Skiff Republic: We’re here today talking with Steve Huff, the legendary south Florida guide who also happened to be involved in many of the changes that created what we now think of as a modern technical poling skiff. Welcome, Steve. Thanks for agreeing to talk to us.
Steve Huff: No problem. Happy to help out if I can.
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SR: I was speaking with Eugene Son at Shipoke Boats this morning. He was telling me that you were actually involved in taking some of the early hulls that now are Shipoke hulls and turning them into fishing skiffs back in the 1960s or ’70s. Is that right?
Huff: When I started guiding, which was in 1968, I had a great big – I would call it a scow. It was a 19-foot Mako hull. It was called a Perdue 18, but it was 19 feet long and it was impossible to pole. It was like poling a battleship. Of course, I didn’t know what I was doing with it when I got it out there most of the time back then.
I started looking around and I bought the first Hewes Bonefisher actually. The first one I saw was Bob Sterns’s. He wasn’t guiding, but it was the first one that was used guiding. I bought it and I brought it down to the Keys. It had a forward steering wheel and a front console on the side. It was laid out poorly, but again, I didn’t know a lot about how skiff layouts were supposed to be.
SR: That boat wasn’t originally intended to be a flat skiff, or was it?
Huff: It was a runabout, that boat, the Hewes. Bob Hewes bought the hull or the rights to the hull as I understand it. He bought the mold and he decided to build a skiff at the urging, I think, of Bill Curtis who invented the poling platform. I don’t know if a lot of people know that, but Curtis was the sole force behind the poling platform, because people are standing on top of their motors prior to that.
I think at Bill Curtis’s urging and Bob Sterns’s, anyhow, they started making the Hewes. They made it into a skiff design, designed a cap for front deck and a back deck. But the one I bought had a front console on the side. It was not the right place to be in the boat.
I bought that boat in 1970. Then I started looking around for another boat. A guy by the name of Wally Cole had taken a race boat and made it into a skiff. He built a boat for Guy Valdene. That’s the boat that’s featured in the movie “Tarpon.” He built I think four or five skiffs out of that boat design. A friend of mine, Lenny Berg, wanted one and he contacted Wally Cole, and Wally said there was no way they were going to make any more.
Then I got in my car one day. I drove up to a Miami and started looking at hulls, every kind of ski boat hull. I wound up buying a brand-new Sidewinder ski boat with metal plate top and leather seats and a windshield. I drug it down to the Keys. I took a sabre saw and I sawed it apart. I sawed the top off, threw the leather chairs out and turned it into a skiff and ultimately I put…
SR: Where were you doing this, in the Keys?
Huff: In my front yard in the Keys. I lived out behind the airport in Marathon there. I didn’t have any work space. I had a carport, but most of the fiberglassing and stuff, I cast it out in the yard. I built it up. I built the decks with plywood, and the hatch covers weren’t guttered or anything.
It was just pretty crude, but it was an unbelievably good riding boat. The downside to it was it had a reverse chine or the chine line slanted down and it cupped water. If you’re poling into the wind, it was tragically noisy. I won several bonefish tournaments in Islamorada poling that boat around in shallow waters.
It was a dream ride of a boat. I took Fred Archibald who started Shipoke. I was in 1976, I think. I took him for a ride and he said, “I’m going to produce this boat.” He actually popped a hull off of a Sidewinder ski boat and started making skiffs. That was the start of the Shipoke.
SR: Those hulls were being made in California?
Huff: Anderson, California was where Sidewinder was located, but they had transferred the making of that boat to somewhere in Canada. They were making them out of Kevlar, solid Kevlar. Billy Pate, Natt Ragland, Mike Hewlitt, Sandy Moret – a bunch of guys got together and they ordered a boatload of Sidewinder hulls.
They had them built up by custom builders down in the Keys because Sidewinder never did make a fishing skiff. All they made was a race boat, runabout ski boat type thing. That boatload of boats, they all had them built up. Consequently, the popularity of that boat grew.
It also had its downside–in every boat there’s a compromise. It was a bear to fish for bonefish out of, and that reverse chine–you actually had to approach every fish downwind. Even if you were on the downwind side, you had to pole all the way around the thing and come down at them, which was pretty tiring after a while.
SR: I remember speaking to Bob Montgomery, who was one of the first guides that I fished with back when I was practically a teenager down there. He told me that one of the reasons or the main reason he had decided to use a Sidewinder hull for his custom skiffs was that it just enabled him to do a whole lot more. He could travel to so many places. They had never thought about going to the Marquesas, he said.
