Skiff Republic Interview: Harry Spear

Will Benson and Harry Spear in Pro-V

Harry Spear (right) and Keys guide Will Benson fishing out of the Spear Pro-V.

Skiff Republic:   We’re talking with Harry Spear, who was a phenomenal Florida Keys guide in the 60s, 70s, and 80s and started his own custom boat building business in Panacea, Florida a couple of years ago.  Welcome, Harry.  Thanks for talking with us.

Harry Spear:   I’m very glad to be here, Marshall.


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SR:  Last we spoke, we were both guides in the Keys.  You were winning tournaments left and right, taking your business very seriously down there.  A lot has changed since then, and I found out last year that you were building custom skiffs.  I wanted to ask you, what is it that got you into boat building?

Spear:   I guess  there are a lot of reasons that I got into it.  One, early on I wanted to do something I had never done before, so I took an old boat, tore it apart down to the skin, and rebuilt it back up.  Steve Huff was building one at the same.  I looked at mine and I looked at his.  I wanted to throw mine away and build one like his.

SR:   That was back when you were stuck fishing out of boats that you didn’t like, right?

Spear:  No, actually it was before that.  That was in the 70s and I just wanted to build a small boat.  I just wanted to know what it was like to make something and use it.  I did not know the difference between a good boat and a bad boat back then.  All the boats were less than adequate, as far as what we would like a modern-day skiff to be.  You know, the learning curve was very steep and it was kind of a profound experience getting into building skiffs.

Anyway, I went through that journey and then I went through helping different boat companies kind of design a boat that would work better.  All of that left me feeling frustrated.  I finally built my first one-off skiff.  I am not  sure of the year, but I’m sure it was still in the eighties.  I really enjoyed doing that. It was very hard.  I did it much differently than I would today.  I got one built and I lived out of that for a few years.  I built another that I thought would be better.  It was different and it was better in some ways and worse in others ways.

The learning curve has always been a steep one.  I think skiff building is at best in its teenage years.

SR:    Really?

Spear:   Yeah.  I do.

SR:   You think there is much more to learn that hasn’t been learned about hull performance?  Or are there other things that…

Harry SpearSpear:   I think there’s just a lot of things that you can’t go to school to learn.  You have to experience it to see what… how it feels to you.  To see how a boat performs in the water.  I’m not a nautical engineer.  I have my own kind of engineering mind.  I can figure things out.  I can see things that are not there, but I really think there is a whole lot that we can do to make skiffs behave better and that we’re just really scratching the surface.

Up to this time, I think the market has been saturated with boats that would get a job done, but not boats that were really cutting-edge boats.  There’s just nobody that been in the industry, as far as I know, that just really wanted to push the envelope and just do really stupid, crazy things to try to find something that will behave better.  I hope to be that guy.

SR:   I think you mentioned something to me one time about your feeling like you were somehow indebted to guides and fishermen, because of all the time you spent guiding.

Spear:   Yeah, let me explain it to you, because it’s kind of complex and it’s really emotional for me.  I spent my guiding career trying to see what I could get from it.  I think that’s self-explanatory.  I was self-centered in that I wanted to win at whatever I did.  I was very, very competitive.

SR:   You were also very good at it.

Spear:   Well, that goodness and competitiveness fed the same animal.  I really did not look at the fishing community or what I was doing as something that I was really giving to.  I was always looking at it as something I was getting from.

When I retired for the Keys guiding and moved to north Florida I really did not want to fish.  I looked at the water, I drove by it every day and it’s beautiful.  I’d go, “Man, that’s beautiful.  I think I’ll go play golf,” or “Man, that’s beautiful.  I think I’ll go work on this piece of property.”

I had a divorce, you might say, or hiatus.  All of that started a transformation inside of me.  Then I got an injury and I lost the end of my finger.  When I was rehabbing,  my youngest son Luke –God bless him–said one day, “Dad, let me pole you around out on the water.  You need to get out of the house.  You need to get out and do something.”  We poled around and it’s in the middle of the winter.  It’s crystal clear and there’s just piles of redfish everywhere.  It grabs ahold of me instantly; I’m just back in the game.  From there on it just all unfolded and I got into something that I thought that I could do well, and that’s build skiffs.

