A Basic Guide to Saltwater Fly Fishing in Southwest Florida

© 1997, Don Phillips

Chapter 11 - Boats for Fly Fishing

Canoes, kayaks, rubber rafts, float tubes and hybrids thereof are all useful for fly fishing in the backwaters, but in order to keep this chapter at a reasonable length I'll be concentrating on boats powered by gasoline outboard motors. This subject alone is worth an entire book, but I'll only try to cover what I believe to be the most important issues relevant to the shallow, saltwater fly fisherman. Most boat manufacturers will tout their products as being ideal for this purpose, but after you clear away the hype and examine the details you find that any backwater boat is a compromise of a dozen or more variables. One man's ideal may be another's nightmare.

The first and perhaps the most important variable is cost. You can easily obtain a serviceable, small, used boat and motor for a few hundred dollars. Conversely, you can buy a new, large flats skiff with all conceivable features and options for $25,000. or more. As with any other major purchase, one should first decide what is an affordable price range, and then decide how the boat is to be used. Only then can one begin to compare boat features and options and make a good choice. I think the first usage factors that should be considered are where the boat will be stored, where you expect to be fishing and what other uses you might have for the boat besides fly fishing. Let's examine those factors in more detail.

If you want to keep the boat in your garage, you'll probably have to limit its size and/or plan on getting a trailer whose front end can be temporarily removed or rotated to fit within the garage. Many communities will not allow boat storage on the property unless it's out of sight. Using a trailer gives you access to many coastal launch ramps and greatly expands the available range of your fishing. A good, new trailer will cost $500-1000., or about half that if used. If you live on the water you have the choice of keeping it in the water or up on a lift or pair of davits. A boat kept in the water must be regularly bottom-painted to keep it free from marine growth and there is still the periodic need to move it to dry land when severe storms are predicted. A lift or a pair of davits, provides excellent and convenient storage, but at a price of $1000-6000.

In considering where you want to fish you must also take into account the various travel routes you'll use to get there. The kind of scenarios that need to be considered are shallow flats, rough water (due to wind), large boat wakes, long distances (gas consumption) etc. A jon boat that will float in 4 inches of water is not safe to run "out front" along the coast on very windy days. When I first moved to Marco Island, I bought a used bass boat which worked out pretty good for fly fishing. What I hadn't considered however was that visiting friends and family like to go out on the water for shelling, swimming or sightseeing. My 15-foot bass boat was too small to handle 4-6 people and it had insufficient freeboard to be safe in choppy water. And so I switched to a 17-foot V-hull which was perfect for general purposes. Unfortunately, it needed about 16-18 inches of water to float in and was thus limiting in where I could take it fishing. I've since compromised to a 16-foot flats skiff which floats in about 6 inches of water, now that our regular visitors are less interested in boating and exploring.

The overall size of the boat is also important. The longer it is, the smoother the ride in choppy water and the easier it is to maintain a constant track when being poled. The longer boat also becomes less maneuverable, an important consideration in tight backwater situations. Most good backwater boats are 16-18 feet in length. Longer boats become more useful when there are 3 people aboard, 2 of them fly fishing. Shorter boats of 10-15 feet are OK for 2 people/one of them fly fishing, but they won't behave well in rough water or in the wakes of larger craft. The wider the boat's beam, the shallower the boat's draft, all else being equal. Also, the wider boat will have greater lateral stability and be less tippy. Unfortunately, the wider the boat the more expensive it gets because of both material/labor costs and the larger horsepower motor needed to drive it through the water and keep it on plane. A 6 to 7 foot beam seems to be typical for 16-20 foot boats, and proportionately narrower for shorter craft.

The "height" of a boat is actually the sum of its draft (its portion underwater) and its freeboard (the portion extending above water). Both elements are very important. The draft will determine the boat's ability to float and be poled with the motor tilted up out of the water, in shallow water. A greater draft will require more exertion when poling and greater horsepower to rapidly get up on plane. A lower freeboard gives you less margin for water spray or wave entry, but it also presents a lower profile to the wind, thus making it easier to pole or run with a trolling motor. Here again, compromises are necessary since you can't have an ideal configuration under all circumstances.

