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Split personality

Bay boats offer the best of both worlds - they can cruise 20 miles offshore or run in just a foot of water on the flats.

By TERRY TOMALIN, Times Outdoors Editor
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 3, 2003

FORT PIERCE -- With black clouds to the north and blue skies to the south, Mike Holliday didn't know whether to stay inshore or head out to deep water.

"If the weather holds, we could go chase some sailfish," said Holliday, director of communications for Maverick Boat Company. "But if that storm heads this way, we could just hang out inshore and catch some trout. Your call."

Ten years ago, an angler would have had to make a choice.

Fish the flats in the morning, then head offshore in the afternoon? No way. No boat could do both.

A serious fisherman needed two types of watercraft. The first would be a traditional flats skiff capable of running in 12 inches of water or less. The second would be some type of offshore craft with high gunwales and a bow that could plow through 2- to 4-foot seas.

"Everybody would like to have two boats," said Holliday, who worked as a Martin County ocean lifeguard and fishing guide before getting into the boat business. "Unfortunately, most of us are happy if we can pay for one."

Still, in Florida's fickle waters, an angler needs to be able to run in open water, then sneak into the shallows where the trout, redfish and snook are known to hide.

Maverick, which also manufactures Hewes, made a name for itself in the highly competitive boat industry by producing quality flats skiffs.

"Our boats always did well in Florida, but we found that our sales weren't as strong in Texas, where they have similar fishing conditions," Holliday said.

So Scott Deal, the company's president, flew to the Lone Star state to find out why. It didn't take long for him to realize that the low-gunwale flats boat wasn't built to run across a big body of water like Galveston Bay.

"In Texas, it is not uncommon to run through 30 miles of open water to fish the flats," Holliday said. "You need something that can take a little rough water and still run in the shallows."

Kenner Boats from Knoxville, Ark., had been making "Bay Boats" since the mid-1980s. "They were real popular in Texas," said Bill Kenner, son of the company's founder. "It is the perfect boat for the Intracoastal."

Deal knew the Florida market was ripe for a boat that could fish inshore and offshore. So on his way back from Texas, he sat down in the Houston airport and sketched a rough design of the hull that would become the Pathfinder.

Maverick began making Pathfinders in 1997. The most popular model, the 22-footer, sells for about $28,000. The company's Fort Pierce factory manufactures about 1,000 a year.

"It is by far our biggest seller," said Holliday, who spends most of his free time on the water. "You can go anywhere, any time."

The key to Pathfinder's angler-driven design is its high gunwales. The Pathfinder 2200 V has an 8-foot-6 beam and the stability of a much larger boat.

"I used to run a flats boat, but they can be a problem with kids because it is so easy for them to climb over the side," said Holliday, who likes to take his two preschool daughters fishing. "But high gunwales also allow you to run in some waves. Sooner or later, everybody gets caught in rough water."

To show how versatile the bay boat design is, Holliday headed into the skinny water back behind some barrier islands. The weather still looked questionable, and he didn't want to get stuck out in the open if things turned ugly.

"We'll net some bait, then hit the flats and look for some trout," he said. "I can run in 11 inches of water, so we can go pretty much wherever we want."

The cloud cover made it difficult to see the shallow impressions in the grass flat, but then the sun came out and illuminated my target.

"Throw right to where the grass meets the sand," Holliday said. "You'll catch a fish on every cast."

A small spotted sea trout grabbed the soft-bodied bait on the first cast. We released the fish and followed up with a juvenile grouper.

"We could keep this up all day," Holliday said. "How about we head outside and catch something with a little size."

Holliday folded up the trolling motor and headed out of the inlet to open water. We toyed with the idea of running 20 miles out to hunt for sails, but we took another look at he sky and agreed that a 22-foot boat was still a 22-foot boat, no matter how deep the vee.

So we turned the boat around and headed back toward the beach, where the mackerel fleet had a school cornered 100 yards from shore.

Holliday stood on the bow and tossed out a handful of bait to get the fish going. We worked the school with artificial lures, catching fish after fish until our arms were tired.

In just under two hours we had caught our share of trout, jacks, grouper and Spanish mackerel, but I was hungry for something else.

"Got any place where I can get a good cheeseburger?" I asked.

"No problem," Holliday replied. "We'll be there in a flash."

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