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Tips for Shallow Water Push Poling: Perfecting the Stealth Advantage

Classic skinny-water propulsion meets cutting-edge design

Tips for Shallow Water Push Poling: Perfecting the Stealth Advantage

There is still probably no better way to set up a cast to wary fish in skinny water than by push poling.

The 2021 issue of Shallow Water Angler is available on newstands and online here, but here's a sneak peek.

Don’t be fooled by the guy sweating up there on the transom platform. He’s working, yes, but odds are he’s also having lots of fun.

Get the hang of the basics, and you’ll find push poling a skiff as satisfying as casting. In some ways, maybe even more fun. Standing 3 or 4 feet above the other guy, you’ll often see fish first. You get the weirdly addictive thrill of telling somebody else what to do, directing the action, predicting what’s going to happen next as a fish closes in on the fly or lure.

And, if you’re as limber and well-prepared as Capt. Honson Lau of Miami, you might even follow up by making a shot of your own, from the platform or hopping to the deck to do so.

bonefishing in shallow water
A rare double-header of Islamorada bonefish for Capt. Honson Lau and Brian Butts. Butts (R) first hooked up on crab fly and Lau made a follow-up cast with pink skimmer jig.

Recently I watched Honson perform this stunt over a pod of redfish a couple miles south of Flamingo in Everglades National Park. His buddy, Brian Butts, was fighting a fish to the boat on fly, when Honson fired a pink skimmer jig on 8-pound braided line. The guys landed and released both fish.

They obviously had the drill down. Brian knew just how to play his fish, while Honson set aside the push pole and got a rod ready to cast.

rock point on push pole
Rock point for traversing hard bottom or staking out in sand. Something to hold your push pole while not in use is a recommended addition.

Granted, these were lean and hungry reds fresh in off the Gulf of Mexico—not exactly the smartest fish in school.

But a few hours later, I saw the same operation in a far more critical venue. Almost back to Islamorada, Honson stopped on a well-known and frequently fished bank. The tide was half outgoing, the sun high, no other boats in sight.

flats fly fishing advice
Staying quiet and studying the water carefully pays dividends. For instance finding a fresh school of Gulf reds. Butts hooked up on fly, Lau on jig (spinning rod). Lau figured he’d go for a triple (wouldn’t you?).

Silently easing along his 17-foot Maverick Mirage HPX-V, Honson spotted the subtle ripples of bonefish pushing into the current. The fish on this particular bank are famous for zigging when you hope they’ll zag. Well, this school zagged into clear view, their backs suddenly indigo blue as they moved straight for the boat. Brian made a great cast. He waited, let the fly get down before the fish, stripped, waited, stripped long and was suddenly into his backing.


Honson pitched his skimmer jig and there we had it: Second double of the day, and this one on notoriously spooky, well-educated bonefish!

y foot on push pole
PUSH POLE POINTERS: How long? Boat length plus three feet is a start, if you’re sight fishing from a platform. But if you’re doing a fair amount of poling in 4 to 6 feet of water—tarpon depth—max it out. You want to get at least three to four “walk-overs” with your hands to generate thrust, minimizing the noise and disturbance of repeatedly planting and removing the pole. Pictured: Stiffy Guide series pushpole with Y-foot for soft bottom.

Teamwork and knowledge of the waters played major roles in the guys’ success, but equally important was silent, steady propulsion. Crucially, Honson was making very little sound as he methodically lifted and placed the Y-shaped foot of his Stiffy Guide series pole. He “walked” hand-over-hand as he leaned his weight gently into the work. No buzzing of a trolling motor. He also knew when to make that final little adjustment, moving the bow for Brian to get a clear cast, before the fish swam into range. And then, importantly, Honson remained still as Brian set up to cast.

Redfish are one thing—sometimes they’ll pile on and bite whatever hits the water as if it’s their last meal. Islamorada bonefish are quite another story. These rewarding catches on a hot August morning were a great example of how contemporary equipment and traditional style can lead to success.

shallow water fly fishing for redfish
Two out of three ain’t bad.

