Judging from the number of boats that have appeared on the various flats around the country in the last ten years, it's easy to figure out that shallow-water fishing has taken a quantum leap forward in popularity. Every year more and more flats skiffs appear-along with more companies that build flats skiffs-and some once-remote flats now resemble supermarket parking lots on weekends.
Whether you fish the crystal-clear flats of the Florida Keys, the vast flats of Texas, the oyster bars of Florida's Homosassa Springs, the turbid sounds of the Carolinas, or the bays of the Northeast, there are certain challenges that must be met. It takes some special knowledge to run a skiff in skinny water without doing damage to either the environment or the boat itself.
If you've ever flown at low altitude over the Florida Keys, you've no doubt witnessed the damage an outboard motor can do to a flat. In the old days, either due to ignorance or indifference, boat operators often drove their boats right across the flats, churning up mud and ripping seagrass from the bottom. Some did it to avoid having to pole into an interior fishing spot, yet others simply found themselves in skinny water by mistake and had to churn their way off again, leaving a "kicker trail" in their wake.
These trails are actually troughs dug by the boat's propeller(s) that appear from the air as ugly scars. Some of the flats that lie closer to civilization bear so many of these scars that there's precious little grass left. To make matters worse, scientists have determined that these wounds take many years to heal, and that some flats may never be completely restored due to the effects of tidal erosion.
Fortunately, many of the flats in the Keys are now no-motor zones thanks to the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, and efforts are underway
to repair many of the prop scars. Hefty fines await anyone who gets caught damaging a grass flat in the Sanctuary, and virtually all experienced fishermen now treat the flats with respect. Unfortunately, there are still quite a few careless boaters out there (usually non-fishermen) who blast along full speed with no clue about the shallows that lie ahead. They often end up high and dry, waiting for rescue-and the impending fine.
For those of you who fish and boat in parts of the country where the bottom isn't so forgiving, other consequences of running aground await. If rocks or oyster bars abound in your waters, for example, you stand to damage a lot more than the sea bed if you hit bottom at high speed! I've done it myself, and the sickening sound of crunching metal isn't something I want to hear again.
Obviously, with proliferating numbers of boaters on the flats, it's more important than ever to operate responsibly when running the shallows. To get the skinny on skinny-water running, we asked several veteran flats fishermen for their advice. One such expert is Scott Deal, president of the Maverick Boat Company in Fort Pierce, Florida, the builder of Maverick, Hewes and Pathfinder light-tackle skiffs. Scott is an expert fly fisherman, and spends much of his time stalking bonefish, redfish, tarpon and permit in some truly shallow water.
"The first rule should be, 'don't ever run when you don't know where you are or where you're going,'" Scott said. "The first time you enter a new shallow-water area should be with an experienced person or a guide so you can learn the extreme limits of the flats." Charging into unknown water is not the time to be learning where the channels end and the flats begin, but you'd be amazed by how many people do it.
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.
"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.
The engine on a tunnel-hull boat is mounted very high, as the prop is fed water through the tunnel, well above the bottom of the boat. According to Scott Deal, this allows tunnel-hulls to run in extremely shallow water, even when mud and sand are being stirred up by the boat's pressure wave.
Rick Murphy goes on to stress the need for horsepower. "Don't underpower your boat," he declares. "Lots of times you'll have a small hole that's a little deeper than the surrounding flat and you can use it to jump on plane. But you need enough horsepower to get the boat up in half its own length."
Lots of good advice. With a little care there will be plenty of fish and seagrass for everyone, plus you may save yourself the embarrassment of calling your insurance agent to tell him about that new lower unit his company is about to buy you.
Shallow-Water Running Gear
Both manual and hydraulic jackplates are available, although most
serious flats fishermen opt for the hydraulic version. A jackplate offers two advantages: First, like an engine bracket, it moves the engine several inches aft, where it can be mounted higher, even in the lowest position. Second, it allows you to raise the engine even higher while underway to substantially reduce draft.
By adding a custom lower unit with a low-water pickup in the nose cone, you can raise the engine extremely high without worrying about starving it for cooling water.
Many flats pros run four-bladed props for a superior hole-shot when getting on plane, and to maximize the prop's bite when the engine is jacked up at speed. After some experimentation with engine trim combined with different jackplate engine heights, you can get a vee-hull skiff to run in incredibly shallow water.
Bob's Machine Shop is a leading designer and builder of both jackplates and customized nose cones with low-water pickups. Bob's jackplates raise the engine a minimum of 7 1/2 inches above the normal transom mounting height, and the company makes several different jackplate models that extend anywhere from 3 7/8 to ten inches behind the transom. Prices start at $695, and there are models for outboards up to 275 hp. Bob's Machine Shop, Inc,. Ruskin, FL; (800) 966-3493; www.bobsmachine.com.