By Rusty Chinnis
sun staff writer
In 1969, the first flats boat was designed with the fly fisherman and shallow water angler in mind. The idea for this revolutionary boat came from Lefty Kreh, who fished regularly with Miami resident and fly angler Bob Sterns. The two anglers had photography and writing in common, and both spent time on the water with boat builder Bob Hewes. At the time, Hewes was producing a ski boat called the Wildcat, which handled and tracked well and could get into shallow water. When Kreh mentioned to Hewes that he should consider producing a boat especially for fishing shallow water, the idea for the Hewes Bonefisher, the first dedicated flats boat, was born.
Kreh provided the basic overall design for the new concept at Hewes’ request and suggested that Hewes talk to the people who fish these boats. Hewes approached Sterns and enlisted his help with the design. The original boat was a bow rider design, so they started by stripping the boat to the basic hull. Then they were ready to make the changes needed to accommodate flats fishermen. "I suggested that some length be added to the sixteen foot hull," says Sterns. "We accomplished this by adding bait wells." Wide gunnels were added to the boat and the console was moved from the side to the center of the boat. The "one off "boats that flats fishermen used in those days had side consoles. By moving the console to the center, anglers were less likely to get wet. A recessed casting deck was added to the bow and a recessed deck was created just forward of the transom. The former design allowed a clean, clear area for stripping fly line, while the latter kept the deck dry. The fore deck and fore peak were designed to be free of obstructions, and since there were no recessed cleats at the time, a small hatch was added to the fore peak to hold the bow cleat. Everything was kept as clean as possible, so there were no obstructions to trap fly line. The deck and gunnels were streamlined so they were flat enough to walk on.
The next major innovation to the new flats boat was the addition of a rear poling platform. Platforms of some sort had been in use for a long time. Stu Apte started out standing on his tackle box and then graduated to an eighty quart cooler with plywood and carpet attached. Flip Pallot often stood up on the motor and would put a piece of carpet on the hood to give his feet some traction.
Guides that graduated from flat bottom wood boats to the new semi-V fiberglass models soon realized that the boats tracked better and were quieter when poled from the rear.
It wasn’t until the advent of the new Bonefisher that the platform we use today came into existence. Bill Curtis came up with the idea, which was incorporated into the second generation of the Bonefisher.
Push poles used to propel boats over shallow water evolved over the years as well. The first poles Apte used were essentially closet dowels that were purchased from Lindsey Lumber Company and had a single sided foot. Apte later incorporated a double sided foot that he bolted right into the dowel. Most anglers at the time, including Pallot and Sterns, used a wooden dowel, but continued to experiment with different materials. Pallot used a slender Dade County pine that he fitted with the fork of a guava tree. "I would skin the pole and then had to wipe it repeatedly with gasoline to remove the sap," Pallot remembers. "For a foot I used the fork of a guava tree, John Emory and I would drive around Homestead with a shot gun and shoot suitable fork from the top of guava trees. The pine pole proved to be heavy for all day poling sessions, but went like a rocket to the bottom." Pallot also remembers trying aluminum tubing in an attempt to overcome the weight of the pine pole. Unfortunately the salt water oxidized the aluminum and his hands, and everything he came in contact with turned black.
According to Pallot, it was Emory who came up with the idea of using a pole vault as a push pole. The poles were just about the size they needed and were a great improvement on the pine and aluminum. The fiberglass poles were made by US Fiberglass and ordered through Lee Cuddy’s rod component store, J. Lee Cuddy’s on Coral Way in Miami.
According to Bob Sterns, the first person to make dedicated push poles from fiberglass was Bill Marks, who had a back yard company that he called Moonlighter Marine." Prior to having access to ready made poles, Sterns would also collect guava and buttonwood forks for his dowel poles and eventually used the same pole vault poles that Emory had discovered. Sterns would also craft a point from buttonwood trees, his favorite species for push pole foots and points.
Fly anglers didn’t have the luxury of high tech motors with tilt and trim and had to improvise the basic designs that were available at the time. Motors were an exception to the rule when it came to the options available in the 60’s and 70’s. Pallot remembers a wealth of choices including names like Sea King, Elgin, Scott Atwater, Wizard, Johnson and Evinrude. While there were many more choices in motors, they all were basic and had to be customized like so much of the tackle of the day. "At the time there were no clutches on the engines and shear pins and props were always at risk," says Pallot. "We would take props and have a piece of drag line steel welded to the leading edge to prevent them from bending when we hit bottom. We would then replace the shear pins with case hardened nails."
Apte remembers getting his first trim from Evinrude in the early sixties." At the time I owned a ninety horse engine that was as big as a two hundred horse is today," Says Apte. "I was doing a film at the time in Key West and Evinrude sent it down and attached it to my existing motor."
Sterns remembers the problem of trying to match the engines of the day with the boats that were available. "The boats we were using at the time were heavy," remembers Sterns. "Trying to find an engine that would push the boat without being a nightmare to pole was a challenge." Sterns, like other anglers of the day, improvised to overcome their lack of tilt and trim. "I rigged a bungee cord to the motor so I could pull the engine and lock it in the upright position when I needed to pole across a shallow flat," recounts Sterns. Larger boats were the first to be fitted with engines that had power trim, sometime in the 60’s. It wasn’t until the 70’s that they were available for smaller "flats" boats.
These innovators advanced the design of boats, motors, push poles and platforms just as they did fly rods, reels and line. They modified what they had at hand to meet the rigors of the saltwater world. We have them to thank for many of the advancements we enjoy today.
Today flats boats have gotten lighter, easier to pole, and have features like recessed pole holders, cleats, and trim tabs to stabilize their ride. Outboards come standard with tilt and trim, quiet and efficient four stroke architecture and are monitored and adjusted with onboard computers. Platforms come in all shapes and sizes and some can be recessed into the front deck. Push poles are constructed of super light space age materials and weigh less than the foot and point of their predecessor. The next time you push your flats boat across a flat in four inches of water with a feather weight graphite push pole, or trim the motor to navigate a shallow bar adjusting the ride with your trim tabs, you’ll appreciate that it wasn’t so long ago that things were very different. We owe a debt of gratitude to the generations of innovating anglers that made it all possible.