“We’ve Caught a Fish, Now We Can Leave”

I’m lucky to get to fish with a variety of guides, all of different bents and trajectories even if we do have a common language.  This past week I fished with Robb Kessler, who’s been guiding in Key West now for a decade.  He comes from a long career on the Madison River, where he spends four or five months a year.  Guide talk being what it is,  we eventually talked about fish pressure and resource protection.

With a couple of my old clients, I shared the sentiment that if we caught a fish in a location, we could move on and fish somewhere else.   It was always acknowledged with irony, since we knew staying where we were was an easy win.  But we’d also proved our point, and we didn’t want to punish the fish there.  Besides, I was much too anxious to want to see new (and even find) new spots, see how far we could take a little bit of success.

Does that sound counterproductive?  Does that mean we’ll catch fewer fish?

In the short run, yes.   In the long run, definitely not.

“I’ve seen many flats ruined by guides who sat on them day after day,” I mentioned to Rob.  “Forcing yourself to move not only teaches you to find fish, it means you can come back to that spot where you just caught a fish tomorrow–or better yet the day after tomorrow–and catch a fish just as easily.  The added benefit is that you get to see a lot of country.”

Rob pointed out that guides sometimes need to fish the same spots on consecutive days/tides in order to keep clients in fish.  I concurred.  You do what you gotta do.  I did the same when I guided.  But I think we both agreed that working to plan made a lot of sense.  And planning not just for tomorrow but for next month and next year actually means you will catch more fish in the long run.

Hell’s Bay Kicks Off Military Appreciation Initiative

Like Hell’s Bay’s Military Appreciation Initiative, the owners, Wendi and Chris Peterson, have long been known for their company’s special programs such as locating and removing abandoned inshore ghost crab traps and loan of its aerated tank for the safe release of fish in many fishing tournaments. NBC Sport Network’s American Hero Experience features a segment on the new event announced today by Hell’s Bay.

Read the full press release in the extended entry. [Read more…]

Video Profile: Harry Spear

Harry Spear

Harry Spear

David Mangum just produced this engaging video profile of Harry Spear, one of the legends of Keys guiding and now a custom skiff builder.  Some great personal and historical detail here.  “The best boat is the simplest boat that you can have to do the job,” says Spear. [Read more…]

Chris Morejohn: Carving Wood and Wind

I had the pleasure of Skyping with Chris Morejohn for an hour or two yesterday, catching up on his evolving life story.   Even if you’ve never heard of Chris, you’ve benefited from his perspicacity.  He was the leading force in the use of foam core and in progressive styles of  hull lay-up in the early 1980s, and his designs influenced most of what we’ve come to know as the “technical skiff” concept.

Chris is going to be detailing his experiences as a skiff designer and boat builder on Skiff Republic in the coming months, but meanwhile I thought I’d share a little of what he’s been doing from his Bahamas base.    Chris’s carved wooden eels–created from found wood–are really stunning.  They’re finished with various stains and have the wood grain still visible under a glossy varnish. “Mouths with metal teeth are open as an eel would have naturally as it breathes.”

Carved wooden eels, by Chris Morejohn, on Etsy.

Carved wooden eels, by Chris Morejohn, on Etsy.

One other aside: Chris and I got into a long discussion about sailboats and skiffs.  Chris’s core business has long been custom sailboat design, and I suggested that there was a close connection between sailing and driving and poling skiffs.  “No question,” he said.  “You’re really sailing a skiff when you are poling it.  You’re tacking according to the wind direction, and almost everything you do is influenced by which way the wind is blowing and how hard.  They are very, very similar ideas.”

The Great Skiff Hunt, Part II

Marshall Cutchin Maverick Mirage 2013 Skiff

My new skiff at the factory in the final stages of quality control.

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.

Maverick 17 Mirage HPX  2013

Day one, early morning, ready to fish.

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.

Maverick Mirage 2013

Maverick moved the the gas tank back under the deck in the 2013 Mirage, providing much more storage area up front.

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.”

Maverick hatch troughs

3″-deep hatch troughs mean drier storage areas.

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.

Maverick has improved electrical rigging and components in the past few years.  They pay obvious attention to clean rigging.

Maverick has improved electrical rigging and components in the past few years. They pay obvious attention to clean rigging.

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.


The Great Skiff Hunt, Part I

skiffhunt_introI spent hundreds of hours this past fall and winter catching up on the “state of the art” in skiff design and production.  I spoke at length with the manufacturers of most major skiff models, talking about unique features and how various models fit customer expectations for high-performance fishing boats.  And ‘fit’ is the perfect word, if only because we know there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all skiff.