Speaking of bonefish, I can remember fishing on Little Abaco, Bahamas, as late as the 1990s, when local guides were still using wooden push poles. Caribbean yellow pine, a species native to the Bahamas, was frequently used. Wood actually has a few advantages. It has a dampened resonance, a natural sound on the bottom old-timers would say is less likely to frighten fish. Of course, in those days guides were seldom poling on raised platforms. Today’s elevation-seeking flats anglers demand a longer pole—20 feet is common. That would be very heavy and cumbersome to handle, if one could even find a piece of even taper lumber that length.

mount a push pole
Foot of push pole placed forward while running, insurance against slippling.

Around that same time, before “bay boats” were officially a thing, I relied on an inexpensive Moonlighter fiberglass push pole—12 feet—to stake out my 17-foot deep-vee center console on the flats of Biscayne Bay in Miami. Occasionally I’d use the pole to nudge us along while moving from pothole to pothole, or castnetting bait. Such utility poles are still available, but today, that task is commonly handled by electric trolling motors and powered stake anchors such as the Power Pole.

stayput anchor pin
Stayput anchor pin, used not for propulsion but for temporary holding (here in conjunction with a powered stake anchor to keep boat lined up).

While the bay boats have gotten bigger and heavier, sight-fishing boats have gone in a different direction. On skiffs built to access extremely shallow water for sight-fishing, there are very good arguments for traditional poles. Same for any boat being positioned to intercept finicky tarpon or permit. In general, lighter is better. Longer is also better. I’ll explain.

how to not spook bonefish
Florida Keys bonefish, speed-burner best approached slowly and quietly.

Over the last decade, many anglers have moved toward “technical skiffs.” Honson’s ultralight carbon-fiber Maverick Mirage 17 HPX-V is a good example. By using carbon cloth, instead of fiberglass, in many key areas of the layup, Maverick pulled about 175 pounds out of the boat’s nearest relative. That makes for shallower draft and easier propulsion: Pole shallower, pole longer. Indirectly, the formula also contributes to reducing both the noise level and vibrations made by the hull. The easier it is to pole, the less rocking of the boat. You get to more fish, and you’ll be less likely to alarm them. Or so the thinking goes.

best way to use a push pole
BASIC FORWARD PUSH: Efficiency will improve with experience, but in general, don’t “poke” or “shove” with the pole. Instead, plant the foot at an angle to the water, then reach forward on the pole hand over hand, as if climbing that rope in gym class. Keep the pole near your hip, where subtle shifts in your body weight can help ease the boat forward. Focus on slow and easy. Wear good non-slip shoes and be careful. A small secondary platform or cooler on the aft deck, as shown here, is useful for a step-up/down. 1. It’s not rocket science but it will take a while to master—and it will take you to stunning places. 2. Foot of pole planted at angle behind boat; pole kept close to the hip. A bit of weight on the pole, not a “jab” or “stab.” 3. Walking hand-over-hand, left hand comes forward to reach higher on pole... 4. As left hand carries back with the pole, right hand comes up. 5. Now it’s time to pick up and repeat.

Push poles have also shed weight over the years.

Honson’s Stiffy Guide series pole, for example, is 100-percent graphite and weigh 2 ounces per foot. The 24-foot model Honson uses checks in at 3 pounds, less than a third the weight of a comparable fiberglass pole—if you could even find one that length (20 feet is about the limit for glass; gets too flimsy).


Stiffy builds even lighter poles, in the Extreme series, but at that point the difference becomes sort of trivial (shaft diameter is also smaller). The company also builds a Hybrid pole of 80-percent graphite, 20-percent glass.

how to turn with a push pole
BASIC TURN: Steering dynamics are basically same as slow-speed outboard propulsion: You are moving the stern. Note to skiff geeks: Boat here has 12-degree transom vee—tracks true even with engine tilted all the way up. Flat bottoms may like a bit of engine trailing. Experiment to see what works best for you. 1. To pivot left, plant pole to left (“port” is something we’ll pour after dinner). 2. Just a little bit of lean in that direction... 3. ...generates plenty of thrust to line up the angler. 4. Holding the foot in the bottom to keep in position for a cast.

The Stiffy poles are manufactured by FiberTex in Corpus Christi, Texas, and a brief history is worth the telling.

