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May 24, 2013

Tips for Running the Flats

How to run a skiff in skinny water without doing damage to either the environment or the boat itself.

On running across shallow grass flats, Scott's philosophy is simple: Don't do it. If shallow water lies between you and your destination, either run around or pole across the flats.

Scott points out that the needs of flats fishermen vary from region to region. The flats of Texas's Laguna Madre, for example, run for miles and consist of clear water over a mostly hard bottom. People who fish Flamingo in Everglades National Park must contend with very shallow water that may be murky or clear, depending on the weather, over a muddy bottom. These geographic differences help explain why so many different types of flats boats exist, with a confusing number of hull configurations to choose from.

Many skiffs have a modified-vee hull, with a shallow transom deadrise to minimize draft. "Most people have no idea how shallow their boats will really run," Scott says. It often pays to experiment over a sand or mud bottom to see just how shallow you can run without causing damage. If possible, make consecutive runs into shallower and shallower water while monitoring your wake to see when you begin stirring up the bottom. You may be surprised by how shallow you can actually go.

Don't Scare the Fish

There are other considerations when operating in shallow water, such as the effect it has on the fish. Captain Bob Rodgers, a Keys flats guide and writer from Tavernier, says that too many skiff drivers are running the flats looking for fish, then shutting down to pole after them. This can alter the fish's behavior and even drive them permanently from a particular area if it happens enough.

wading
When approaching fish on the flats, cut the engine at a good distance and either pole or wade within casting range.

"Sometimes it's necessary to run in very shallow water, but you should always stay out of the fish's house," Bob says. "When you run up on them, it makes it bad for everybody. Look at it this way: how would you feel if you sat down to dinner and a semi kept running through your dining room while you were trying to eat?"

Both Scott Deal and Captain Rick Murphy, another noted South Florida flats guide, emphasize the importance of tunnel-hull boats for running in very shallow water. "Tunnel hulls run a lot shallower than vee-bottom boats, and are therefore more conservative in the effect they have on the flats," Rick explains. "Lots of boats can be poled in shallow water, but they won't necessarily get on plane."

Getting on Plane

Getting on plane in very little water is tricky. The spin maneuver works well if you have a mud or sand spot to try it in. Move the weight in the boat (usually people) towards the bow, then lower the right trim tab all the way. By turning the wheel hard right and gently increasing the throttle with the engine partially tilted up, the boat will start to spin in a slow circle. The prop torque helps move the boat to the left, where it builds a pressure wave onto which the stern climbs. As the right side of the boat dips (the extended tab prevents it from dipping too much and digging in), the lower unit is tilted outward where it will run shallower. Narrower skiffs do this better, as they lean more. By increasing power as you trim the engine down, you should be able to spin the boat fast enough so it jumps on plane, then you're off.