Hull design is another important factor which will have a significant impact on your boat's operation and performance. Many backwater boats have a rather flat bottom with a low deadrise (difference between the draft at the keel and the draft at the point where the side meets the bottom (the chine). Flat-bottomed boats are great for shallow drifting or running and for rapidly getting up on plane with minimum engine horsepower. They won't be very smooth running in a chop, however, and they have a tendency to sideslip on sharp, fast turns. If the bottom flatness persists all the way up to the bow deck, as in a typical jon boat, the pounding from oncoming waves can be quite inhibiting to forward progress. V- or round-bottom boats run much smoother in relatively rough seas, but round-bottom craft have very little roll stability.

Other hull features can make a difference in the boat's performance. Small keels, strakes and reverse chines will all provide somewhat vertical underwater surfaces to help prevent a boat from sideslipping and to improve lateral instability. Cathedral or Tri-hulls are really exaggerated examples of reverse chines. The tunnel-hull is a significant innovation which consists essentially of putting an inverted-U-shaped tunnel into a standard hull design. This has the effect of keeping a continuous channel of water flowing to and through the propeller, even when the boat's bottom is nearly touching bottom. This type of hull provides the simultaneous benefits of low draft and smooth running in a chop, but they are more expensive. Another hull feature which can be beneficial is a side configuration which flares from the waterline to the gunwale. This is a significant aid to shedding water and preventing spray from getting passengers wet. Finally, though perhaps not a hull feature per se', self-bailing is a desirable attribute in any boat. A hull is self-bailing when the floor drains to the stern and overboard thru drain holes, when the boat is either at rest or while running. Either this feature or a reliable, hi-volume bilge pump is needed in case of a sudden downpour or a wave over-the-side.

The proper motor for your boat should be the most important item on your agenda. Make sure that both boat and motor match, by both checking the documentation on the boat and motor and by taking a meaningful test ride. See how fast it comes up on plane. Check its draft and levelness at rest. See how it behaves in a turn and in rough water. And make sure that these evaluations are done with the propeller that you will be buying. Variations in blade number, diameter and pitch can make the boat/motor combination behave quite differently. If you plan on adding on accessories and features, make sure that you have sufficient motor reserve power to handle the additional weight. If you end up with a boat that either squats on its stern or plows with its bow, you will severely reduce planing speed and significantly increase fuel consumption. Automatic oil injection is a great feature on today's 2-cycle motors, to eliminate the mess and bother of measuring and mixing oil and gasoline. Nevertheless, don't get this feature unless there are automatic signals to warn you when the system isn't working or is out of oil. Things can and do go wrong, and without advance warning you could blow up an engine.

Most larger motors have tilt/trim features which are very helpful in running your boat. Trimming permits you to get up on plane fast by orienting the prop's forward centerline so that it is several degrees above horizontal. Then, when on plane, the motor orientation is changed so that the prop centerline is pretty much horizontal. This provides the most efficient configurations for operation in the 2 regimes. Also, when idling in shallow water, the motor can be further tilted to clear the bottom and yet still provide some thrust for propulsion. The tilt feature simply extends motor tilting further, at a fairly fast rate, so as to bring the propeller completely out of the water. Motors of 40 HP or less often don't have electric-driven trim/tilt features. This can be OK as long as the motor is light enough so you can manually set the angular position (while the boat is at rest, of course) and if the angular positions are appropriate in number and location to permit acceptable running performance.

For the backwater/flats boater who is very performance-conscious, there are a few motor-related accessories which are worth mentioning. First is the jackplate, which mounts between the motor and the boat's transom and raises and lowers the motor at the command of the captain. This permits planing in shallower water by raising the prop centerline by several inches. A few words of caution are appropriate though for this accessory. First, it adds considerable weight to the transom and costs several hundred dollars. Second, it may not provide a significant improvement if the engine's cooling water intake port is located too high on the engine shaft housing. You certainly don't want to dry up your cooling water intake flow when you're barreling across a long flat! Trim tabs are another feature which can improve boat performance. These tabs are small plates which extend beyond the transom at both sides of the motor and whose angular position is controlled by the captain. Depending on the sea state and the boat's weight distribution, you can adjust the relative position of both tabs to keep the boat level, side-to-side, while running. Also, you can use the trim tabs to actually tip the boat slightly to one side while running, to help shield your passengers from sea spray. Also, if both trim tabs are moved to the same angle, the boat's fore-and-aft pitch can be adjusted for best comfort or performance.