After I did that for a while and got back into the fishing community and saw how it had changed, and saw this next generation of guides, and how they appreciated me.  I was dumbfounded, honored, and humbled, in a huge way.  It made me revamp my whole idea of who I was in the fishing community and what was it all about. What I realized is that I spent thirty-something years taking.  Now, I want to give back.

I really want to do something that adds to the community; that blesses the fishing community, especially this next generation who did not get to see what you and I saw, but love it as much as we loved it.  They are much better stewards than we were.  Like I said, I’ve been humbled by this whole experience.

Spear Boys at Shop

Luke and John Spear, and Alex Gonzalez (right) in the Spear shop.

SR:  It’s an interesting phenomenon:  sometimes you do not fully understand something until you’ve gotten away from it.  I know I had the same experience leaving the Keys and going to Montana, but I think I had the opportunity to look at it, as you call it, as a gift. I admire you for wanting to give back.  It’s a wonderful motivation.

What do you think guiding, itself, gave you that enabled you to design good skiffs?  You’re doing some interesting stuff.  You’re build epoxy resin hulls.  You have a clear picture or are able to visualize the changes you’d like to make in what you’re doing, right?

Spear:  Guiding gave me an identity.  You can’t reproduce what it has given to me.  Like I said, it’s humbling and feel honored by it.  But about the boat aspect of it:  I’ve always been able to, like a sculpture, who get asked the question, “How do you know what to carve away when you’re trying to make this elephant out of stone?”  The sculpture says, “Why it’s easy.  You just carve away everything that isn’t elephant.”

I know that is kind of humorous.  But it’s the same concept in boat building.  You see in your own mind’s eye a skiff, I don’t care, or any kind of boat–how it runs or behaves in the water, what it does, or what it doesn’t do.  You look at that boat and you can surmise why.

I’ve been gifted with that kind of mind.  I can look a t a structure and I say, “It does this, because of this and this one does that because of that.  So, if I change this I can get that.”  That in itself is how I’ve been able to get to where I’m at in skiff building, but there are so many things that I want to try.

I don’t know how many years I have left to do it. If the company gets going well I promise you that is what I’ll be doing.  I won’t be laying up skiffs.  I’ll be building new designs and hoping I can make things that can fall of a cliff and once in a while make something that flies just unbelievably well.

SR:    Speaking of the boats themselves, you been working on some really interesting stuff starting with some ultra-light, almost canoe-type boats all the way up to high performance boats.  I think you said you’re shipping some to West Africa for an operation there?  You’re really covering the gamut, but one of the more intriguing things you’re doing is the whole bare bones concept.  I know you’ve told me before you love simplicity.  Can you speak a little bit about that?

Spear:  Honestly, that is where I’m most attracted.  I’ve seen the trend in skiffs just get bigger, faster, you know, be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.  “Look up in the sky, it’s a skiff!  It’s running at 70 miles an hour!”   I mean, I think that’s cool.  I’m not dissing that in any regard.  If you can make a skiff do something really well, I think it’s cool.

What I’m mostly attracted to, personally, because I’m older and I’ve been through a whole lot of different things, is simplicity.  To me simplicity draws me much more than complexity.  A skiff that weighs nothing, that poles at nothing, that costs very little to build, that takes little or no maintenance to care of and you can run with a little motor–run five trips on six gallons of gas and still have gas leftover–  now, that’s a boat to me.  That’s something that will get me all jacked up.  Oh, by the way, you can throw in the back of your truck.  You don’t need a trailer.  All you just need a puddle of water to throw it in and you’re off… you’re fishing.  Now we’re talking about something.

SR:   Well, that is obviously an inspiration for building your larger, let’s just say, more marketable ideas, right?  It really does help to understand the boat in its simplest form.

Spear:   Knowledge in itself is just a great resource.  You know, it’s like having more tools.  The more tools you have that can do more things, the more that you can build with them.

