Skiff Republic Interview: Tom Mitzlaff

Tom Mitzlaff's Solo Skiff prototype.

Tom Mitzlaff standing in the prototype Solo Skiff in a swimming pool, in the middle of crunching numbers.

Skiff Republic:  We’re talking today with Tom Mitzlaff, designer and builder of the Solo Skiff.  He was also the creator of the Mitzi skiff, which was one of the first budget-priced technical poling skiffs.  It came on the market in 1998.  Thanks for joining us today, Tom.

 Tom Mitzlaff:  You’re welcome Marshall.

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SR:   Tell us how you got started in boat building.

Mitzlaff:    That’s an easy story, but a long one.  Simply put I always had a passion for just fishing and boats in general.  One day I just decided…. Actually I saw a picture of a wood strip canoe in a book store one day, and I picked the book up and I bought it.  It was a book called Canoe Craft.  To make a long story short I ended up building one of the designs in the book and after that I was kind of hooked on boat building.

SR:     What were you doing at the time?  I think you mentioned to me once before you were a draftsman?

Mitzlaff:   Yes exactly.  I was actually a draftsman, and I had been in the construction business a while many years ago and got out of the field and was starting todraft.  The whole drawing and design thing was always in the blood per say.

SR:   You must have had a least a passing interest in small boats right?  Was that out of your interest in fishing and canoeing or was it something else that was motivating you?

Mitzlaff:     I always enjoyed looking at small boats and especially because I’ve always been a wood worker.  I’ve made everything you can imagine.  I used to buy Wooden Boat magazine off the shelf and when I saw all the beautiful pictures of wooden boats in there–and this was back around the time that I built my wooden canoe–it just really lit.  That was really a kindling for the fire that got me into boat building.

Tom Mitzlaff's Wooden Canoe

Tom Mitzlaff’s first boat-building project: a wood-strip canoe built from magazine plans.

SR:  Did you grow up in a family of fisherman and boat builders, or was it just something that came out of the blue?

Mitzlaff:   I grew up in a family from the Midwest.  We all grew up around water.  My father, uncle and grandfather all had houseboats.  I grew up with a love for the water and we fished all the time when I was a kid.  It was always a passion.

SR:   The Mitzi skiff, you started thinking about that in what…must have been the early or mid 1990s?

Mitzlaff:    It was mid to late 1990s.  What happened was I had been fishing out of my canoe, my wood strip canoe for a few years.  I went to the Florida Keys on a fishing trip with a buddy of mine, Captain Warren Henrichs, who’s in Jacksonville.  When I got back from hat trip, I had caught my first bonefish.  That was really my first experience fly fishing from a skiff.  I knew in my mind then that I wanted to build my own boat.

SR:  What did you have mind when you were thinking about the Mitzi?  Was it all about building a quiet boat–which the Mitzi really was?  Were you trying to build a boat that did all those things that people wanted in a skiff but was affordable?

Mitzlaff:    Yeah, it was more about the affordability.  On the salary I made back then, which wasn’t much at all, I wanted to make something that was just really affordable and was just a really simple boat.  I always looked at it back then as the Carolina Skiff of flats boats when I first started it.  That’s kind of what I wanted: just a stripped-down version of a poling skiff that would get the job done and not cost a lot of money.  When I first started designing it actually I didn’t really have the intent of producing a boat for anybody else but myself.  It just kind of happened.  I was the assistant editor of a fly fishing club’s news letter.  I was also an active member of the club, and people just started showing interest.  I decided I was going to build some boats to try to pay for my own.  Next thing you knew I was a boat builder.

SR:   The whole concept of building an affordable skiff is pretty interesting.  I was talking with Bob Sterns yesterday, who’s a long time boat editor for many magazines.  He’s been around the industry forever.  He told me at one point there were over 100 skiff manufacturers in South Florida, and a lot of people have tried to build affordable skiffs.  I was going to ask you, do you think it’s possible for anybody to truly build an affordable skiff and market it?  Is the market too tough for that kind of thing?

