October 13, 2021
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
“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.
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
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.
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.
Sight Fishing: Fin Talk - By Hunter Bach
Sight-fishing is not a guessing game. Fish will tell you what's up. It's all about reading their body language.
Basic Skills: Structure & Shore Fishing - By Capt. Mike Holliday
How to find fish holding or hunting at the margins.
Tidesman: Flood Tide Redfishing Experience - By Aaron Wood
A South Carolina writer captures his redfish— and exactly how it feels.
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.
Cooking: Tom Colicchio's Fillet Knives & Simple Bluefish Ceviche - By Jeff Weakley
Knives to handle tough saltwater fish- and a delicious, easy recipe to finish the day.
Nearshore: The Science of Nearshore Reefs - By Tom Migdalski
Structure plus baitfish, multiplied by strong tide, equals great fishing.