Light-tackle and fly-fishing aficionados drawn to the challenge of targeting the likes of bonefish, redfish, permit, snook, stripers and tarpon in skinny water will be happiest aboard a flats boat. Nowadays, however, flats boats are more than stable, shallow-draft fishing machines; they also encompass specialized models designed with an even narrower focus, such as technical-poling skiffs—16- to 18-footers primarily intended to quietly stalk shallow-water game propelled by a push pole—and microskiffs, which have a similar purpose but are somewhat smaller and can access skinnier water.
But the once clear, distinguishing lines are becoming increasingly blurry, with more boatbuilders incorporating key design features from microskiffs into technical-poling models and vice versa. Recent poling skiffs benefit from reduced weight and a narrower wetted surface (the portion of hull in contact with the water), which improve performance with smaller outboards—thereby requiring smaller fuel tanks and allowing extra storage or cockpit space. Many microskiffs—originally minimalistic and designed for tiller motors—now come with walk-around gunwales with rod racks underneath, and offer small side- or center-console helms as options. The size of microskiffs also seems to be expanding, with some companies introducing 17- and 18-footers under the designation initially reserved for models of 16 feet or less.
The leading brands in the flats-boat category do a great job of updating their lineups, taking advantage of new materials, building methods and innovative features to revamp the hulls and layouts. Hewes recently redesigned its entire Redfisher series, which includes 16-, 18-and 21-foot models. Maverick now offers three HPX models: the 17- and 18-foot versions of the HPX-V, and the HPX-S 17, a 17-footer for skinnier-water duty. And in 2021, Yellowfin launched the 17 CE, an improved version of its popular 17 Skiff.
Meanwhile, Beavertail Skiffs, East Cape Boats and Chittum Skiffs continue to grow their families of superb 16- to 21-foot flats models. Dragonfly Boatworks offers striking skiffs and microskiffs with classic lines and the latest in design and construction. Ankona Boats has four terrific 16- to 17-foot choices that won’t break the bank. Xplor Boatworks is raising eyebrows with its X7 and X13 models. And Sabine Skiffs, Floyd Skiff and Matecumbe Skiffs have also added to the fray their takes on the ideal flats skiff and microskiff, with Sabine’s hulls built entirely out of aluminum.
Though draft is top of mind for most flats anglers looking for their next ride, hull slap—or rather, the lack thereof—should be high on the list of requirements. “Hull slap,” the noise created by water ripples striking a flat surface, is notorious for alerting fish of a boat’s approach, and hard chines and running strakes that extend beyond the waterline are common culprits. If you’ll often cross open water to reach your fishing spots, spray rails will help keep you dry. But not all are created equal. “Our X13 is our big-water skiff, and the spray rails are cap height—not real low like some other boats—because of the opportunity for hull slap in rough conditions,” says Frankie Marion of Xplor Boatworks.
Editor’s Tip: Once you narrow your search to a half-dozen or so candidates, it’s time to get a look at them in person. Because many flats-skiff builders sell factory-direct, you may not find local dealers carrying the boats you’d like to check out. It’s best to contact the companies to learn about shows and events where they will exhibit the models on your shortlist. That often enables you to see similar offerings from competing brands at once.