Thursday, June 25, 2009

Stuff I Like: Beavertail Skiffs


The perfect flats boat doesn’t exist but Beavertail skiffs, a small company based right here in Southwest Florida, has come closer to building it than any manufacturer yet with their newest model, the BT3. 
Beavertail actually started out in Minnesota of all places, building waterfowl boats before jumping into the saltwater flats fishing market.  I’ve been a big fan of these skiffs for several years.  I bought one of their Minnesota built B2 models in 2007 and considered it the best possible rig for the type of shallow water fishing that I prefer.  Even after more than 600 charters I had no intention of giving that boat up for something new. 
In early 2010 an entirely new hull was introduced called the Vengeance and designed with the help of Cape Coral’s own Marine Concepts.  It was a huge leap forward from the original B2 and really got my attention. 
Early last year the company was bought by Aeon Marine of Palmetto, FL, and its new owners Will and Elizabeth Leslie moved the Beavertail production to the same plant where their popular Aeon 23 inshore/offshore boats are built.  The Vengeance was a hit and its BT3 sister ship joined the lineup a short time later. 
Both boats have identical hulls but different cockpit and deck layouts.  The Vengeance is a do-it-all type of flats boat featuring a big casting deck, a center console with cooler, and three livewells, including a huge 35 gallon release well.  Since most of my anglers fly fish I chose the lighter BT3 which features a slightly wider deck and has a single, smaller bait well.  It also has more cockpit space and could be rigged with a side steering console, something I’ve really learned to appreciate on a flats boat.
My choice of outboard was a no-brainer.  My previous Beavertail B2 had a Yamaha 50 hp 2-stroke that gave me 850 hours of flawless operation.  It was the first engine I’ve owned in 15 years of guiding that never had a single mechanical issue, so Yamaha has more than earned my loyalty.  Both Beavertails are rated for 60 to 115 horsepower and I chose Yamaha’s new 70 hp 4-stroke to hang on the back of my BT3.  This was the only outboard I considered since it gave me the most performance in the lightest package.  I mainly wanted to cruise at 30 mph with this new boat and the top speed was not all that important to me.  The fuel economy with this engine is just under 3 gallons per hour and it’s so quiet at idle that you forget it’s still running. 
The best feature of all about the Beavertails is their ride.  The BT3 is easily the driest running flats boat I’ve ever seen, and I’ve fished on almost every skiff out there over the last 20 years.  The flared bow and integrated spray rails actually make it difficult to get wet, even when running side-sea to a 15 knot chop.  Getting hit with spray has always been one of my biggest pet peeves, even in the summer when the water is 85 degrees, and the BT3 has completely eliminated this annoyance from my life.  That alone has me completely in love with this boat. 
Fishing out of the BT3 is a blast.  With its 650 pound hull and 7 inch draft, poling it all day with two anglers on the bow is effortless.  It floats dead silent and can creep up so close to a tailing redfish that you can hit them with your rod tip.  Its 82 inch beam also makes it a remarkably stable platform and eliminates all the tippiness of the older B2.  There are some compromises of course, and with the BT3 it’s the bait well.  The rectangular 10 gallon tank on my boat is way too small to hold several hundred pilchards so chumming the bushes with live bait is out of the question.  If that’s the type of fishing you need to do then the Vengeance is your best choice. 
Finally, there’s the price.  Considering their performance and quality of construction, Beavertails are in same category as the boats produced by Maverick or Hell’s Bay, the two most popular brands for years among the majority of guides in Florida.  A fully loaded 18 foot model from either of those companies can easily hit the $50,000 mark.  That’s a stunning price tag for a stunning boat, but Maverick and Hell’s Bay have worked hard to perfect their product and earn their customer’s loyalties.  At the same time, a loaded Beavertail will roll out of the factory for at least $15,000 less with no compromises made when compared to its competition.
And just in case you’re wondering, Beavertail does not offer a price reduction for licensed guides like myself.  While I got a bit of a price break from Yamaha for my outboard, I paid the same amount for my hull as any other customer ordering a new BT3.  A few manufactures quietly give huge incentives to some guides, allowing them to resell their boats after a year or two for more than they originally paid.  It might be good marketing but it can hurt the resale value of the same boats sold to recreational anglers.  Keeping their prices the same for everyone is the main reason that Beavertails hold their value so well.  I actually sold my four year old B2 just three months ago for 80% of what I originally paid for it. 
There are so many great flats boats out there right now and the vast majority of them are built here in Florida.  The advances made in the last decade have produced some amazing hulls and if you’re in the market my advice is to go test drive everything.  The new BT3 is not the fastest running or shallowest floating skiff available, but as a complete package, I never considered anything else.  When it comes time test drive a Beavertail, just give me a call, especially on a windy and choppy afternoon. 