Back around 1990, Kevin Shaw was a resourceful, starry-eyed, young native of Corpus Christi. He’d caught the sight fishing bug, but didn’t have much money. As he tells it, he began making push poles out of “found” materials—fiberoptic utility pipes, insulating rods from power companies. Realizing he could sell products like these to other anglers, he contracted his own supplier of textured fiberglass pipe. It was, for the time, far stiffer than other glass. After some trial, error and networking in Florida, Shaw sourced components for end pieces. Stiffy Push Pole was born.




Graphite, the ultimate in stiffness, came his way a few years later, by way of a friend in the windsurfing industry. The first example he brought to the Shallow Water Expo in Florida made a thud: “It weighed 5 and a half pounds, and people at the show were like oh my God, too heavy. I came back and remade it at half the weight.”

The next year, Shaw’s graphite push pole caught the attention of Capt. Flip Pallot. The rest is history.

how to switch hands with a push pole
MAKING THE SWITCH: You’ll find you’ll have a dominant side, and you should be able to turn either way from there, but at times you’ll want the pole on the opposing hip.

“We actually make our own graphite weave, that’s what makes us different,” Shaw said recently when I interviewed him. “We’re not just sliding a sleeve over a mandrel.”

I asked Shaw to elaborate.

how to stop boat using push pole
HITTING THE BRAKES: Place foot forward to stop progress, or press into the bottom astern, if bottom is soft. Power-Pole (mounted astride platform) is great option for holding in all conditions.

“Using unidirectional carbon fiber, I lay that material on in layers on the mandrel, changing directions as we are stretching the material to create a weave. This allows us to create a weave stronger than what we could buy.”

Epoxy resin is added, and the pole is oven-baked to cure. Each finished model is “arched” against a wall to test for any weak spots. Usually, there are none.

best push pole brands
Pole vaulting? Nope, stress-testing graphite pole at FiberTex/Stiffy plant, Corpus Christi, TX. Single and multi-piece models available.

The strength of the weave isn’t just a matter of durability, as Shaw explained. It’s also a measure of how efficiently the pole will transfer the guide’s energy into propulsion.

“Think of it this way,” he explained. “Fiberglass, you get about 70 percent of the energy back that you put into it. A hybrid carbon/glass, you get 85 percent. With a full graphite pole, you’re now looking at 90 to 95 percent.”


Carbon Marine, in Tampa, Florida, is another builder. The company’s G-series poles compete with the higher-tier Stiffy models. A one-piece model, the G3LR, is available in 21 to 24- foot lengths

MudHole MHX diy push pole
FERRULES: A one-piece push pole might be optimal for the purist, minimizing weight and potential stress points, but cost (and shipping logistics) may tip the balance toward assembly at home. Pricing ranges from about $400 for kits to $1,300 for premium one-piece models. Pictured Mud Hole MHX pushpole, assembled at home is an affordable and practical option for many anglers.

Of course, any discussion of one-piece poles brings up an important point: Shipping. You think it’s tough sliding a 20-foot pole into a hotel room on an overnight trip… imagine taking that thing to the local UPS store.

how to assemble diy push pole
A few simple components are sent within the MHX kit for easy assembly.

Purchasing in-person at a dealer is a very good idea, but if it’s not feasible, multi-piece, self-assemble kits are becoming very popular—Carbon Marine and Stiffy both sell them. Mud Hole— the Orlando, Florida, firm venerated by legions of DIY rod-builders—has also broken into this space with a flourish. This year Mud Hole introduced 19- and 23-foot models to go with the original 21-footer. They are sold with the instructions and supplies needed to cement the ferrules in place. SWA

Pick up this special issue of Shallow Water Angler 2021 on newsstands today and online here.

MORE IN SHALLOW WATER ANGLER 2021

Sight Fishing: Fin Talk - By Hunter Bach
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Basic Skills: Structure & Shore Fishing - By Capt. Mike Holliday
How to find fish holding or hunting at the margins.

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Tidesman: Flood Tide Redfishing Experience - By Aaron Wood
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New Gear: Slimming Down Our Waste Lines - By Shelby Busenbark & Gary Oster
Sustainability is catching on. Fishing apparel and accessory companies are getting in on the act, too.

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Cooking: Tom Colicchio's Fillet Knives & Simple Bluefish Ceviche - By Jeff Weakley
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Nearshore: The Science of Nearshore Reefs - By Tom Migdalski
Structure plus baitfish, multiplied by strong tide, equals great fishing.

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