The last area that I'd like to cover in this chapter is boat accessories and miscellaneous features. I'll be discussing the items which I feel are the most significant to the fly fisher, without necessarily recommending that every boat should have these features. I have found the hard way that it's very easy to go overboard on "stuff", which eventually gets in the way, corrodes, mildews or all three. Each fly fisher must make his own choices in this regard, considering the expense, the extra weight, the extra exposure to the elements and their relative importance to his fishing style.

The first and probably foremost accessory to consider is a battery-driven trolling motor. It's almost essential if you plan to do much fishing alone, since poling under such circumstances is very impractical. Depending on the size and configuration of your boat you will probably want a motor having between 20 and 50 pounds of thrust and guaranteed to resist saltwater corrosion. Models are available which can be controlled by a lever, by a foot pedal or by an infrared wireless unit. Prices are in the range of $150-600. Some fishermen mount one or two motors on the transom, to minimize the noise level in the forward direction and to minimize the hardware up front where it can get tangled with a fly line. The only problem here is that it's very difficult to steer the boat with a small motor from the stern, especially into a strong headwind. I lean toward the forward location, nevertheless recognizing that manual poling may be necessary when the fish are particularly spooky or when the water is particularly shallow. If you expect to be sometimes trolling against heavy currents, you might wish to get a 24-volt motor/battery combination instead of the standard 12-volt type. Most 24-volt trolling motors have provisions to easily switch from either 12- or 24-volt operation, thus saving your stored energy for when most needed. The 24-volt system essentially doubles your battery size and weight, but provides additional range and/or power. Be sure that you get the deep-cycle type of battery, designed to be drawn down to a very low energy level and recharged without damage.

DON\ - 0.0 K

A push pole is a good accessory to have, for the reasons stated above. It probably should be at least 18 feet long, or 20-22 feet long if one uses a poling platform. I don't have a platform because frankly I don't feel comfortable up that high in a moving, rocking boat. The platform does however give the poler much better visibility in the water around him and makes a fellow angler much less vulnerable to getting hit by the pole. Of course, the poler on a platform is probably more vulnerable to an errant backcast than if he were at deck level. Most push poles have a point on one end for pushing off against hard bottoms, and a forked implement at the other end for soft bottoms. An important feature is a quick-attach lanyard so that the poler can embed the pointed end in the bottom, secure the pole to the boat, and attend to other duties while the boat is securely "anchored".

When fly casting, the angler needs a relatively flat, uncluttered area to move around in. There needs to be enough room for him to stand plus the many coils of fly line that are an insignia of our craft. The ideal casting platform is probably up on the bow, at least 3 x 5 feet in area, recessed a few inches from the boat's gunwales and having a non-slip or relatively rough surface. You need enough room to move around in without stepping on the line and you would like features that will minimize the chances of the line's coils tangling or blowing off the deck when its windy. If the casting deck isn't recessed, a neat trick is to surround the casting platform with an ordinary garden hose attached to the gunwales. Surface roughness can be obtained by using a piece of outdoor carpet or a wet towel underfoot. Line cleats can be kept out of the way by using the recessed ones or by locating them out of the way, under the casting deck. Don't overlook the possible need for a rear casting deck, when 2 fly fishers are both fishing. The above comments also apply to a rear casting deck.

Fuel storage can either be an integral part of the boat's design or one or more portable containers located close to the motor and out of traffic's way. I have two identical, portable 6-gallon tanks located under my rear casting deck in a balanced arrangement. This gives me enough gasoline to get out and back from anywhere I could possibly wish to fish, with lots of margin still left. What's important is to have much more than you can possibly need, allowing for those days when everything will go wrong. Determine the gas mileage rate for your motor/boat, estimate the maximum miles likely to be traveled on any trip, double it and calculate the fuel storage required.