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Clouser Minnow v2.0: The Supreme Clouser


The Clouser Minnow is by far the best all-around fly ever invented. Originally created for the smallmouth bass of my old homewaters on Pennsylvania's Susquehanna River, Bob Clouser's simple little streamer has landed more different species in both fresh and salt water than any other pattern.

The Clouser has traditionally been tied using bucktail which gives the fly just enough bouyancy to slow the sink rate of the dumbell eyes. This combination of materials is what gives the fly its highly effective, bouncing retrieve. The only problem with the bucktail Clouser is that it's not especially durable. It only takes a couple of whacks by hard mouthed species like tarpon or snook to mess up the natural hairs and make the fly unusable.

If you tie your own flies this isn't much of a problem. The Clouser is one of the easiest patterns and can be tied properly in about two minutes. You can spend an hour at the vice and have all you'll need for a trip to Vieques or anywhere else. Even if you're not a tyer, Clousers are usually one of the least expensive patterns at your local fly shop and you can find them online for as little as $2 a piece.

One thing I like to do is tie several Clousers using synthetic Supreme Hair instead of the natural bucktail. This material is inexpensive, easy to work with, and makes the fly very durable. Their action is nearly the same but they sink quicker, which makes them a great choice for blind casting over the reefs and deeper flats. I've had Supreme Clousers stand up to multiple barracuda hits in the Keys and all over the Caribbean. When I'm up in Southwest Florida I use this fly as soon as I find a big school of ladyfish or small sea trout. When the strikes are coming one after the other, a Supreme Clouser will keep you in the action much longer than a natural version.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Beginners


When I was guiding in Key West our local fly shop used to send me a lot of customers who never touched a fly rod before but wanted to learn the sport. This wasn’t because I was the best instructor available. In fact, I’m a self-taught caster and have no fly fishing certifications whatsoever. I simply had a reputation with the shop’s owner for not yelling at my anglers, even when they’d lobotomize me with a heavily weighted crab pattern or drive a 2/0 Owner hook deep into my calf muscle. Plus I always needed the money so I‘d take anyone they sent my way.

Getting so many unskilled anglers was sometimes tough on the ego, especially during tarpon season. We’d often come back to the dock at the end of the day and see most of the other guides and their customers high-fiving or clinking long-necks together in celebration. They’d be telling and retelling their tarpon stories while I’d look at my anglers and say something like, “Well, you learned a lot today and you‘ll be much better next time.” Then I’d try to not pick at the scabs on my right temple or the back of my calf.

Actually, I really like having beginners on my boat. Most of them are more than willing to listen and they also haven’t taught themselves any bad habits that can be really difficult to break. Just setting the hook on a tarpon with a fly rod is an act of real violence that doesn’t exist anywhere in freshwater fishing. Gently lifting the rod after the fish eats is a serious hurdle for a lot of folks who’ve started out on a trout stream. It can take several missed shots until they stop doing it. In fact, comparing trout fishing to tarpon fishing is like comparing the Tour-de-France to the Daytona 500. They’re both wheeled racing but there’s a bit of difference in horsepower.

I did actually have two different anglers manage to land tarpon without ever casting a fly before. The first beginner simply had a fish that really wanted to be caught. It was a dead calm July morning and the tarpon were rolling everywhere. I had just put the rod in my angler’s hands, explained the basics, and watched him flail away spastically like a typical first-timer. It didn’t matter. The tarpon were swimming right up to us and his fly fell in the middle of the first big school, no more than ten feet from the bow. A seventy pounder inhaled it and made a hard turn, solidly driving the hook right into the corner of its own mouth. All the jumping in the world wasn’t going to dislodge it and I had the rod rigged with a heavy 30# leader. The ninety degree water wasn’t holding a lot of oxygen and the fish wore itself out quickly. It was a miracle tarpon that we wouldn’t duplicate again that day, and my angler’s casting never got any better. At the very least I was convinced he’d become a lifetime client but I didn’t hear from him again. Maybe he figured that fly fishing couldn’t get any better than that so why not quit on a high note.

