I 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.