The Ultimate Skiff, Part II

Revisiting One Fishermans Version of the Perfect Fly Boat.

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It's been two seasons since I began working the waters on the south side of Cape Cod from the tiller-steered Parker that was featured in the July 1997 issue of this magazine ("The Ultimate Skiff"). Because the concept of the boat is right for so many people, the boat continues to generate a lot of interest. So now, two years later, it's appropriate to re-visit some of the earlier decisions that went into the selection and layout of my skiff, and to report on some updates that I've made to it along the way.

Tiller Steering
I originally selected tiller steering for four reasons. First, I wanted to sit as far back in this boat as possible. This is because the farther back you sit, the softer the ride. Second, a console chews up too much space in such a small boat. This may not be a problem for spinfishers, but saltwater fly rodders need some room to make double-hauls and enough clean space to lay a whole fly line on the deck without wrapping it around everything. The big space in front of my pedestal seat and the other one in front of the box seat combine to yield two perfect areas from which to fly cast. Third, I've found the more complicated the boat, the more trouble it causes and the more effort it takes to maintain it. I had come to appreciate the dependable simplicity of the tin boats that preceded the Parker and was unwilling to give that up. And finally, I didn't want to crawl out from behind the console every time I wanted to cast and then back behind the controls whenever I needed to move the boat.
How did it work out? The last word has to be satisfactorily, since after deliberations I just repowered the Sea Beagle IX with a new tiller-steered motor.
Sure, there are shortcomings. You're going to be wetter back there than you would be farther forward. And you don't have the platform for radios, depth finders, instruments and handy storage that a center console provides. I think my guests have ended up just as comfortable, though. If the going is rough, they face backwards and sit in one of the new foldable seats with a 30-inch back. A backrest that shifts either forward or backward is available for the box seat, but I don't want to trip on it when I stand on the box for sight fishing.
Power Options
While the Honda 50 is an excellent motor, I constantly wished that I had a bit more power. Top speed with two people was a modest 21 knots, by GPS, and it was slow getting up on a plane. The other problem with the Honda was that the shift lever was back on the motor; I had to turn around and find it every time that I wanted to put the motor in or out of gear. The new 70-hp four-stroke will be the eighth Suzuki outboard from 15 to 225 hp that I've purchased from Portland Yacht Services in Portland, Maine. I've always been satisfied. The new Suzuki four-stroke is 70 hp - that's a 40-percent increase - and should make the boat a lot faster.
The tiller handle on the new motor is a very rugged and convenient setup. It's ruggedly attached directly to the tiller that would otherwise accommodate the hydraulic steering arm, and all of the outboard's key controls are built right onto it. The shift mechanism, power trim and tilt and ignition key can all be easily reached without rising from your seat - a great improvement from having them located back on the main engine. Though it's not necessary for steering from the seat, I use an extension handle so I can run the motor at slow speeds while enjoying the extra visibility afforded by standing up. With the 40-gallon built-in tank and the frugality of the four-cycle engine, I still have the ability to fish at least two long days before refueling.
Power comes at something of a price in terms of weight. The new Suzuki outweighs its predecessor by 130 pounds. Because of my habit of drifting through Vineyard Sound's feisty tide rips, I take the occasional standing wave over the transom. I couldn't stand any additional weight in the stern, so something had to be done. The solution was to get rid of the two batteries I had with me in the back of the boat. One was a deep-cycle battery for my transom-mounted electric motor. The other was the cranking battery for my outboard.
Portland Yacht Services moved the cranking battery into the box seat alongside the 24-volt power supply for my bow-mount electric motor. They then mounted a new 24-volt Great White electric on the transom - replacing the worn-out freshwater model that had been there - and ran a power supply under the deck so that it could use the same batteries as the 24-volt Great White bow-mount. This saved about half of the additional weight of the outboard and moved the remainder to the forward part of the boat, preserving most of the stern's buoyancy.

Gauges and Controls
I've never had a tachometer on a small outboard, and I've never been without one on a big one. The 50 Honda was sort of in between, and I didn't install one. I ended up missing it, so we mounted the one that came with the Suzuki on the coaming where the power trim and tilt switch for the Honda had been. (The Suzuki, typical of the higher horsepower, tiller-steered motors, has a power trim and tilt switch already installed on the handle.)
The Suzuki tach serves a dual purpose. Four important monitoring systems - trouble lights for water flow, oil pressure, temperature and a rev-limit indicator - are built into the tach's face. This kind of multifunctionality goes a long way in a small boat.
Beyond that, my Spartan complement of gauges and instruments - fuel level, light switch and depth finder - have worked out just fine, thank you. A tiny fuse panel to power them is installed under the coaming, completely out of the weather.

The Hull
Just as with today's fly rods, there are a lot of good boats out there. And there seems to be a trend toward boats like my Parker that can be ordered semi-custom from the factory. The very popular Maritime Skiff, for example, has casting platforms both fore and aft, several different size consoles and various seat arrangements. As I did with my Parker, you can set the boat up just the way you want for your style of fishing. Aluminum boat manufacturers like Lund have similar flexibility in their layout design. I've owned a Lund Alaskan for years, but I'm partial to fiberglass for use in saltwater.
I've been asked by a number of readers about the seaworthiness of a boat in this size range. It reminds me of the statement I heard made by an old hand at fishing some of the shoal water on the back side of Nantucket Island: "She's too small to get there and too big to fish once you do." That's always the dilemma with boats for saltwater fly fishing. A good 20-foot boat with reasonable freeboard and some bow flare will bring you back through tougher conditions than you might think, but you won't like it. I go to the places that old salt was talking about, but I'm careful to pick my weather. I've also got a 25-foot Hydra-Sports center-console - a real deep-V offshore hull - but I vastly prefer fishing from the open skiff.

Storage
As a fly fisher, I've become less concerned about storage than in my days of fishing conventional tackle. You just don't need all the heavy, bulky paraphernalia that seems to accompany that side of the sport. In my 1997 story on this boat, I extolled the virtues of not storing things aboard. I'm even more convinced today that going light is the way to go. All that rests in my forward storage box are life preservers and safety equipment. All tackle and hand-held electronics rest in a new L.L. Bean Magnum skiff bag - totally waterproof - and extra clothes go into waterproof stuff bags.
Let me add one word of caution. If you're flats fishing, you may need the added visibility of a raised platform or flush deck. But in many areas where you may be casting from a rolling boat, this is a recipe for a dunking. I like all the freeboard that I can get in a boat this size, and I'd add to that the desirability of a nonskid deck.
So, at two years and counting, the marriage is still intact, and while every boat is a compromise, my 17-foot skiff continues to be the best answer I've seen for inshore saltwater fly fishing, as I like to do it.