Flats Boats Overview: Shallow Saltwater Fishing Machines

Flats boats, often called flats skiffs, are a unique breed of fishing boat that are are relatively small, lightweight vessels used for probing the flats and shallows of southern waterways, mostly in Florida. Overall these vessels are designed and built to minimize draft so that they can run in shallow water while also providing great casting decks. They are primarily used for plying the waters around sandbars and tidal flats and are considered highly maneuverable boats.

Flats Boats Design And Key Features

Flats boats come in a variety of models with some having a truly flat-bottomed hull, while others include various v-hull designs, often with a sharp v-bow that transitions back to a flatter surface near the stern. Another key characteristic of flats boats is their relatively low deadrise (the angle of the boat’s bottom to the water) enabling them to run in shallower depths by virtue of displacing less water. Many flats skiffs are designed to be “poled” (guided along with a long push-pole) from an elevated platform located on the stern, while anglers sight-cast to individual fish from a raised bowdeck. Flats boats generally constructed from fiberglass and range from 13 feet to 22 feet and most can float in water as shallow as 12 inches, with some even being able to float in water depths as low as 8-10 inches.

Flats boats characteristically have forward and rear decks that are flush with the gunwales of the boat, meaning there is no “lip” around the outside edge of the vessel. On some flats boats the entire top of the boat is one uninterrupted deck with the console mounted above and recessed cockpit (i.e. flat deck flats boats like NewWater’s Ibis or Curlew models), although most have a small midship recessed cockpit with console and controls. By nature these boats are designed to be able to take some water over the gunwhales in the front and rear without the risk of swamping.

2006 NewWater Ibis flats boat

Above: A 2006 NewWater Ibis flats boat for sale on Boat Trader by Fox Yacht Sales in Port Aransas, TX. Note the single, uninterrupted flat deck that carries the full length of the vessel from stern to bow. Photo by Fox Yacht Sales.

Compared with small center consoles and bay boats, flats boats and flats skiffs have an even shallower draft, and are usually narrower. This allows them to sneak into and between sandbars and tidal creeks, getting anglers into extremely “skinny” water where the fish species they are targeting live.

Types Of Flats Boats

Flats boats come in a variety of sizes and designs with different features and capabilities. Below is general overview of the categories of flats boats on the market today.

  • Small Flats Skiffs
  • Mid-Size Flats Skiffs
  • Large Flats Boats
  • Technical Poling Skiffs
  • Flat Deck Flats Boats
  • High Performance Flats Skiffs
  • Hybrid Flats Bay Boats

These specific styles of flats boats encompass the vast majority of these kinds of boats on the market although it is worth noting that there is considerable crossover between the different categories. Read on for details about each of these kinds of flats boats and what the design benefits are for fishing the flats.

Small Flats Skiffs

Sometimes called microskiffs, the world’s smallest flats boats are precision fishing machines built to get into the absolute hardest fishing spots on tidal flats. They are ideal for fishing grass flats and can range in size from 12 feet to 16 feet. Above all, they are constructed to displace as little water as possible, and be as maneuverable (and trailerable) as possible. These smaller boats are really only suited to 1-2 passengers and short day-trip backcountry trips and have limited storage space and amenities onboard. These boats are petite on purpose and are not built for those who want to brag about their boat, but rather, brag about their catch. Ideal for the grass flats. Examples of the smallest flats boats in the world are Pelican Flats Boats 13 Ambush and the SK14 Microskiff.

Mid-Size Flats Skiffs

Mid-size flats skiffs are the majority of flats skiffs on the market today, because they are able to accommodate slightly more capacity than the smallest in the genre, and they will more often than not have well-designed, built-in storage (i.e. insulated fishboxes and tackles storage). These boats strike a good balance between maneuverability and capacity and are sufficient for full-day, backcountry excursions. They can usually accommodate 1-3 passengers and onboard space is optimized to deliver adequate room and capability. Mid-size flats boats generally range in size from 16 feet to 20 feet.

Large Flats Boats

The largest flats boats on the market are built to accommodate more passengers while still retaining as many of the characteristics of this style of boat as possible. These vessel can range in size from 20-25 feet. The largest of these boats may begin to blur the line with bay boats, and the other category on our list below – hybrid bay boats. They offer more livewell capacity, additional in-deck fishboxes, more seating and increased onboard tackle storage. Examples of these larger flats boats include boats like Islamorada Boatworks’ Morada 18 or Morada 24 models and Pathfinder’s 2500 Hybrid boat.

Technical Poling Skiffs

Technical poling skiffs are among the most common flats boats as they are lightweight and, by nature, easy to pole – i.e. push through the water by hand. These boats have an added poling platform mounted on the rear (stern) of the vessel which allows the captain to get better leverage for pushing off the seabed while also providing added visibility for spotting fish from above.

Maverick HPX Flats Boat

Above: Captain Eric Lund and angler Ross Boucek fishing on a Maverick HPX flats boat poling skiff with Ryan McVinney in Episode 4 of Boat Trader’s Stomping Grounds video series. Note that the captain is poling from the platform on the stern while the angler is casting from the bow. Photo by Boat Trader.

