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Poling a Flats Skiff

(Submitted by Tight Loops Flyfishing)

Poling a Flats Skiff Means Never Saying You’re Sorry By Capt. Tony Petrella   Perhaps the sorriest spectacle I ever witnessed on the Florida flats happened while stalking redfish in Charlotte Harbor about eight years ago.

It was one of those Chamber of Commerce days in late March. You know the kind. Pale blue sky. Air and water temperatures both hovering a bit over seventy degrees. A “life is verrrry good right now,” kind of day.

Except for the absolutely irrational and profane screaming that was reverberating off the water from a boat more than a quarter-mile away on the boomerang-shaped bar that surrounds Patricio Island.

Good taste prevents me from quoting the language coming from the bow of that flats skiff. Suffice to say that it could have been  a Drill Sergeant with raw recruits. “Lyrics”—if you want to call them that—from the latest 50 Cent DVD. Miami Gangbangers having a typical streetcorner dialog at 3am.

Seems the fella on the pointy end of the boat was extremely displeased with the performance of the guy gamely trying to keep from falling off a ridiculously tall poling platform.

    To use the politically correct term, I personally am somewhat “vertically challenged.” Which frequently causes me to paraphrase Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof”—“would it have upset some grand Cosmic plan if I was just two inches taller?”

But that platform must have been built with Wilt Chamberlain in mind. Which might have significantly contributed to the plight of the guy up top who was piteously spinning the boat in circles while his future ex-best friend thundered obscenities.

I understand—I think—the logic behind skyscraper platforms. They’ll give you a larger, further view of water and fish, right?

Well, they also force you to build a stepladder on the frame to climb up, and greatly increase the likelihood that you’re going to pop up on the radar screen of a record-book redfish like a Russian Mig hoping to swoop down on an American aircraft carrier.

Which causes that big redfish or snook to bolt for the cover of overhanging mangroves or deeper water before you ever have a chance to make a cast.

The height of the platform should allow the motor to be raised all the way up in order to engage the transom-saver, and provide enough clearance to remove the engine cowling. Anything taller than that and you simply should have bought a Tower Boat and be done with it! 

Coupled with the height of the platform is the length of the push pole. Without going very far into advanced physics, a subject which did not get along with me very well while I was in high school, Height versus the lack of Length equals Circles.

Simply put, in order to shove the boat, you must have leverage. If the push pole is too short for the height of the platform as well as the person doing the shoving, H minus L=C. As in Cussing.

I’m 5 feet, 10 inches tall. My platform rises 37 and one-half inches above the deck of my Hewes Redfisher 18. That makes a 19 or 20-foot long push pole perfect for me and my setup.

Even then, if I “push” my luck in skinny water and get stopped in the sand, I must hop down from the platform to gain even more leverage with the pole. The last thing a guide needs is to ask clients to get their feet wet and help pull the boat to deeper water.

There are a couple of ways to avoid getting stuck. First, as they say in aviation: “There are old pilots and there are bold pilots. There are NO old, bold pilots!”

That means you must do your homework the night before you go fishing AND the next morning before you hook up the trailer. I have the NOAA weather site on my Internet Explorer home page (http://www.ndbc.noaa.gov/maps/Florida.shtml), and the regional radar map on my “hot keys.” I check both of them constantly.

What’s this got to do with poling a boat? Wind direction and velocity have a direct correlation to where and when you can fish. Especially if you plan on working shallow water.

Even when you spend time checking, a curve ball low and away can send you back to the bench after a swinging third strike. That happened just a few weeks ago on the outside of Turtle Bay.

   After running on plane for 20 minutes, we were greeted with more bare dirt than I’ve ever seen in Charlotte Harbor. The wind had unpredictably swung around and picked up steam—contrary to the forecast.

By the way, when I started driving airplanes one of the first things my Flight Instructor told me was: “Weather forecasts are merely semi-educated guesses.” He was right, and I try to never forget that. You shouldn’t, either.

 Fortunately, that day we scored on a snook just shy of 24 inches, boated an over-the-slot sea trout, “boinked” a couple of respectable redfish on the head, and passed on casting a fly to the four-foot lemon shark that kept buzzing the boat. He must have been looking for an easy meal on all the fish we were releasing.

You don’t always get that lucky in such circumstances, though.

I remember one morning a few years ago when I had been “too busy” to pull up the weather. Fortunately, my client that day was a longtime regular who had as much fun laughing at my “guide failure” as he does catching fish.

You can pole a boat in skinny water, but not in dirt!

The actual mechanics of shoving a flats skiff where you want it to go are pretty simple, actually.

If you want to turn left, you stab the pole into the sand, mud, or oysters on the left side of the boat. To turn right, you stick the pole on the right side. To go straight ahead, you position the pole directly behind the motor.

Of course, just as in platform diving or figure skating, there are “degrees of difficulty” which the guy digging that stick into the sand must contemplate.

In aviation, the primary rule is to “stay ahead of the plane.” That means the “driver” must constantly take in the whole picture, not just what’s happening a few feet ahead of the bow.

For instance, the shoreline of any mangrove island constantly is bending, which means the angle of the boat has to also constantly be adjusted to keep from running too close in and spooking the fish.

The trick, of course, is to maintain enough distance from the shoreline to keep from being spotted by the fish while allowing the angler on the bow to make an accurate cast.

And that, my friends, is what separates the men from the boys when it comes to sticking a pole in the sand.

