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Gently down the stream: Rowboats-iconic reminders of Florida's past--still can get the job done for inshore and nearshore fishing.

My dad's instructions were simple: "Keep your eyes glued to the rowboat." I sat facing the stern as our 22-footer towed a 10-foot wooden rowboat toward Flamingo. As the sun rose while crossing Florida Bay, I relished the crisp air on my face as prospects of redfish and snook battles raged in my mind. Meanwhile, the rowboat followed obediently in our wake.

After reaching Flamingo, we ran west a couple of miles until sighting the mouth of Slagle Ditch along the southern tip of the coast. We anchored about 200 yards from the mouth and transferred ourselves and gear to the rowboat. Dad sat between two fixed oars with the bow to his back.

I marveled at his coordinated rowing timing, the boat rhythmically propelling forward in a straight line. He'd spent his youth in a rowboat and knew exactly how to work the oars. As we silently crept closer to Slagle Ditch, I had no clue as a 12-year-old that decades later I'd be retracing this trip in the pages of Florida Sportsman.

As the current drained from Slagle Ditch, Dad quietly maneuvered us to within casting distance of the mouth. Each of our live shrimp offerings on popping corks drew immediate attention. Later, after the tide had ebbed completely to leave the mouth too shallow to navigate, we hoisted the boat and walked it up the ditch from one large pothole to another. After catching dinner for that night and then some, we released a seemingly endless array of snook and redfish. Perhaps catching "trapped" gamesters like that isn't the most sporting method, but in the 1960s it was not an uncommon practice.

In the intervening years, like other members of my generation, I've fished on all manner of boats: Simple flats skiffs; high-horsepower center consoles; in board flybridge sportfishers. When kayaks--with their lightweight hulls and double-bladed paddles--exploded onto the scene a few years back, I began reflecting on my childhood days. I wondered, would Dad and I have hauled a pair of kayaks into the Everglades, had they been available? Or, looking at things from a different perspective, what might modern anglers learn from traditional row boats?

Distinguished by broad, squared sterns and generally wider beam, rowboats provide better stability than canoes and kayaks. In addition, the typically greater cockpit area allows for carrying more gear such as a cooler, portable livewell, buckets, landing and casting nets, hand bilge pump, extra rods and tackle. It might look messy, but it's practical for fishing. And, unlike smaller and narrower vessels, rowboats are better suited for more than one angler.

Of course a factor of any watercraft is weight. The greater the boat's weight, the more power is needed to move it beyond a drift, especially as it applies to rowing. Hull and oar design also come into play as well as the skill of the rower.

Until the mid to late 1900s, rowboats normally consisted of wood. It's believed that the first rowboats consisted of dugout trees paddled by ancient Mediterranean mariners. Some types of wood were found to float better and absorb less water, such as cypress. Lightweight woods like balsa offered excellent buoyancy, but when navigating against flotsam and windy conditions, heavier boats held up better.

As with other vessels, flat hulls on rowboats made for greater stability than rounded hulls and pointed bows propelled more easily through water than other designs. Techniques for rowing evolved, too.

While an unattached oar works fine for short distances, it becomes tedious on long trips or when fighting wind or current--which also puts most of the pressure on shoulder muscles. The Greeks long ago discovered that by placing longer and heavier oars at fixed (and sometimes locked) positions amidships on the gunnels, the rower enjoys far better leverage and the oars displace more water. The rowing pressure thus spreads to other muscles such as biceps, legs and the back. With practice, the rower (sometimes called an oarsman) learns how to transfer more dependence on leg power and to develop a rowing rhythm that reduces strain and maximizes speed.

Rowboats and Fishing

Until outboard engines came into common use less than 100 years ago, rowboats often served as lifeboats, ferries for passengers, dinghies for larger craft and as a conveyance to reach fishing areas not accessible by foot.

In my book Florida's Fishing Legends and Pioneers, the first chapter portrays a man named Jesse Linzy from Ponce Inlet, which is just north of New Smyrna Beach. Linzy used his 6-foot, 8-inch size and strength to give him an advantage over other local guides and anglers when it came to fishing with a rowboat in the early 1900s.

One of Linzy's more widely known talents involved taking guests deep sea fishing in a heavy wooden boat that he rowed out the frequently choppy inlet, often doing so against the tide and later returning against the tide again--a feat few others even attempted.

Linzy worked as a handyman at a local hotel and sidelined as a fishing guide. He soon became known as a man who knew the right places to be at the right times no matter the conditions. And the fact that he could row his boat farther and faster than anyone around made him a highly sought-after guide.

Even before Linzy's time, rowboats proved to be instrumental in fishing Florida's coastal waters from Pensacola to Key West to Jacksonville as well as freshwater rivers and lakes. Tarpon fishing really became the rage starting in the mid 1880s and increasing thereafter in popularity. Well-to-do anglers and travelers flocked to southwest Florida and the Keys to have a go at the silver kings. Considering the coastlines cluttered with mangrove trees and the lack of bridges, rowboats represented the practical conveyance to get at the tarpon as well as other gamefish.

In particular, the Ft. Myers area gained national prominence for silver king action in the late 1800s. This came by way of word of mouth from prior anglers, articles and books written by outdoor writers of the day such as A.W. Dimock and the notoriety of winter resident Thomas Edison. Nearby Boca Grande Pass and Captiva Pass often clogged with rowboats manned by local anglers and charter guides.

In 1908, Henry Flagler established the Long Key Fishing Camp in the Keys, its heyday ending when the great hurricane of 1935 washed it away along with Flagler's Overseas Railroad. During those glorious 27 years at the camp, Zane Grey became a frequent visitor and in 1917 served as its first president, adding even more to the camp's popularity. A common sight on nearby waters entailed rowboats bobbing about with a hearty guide as oarsman and a nattily dressed client grasping a heavy tarpon rig.

