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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.

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.

[Knowing your way around the flats is the key to preventing environmental-and engine-damage.]

Costly Damage

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.

Expert Advice

Fishing on foot
Leaving the boat in deeper water to chase the fish on foot is one low-impact method of working the flats.

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.