Huff: Right. That was such a great-riding boat. It was incredible. It still is.
Anyhow, they gave me a hull for starting that whole thing. Whoever made the deal, and I think it was Natt Ragland. They decided as a reward for my participating in the thing, they gave me a hull. I didn’t have time to build a skiff up out of it.
In fact, here’s a crazy story, if you’ve ever heard one. My son, Dustin, is a fishing guide in the Keys today. Well, when all those guys bought those Sidewinder hulls, Bob Montgomery was another one that bought one when all that boatload of hulls came down. Natt Ragland and Mike Hewlitt had built a mold, actually, to fit on top of it. I went over and laid up a deck mold and hatch covers one time. This is a long story, but an interesting story. I didn’t have the time to finish it, so Bob Montgomery actually built it up.
Bob did a spectacular job on it. Then Tom Richardson used it for a while and then he moved away from the Keys. He sold it to my wife’s father, actually, and Dustin was…are you interested in this at all?
Huff: Am I rattling off? This is kind of cute. Anyhow, my son Dustin was in love with that boat from the very first time he ever saw it. It came up for sale because Tom Richardson wanted to sell it, but Dustin had no money.
My father-in-law bought it. He got sick and it was sold to a guy in Ohio, who took it to Ohio and used it as a ski boat. Dustin was the broker for the boat each time. Every time he brokered it, everybody said, “If you can sell this boat for me, I’ll give you a thousand bucks,” so they gave him a thousand bucks and he sold the boat.
He actually sold it to my father-in-law, one, and then to the guy that was fishing with me in Ohio, too, so these are people I knew. Each time it came up for sale, Dustin was lusting after it, but had no money.
Then the guy in Ohio called Dustin and said, “I want to get rid of this boat. My wife doesn’t like it because it doesn’t have leather seats.” Dustin, again, didn’t have the money, but he found somebody down in the Keys who bought it and it was gone forever, he thought.
One day, he was looking in the Boat Trader. Nobody really knew that that boat was solid Kevlar, how it was built or anything else. The owner was in the thing for five or six grand. Dustin offered the guy low money and Dustin has that boat today. He rebuilt it and it’s a spectacular boat. He finally wound up with the boat of his dreams. He doesn’t guide out of it. He just uses it as a second boat to take his family out and stuff.
SR: Wasn’t Kevlar a lot more challenging to work with than fiberglass?
Huff: I’ve worked with Kevlar. The real plus of Kevlar or the advantages of Kevlar are just impact-resistance, mainly. It’s not really essentially that much lighter. In fact, often it winds up heavier, because the difference is, when you resin out fiberglass, it becomes transparent and you can see through it and you know it’s wet. You also can see an air pocket or a void behind it and work it out with some tools, get the air out of it. Kevlar remains opaque and it goes from a gold color to a rust color once it’s wet. Sometimes, it’s pretty hard to tell if it’s wet, and also, it’s hard to tell if there’s air underneath it. You have to continually work with it more.
The advantages really are just impact-resistance. In fact, if you built a boat out of Kevlar, if you just had the outer skin was Kevlar and the rest of the boat was fiberglass, you’re just as well off as having the entire thing be Kevlar, probably.
SR: Let’s get back to the skiff history part. You fished out of a Shipoke for a number of years, and then obviously you got something better.
Huff: A number of years, yes. Then, I wanted to have a smaller boat, so I was going to have two boats just for bonefishing. There was a guy by the name of Dave Exley, actually, who was making a little runabout type of a boat. He called it the Super Skiff. It had a console in it, made like a center console, a windshield.
I borrowed the boat from Dicky Moller. He had one. He was bonefishing out of it. He thought it was a great little boat for bonefishing, even though it wasn’t a skiff layout. We borrowed it, myself and another guide went out–Al Polofsky, actually, who is a guide in Islamorada today. Al and I went out and poled each other around. We both thought it was really a neat boat, especially if it could be laid out as a skiff.
I talked to a fellow who was making boats at that time, Jack Broyle. I went up there and had him build me a hull. I brought it home and put a cap on it and a floor in it. That was the first Super Skiff that was actually laid out for skiff fishing.
SR: That boat originally started out just as, as you say, a runabout or a canal boat or whatever. The story I heard was that they had taken some of those flat-bottom skiffs over to Deep Water Cay Club in the Bahamas. The clients just couldn’t stand the ride out to their permanent fishing spots because it was a flat bottom boat…
Huff: Right. That flat bottom was horrible.
SR: So they stuck that V on the bottom and made it into the boat it is today.
Huff: The classic boat it is today.
