Skiff Republic: We’re here today with Bob Stearns, who’s been boating editor of Outdoor Life and Field and Stream and was the first boating editor of Florida Sportsman in the 1970s. He’s also the author of The Fisherman’s Boating Book and thousands and thousands of magazine articles on boats and boat equipment and fishing strategy.
He’s currently doing a column for a new online publication called Fly & Light Tackle Angler.
Bob Stearns: Thank you very much.
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SR: Bob, a lot of people don’t realize it, but you were instrumental in helping some of the pioneers in modern skiff building come up with a boat that was purpose-built, if you will, for fishing and for poling. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about how you got started in fishing and what got you interested in boats in the first place?
Stearns: I got interested in boats because I got interested in fishing first. I quickly realized if I wanted to go fishing, a boat was the best vehicle to get me there because piers don’t go anywhere and if the fish don’t come to you then you’re out of luck. I got a boat at a very early age. It was a plywood skiff. I made do with it and learned a lot about how to make it better. All of this took place in North Carolina.
When I moved to Florida, I got further into the boating thing. Eventually I wound up in the early 1960s meeting Bob Hewes. I met Hewes at the same time that Lefty Kreh lived here in Miami. Lefty was a friend of mine. He had suggested to Bob that he consider building a production flats boat. That made a lot of sense to Bob because Bob liked to fish. Bob came to me and said, “Can you help me with this?” I said, “Sure, it’ll be a lot of fun.”
We started messing with this stuff and by 1969 we had a design that became known as the Bonefisher. It was made of fiberglass. It was the first production flats fishing boat that ever appeared on the water. Of course, as always with things like this, it evolves. It’s never the same. Year after year, we added little refinements to it and more refinements to it. Eventually we found out about Kevlar in the middle 70s. I think by 1978 we had built the first Kevlar version of a flats boat. It’s gone on from there.
SR: I’m always curious about where these ideas that you had and Bob Hewes came from. I know a lot of skiffs were splashed from or were actually original ski boat hulls at the time. I think Bob was a big skier, right?
Stearns: Yes, his whole family was as a matter of fact. He had a boat called “The Wildcat.” It was basically the same running bottom that became the Bonefisher. It was a great riding boat, good and soft and all that kind of stuff. It wasn’t in any way, shape or form a real fishing boat. He said, “Can we make it from this hull?” I said, “Sure, but let’s add bait wells. Let’s add 10-inch or 12-inch wide gunnels. Let’s put a center console in it. Let’s put a casting foredeck in it. Let put a rear deck in the back and leave it open in the middle,” and so forth. That’s how it started.
SR: What was the thinking back then behind producing a fishing skiff? Obviously there weren’t a lot of people out there poling around chasing fish with push poles and standing on platforms. Was it really more of a general light tackle idea or were people thinking actually in terms of, “Hey, how do we sneak up on these bonefish?”
Stearns: Bonefishing and tarpon fishing and stuff like that played a big part in it, but the idea was to build an all-around inshore light tackle fishing boat, which incidentally turned out so well that we took the thing offshore and caught sailfish from it.
SR: The first Hewes were really–I don’t know, you can describe them better than I can–but they had pretty high freeboard and a pretty traditional entry. I personally have had an 18-foot Hewes in eight-foot seas. I never want to do it again, but it really was capable of doing really extraordinary things, wasn’t it?
Stearns: It was. If you remember your skiff, which we talked about way back in when? The 70s? That boat never had any more freeboard at any time than it had when you got it. It was not a boat that gradually reduced gunnel height. That part of it stayed the same. We just made interior changes and rod rack changes and weight distribution changes and ran different engines on it and did things to it to try to just make it a better overall performer. It was a very capable boat. As you said, you were in eight-foot seas with the thing. It got you home didn’t it? [Editor's Note: Back in the late 1960s when Bob Hewes started the Bonefisher project he was already building a limited production 17-ft general-purpose open fishing boat that was not designed for the flats. The sides were too high, the forward entry not as clean, and the weight was too great for skinny water use. Production ceased as soon as the Bonefisher became available.]
