8-foot seas, pushed it around in hurricane-force winds, and spent countless hours on the run in tournaments and through uninterrupted months of guiding everywhere from the Marquesas to Whitewater Bay. There were things about it that I didn’t like: one of the earlier models got the fore/aft balance all wrong, a later model had an unpleasant pinging sound in a light chop, electronics components weren’t all that hot, and fit and finish hadn’t always met expectations.
Keep in mind too that I have fished and guided out of most of the other skiff brands over my many years on the flats: an original ActionCraft, an 18-foot Hewes Bonefisher, a Hell’s Bay Marquesa, Whipray and Guide 18, a Dolphin Super Skiff, a Shipoke, even the original tumblehome-sided Maverick used in the movie “Tarpon.”
What I have not done (yet) is ride in the newer and redesigned skiffs from Harry Spear, Chittum, East Cape, Hell’s Bay or many of the skiffs from the new brands. But I talked in-depth to many owners this winter, almost all of them professional guides, about performance characteristics, quirks, and their opinions of how their skiffs compared to others they had fished . So I was looking at the new Maverick with a very educated eye, if not a PhD. I’m not even sure that one person–with or without doctorate degrees–can know everything there is to know about current skiff design.
I carefully considered the Spear Pro V Orca, the Hell’s Bay Biscayne and Marquesa, and the Chittum Islamorada 18 in my final five. Here’s the factor that tipped the scale for me in favor of the 2013 Mirage 17: I felt sure that Maverick could turn out a boat that was predictably well-constructed, with attention to the finer details that come with building and tweaking the same design for more than 20 years. There were few, if any unknowns. The Maverick build process is a marvel of predictability, while some other high-end skiffs that come off the assembly line are different–in hull and cap lay-up, assembly and rigging–than the one that came off the line the day or week before. When you add in the desire by many trendier and custom shops to constantly improve design to what is already a complicated process, you end up with some skiffs that meet the ideal, and some that don’t. I didn’t want that to be a part of an experiment, or discover in the middle of Boca Grande Channel that some nifty new “feature” hadn’t been weather-tested. Meanwhile Maverick owner Scott Deal has studied and implemented controls that reduce variation in materials and lay-up to almost nil.
I like my skiffs simple and clean, so it didn’t take long for me to put my order together: I wanted the basic white hull with a 4-stroke Yamaha 70, hydraulic steering, standard Yamaha controls, and wiring for multiple console batteries, run to the bow for potential trolling motor installation (more about that later) . I paid my deposit in late January and was told that I could probably have a skiff in April. That was later changed to March. I spent four days in the skiff in April doing break-in and permit fishing, and will be taking it back down to Key West in mid-May for a week, then fishing most of June.
In Part III I’ll give you my first impressions of the new skiff, whether there are things I don’t like or things that particularly impress me, and tell you whether I think I made the right choice.