SR: But you could probably tell the story about how it ended up being the quietest boat, maybe still one of the quietest boats that
Huff: The secret to that boat and what makes that boat so effective is, at rest, if the boat is level–and it’s very important to keep the weight and the boat level–the entire chine is submerged and the boat is quiet, so there’s no flat surfaces for the water to slap underneath. Which also makes the boat dry, because it doesn’t rise up at the bow. That’s the secret to that boat, what makes that boat so popular and so effective.
SR: At that time, were guides poling into the wind, or was that even…?
Huff: Yeah, I think there’s always been somebody that was poling into the wind.
Now the Maverick Boat Company…this is an interesting story because Lenny Berg, an angler of mine, and the one that wanted to have Wally Cole build them up a boat, eventually talked Wally Cole into selling him the molds.
Lenny Berg is an eye doctor, an eye surgeon. He bought the molds and he and a friend of his, Flip Pallot started [building a skiff]. I got involved in designing a cap for it and altering the hull a little bit, not too much, because it was a good riding boat the way it was. Lenny Berg started the Maverick Boat Company.
SR: Which hull was that?
Huff: It was a ski boat hull. I’m trying to think of the name of the hull before it was named the Maverick. It was a ski boat hull that Wally Cole, a boat builder and coconut grower in South Miami, built and designed. He built the mold for it. It was like a race boat and he altered the mold a little bit. I think he built five or six skiffs, not very many.
Now, Guy Valdene had one and that’s probably the most famous one. They were all identical to that, and that was really the first Maverick, but it wasn’t called the Maverick at that time because that wasn’t the name of the boat.
The name Maverick came from Lenny Berg, who started the company. I’m trying to think of the guy that owns it today. You know his name.
SR: Scott Deal.
Steve Huff: Yes, Scott bought it from him and then I was fishing in a bonefishing tournament at one time in the Super Skiff. The Maverick, at the time, was an 18- or 19-foot boat. Scott Deal had bought the molds from Lenny Berg.
Lenny’s accountant told him that it was costing him a thousand dollars every time he sold a boat, so he decided he was a better eye doctor than managing a boat company. He got out of that business and the mold sat idle for several years. Then Scott Deal contacted him and just wanted to buy the molds. He sold the molds to Scott Deal.
Getting back to this tournament, I was in a bonefish tournament and we came in from fishing one afternoon. Scott Deal was fishing in the tournament, and he said, “I’d like to go for a ride in that boat.” That was the Super Skiff. I said, “Sure. I’ll give you a ride.” We rode around one afternoon. It was pretty choppy and he was pretty impressed with the ride.
He said, “I’m going to copy this boat,” and that was where the HPX and all those boats came from. He copied the Super Skiff. He altered it, obviously, and in his mind, he made it better.
SR: What’s your view of the state of the art today? Obviously there are a lot more people building boats.
Huff: I have to tell you, Marshall, there’s so many people building boats now. There’s a lot of skiffs. Every skiff is a compromise. There’s a lot more people around more suited to answer that question than I am, because there’s so many.
I’m sure there’s lots of good boats out there that I’ve never been in. I’m just fishing all the time and I have the boats that I have.
Scott Deal, when build that fist HPX or Little Maverick, he brought it down and said, “What do you think?” I said, “Well, it’s good. It’s probably almost as good as a Super Skiff.” He didn’t like hearing that, but I’m sure he’s improved it. It’s probably a great boat today.
Until 15 years ago, there were not many hulls that were originally started out to be a poling skiff. In other words, they were designed to be a runabout, a ski boat, various other things, but with exception of Willy Roberts making wood boats in the Keys just for flat fishing, nobody was doing it. They were just altering hulls like I did with the Sidewinder to try to make something that rode pretty well. When it got into that…well, the Super Skiff wasn’t really designed as a flats boat either
But I think Hell’s Bay makes a great boat. They make a lot of different models and they’re excellent boats. Hal Chittum makes an incredibly good boat. There’s lots of other boats out there. Honest to God, somebody brought me a brochure recently of something called a “Skull Island.” I’m trying to think of another one. There’s East Cape–I think they’d probably make a great little boat. Every time somebody comes up with something really good, some other people copy it almost or alter it slightly or something.
The options today for great boats are way out of my realm of reason. I couldn’t begin to even take the time to get in all of them and critique them.
A friend of mine, Harry Spear, stopped by here yesterday and he’s building a great little boat. He’s custom-building boats up by Tallahassee . We didn’t get a chance to get out on it because I had to leave. He does great work and builds a light boat and they’re all out of epoxy resin.