Harry Spear Glades Skiff

One-off 17′ Glades skiff made for Chris Furry

I honestly love those little boats.  I wish that there was a great big market for them that I could just explore and keep building hull types until I found the one that did the absolute best in that real skinny water and quiet water, but as a business man, I’ve got to go where the market is, to support my business.  It’s just not me anymore, it’s both my son and my wife, and my oldest son’s best friend are all involved in this business right now.  I’ve got to go with it.

SR:  How is working your sons?  I believe you have two of your sons are working with you, doing the hull lay-up and building the actual skiffs, right?

Spear:   Yeah, if you had told me twenty years ago that this would happen.  I would have taken it right then and in put it in the bank and said, “I’ll go for that, every day.”  It’s like a dream come true for me to have all my family together.  Both my daughters live in the area.  They’re like 30 minute away.  My sons are here and we’re working together.  It’s awesome.

I used to have a friend that was older than me who was a real patriarch.  He retired and moved to Arcadia.  He had both his daughters,  all his grandchildren, all his great-grandchildren living within a few miles from him.  He had this big ranch and big home.  Everybody hung at his house.  He was my hero.  The fact that I’ve got my sons and everybody’s around me right, now–I feel totally blessed.

SR:   I’m sure one day they’ll feel blessed, if they don’t already.  It’s a unique opportunity for them to work with their dad and learn by osmosis, if you will, for so many hours a day.

What about your perceptions of skiff design and where they’ve come, and where you think they’re going.  Do you think that we’ve figured it all out?  Or do you think we’re just beginning to touch some of the changes that are going to make bigger differences with skiff performance?

Spear:    Well, I think you already know what I’m going to say.

Let’s look at fly design in comparison.  Remember when we first started, the flies that were accepted flies, and look at the flies today.  I think it’s a good comparison because many, many people tie flies.  Most fishermen tie flies.  We’ve had great strides and great innovations in fly patterns and stuff in 30 to 40 years.

Well, in skiff building, there are not as many people building them.  Just by the nature of the fact that, there’s not as many people using them.  They are hard.  They are expensive.  You know, it is a craft.  You can’t just go down to your local tackle store and buy everything you need for a hundred bucks and go back and tie one up to build a boat.

I think building skiffs and skiff technology is at best–if you were to look at it in a lifespan–it is in its teenage years.  I am looking really forward to the next ten years of my life.  I hope I stay healthy.  In ten years I’ll make some strides that are interesting.  I have no idea of the effect of them, but I know they are going to be fun.  I know I am going to build some screw ups.  I believe I am going to build some things that just are really cool.  The industry has been, by and large, production-oriented: ”Let me build something that people will buy.”  Not “Let me build the most innovative, creative skiff that has ever been built.”  That’s my niche.  That’s what I want to do.  I could care less about building a great company that worth millions of dollars and has all these employees.  It’s not me at all.  I just want to be able to create is if it is artwork. I want to do my skiffs as though they were personal.  They’re part of me, coming out of me, not just a product.

SR:    If you were a buyer looking at skiffs today, what are few of the things you would say are must-haves, knowing what we know.

Spear:  I read your interview with Steve [Huff].  I totally agree with Steve, on virtually every point.  The boat has to ride well.  The boat has to pole well.  The boat has to be quiet.  The boat has to be comfortable.  It has to be nimble.  All of those things are, from a guiding standpoint, from somebody who pushes the boat and is trying to catch fish, all of those things are critical.

I would say from the fishing standpoint, being quiet, nimble and poling well are the most important things.  From a customer and overall standpoint of a [guiding] career, riding is really important, too.  To be dry and comfortable when you’re riding is important.  As you know, there’s a lot of days that you go out there that are just not what you want to deal with.

Those are the most critical things as far as I’m concerned.  The layout of the interior and stuff is so personal.  I’ve talked to a bunch of fishermen since I’ve been building, and it’s hard to get two guys to say, “This is the right way to layout an interior.”  Everybody has a little bit different idea of what they want.  Interiors are a little bit frustrating.

