In 1988, when my buddy bought one of the first flats skiffs in our area, he got so many questions about the poling platform’s purpose that he named the boat Stand On It in response. Today it’s not unusual to see all types of inshore craft with poling towers, many of which are too large and heavy for practical propulsion by push pole. Which begs another question: What is the difference between a flats boat and a technical poling skiff? I turned to two veteran builders for their interpretation.
“I actually coined the phrase ‘technical poling skiff’ in 1992 when we introduced the first Mirage,” explains Scott Deal, president of Maverick Boats. “It’s become a bit overused, but at the time we built only flats boats. I started fishing bonefish tournaments in the Keys, and we decided to build a skiff specifically to pole all day long. I call it the 1-in-10 Rule, because they are designed for a very small segment. If you don’t know why you need one, you probably don’t need it. It all comes down to where and how you fish. Both styles — flats boats or skiffs — will catch shallow-water fish, and both can be poled. But both do their jobs a little differently.”
Maverick now builds four models of the Mirage HPX, the company’s latest generation of technical poling skiffs with high-tech composite construction and shallow draft.
A skiff’s beam is much more important than length, Deal feels, although anything more than 20 feet long is pushing the limits for practical poling. A narrower beam requires less horsepower for optimum performance, is easier to pole, and tracks better at different speeds. It’s also easier to maneuver and spin to chase fish or get into ideal casting position. Shorter hull lengths are lighter and prone to turning from swells, whereas a longer keel cuts through waves. He cites ocean-side tarpon fishing in the Florida Keys, where 1- to 2-foot chop is common, and length comes into play.
Draft is another consideration in the skiff dialogue. Deal says boats drawing more than a foot of water don’t really qualify as technical poling skiffs, although actual draft is impacted by the hull deadrise and overall weight.
“You need a decent amount of V for a comfortable ride, and deadrise changes over the length of the hull,” he explains. “The relationship between those transitional numbers is what really affects true draft, but the point of reference for most buyers is the deadrise at the transom.
“Again, it depends on the type of fishing and conditions,” he adds. “If you need to cross supershallow bars to get to redfish with their backs out of the water, a sub-6-inch draft like our 17 HPX-S is the best choice. If you’re fishing in the lower Laguna Madre in Texas, where the average depth is 18 inches or less, our tunnel model is designed to get up on plane quickly. It’s all relative. You’re probably not going to find tailing bonefish in water less than 7 inches deep unless they’re babies.”
Capt. Chris Peterson, president of Hell’s Bay Boatworks, says each of the 11 skiff models his company builds is designed to pole efficiently and quietly to target shallow-water fish.
“My philosophy is the simpler, the better,” he says. “You can’t rig a true technical poling skiff with a bunch of accessories and expect it to not affect a fish’s behavior, and you can’t stick a poling platform on a standard Sears & Roebuck johnboat either. A true technical poling skiff has to be designed right and built right to be stealthy, quiet, and blend into the surroundings.”
The perfect skiff size is 16 to 18 feet long, Peterson believes. Anything longer than 20 feet is a trolling-motor boat, not a poling skiff. Weight and construction are two key considerations for optimal skinny-water performance.
“Weight is an issue: The lighter the boat, the higher it will float in the water. That’s why simplifying tackle and gear is important,” Peterson says. “It’s a law of physics that we cannot change. Every 8 pounds of gear you add displaces eight gallons of water. That’s why we’ve taken advantage of research and development from the aerospace industry, and use composite materials that are lighter and stronger than steel. We
constantly try to stay ahead of the curve, but those extreme materials cost more.”
Eliminating noise and minimizing the boat’s pressure wake in supershallow water are paramount, both men agree. It’s the reason why hard lines and corners in
technical-skiff design are avoided. It’s also why the fit and finish are so critical. Any creak from a flexing deck or a hatch lid alerts spooky fish to your presence.
“Fish in shallow water deal with pressure waves and natural noises all the time from other bigger fish or jumping mullet. But when it’s something out of the ordinary, they go on alert,” Peterson says. “You have to keep quiet. You need to be a ninja to get within casting range without them knowing you are there.”
He also agrees that a skiff’s draft and deadrise are tied to fishing conditions and angler preference. Dryness and comfort crossing open water may be more desirable than an extra inch or two of flotation.
“Once you leave the poling platform, it’s now just a taxi home, not a technical skiff,” he says. “There are always trade-offs, but we are constantly trying to push the boundaries of shallow-water performance and comfort in every skiff we build. It’s what we do.”