What qualities define the best Big Bend backcountry boats? The question likely has as many answers as there are Gulf Coast fishing fanatics since all have personal preferences based on target species, specific venues and how they enjoy fishing. Still determined to narrow down the ideal backcountry fishing machine for novice and pro anglers alike, I consulted with the professionals who spend hundreds of days on the water a year.
Around the Big Bend, backcountry fishing guides spend the bulk of their waking hours on the shallows and have to deal with a varied set of circumstances. If you know anything about Carrabelle, St. Marks, Steinhatchee, Cedar Key, Homosassa or any of the adjacent fishing communities, then you know the entire region is home to miles of undeveloped shoreline and unforgiving shallows. In fact, the Big Bend has the most salt marsh acreage in the state and features numerous aquatic preserves, wildlife refuges and management areas. Many of these areas are easily accessible by boat and provide outstanding sight fishing, while others are nearly impossible to reach. Additionally, aerial photography reveals much of the marshy coastline from Apalachee Bay to Anclote Key appears cracked by a web of ultra-shallow tidal creeks that snake their way inland. Thick reeds, rushes, sawgrass and spartina thrive around many of these tea-colored natural waterways, just like they have for centuries.
The ability to see wary shallow water game fish before they see you greatly increases your odds for a successful encounter...
While the desolate shorelines and countless tidal creeks create ideal habitat with periodical submersion, exit any major tributary along the Big Bend and you’ll encounter vast grass flats. What’s more, there are huge expanses of shallow water concealing rock and oyster bars that eat stainless props and fiberglass hulls for breakfast. And then there is a phenomenon known as Gulf chop that develops on breezy days. Short period chop with waves stacked one after the other can make traversing open water a real treat.
To stay on the bite and keep clients happy, guides have to access all of these venues safely and effeciently while simultaneously dealing with a wide variety of climatic and tidal conditions.
The Gulf Coast guides I questioned unanimously agree that stability in any craft is a primary concern, and absolutely essential for exceeding their client’s expectations. Saltwater Assassin Fishing Charters of Cedar Key is owned and operated by father and son duo, Captain Jim Keith and Captain Jimbo Keith, Jr. Each operates a trick Carolina Skiff 2480 DLX. With an impressive 93-inch beam, the versatile platforms provide the stability and comfort their passengers expect, yet because of the flat bottom the boats only draft 6 inches—remarkable for any 24-footer. Additionally, these proven hulls are simple and affordable to operate, efficient and easily customizable. With only a 115 HP four-stroke, guides are experiencing comfortable 30 MPH cruising speeds with four passengers and full loads of gear.
The Keith’s aren’t the only Big Bend backcountry guides who fancy Carolina Skiffs. Scan the docks at any of the local marinas in Northwest Florida and it’s easy to see the dominance the brand holds across this region. Dollar for dollar, they are hard to beat!
Captain Steve Kroll of Pepperfish Key Charters in Steinhatchee runs a fully restored 24-foot Pro Line. Brand aside, notable features on his boat include a large forward casting deck, massive amount of interior deck space, high and wide gunnels, and a relatively shallow 10-inch draft. Kroll points out that he spends most of his time drift fishing the flats for redfish and trout. Although he rarely enters ultra-shallow tidal creeks, Kroll often has to traverse skinny flats to access fishable water.
Like other seasoned captains who earn a living on the water, Kroll pointed out that versatility in a backcountry boat is a must-have attribute across the Big Bend, where redfish, black drum, trout, cobia, Spanish mackerel and other popular inshore and near-shore species require varied tactics across a wide array of venues. “One day you might be casting artificials to cruising trout in 18 inches of water, and the next day you might be soaking crab for drum in 8 feet of water,” added Kroll.
Captain Kelly Kofmehl with SpotTails Charters in Crystal River operates a Young Boats GulfShore 20. The model accommodates four comfortably, promises a dry ride in choppy water and is very easy to maneuver. Vital for Kofmehl, who spends a ton of time in the shallows, the platform only drafts 6 inches of water. And with the heightened visibility afforded by an elevated helm deck, the GulfShore 20 allows the skinny water specialist to access ultra-shallow flats for the monster black drum that call his region home.
The ability to see wary shallow water game fish before they see you greatly increases your odds for a successful encounter, and the advantage afforded by even a few feet of added elevation is truly impressive. Additionally, the ability to easily identify obstructions while keeping a watchful eye on passengers from a perched position are benefits the pros refuse to sacrifice.
Trolling motors are vital for maneuvering around the shallows, but many guides forego them in exchange of a stealthy push pole. Really, it is a matter of preference based on depth of water and the type of tactics regularly employed.
Universally, shallow water anchoring devices like the Power-Pole and Minn Kota Talon are absolutely essential and have literally changed the way backcountry anglers approach skinny water. These revolutionary devices are environmentally friendly and worth their weight in gold across every shallow water venue from coast to coast. Being able to set and retract a shallow water anchor with the push of a button allows anglers to get on the bite without deploying noisy ground tackle and risk spooking every fish within a country mile.
Because much of the Big Bend fishing requires the use of cut bait or live shrimp in lieu of live pilchard and pinfish, large baitwells are low on the list of must-have priorities. While soft plastics are likely the most popular offerings, fresh cut bait, live shrimp and blue crabs can easily be stored in a cooler, so most opt for the extra storage capacity instead of a giant recirculating baitwell. Putting everything else aside, we can’t ignore the fact that any boat is better than no boat, and achieving consistent success involves a whole lot more than simply purchasing a tricked out skiff. By making sure you’re properly prepared and focusing your efforts in areas likely to hold the target species during the given conditions, you will achieve success. And if you are fortunate enough to do it in a vessel customized for the specific venue and for the exact way that you prefer to fish, the entire process will be that much more enjoyable.
While aluminum boats have come a long way, the truth is they haven’t gained much traction within the market. All things equal, why wouldn’t an aluminum platform make for a solid Big Bend backcountry boat? They have less draft and require less power. They’re also very rugged, so bumping off an oyster bar is no big deal. The biggest complaint is that aluminum is far noisier than fiberglass—a red flag in any shallow water angling situation. I’ve also been told aluminum boats are lighter and tend to drift faster. Mounting accessories can be a challenge and narrow gunnels don’t allow anglers to walk all the way around the boat. Still, for recreational anglers who can work past these slight inconveniences, aluminum options are affordable, versatile and certainly worth considering.