SR:  Take the issue of console or steering wheel location.  There is no real right answer.

Spear:   I think there is.  I think there is a totally  right answer, because to get optimal performance out of the boat you want your weight on the keel and you want the lowest center of gravity you can get for performance.  You want it for speed, and this is weird: you want your weight right in front of the motor.  These guys who run in tournaments will take a skiff and they’ll throw a 50-pound dumbbell in their sump, right ahead of their motor, and get 3-4 miles per hour.  Now, tell me that’s not weird, but it’s true.  It works.

The interior of the boat is a real mathematical formula.  I’m not up on all of the engineering things.  I don’t know all the answers, but I’ve talked to some people who know a lot of them and I’m learning a lot about interior design to make things perform better.

Say you have a fairly tippy boat, which generally what you want to ride good and then to pole good and quiet.  You want something that has that side-to-side motion so it’ll ride good.  So you have your gas tank sitting up above the deck and full of gas.  Now it’s 16 inches above the deck, above the water line when you’re poling.  Whenever that boat starts to go one way or another, that weight is acting as a fulcrum, pulling your boat left and then pulling it right.  If that weight were below the water line, what would it do?  It would stabilize the boat.  These are the kinds of things I’m trying to consider and deal with in trying to make boats that do certain things that normally would be not be considered “best,” and change that to be totally acceptable.

SR:    I know that one of the most overlooked aspects of boat construction is rigging.  Are  there any things that you’re doing in particular to make a boat more maintenance-free, or in finishing the boat, that seem to be smarter ways to go about it?

Harry Spear releasing a tarpon in the Pro-V

Spear releasing a tarpon in the Pro-V

Spear:   I want to be perfectly honest with you.  I talked to Tommy Gordon in Islamorada.  I’m seriously considering letting him do a lot of my rigging, because he is like a genius doing that stuff.  It literally takes, in the time it takes to build a boat, at least that much time to rig it, the same number of man-hours.  If can get somebody who is genius at it to do it for me, I’m thinking that I might move in that direction.  You know when you’ve got consoles and steering and trim tabs and hatches and bilge pumps and fuse boxes and batteries and lighting and all of this stuff–you can’t charge enough to compensate for the time it take to do all that.  Tommy has a crew in Islamorada and I’m really considering teaming up with him on a lot of my bigger skiffs like, those 20 footers, because that’s what he does and he does best.  I mean, I can do and I can do a great job, but the time it takes me to do it, I don’t know if it’s the best way for me to spend my energies.

I think my energies would be better spent trying to build great skiffs and put them together. And the simple ones, rig them out.  The ones where you have trolling motors and all this stuff: it’s an endless procession of running wires, and doing all that.  I think it’s important, but if I can farm it out to somebody who is great at it, I think I’m going to go with it, because I think my customer will be happier that way.

SR:   Now for the important question:  If somebody wants to buy a boat from you, how long do they have to wait, and how do they get in contact with you?

Spear:   To get in contact with me, I have a Web site that’s in its teenage stage.  It’s www.spearflatsskiffs.com.  And they can contact me at spearflatsskiffs@gmail.com or they can call me at 850.545.8578.  I would be honored and humbled to serve any folks who were interested in having something built that was a little out of the ordinary.

Right now, I’m not that far behind, probably four months.  I’ve got eight skiffs that I’ve got to build and I’m still building tooling for some of them.

SR:  I’m looking forward to getting over there and getting in one myself and riding it around for a while.

It’s been a real pleasure talking to you Harry.  Thank you for taking the time to talk to us.  Good luck with all your endeavors and I look forward to following up this interview with another conversation–maybe something in-depth like fishing out of skiffs and strategies and that sort of thing.

Spear:    That sounds great.  I so appreciate you giving the chance to tell your folks what I’m doing,  and I really hope that you can get down to Florida sometime soon.  You’ll let me take you out and we’ll go fishing and spend the day and chill out on the water and we’ll run into something.

SR:    We always do.  Thanks again, Harry.