The other beginner who landed a tarpon with me was a PGA golfer who’s name I didn’t recognize. I remember that he was ranked number sixty-two on the money list at the time. After an hour on the bow he was throwing a very decent fifty foot cast, which is all you need in most situations. I started poling him down the brightest flat in the area and he was getting good shots every fifteen minutes or so. He missed a few takes but two hours later he finally struck one hard enough, cleared his line, and landed the tarpon shortly after that. By the time our trip was over he jumped two more fish and was casting almost as well as I could. It was very impressive to watch but not all that surprising coming from a professional golfer. An ESPN producer once told me that he watched Tiger Woods learn to cast flawlessly in less than five minutes.

So why was I the world’s worst golfer the one time I tried it? Golf and fly fishing are actually very similar disciplines. A good swing or cast both require coordination, timing, and finesse. But the similarities don’t stop there. Golf and fly fishing both give you the opportunity to spend lots of money on some really overpriced gear and experience all the hassles of traveling with it to some very expensive locations. Both sports give you a decent chance of getting struck by lightning. Golfers and fly fishermen also get to spend hours watching their sports on TV while boring the hell out of their non-golfing/fishing spouses. But best of all, you can become completely obsessed with both and still be lousy at them. In this case they provide you with a great excuse to throw your expensive gear down in disgust and start drinking while outdoors.

That’s probably why I never gave golf another try. I’d be dead from liver failure by now.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Guy Valdene's "Tarpon," aka The Best Movie Ever Made.


Director Guy la Valdene’s “Tarpon” is by far the best movie ever made about saltwater fly fishing. It was shot in Key West in 1973 and perfectly captures the town and the fishing on film as it was back then.

“Tarpon” follows a handful of guides and anglers, including the well known author Tom McGuane, as they chase these giant fish off Key West well before the rest of the world discovered the town and the sport. It’s fascinating to see how much things have evolved since those days of thick fiberglass rods and flats boats with wood trim and without poling platforms.  The sheer numbers of tarpon that these guys had all to themselves is jaw-dropping and the slow-motion footage in this movie has never been topped.

While the fishing scenes are stunning, my favorite thing about the movie is how it serves as a time capsule for a Key West that sadly no longer exists. The island was my home for over a decade but I arrived too late to see it like this. Duval Street of the early 70’s was different planet from the cruise ship infested trinket zone that it was devolving into while I lived there. The Key West captured in this movie has been extinct for so long that it almost depresses me to see it captured here in its natural state.

The real payoff when you watch “Tarpon” for the first time is its perfect portrayal of fly fishing as a sport for anglers who seriously respect the fish. In one single scene it drives that message home far better than anything that’s ever been filmed before or since. I won’t give it away, but when that scene comes, without any dialog or narration, you’ll be stunned at the subtle brilliance of it. It is the movie's entire focus delivered in one quick and quiet jump of scenery.

Shortly after it was filmed, “Tarpon” slipped into limbo. It was shown once or twice on TV and then went back into Valdene’s vault. Somehow, a primitive video tape was made and started getting passed around by a few guides and anglers. Over the last three decades it gained a cult following and we used to play a grainy, pirated copy all day long in the fly shop where I occasionally worked. We were really sad the day the VCR finally ate our worn out tape. When I heard early last year from one of the folks involved in the film that a remastered version would be out on DVD, I was thrilled. Seeing it for the first time in its original state makes Guy’s achievement even more brilliant than I ever realized.

If you’re a tarpon fisherman, or just want to be, owning this movie is a must. It is the “Citizen Kane” of fishing documentaries. If you’re a Buffett fan then you’ll also need a copy. Jimmy’s instrumental soundtrack gives this movie a perfect atmosphere of the Key West that he knew in the 70‘s. If you just appreciate good filmmaking, then pick up a copy, too. Unfortunately, it's not available on Netflix yet so you'll have to buy one.  Click here and do that immediately.

For those of you who live here on Pine Island or Matlacha and have visited Key West recently, do yourselves a favor and watch this movie. You'll feel incredibly fortunate for what you have right here and will want to hang on to it now more than ever. Watching "Tarpon" never gets old.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Charlotte Harbor Tarpon Fishing


June is tarpon season throughout all of south Florida and the big fish have been here for several weeks now. Most of the catching has been done in the the deeper passes near Boca Grande but now the fish are moving onto the clear flats of Charlotte Harbor. Just yesterday my dad and I poled onto three different pods of tarpon in less than five feet of water near the Burnt Store area. One pod was actively daisy chaining which is a spawing ritual mostly seen in the Keys. Fly rods are the preferred tackle for clear water tarpon anywhere and the shallows of Charlotte Harbor are very clear right now. The next few weeks should bring even more of tarpon our way and anglers up here won't have to flight the crowds of other fly fisherman that are overwhelming the Keys right now.