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A Second for the Shallows

This Dreamboat is easy on the flats, and even easier on the bank account.

Larry Miller never realized that a boat could change his lifestyle—or rather, his fishing style.

Larry Miller's specialized craft was designed and rigged for running in ultra shallow water. Hygraulic jack plate and tunnel hull configuration permit the operator to raise the engine so that the prop clears the bottom.

Miller, a transplant from Ohio to the Dunellon area, began his Florida west coast fishing believing, as many of us do, that one boat would serve his every need. His 21-footer was certainly adequate to fish offshore of Crystal River, Homosassa and Yankeetown. It also worked just fine on nearshore flats in the area. But there were drawbacks. For one, he was limited to using improved launching ramps, few and far between in the area. He was also restricted from those mysterious and fishy creeks and backwaters separated from navigable water by oyster, shell and sandbars.

Miller began looking for a second boat to use closer to shore. He considered several possibilities, including canoes, kayaks, aluminum and fiberglass johnboats with jet drives, technical poling skiffs and even airboats. Each had its advantages, but looking around, Miller still wasn't satisfied. A combination of these boats was what he really wanted, one that would launch easily at primitive ramps, run shallow with a couple of fishermen aboard, provide lots of interior space and operate economically.

He found what he was hunting for in a 20-footer built by a Citrus County fishing guide. Captain Billy Henderson began selling his Micro Draft 20 a few years ago, and it has created a stir among Big Bend anglers for its ability to run and fish shallow and efficiently. After reading some reviews of the boat on the Florida Sportsman On-line Fishing Forum, Miller saw Henderson running over shallow flats near the hot water discharge of the Crystal River Energy Complex. Impressed, he contacted Henderson for a test drive. Already convinced that the boat would do the job, Miller admits that the test ride in the treacherous Ozello backwaters “sealed the deal.”

Price was another of Miller's priorities. Although the Micro Draft is listed at less than $15,000 for boat, motor and galvanized trailer, he decided to ease the costs of dual-boat ownership by doing some of the fitting, rigging and finishing himself. Henderson obliged by selling Miller the hull and giving him guidance during the final outfitting, in-cluding a list of important sources for materials and power equipment.

The Micro Draft 20 is essentially a 20-foot flat-bottomed wooden skiff with a beam of about 8 feet. Remarkably, I've observed that it draws about 3 inches at rest, and I feel it may run less on plane. My first ride aboard Miller's boat was a trip taken just to get the feel of the boat, its size and amenities, down one of the feeder creeks near the mouth of the Withlacoochee River at Yankeetown. I was impressed by the boat's ability to plane quickly and with its layout and roominess. We ran in some relatively shallow water, but nothing like we encountered in the St. Martin's Keys on another trip. On that trip, with Henderson at the tiller, we skittered over sandbars so shallow we could have walked without our ankles getting wet, yet the boat kept going with no indication of touching bottom with either the hull or the motor's skeg. And, the boat easily came up on plane in just a few boat lengths, even with the 4-stroke 40-horse Mercury—in less than a foot of water.

Simplicity is a key to this boat's performance. Built of marine plywood and pressure-treated timbers, it may have an advantage over similar designs built of fiberglass. As Henderson explained, the average piece of fiberglass will not float by itself, but a piece of wood will. This boat has no chines or keel and its tunnel is the key to keeping the prop off the bottom. As the boat runs, water is pushed through the tunnel and up to the outboard's intake and prop. With a jack plate and a high-performance 4-blade stainless prop, the boat easily runs with the top half of the prop well above the bottom of the boat. The flat bottom tends to slide around corners, but that's easily controlled by lowering the jack plate a bit when turning. Control is not really an issue, and most Micro Draft 20 owners operate their boats standing, either on the seat or on the footrest.

Miller had the motor mounted by the dealer, but he tackled the rest of the work, including the rigging. The layout is fairly straightforward. There's storage under the forward deck, and two lockers straddle the ice chest sunken into the middle seat and the driver's seat in the rear. One of the back seat lockers is a potential livewell project for later on. Henderson usually mounts trolling motor batteries in the middle seat compartments, but Miller opted to not install an electric motor. Should he add one later, the boat's open configuration will allow quick and neat installation and wiring.

Chasing redfish in the vast backwaters of the Big Bend is this Dreamboat's specialty.

Miller extended the rear seat top to allow him to walk all the way to the transom. Henderson had not decked the area behind the rear seat on previous boats, and was pleased to see the modification, which adds to the fishing square-footage. Without this covering—actually a set of hinged plywood doors concealing pumps, wiring and storage—the stern area served only as an open motor well. The fuel tank is mounted amidships, centering its weight. The 12-gallon tank easily provides several days of fishing and Miller claims to have run 36 miles one day on 3 1/ 2 gallons of fuel—not bad for a 650-pound hull, rigged, carrying two anglers. The forward fishing area and rear deck are joined by 10-inch-wide gunwales—wide enough to walk on and chase a boat-circling bull red on light tackle. Miller also added a white plastic rub rail, a practical accent to the red hull color and appropriate addition to the hull's original Starboard bow plate.

Rounding out the layout is an aluminum seat with built-in footrest. The seat top can be used as a platform while running the boat with the extended tiller. The combination of the throttle and jack plate switch on the tiller gives the standing boat driver complete control and unrestricted sight lines while running at speeds well in excess of 20 knots. The tiller is a telescoping affair built locally to Henderson's specifications. It matches a standard Mercury grip and grip handle to aluminum tubing. Henderson mounts controls for the jack plate on the end and connects it using coiled cable. He designed and built the unit, as most commercially available extensions are for trolling use only, and he needed one substantial enough to handle 40- to 60-horsepower outboards at high speeds. For those few times he runs the rig in water deeper than his head, Miller mounted a depthsounder under the edge of the seat in a position that can be seen even while standing.

The bottom and sides are fiberglassed and gelcoated. The interior and decks are painted, providing a protective and non-skid coating. Encounters with rough bottom are an issue with any skinny-water boat. Rocks and oysters will do some damage to this boat, but minor scratches are easily fixed and large hull damage can be simply cut out and replaced.

In the first six months of ownership, Miller has fished at least three times a week, and only three of those days have been in his “big boat.” The economy and ease of owning and operating his no-frills boat have encouraged this inshore angler to explore areas many feel are almost inaccessible to power boats. Low tides, marshy backwaters, shell and sandbars are no longer obstacles to his inshore fishing adventures. Most of the action here is sight fishing to fairly large schools of reds, or casting for seatrout over grassbeds. Taking a page from other local anglers, Miller rigs up 7-foot spinning rods with 8- to 15-pound-test braided line. Gold spoons, pearl-colored soft plastics (floating and slow-sinking) are popular lures here, and cut, fresh mullet is an ideal bait for redfish. Live baits, which may soon find their way into Miller's livewell (when it's completed), will be pinfish and shrimp.

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