The ideal skiff for redfish in Plaquemine Parish or stripers off of the Cape is a different beast from the boat you’d want for hunting laid-up tarpon in Ten Thousand Islands or riding four-footers on your way to permit in the Marquesas.  Quietness, ride, tippiness, storage, speed, deck layout, draft, and dryness are just a few of the characteristics that distinguish one skiff from another, and each of them matter more than others in specific types of fishing.  But few of us can afford more than one skiff, and so we must choose.

As March–prime permit season in the Florida Keys–neared, I realized the time to make a decision about my new boat was growing short.   I forced myself to narrow in on the factors that made the most difference to me.  In approximate order, they were:

1. Fishing Performance – I’m still able to occasionally fool myself into thinking that I am 25 years old and pushing a skiff into a 20-knot wind one-handed while barking instructions to the guy on the bow.  I want a boat that responds to my effort, stays quiet while moving into a quartering shop or staked-out, doesn’t push a big pressure wave, goes shallow enough for bonefish stuck in potholes.

2. Ride – I don’t expect to arrive at my destination without having to absorb some serious chop or steer around some big seas.  But I don’t want to feel every bit of wave chatter or come down hard when the boat catches some air. I also want to be able to drive the boat at an angle that keeps me dry, mostly.

3. Price – One thing that you can be sure of in high-performance skiffs: quality doesn’t come cheap.  Yes, you can find boats that are well-made, inexpensive, and give you 80% of the fishing you’d have with a top-tier boat.  But when you consider what goes into making a boat that combines all of the characteristics necessary to do what what we do really well, manufacturers are left with pretty small margins.   It’s a fact that most builders are motivated by a passion for the sport and for boat-building, and not by the opportunity to make a killing in the skiff market.    That leaves us with some well-defined choices.  There aren’t any skiffs that fit my criteria that can be bought new for less than $30,000-35,000.    And I don’t begrudge a manufacturer who is making fewer than 50 skiffs a year the chance to make a $5,000 profit.  On the other hand, the used market is tempting.  That is, if you can find the right hull with the right engine that doesn’t need a $7000 overhaul to make it trustworthy and comfortable.

4. Aesthetics – As much as all of the above matters, I couldn’t ride in an ugly boat.  I like my skiffs simple, clean, and sharp-looking.

There were other criteria, like the ability to be to run shallow and rod storage, but those four were the biggies for me.    In my mind, if you’re satisfied with all of the above, you can adjust your habits to make almost anything else work.  It’s hard enough to find a skiff that offers all of the above–and match personal tastes–without worrying about things like whether a popup cleat is automatic or manual, or whether the cockpit lights are LED or low-end.  You can even get away with subpar wiring, though you should consider having a rigging expert redo it.

So with time growing short and hard choices to make, what boat did I end up with?   Stay tuned for Part II.


Putting on the Heat

Tarpon FishingKyle Giampaoli and friend put some serious heat on a deep-bodied tarpon in the backcountry. [Read more…]

Building the “Hemingway and Fuentes” Boat

Boatbuilder John Lubbehusen

Boatbuilder John Lubbehusen

Douglas Jordan interviews boatbuilder John Lubbehusen about his work on the fishing skiff that will be used for the upcoming “Hemingway and Fuentes,” a film directed by and starring Andy Garcia.

“The boat, which is 16 feet long with a beam (width) of about six feet, is framed in mahogany and planked with Spanish cedar, he said. It will have a gaff-rigged sail.  ‘I’m trying to use materials that would have been found down there on the island at that time (the 1950s),’ Lubbehusen said.” (Thanks to Todd Thompson for this link.) [Read more…]

Florida Revealed

Great piece by T.D. Allman, author of Finding Florida: The True History of the Sunshine State, in The New York Times this morning.  Allman’s point–on the “500th anniversary of Ponce de Leon discovering Florida”–is that we continue to delude ourselves about the origins and future of the Sunshine State.

“Violence and delusion made Florida what it is today; as the state’s unceasing melodramas demonstrate, they stalk us still.”   “I would have been a rich man if it hadn’t been for Florida,” he quotes Henry Flagler as saying.


“Bass Professor” Doug Hannon Dies at Age 66

+Doug-Hannon-m-r----2-bassDoug Hannon, who had nearly 20 patents for numerous fishing tackle, lures and boating propulsion designs, died at home Thursday after complications from neck surgery. After its launch last summer Hannon was again riding the crest of worldwide acclaim with his newest innovation the MicroWave Line Control System by American Tackle, introduced at fall and winter fishing and trade shows in Australia, Asia, and Europe and recently in North America.  Hannon  was best known for his recent inventions on the spin fishing front but he loved fly fishing whenever he got the chance.

Full press release below. [Read more…]