Mitzlaff:   I definitely think it’s still feasible.  There’s a lot of companies doing it now a days.  It’s like Mitzi.  I think a lot of guys like myself got into business or get into business and what happens is consumers forge the evolution of the boat.  I think what happens is as you learn more about composite manufacturing the boats tend to evolve.  The more you learn in the industry, it can be relatively simple and it can also be complex.  You can design a boat to be very inexpensive, or you can design them to be all-out.  It’s just really where the designer’s or manufacturer’s  mind is.

SR:  Tell us about you latest project, the Solo Skiff.  That’s a real different approach to designing fishing skiffs, obviously meant for individual anglers and getting into places where they can’t get with other boats.  What was the idea behind that?

Mitzlaff:  Oh boy that’s a long answer.  I’ll do my best.

Before the days of Mitzi I was a big kayak fisherman.  I had the canoe that I had mentioned to you, but I found a recreational rowing shell that was all beat up.  I mean it had hundreds of blisters in the hull.  It had been sitting underwater.  To make a long story short, I rebuilt it and modified it into this 20-foot semi-sit-on-top kayak that I started fly fishing out of a lot.  It was a real tippy thing and all, but it turned me into a thoroughbred kayaker.  I did typically paddle a long distance and it was a very good craft for doing just that.

Back then I also came up with this new concept.  I actually built a 3-D or scale wooden model of a boat that looked very similar to the Solo Skiff, although the design was quite a bit different in many ways.  Shape- and concept-wise and point-of-use was very similar to the Solo, but I never tied all the design elements together.  I had always had this idea in the back of my mind, but because of Mitzi and I was busy, I just never did anything about it.

A year and a half ago I was working on a new boat project: a big boat, a technical poling skiff that I built a plug for.  I was talking to my brother-in-law and he wanted me to draw them up something like a little kit for a paddle board.  I’m sitting there drawing one day–and I give the credit to the good Lord, God turned a light bulb on in my head–I thought about that project from years and years ago and I tied all the elements together between a skiff, a kayak, a paddle board, all of sudden just the elements just all came together.  I sat there and started drawing, and what I ended up with about two days later was the first edition of the Solo Skiff.

Poling a production Solo Skiff.

Poling a production Solo Skiff.

Back then I actually called it The Penguin because I thought the profile kind of reminded me of a swimming penguin.  If you look at a Solo Skiff logo in the O and you see the outline of the boat, you can kind of get an idea of what I mean.  It kind of looks like a swimming penguin.  I wasn’t half way through the project when one day the name Solo Skiff came to me and the rest was history as far as the name and the logo goes.  I thought it perfectly describes what the boat is.  Anyways, that’s how it came about.  I built a prototype, a skin on plain version of it–like a skin-on-frame kayak or canoe, and it was exactly representative of the hull of the Solo Skiff.  There was no  deck, it was just to test the hydrostatics of the hull and make sure my numbers were right.  Honestly, at first I was doubting myself a little bit.  I’ve got a pile of computer software that told me everything was going to be okay, but I personally I had to see it in the water before I really took the major leap of faith and started working on it.  I tested the prototype, and boy to say I was a happy man the day I tested it is an understatement.

SR:    How did you decide what kind of power to put on it?  Did you first put it in the water and try different types of engines, or did you have a particular engine in mind when you built it?

Mitzlaff:   Well, the whole thing was it goes back to the design.  I had lightweight, portable power in mind from the very first day I ever thought about it.

From my kayaking days I knew I didn’t want a paddle.  I love to fish, but I wasn’t out there to technically go out and get a workout.  I used the kayak as a fishing tool.  Well one of the things that I remember that I didn’t like about paddling all the time was you get tired in the afternoon, you’ve got to paddle home or you paddle to your spot, someone’s there, or you just can’t find any fish in a couple of spots.  You don’t feel like going home, but then again you don’t really feel like paddling.  I wanted it powered and it was very obvious to me that if this thing was going to have a sort of portability to it, but obviously it’s not the smallest boat.  It’s not as small as a kayak.  It’s the size of some of the larger kayaks.  It had to be able to be very efficient and be powered by the smallest of outboards.  That was a prerequisite in the design phase.  The hull had to be efficient to it can pole easy, so it can be paddled also, and also be powered by the smallest of outboards.  That’s where that came from.