Keeping the boat curving with the shoreline vegetation or deadfalls is critical. That requires constant and delicate positioning of the push pole behind or along each side of the boat. It also requires deciding whether to stick the pointy end or the Y-shaped end of the pole into the bottom.

Whenever possible, I prefer to stick the point of the pole into the bottom and use the Y-shaped end as a sort of handle. That’s because when I first started this business I did it the other way and the point slipped out of my hands.

So there I was, drifting away while my pole was imbedded in the mud. It could have been worse, though. A good pal of mine was in that situation once and lunged backward for the pole.

Later that night, while he was watching CNN or World Wrestling Federation or something, his telephone rang.

“Hello,” he said.

“Dave!” his father sputtered, “what are you doing HOME?”

“Uh, watching television. Why?”

“Well, one of the other guides just called me. Said he saw you fall off the poling platform today. Told me he heard you had a broken back and that a helicopter had med-evaced you to a hospital.

“I was just trying to find out which hospital, and whether you were paralyzed. Geeze, I was worried.”

The point here is to use the pole’s pointed end in sand, or on oysters, because the smaller diameter won’t make as much noise grating against oysters as the Y-shaped end. Since sound travels five times faster under water as it does through the air, that can make a huge difference on your ability to sneak up on spooky fish.

Obviously, the converse is true when the bottom is covered with deep mud. Then, it’s best to use the Y-shaped end of the pole to get that all-important leverage without driving the pole three feet into the muck. And losing your grip on the pole!

Of course, one of the first questions you must ask yourself is should I pole the boat, or should I use the trolling motor? Common sense plays a very big role here. Unfortunately, some folks don’t have the common sense God gave a gopher tortoise.

On a grass flat three-to-four feet deep, the trolling motor used on a very low setting is absolutely ideal. Just remember that revolutions-per-minute (RPMs) create noise. Noise travels how fast under water?

Right.

Which spooks fish.

This next point doesn’t actually have anything to do with poling, but it concerns noise and that concerns catching fish. This is important, so listen-up!

All too often, guys who spent their life running boats around Long Island Sound or Chesapeake Bay for bluefish and striped bass come South and blithely troll through pods of tarpon, Spanish or king mackerel, and bonito without giving it a second thought.

They don’t catch any fish, and they don’t understand why.

Well, here’s why: Motors=noise=fishless days for them and everyone else around them. 

That sort of commotion might not matter in New Jersey or Cape Cod. Blues and stripers could be accustomed to the northeast clamor and take it for granted. But it certainly makes an enormous difference down here in Florida. 

Last spring I was brokenhearted when three guys and a Boston Whaler kept scattering the “blitz” of Spanish mackerel and bonito which had been systematically turning baitfish into bits of body parts.

All of the predators—fish, birds, and anglers—had been thoroughly enjoying themselves until The Trolls arrived. Then the action totally shut down. Noise ruins fish-catching opportunities faster than just about anything else I know.  

Finally, I yelled out: “Catching any fish?”

“Nope!”

“Do you WANT to?”

“Hell, yes!”

“Then make a big arc to the north,” I told them. “Line up on my boat, then turn off your motor and quietly drift through the fish. You’ll catch all you want.”

Amazingly enough, they did. And, they caught fish!

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  Tips & Techniques

  Once you’ve made the decision to work the mangroves or oyster bars and start poling, stow the trolling motor and raise the big engine BEFORE you climb atop the platform. The boat moves much easier through skinny water if the skeg doesn’t dig into the sand.

  If you’re fly fishing, place a wet towel over the trolling motor’s prop and motor housing to help minimize fouling the line.

  Keep the sun behind you whenever possible, and try to avoid poling directly toward a puffy white cloud. Both create a greasy-looking glaze on the water that destroys your ability to spot fish before they spot you.

  Wind direction determines whether or not you’ll be able to pole along a shoreline or oyster bar without getting beached. Don’t let stubbornness overwhelm common sense. Remember: the wind always wins.

  “Stay ahead of the boat” as you pole a mangrove shoreline. Remember that potholes—those light-colored circles amid the dark grass—frequently hold snook and/or redfish. Especially on a falling tide. Position the boat accordingly to allow casts around and into the potholes.

  Push Pole Suppliers  Temple Fork Outfitters offers a unique system that allows you to “build” your own push pole depending upon the size of your boat and height of poling platform. The 56-inch-long graphite/glass sections are sold for $50 each. Four sections require three ferrules ($5 each), and the tip-and-foot set is $50, making the total cost just $265.

  G Loomis sells graphite poles for $645 (18 feet long) and $685 (21 feet).

  Stiffy offers three versions. Its “Hybrid” graphite/glass version starts at $547 (18 feet), then escalates in price and length to $608 (20 feet) and $730 (24 feet). Similarly, the Graphite pole sells for $731 (18 feet), $812 (20 feet) and $963 (24 feet), and the Guide model is $842 (18 feet), $936 (20 feet) and $1,106 (24 feet).

Assembly is required on all of the above offerings, using adhesives ranging from West System Epoxy (available at West Marine stores) to “5200,” from 3M. Obviously, some retail operations offer pre-made poles at a higher price because of the “convenience factor.”

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  Capt. Tony Petrella previously was a sports writer for the Palm Beach Post and Atlanta Constitution. He now guides anglers and upland bird hunters in southwest Florida and northern Michigan. He can be reached through  www.tightloopsflyfishing.com

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