SR: It got me home. I think I sweated out about 10 pounds of perspiration by the time I got home, but I was still alive. That’s what counted.
I tell a funny story about speaking with you in the early 1980s when I was actually running one of my first boats, which was an 18 Hewes, which I think at that time was perhaps the first boat that had Kevlar in it, or one of the first. You asked me what power I had on the boat. I told you very proudly, I think, that I had a 150 Evinrude Intruder on it. You looked at me for a second and you said, “Well, you’ll be running a 70 or a 90 on that pretty soon.” I had no idea what you were talking about, but you were absolutely right. I think within a couple of years I downsized my power. I’m sure you run into that kind of thing all the time in your writing about boats and your recommendations of people putting too much power on boats and not really understanding how power is used on a fishing skiff. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Stearns: Sure. Experience has shown that most first-time boat buyers either buy too big a boat, or buy too big an engine, or both. Eventually as they begin to realize how this affects their fishing, they downsize boat and/or motor. It’s one of the factors that involves weight when it comes to engines, because bigger engines weigh more. Not only does the engine weigh more, but the bigger engine requires more fuel to go the same distance. That means that you wind up with a bigger gas tank and a bigger engine. That makes the boat sits deeper in the water. It makes it a little harder to pole, and eventually comes the light bulb and you figure out, “Hey! I don’t really need to be pushing all this dead weight around,” so you go to something lighter. The overall hull performance is a little nicer when it isn’t overweighted in the back too.
SR: The first boat that you designed before the Hewes, can you describe what that boat was like? Was it sort of a bare-bones hull that you had thrown a cap on and said, “Let’s do this. Let’s do that.”
Stearns: Before the Bonefisher I had bought a basic runabout hull. I bought it bare. It had just a gunnel cap on it, which was not great, but was wide enough and flat enough to live with in the day. At the same time I bought it completely open with nothing in it. I took it to a local boat builder and said, “I want a casting platform up front–a recessed foredeck that is–and I want an aft deck on the back there,” just pretty much like we have today. He put it all together. It was heavier than I wanted at the time because it was fiberglass over wood. It was a start. Then I had to have an engine for it so I went to Bob Hewes and bought the engine. That’s what started the whole thing.
SR: What was the idea behind the aft casting deck? I don’t think that’s necessarily intuitive to someone who is designing boats, but it certainly played a role.
Stearns: If you’re going to pole the boat–and that was one of the main factors for the design–you need elevation. This was before of course we had poling platforms over the engine. A gunnel-level, or near-gunnel-level, or slightly recessed aft deck in the back was a good place to stand and cast and see what you were doing.
Then came the poling platform that went on a transom elevated over the top of the engine. That’s undergoing some changes even today because the first ones, some of these engines were so tall that by the time you got a poling platform high enough to clear the engine when it was tilted out of the water, you almost got nosebleed getting up there. Some of us have since then–I did it on my current boat–I moved the platform forward of the engine a little bit so it folds into the top of the platform. It got it down to 24 inches. If I had to do it over tomorrow, I’d do it at 20 inches because if you’re too high in the air, guess what? You can see more fish, but they can see you. The idea is for the guy on the pole to put the angler in the front within casting range of the fish. If you’re so high that you can see the fish 100 yards away you can guarantee by the time you’re 50 yards away, the fish is already beginning to notice you’re there, and that’s still a little bit far for the angler. Get lower and you won’t see the fish quite as quickly, but by the time you do see him, the angler has a chance.
SR: What about bow casting or bow platforms?
Stearns: They’ve been around longer than the poling platform on the transom. Of course they were little three- and four-legged stool-type things that started I guess back in the late 50s. Some people like them and some don’t. I had them on some of my boats and then I eventually went to a small cooler, which I anchored down with bungee and recessed fittings in the deck as a platform to sit on and stand on up front. That’s what I’ve got today.