SR: It’s a wonderful thing about the whole culture of skiff-building. It seems like anybody who’s ever spent time driving a skiff around or poling, especially poling a skiff around, it just seems to get in their blood and they’re just like Harry, certainly one of the top guides in the Keys for a long time.
Huff: Right. There’s probably nobody more qualified to build a poling boat than Harry, but he understands what makes it work.
SR: Absolutely. Well, I’ll ask you one more general question and that has to do with what you actually would look for in a skiff today knowing what you know about what’s out there.
Huff: All right. First of all, what makes a boat quiet is that there’s no flat surfaces where there’s going to be any wave action on the boat. I would look for a boat that, if the chine or the edge of the boat rose out of the water, it would have to have a big radius on it to allow the water to release around it without any slapping, because you don’t want any hull slap whatsoever.
Today I think it’s quite possible to fish in eight or 10 inches of water. It would pole in that depth. Then I’d like something with somewhat of a V forward. I would never own a boat without trim tabs on it because you can make it do what you want to do.
I would be very careful. I’d look at the bottom of the hull near the transom and be sure that the boat has no “hook” in it. You probably know what hook is. When they pull a boat out of a mold sometimes, if they pull it out prematurely before it’s totally cured, you get some curvature on the hull, so it rises up and comes down to the transom and that acts as a force that keeps the bow down all the time.
SR: Essentially, it gives you less control over what the boat is doing, right?
Huff: That’s correct, because you can make the bow go down with trim tabs, but you want to be able to make it go up. If the hull has hook in it, you can’t get the bow up. If you’re running on a following sea and it’s rough as a cob, that thing’s going to want to bury on you, and you got no way to get it up. To me, I’d look for no hook and maybe a little “rocker,” which is the reverse of a hook. But at least dead flat to a little rocker.
SR: How would you describe a rocker?
Huff: Rocker: it’s just a boat comes flat or slightly curved up to the transom. If you put a straight edge on the bottom of the boat, a four-foot straight edge, on the bottom of a boat going towards the transom, you don’t want any air space between that. You can rock the straight edge on the bottom of the boat, that’s why it would be called rocker.
Also, a V that you could put the bow down if you’re running into a chop and put the bow down with trim tabs and smooth out the ride. Also, regarding the width of a boat, when you’re poling a boat, the more water you have to move out of the way, the harder it is to make it go. I’m 66 years old and I don’t like to have to move a lot of water anymore.
SR: One of the ironies I think of modern skiff designs has been as boats have gotten lighter, some of the designs of the compensating for the lightness or trying to just create more stability, they’ve gotten wider. In some are the lighter boats that you pole around are actually harder to pole than a heavier boat.
Huff: I do think a hull can be too light. But now I’d go for no more than 16 feet. It’s great if all the fish are just straight downwind and right in front of you, but that doesn’t always happen.
I want a boat that has what I call nimbleness or dexterity. You can be poling and see a fish way over there and turn the boat and take off in a new direction. Spinning a boat and getting it going in another direction to me is a huge deal. That’s a function of length and width. If you have something that’s somewhat narrow and not too long, because every time you add a foot of water, that’s just more water you have to carve around into to get over there to a fish. I think 16 feet is the biggest skiff for that. That is the biggest skiff that I own today.
Every time you make a boat narrow, it’s going to be less stable. That’s just a given. If you spend time in a skiff, you get used to compensating for it. You just stay in the center of the boat and don’t hop around too much.
SR: That does also translate sometimes into wetness then.
Huff: Just narrowness, actually.
I have four boats… too many boats. And I have two Hell’s Bay boats, a 14-footer which is four feet wide at the chine, 48 inches. I have a 16-footer which is significantly wider. I haven’t measured that one. The narrower boat is a much smoother ride. It’s just a less flat surface that you’re pounding on. There’s no question it’s a smoother ride.
SR: Beam and weight don’t always translate into how dry a boat rides.
Huff: Right. No, the flow of the hull, how it delivers the water away from the hull and how well the water breaks off the hull. If it breaks where you’re standing–if you had a center console or you’re sitting on the front edge of a back deck and it’s breaking even with you–even if it does spray up in there, it’s is going to blow over behind you. If the water is breaking up the hull forward, you’re going to get drowned.
SR: Well Steve, talking to you is always a history lesson and it has given us tons to think about. I appreciate your spending the time talking to us. I hope we can follow up another day on another topic.
Huff: I’m around. I’m actually working on my garage right now, fixing a boat trailer. That’s always a project, but I’m always willing to talk, Marshall. You have a great website and a terrific source for so many people.