Flat Deck Flats Boats

Flat deck flats skiffs are flats boats that have a continuous deck from the bow back to the stern with no recessed cockpit. The reason for this uninterrupted deck is to provide the maximum amount of casting platform possible on a small vessel. It also lives the boat uncluttered by design, with nothing to trip on or get lines snagged on. These boats are designed with the hardcore backcountry anglers in mind.

High Performance Flats Skiffs

High performance flats skiffs are some of the most expensive flats boats on the market. They are very advanced, precision-engineered vessels that strike a calculated balance between performance and fishability. Since flats skiffs generally have a lower deadrise, they can be prone to rougher rides in choppy water, therefore builders of high performance flats skiffs aim to improve that ride quality and seaworthiness while retaining the key characteristics of a flats boat (i.e. an extremely low draft and wide casting platforms). They have very strong hulls and reinforced transoms capable of supporting large outboards and may often be built with trim tabs to help with stability and handling.

Maverick HPX Flats Boat

Above: A high performance Maverick 17 HPX-V flats boat crossing a shallow bay at high speeds. Photo by Boat Trader for Stomping Grounds Episode 4.

As these photos of Captain Eric Lund’s 2019 Maverick 17 HPX-V show, these boats can travel across choppy bays and relatively rough inshore waterways at high speed delivering a smoother, drier ride than other types of skiffs.

Maverick HPX Flats Boat

Above: Crossing a bar at full speed on a Maverick flats boat, the 2019 Maverick 17 HPX-V. Photo by Boat Trader for Stomping Grounds Episode 4.

Hybrid Flats Bay Boats

Although they are not true flats boats, hybrid flats-bay boats are a cross between a flats boat and a bay boat. This genre is growing due to an increasing demand for larger passenger capacity boats that can still get into skinnier waters. Unlike a technical poling skiff that is really only designed to for two passengers (a captain and an angler), these hybrid bay boats are designed to carry 4 or more passengers while still being able to access some of the flats that the flats boats can. Hybrid bay boats are pushing the envelope with advancements in lightweight boat building materials and innovations, allowing them to carry more passengers while retaining a relatively small draft and still be light enough to maneuver in tight spaces.

The Best Flats Boats

The best flats boats have solid, stable poling platforms with wide rear and forward casting decks that make them perfect for fishing flats. They are also able to travel at high speeds in shallow water with confidence, thanks to their draft and hydrodynamic hull design. What many anglers look for in a high quality, premium flats boat is a balance of performance and fishability. Some boat owners prefer the high performance flats boats mentioned above, with a greater top speed in order to cross more open water to reach more remote fishing grounds faster. Others are more focused on the shallowest draft possible and may opt for the smaller models to get into the tightest nooks and crannies of the backcountry. Deciding what the best flats boats is for you depends entirely on the type of fishing you’ll be doing, your targeted species and how many passengers you want to be able to bring aboard your fishing adventures.

The biggest names in the world of flats boats are Hewes, Maverick, Hell’s Bay, Yellowfin, Bonefish and Mako, to name a few. Some of the most popular models of flats boats include Hewes Redfisher 18, Maverick 17 HPX and Bonefish Bohemian 17.

Flats Boats Versus Flatboats

Flats boats have nothing to do with the old flatboats (what a difference the position of one S can make), also called “broadhorns”, which were rectangular, flat-bottomed transport carriers or cargo boats used for shipping freight on inland waterways across the United States in the 1800’s. Steamboats, railroads and trucking eventually made flatboats nearly obsolete.

Jon Boats Versus Flats Boats

Unlike Jon boats, flats boats are commonly high-tech (and often high-dollar) fishing machines that are meticulously over-engineered with a specific purpose in mind (i.e. targeting flats fish species such as bonefish, tarpon, redfish, and snook). They’re often outfitted with the latest electronics, as well as features ranging from integrated livewells to outrageously large outboards for such small vessels. Many flats boats are capable of speeds in the 60-mph-plus range. Therefore their transom and hulls must be not only lightweight and narrow but also extremely rigid and strong.

Few flats boats are constructed from aluminum, yet many go beyond mere fiberglass construction as well; the use of advanced composites like carbon fiber and Kevlar are common in this breed. In fact, the closest comparison to flats boats would likely be modern high-end bass boats, which are also usually designed and built for maximum high-speed performance and the ultimate in highly-specific forms of fishing.

What all of these boats share in common is their effectiveness for shallow-water fishing. Your average center console boats with a deep-V hull might be excellent for open-water angling out on the Bay, but it can’t compare with a true flats boat for sneaking around those shallow creeks and shoals where certain species thrive. And while a dual console boat may add to the family fun with activities like watersports, when it’s time for fishing it’ll never serve quite as well as a dedicated fishing platform.

Written by: Ryan McVinney

C. Ryan McVinney is a film director, writer and producer. As an experienced boater he regularly produces and directs on-the-water video shoots for major boat manufacturers, yacht brokers and dealers, as well as independent film and media companies. He is president of the National Soho House Film Club with chapters in Miami, FL, Manhattan, NY and Los Angeles, CA and regularly contributes content to YachtWorld, boats.com and Boat Trader.

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