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.

 

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.

 

Things You Don’t See (Every Day)

whale_skull

“Whale Skull Flat,” the Mud Keys, Florida – M.-J. Taylor photo

Very few sports give the participants a chance to see the completely unexpected.  In my years of fishing the flats, I’ve seen: a pair of 40-foot sperm whales dying on my favorite bonefish flat (it later became Whale Skull Flat), a 20-foot hammerhead bang his dorsal against the gunwhale, a tarpon eat a butterfly flying a foot above the surface, a ring of 5 waterspouts that had us completely surrounded and the birth of one as a tiny swirling cloud no bigger than a snow cone.

I’ve also seen the head of IT for the NASDAQ take a swing at a psychiatrist on the bow of my skiff, but that sort of thing isn’t memorable for where it happened, only that it happened at all.

Fishing–and especially fishing a lot–from a skiff puts us in places where truly amazing things happen.  Granted, there’s plenty of luck involved.  I once spent three days in a black, hammering rain waiting for a single shot at a tarpon before my motivation collapsed, then just before noon a hole opened in the clouds and shone a spotlight 50 feet wide on a school of daisy-chaining tarpon that ate everything we threw at them for 15 minutes.  Then the window closed and the world turned black again.

A client who was dying of liver cancer at age 30 booked one last day with me before going into the hospice.  We fished the east side of the Marquesas into the late afternoon, and permit, tarpon and mutton snappers swarmed the boat for hours.  At 6PM a very black squall line chased us home, and Jerry was dead a month later.

You couldn’t fabricate some of this stuff and make it believable.  Even more to the point, you won’t ever witness  these things unless you are “there and square”–you’ve gone to a place for a specific purpose, and prepared, often long and hard, for good things to happen.

Fishing out of a small boat in a big ocean, especially the near-shore fishing that we love, puts us in place to witness the unbelievable and makes us pay attention.  In that respect it’s a rare sport indeed.

Steve Huff Flies

huff_flies

Some of Steve’s favorite patterns, in a shot of one of his fly boxes.

I’ve been fortunate to spend many days fishing with and around Steve Huff, whom I consider to be an iconic fishing guide.  (“Iconic” is used overmuch these days, but if there’s a soul dedicated to his craft like Steve is to guiding, I haven’t met them yet.)  Steve has strong opinions about leader systems, boats, and strategies.  But the one I’ve always found intriguing is his preferred style of flies, especially in this day of perfect imitation and miniaturization.

In brief, Steve’s flies tend to be biggish and fluffy.  They almost look archaic.  And they are far from “perfect” in what we think of as perfection from a expert tier’s perspective.  No fancy techniques or innovative materials and paints, just good old-fashioned feather and hair, fiber and fluff assembly.  From Steve’s patterns–beginning with his modifications on the early Merkin–I learned most of my opinions about what makes a fly sexy to a fish: that it behaves like prey, and that what a fly looks like out of the water doesn’t matter, as long as in the water the fly creates the right profile and motion.

March Merkin Kick-Off and Jon Ain Memorial

Jon Ain Ashes SpreadThis morning the skiffs entered in the annual March Merkin permit tournament in Key West moored their boats briefly as Jon Ain’s ashes were spread in the Northwest Channel, near the flats he loved to fish so much.  Jon was instrumental in getting the Merkin tournament started, and by the time he died in late November he had caught hundreds of permit on fly.

Legacy Skiff: Harbor Road 13

harborroad_13Poleable?  Maybe not, with no place to stow a pole.  But who wouldn’t want to stand on the wood-clad foredeck of this Harbor Road 13 and cast a line?

Tom Richardson investigates the origins of an unusual deep-vee skiff built in Mattapoisett, Massachusetts, and based on a design by the legendary C. Raymond Hunt. [Read more…]

“Silver Lining”

benson_silverliningI was fortunate to see an early edit of this new short film by Will Benson a couple of months ago, and it must be said that ignoring the gorgeous shots of gulping tarpon is pretty hard.  But the real message here is that once again the local government in Key West is willing to sell their paradise to the highest bidder–in this case mega cruise ships, most of them registered in foreign countries so that they don’t have to obey US laws regarding pollution or environmental damage.

Worth watching for the sips and jumps, but media that needs and deserves some love on your favorite social media channel. [Read more…]

2013 Backcountry Fly Championship

backcountryflyThis past Friday and Saturday  19 teams of guides and anglers set out from The Lorelei Marina in Islamorada, FL with the goal of catching the largest 2 snook and redfish on fly rods. The Backcountry Fly Championship allows you to score your largest 2 redfish and the largest 2 snook each day for two days. The Grand Champion is the angler that has accumulated the most total inches with their longest 2 redfish and 2 snook.

The Grand Champion Team of Rick Moeller of Islamorada and Capt. Mark Gilman of Islamorada scored big by winning the championship and also capturing the largest snook and the largest redfish honors. Their largest Redfish measured 26.5” and 27” and Snook of 28” and 29.5” for a grand total of 111 points. The closest team, taking Runner-up to Grand Champion honors, was Frank Criscola of Far Hills, NJ with Capt. Chris Jones of Islamorada, scoring 99.5 points.

There were 8 teams which measured their limit of 2 snook and 2 reds. 27 snook and 31 redfish were measured during the 2 day event.

Custom engraved Nautilus fly reels were the awards and the winning team of Moeller and Gilman took 6 of them. The kick-off dinner was held at The Shrimp Shack in Islamorada and the awards BBQ was held on the beach at The Lorelei Cabana Bar in Islamorada.

Due to popular demand we will hold a fall version of this event in October this year. It will be The Backcountry Fly Fall Championship BFFC.  Contact Capt. Paul Tejera @ Captbackbone@gmail.com for more information about this tournament and others.

Tournament Director : Capt. Paul Tejera

Tournament Chairman :  Mike Criscola

 

Maverick’s New 17 HPX-V 2

Maverick 2013 HPX-V 2Maverick 2013 HPX-V 2

Maverick 2013 HPX-V 2

Yes, they added a ‘2’ to the name to help distinguish it as a new model, but the only visible changes to Maverick’s long-live HPX line (which started with the Mirage in the 1990s) is a reconfiguration of the hatch and livewell/storage layout.

I spoke with Charlie Johnson, Maverick’s marketing director, just after the Miami Boat Show this past weekend, and he said that the new 17 HPX-V 2 helped them reach record sales at the show.   Continuing a trend that started about two years ago, it’s nice to hear that one of the mainline brands is reporting growth.  Johnson fished on the new 17, rigged with a 70 Yamaha, during the show and and reported: “Two or three shoves of the pushpole and that skiff is going.   It tracks better than any skiff I’ve poled in that size range.”

So what’s the new cap and deck layout all about?   “The newer layout simply makes the boat much more user-friendly,” said Johnson. ” There’s more storage in the bow and stern, and it’s all much easier to access. Plus, the livewell is  now on the centerline, which helps with balance and stability, and there’s a padded lip underneath where the back deck protrudes slightly into the cockpit that functions as a very comfortable handhold for passengers. All this was done without impacting the famous 17 HPX-V ride.”

I’ll be spending some time hands-on in the new skiff in a few weeks and will be able to offer up my personal impressions then.  If anyone has specific questions about the skiff, add them to the comments here or send them to me at mcutchin@midcurrent.com.