SR: Are there any other innovations or features like that on boats that you think everybody ought to have or everybody ought not to have on their boat?
Stearns: If you were going to fish skinny water, I think the single most important factor has to be hull noise. You’ve got to have a boat that does not make noise. I mean these fish today are pressured so hard that any noise at all and they know you’re there. The quieter the better. I’d like it as quiet as a graveyard at midnight.
SR: There are a lot of compromises that are made in getting a quiet boat though, right?
Stearns: There are some. The ride isn’t quite as dry and sometimes not quite as soft. I remember one boat–and I won’t name it now–that was built some years ago that was really beautifully built, spacious, had a lot of good interior designs, had the best ride in a bad chop of any 17- or 18-foot boat I’ve ever been it, but it had a noise that sounded like a drummer’s parade or something. It just ran every fish out of there when you got into any kind of a bay.
SR: Why is it that boats that ride better or a little bit quieter might be a little bit wetter?
Stearns: The downturn chines that were used, the reverse chines that were used on the driest-running boats unfortunately were just places where waves that bump up against the hull can get trapped. It’s like taking a cup and pushing it down in the water and lifting it out and pushing it down in the water. You get this popping noise. That, to me, is the kiss of death today.
SR: Getting back to performance and engines and that kind of thing for a bit. Have there been any developments in prop design and things like that that have really changed or added to the power scenario on flat skiffs?
Stearns: I think unquestionably the first stainless steel propeller introduced by OMC was a big factor. That goes back over 30 years. Remember, it was black? Remember that thing? You probably had one. It had a Teflon coating on it. It doesn’t need that but that’s what they decided to do. It made for thinner blades. It made for more effective bite in the water. That sort of thing. That has persisted to this day. Now there are other changes or variations can be looked at. I’m running, for example, a four-bladed prop because I’m running a small-diameter prop on a boat with a tunnel hull. All of this adds up to getting in extremely shallow water. It takes four blades to give the engine the same performance that a larger diameter three-bladed prop would give, because it takes four blades to get enough blade surface there.
SR: For the average person who is just going to buy a skiff next week or has one and they’re not quite sure that it’s properly propped, what advice would you give them?
Stearns: Are you going to buy the boat from a dealer? Are we going to start there?
SR: That’s fine. Sure.
Stearns: Okay, you go buy the boat and you say, “I want an XYZ hull and I want 70-horse, four stroke on it.” The dealer, if he has done his due diligence at all, is going to know pretty much what kind of prop that engine and that boat need. Sometimes the only way to get the most optimum prop–and I’ve been down this road so many times I can’t even think about it any more–you get the boat, you get the motor and you think you’ve got the right thing. You get it out there. You’re not happy. It doesn’t quite get the speed you think it should get and all that kind of stuff. You start borrowing other props and trying them until you find one that really works. It’s the old cut-and-try method and I still don’t know anything that’s better than that.
SR: When I was testing props on my various skiffs the intuitive approach that I took was just to say, “Okay, this engine should be running at approximately this RPM or within these speeds, and the prop has got to perform the way I want it to within that bandwidth,” if you will. Is that an intelligent way to go about it?
Stearns: Yeah. It’s a start. You don’t want to over-prop it–that’s putting more propeller on it than the engine can comfortably turn–because you can damage the engine eventually that way. If you don’t put a prop that has enough bite or pitch in the blades, it’ll spin up fast and it’ll sound like it’s going like crazy and you’re not really making the speed you should. Ideally you want to find that prop that will turn somewhere within the recommended high-end RPM range, which in today’s four-stroke engines is usually 5,000 to 5,500. That’s what you’re looking for. That would be with a normal load. Then it’s a matter of trying to find which prop design gives you the better speed within that operating range.
SR: Bob, it’s always a pleasure to talk to you. You’re a walking encyclopedia of boating knowledge. I hope we have a chance to get to talk to you again and maybe talk about some of these subjects in more depth.
Bob: Any time.