Solo Skiff frame being built for the plug.

Solo Skiff frame being built for the plug.

SR:   How much does the hull weigh without the engine?

Mitzlaff:   One hundred twenty five.

SR:   It is “car-topable” as they say?

Mitzlaff:  A 125-pound boat’s not a fun boat to try to throw on top of a car.  You could do it if you really wanted to, but I tell everybody to throw it in the back of a pickup truck.  In fact I carry mine around like that.  You could throw it on a camper really easy, but it’s a 125-pound, 14-foot boat.  I’m pretty realistic about it–that’s a little bit of work.

SR:  What kind of fishing are you doing  out of it?  If you had to say, ‘This is a great skiff for BLANK?”  what would that be?

Mitzlaff:   Any type of shallow-water sight fishing, be it redfish, snook, bonefish.  Anywhere you would obviously fish in a canoe or a kayak or a flats boat, the Solo Skiff comes into its own.  Hence you go back to the what it really is: it’s a boat designed for one man, for one man to be effectively able to manage the boat and fish at the same time, so the answer is it’s obviously a shallow-water craft.  I designed it to be poled and it very much excels at poling.  It’s a fun boat to pole.  Anything you would do in regards to sight-fishing–actually I don’t really want to say sight-fishing, but in a lot of our fishing we flycast at tailing reds and tailing bones–but anything in shallow water.  If you’re going to be in 18 inches or 24 inches of water or less and you’re by yourself, it’s hard to beat.

SR:   I know one of issues that I’ve had when fishing out of a kayak has been if I want to wade then my only choice really is to get the kayak up into super-shallow water before I get out and get back in.  Is that something you thought about?

The Solo Skiff mold.

The Solo Skiff mold.

Mitzlaff:    Oh yeah.  One of the biggest factors I worked on when I designed the Solo was exactly that…with a twist.  The boat is completely instantly self-bailing because the back of the boat is open like a racing sailboat or a paddle board.  In other words, when the water hits the deck it goes off.  That also helps when you are going up into shallow water.  Unlike, especially, a cockpit kayak, it’s very easy to crawl in and out of the boat.  You can walk right off the back of the boat and you don’t have to worry about shoving the back of the boat down because the water will instantly drain off anyway.  Getting in and out of a Solo Skiff in a foot of water or two foot of water is extremely easy.  That’s why there’s a video on the web site showing somebody swimming up to the boat and climbing up on it.  That was in 10 foot of water or whatever.  Getting in and out of the boat it… I couldn’t have made it much easier.  You have the stability to be able to grab the boat and get on it without worrying about rolling it.  The boat’s light enough and the gunnel will push down to the water’s edge easy enough that it makes getting in and out of the boat a breeze.

SR:   What are you charging for the Solo Skiffs now, and are you selling them directly?

Mitzlaff:   They’re sold retail for $2,650 rigged with push pole holder, the hatch, and a full-length fly rod tube, and that’s without the motor.

SR:  Can someone get one pretty quickly or do you have a backlog?

Mitzlaff:   We have a small backlog.  It really depends when somebody orders but the typical wait time right now is about a month.

SR:     How would they take possession of it?  Do they have to come to you?

Mitzlaff:    Yeah they either have to come pick it up, or we can ship one anywhere in the U.S. at a cost of about $450 in a crate.

SR:    Tom, thank you so much for talking with us today.  You’re certainly one of those guys that is an original thinker in small-skiff design, and I hope we can follow-up with you at a later date and talk about what other projects you’re working on.

Mitzlaff:   I thank you too and it was a pleasure being able to elaborate on what I’ve got going nowadays.

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