Provisions for safe and secure fly rod storage are important. I strongly recommend that you always take at least one more fly rod with you than you intend to use at one time. So, if you will usually be fishing 2 at a time, bring 3 fly rods along in case one breaks (that does happen, you know). Most backwater skiffs have rod storage provisions under the gunwale, on the inside wall of the boat, with the rod tip extending through a bulkhead. This works fine as long as they are located high enough so that they're not apt to get stepped on or kneeled on in the heat of a fish fight. I personally prefer to have the backup rod safely cased and stored, the primary fishing rods mounted vertically in specially-made tubes. These tubes are just like those used to store spinning rods vertically, except for a wide, L-shaped slot which permits the fly rods to be deeply seated and rotated to prevent them from popping up during running. Note that this type of rod storage is only used when the boat is being operated to get from place to place. When fishing, the fly rods are of course being used, and so they won't get in the way of casting.

Dry storage is also important and there are frankly very few places on a boat which are always dry under all circumstances. For important stuff like fishing licenses, maps, manuals, etc, I place these in zip-loc bags and put them on a high shelf in my center console. Fishing bags, lunch bags etc are also placed in the console, on a false floor made from Leg-O type plastic pieces snapped together. This area is accessible either from the open console side or from a watertight door on the opposite side. All storage areas are normally open, so that they will quickly dry to inhibit the formation of mildew.

There are innumerable electrical accessories available to the boating fly fisher, but I think that only a few are really necessary. A depth-finder is very helpful in warning you when you are running in unfamiliar territory and are beginning to stray away from safe channels. Their fish-finding features are also kind of neat, but I find that I use them little. If you plan to fish at night or before dawn, you must have bow and stern running lights and I'd strongly urge you to also get a high-candlepower spotlight that can be plugged into a cigar-lighter-type of receptacle. Dashboard-mounted gages are available for almost anything you'd ever want to measure, but I've found that only a few are really necessary. First is a battery gage that will tell you of the charge state of your primary and trolling motor batteries. You should never find yourself stranded due to dead batteries if you keep an eye on these gages. A fuel level gage is also important, for obvious reasons. A Miles\Hour (MPH) gage and a compass will be important if you do much running out in the gulf, in order to relate your position to map coordinates. The compass is necessary at any rate, for getting your bearings in strange surroundings. Motor RPM gages aren't of much utility unless you want to experiment with various RPM, MPH, and tilt settings to get optimum performance. And Loran or GPS devices are great for offshore, but have little utility in the backwater or near-shore.

All boats should have some sort of anchor. In southwest Florida, a lightweight Danforth anchor is fairly standard, with about 3-6 feet of heavy chain to ensure that the spikes get a good "bite". About 100 feet of light nylon should be sufficient for most anchoring circumstances. A pair of loop-ended mooring lines are also recommended, and having a Y-shaped towing line on board is a good idea for those situations where you might need to tow another boat---or vice-versa.

Finally, safety considerations dictate that you have certain minimum equipment on board. A life vest and a floating cushion for each person is highly recommended. A set of up-to-date flares, a signaling mirror, a whistle or horn, a small paddle, a first aid kit and a bailing bucket are also recommended. An ignition cutoff switch with a lanyard attached to the captain's wrist is also a good idea. There's nothing more unnerving than an unmanned boat speeding around in the backwater! Also, I'd recommend that you have a VHF radio or cellular phone on board if you plan some deep forays into the backcountry. In addition to getting advance warning of impending storms, the ability to call for help in the event of a breakdown is comforting for the mind. Make sure however that the range of your device is sufficient to probably reach others.

Although not really boat-related, other safety precautions have to do with spending long hours in our Florida sun. A cooler with ice, water and soft drinks is absolutely necessary. Polarized and treated sunglasses are also a necessary investment. Not only will you be able to see the fish better, you will protect your eyes from the ultraviolet rays. Similarly, a long-billed cap with neck and ear shielding, lightweight long-sleeve shirts/pants, and foot covering is recommended. And use SP-30 or greater sunblock for those parts of your skin that are exposed to the sun. If you're fishing in close to the mangroves, you'll find that having a good insect repellant is worth its weight in gold.

Last, but certainly not least, please make sure that you take one of the periodic boating courses offered by the Power Squadron or other organizations. An uneducated and uninformed boater is his own worst enemy, and a threat to his neighbors on the water.

Next Article -- Conservation

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