It's rather amusing to view pictures of those long-ago anglers, which were typically elder gentlemen in three-piece suits, ties and hats. The occasional lady fisher often sported a plumed hat and a formal full-length dress. One can only imagine the discomfort of spending hours on a hot day in a cramped rowboat fighting tarpon as salt spray doused their bulky clothing.

Rowboats Nowadays

After Ole Evinrude's invention of the outboard engine in 1907, everyone knew that rowing would eventually give way to machine power in the same manner as horses did to cars. But the transition occurred slowly. Not everyone could afford an Evinrude; gas and oil wasn't always easy to come by in secluded areas; frequent engine failures or mangled out-drives meant that those lacking mechanical prowess or access to parts often ended up stranded or faced a daunting row to get home.

But as those shortcomings became less of a problem as years passed, rowboats fell out of vogue. After World War II when gas and oil became more readily available and the economy kick-started, many anglers eschewed their oars for engine power.

A renaissance of sorts for rowing and paddling took shape as people became more health conscious starting around the 1980s and continuing to this day.

Rowboating does offer a number of pluses: great exercise with minimal skills required; low maintenance costs; no gas or oil concerns (or smell); good shallow-water access; less noise that spooks fish; ease of transportation (small trailer, roof rack or pickup truck); no minimum age limit.

While rowboats may never regain their status as the vessel of choice for the Florida angler, even so, it's pretty darn cool to recognize those clunky old wooden warriors that hauled over-dressed anglers to the fishing grounds--they'll always be a colorful reminder of Florida's great fishing history.

A Few Principles of Boat Rowing

While two or more people can row, it's usually a more coordinated and successful activity for a single rower in smaller fishing boats. The fastest learning curve involves watching someone row and then receiving instruction as you try.

Definitely rent a rowing craft first to see if it's your thing rather than buy an oar-powered boat and then discover it's not for you. Rowing does involve elements of strength and stamina, requiring practice and initially a heavy dose of patience.

"Sweep" rowing refers to one person with an oar who usually rows from a preferred side of the boat. "Sculling" is when a rower uses an oar in each hand. The oars are usually attached to a thole or rowlock (also sometimes referred to as a rigger) on the gunnel. In sculling, the oars are asymmetrical, requiring one hand to cross over the other to avoid the oars colliding.

The "catch" occurs when the oar blade is immersed and the "extraction" when the blade is taken out of the water. The oar handles are generally held by curled fingers rather than in the palms, and thumbs press against the oar ends.

"Feathering" the oars involves raising them into the air with wrist action so the blades are parallel to the water's surface to reduce air drag. As the catch is started, the blades are rotated so they dip back into the water at about 90 degrees to the surface.

Propulsion occurs by moving the boat forward as the rower immerses the oar blades and moves them against the water's resistance, which is known as the "drive stroke." The oars are again extracted, setting up the "recovery" as the rower gets ready for the next stroke.

Some rowboats employ a sliding chair on rollers and foot braces to enhance leverage. It's easier to row with a sliding chair because the leg muscles in particular are put to optimum use to save wear and tear elsewhere.

You can still achieve adequate propulsion without a chair, but having one allows a better leg drive that coordinates the catch with straightening the legs, leaning forward, moving the back toward the bow and pulling the oars to the chest (known as the "draw"). A downward push of the hands lifts the blades out of the water, after which the blades are feathered and a recovery phase ensues that returns the rower and oars from the extraction to the catch.

The oar heights and positions are critical as are the thrusts of the power in harmony with the bending and straightening of the arms and legs.

Turning a rowboat also requires a little finesse, but that's easily learned. The main idea is to relax and simply keep in mind that the oars act as levers against the resistance of the water.

Small Craft Advisories

Rowers in particular must anticipate wind and current speed as well as tidal changes before heading to open water. Even if you're determined to only row, it's wise to bring along a kicker engine in the 10- to 15-hp range in case it's needed.

Always bring aboard a U.S. Coast Guard kit that contains a safety whistle or air horn, flares, reflective tape and such as well as lifejackets and communication gear.

Dad always brought along a plastic scoop or hand pump to bail water and, as he put it, an "if-we-get-stranded packet" with food, water, bug spray, skeeter net, flashlight, chart, matches, medicines and first-aid kit. As with any boating venture, provide someone with your float plan and the anticipated time of return.

Dad also drilled a hole in each of the wooden oar handles. He tied them with 30-pound monofilament line to the rowlocks on the gunnels. He also carried in a front pocket a 25-foot coil of parachute cord with one end tied to a floating cork. If the boat might be sinking and there was time left after donning lifejackets, he'd tie things in a series with the cord that he'd later hope to retrieve--which happened once.

Who Makes Rowboats?

Many small john boats can be converted into center-station rowboats for silent propulsion on small water bodies. You can also buy dinghys and tenders at ship chandleries such as West Marine; the Walker Bay 10, for instance, is a formidable gear-and passenger-hauler weighing 126 pounds. Some fishermen use western-style "drift boats" on Florida ponds and slow-moving rivers.

Manufacturers of sport rowing boats, such as Little River Marine in Gainesville, Florida, may offer boats easily converted into fishing craft--but best to skip the narrow, dagger-like racing sculls (too tippy) and look for the wider, stable boats. Little River's Heritage series, for example, offers fishable stability to a classy, deep-keel, lapstrake hull. The 15-footer in handmade glass weighs 100 pounds and sells for $5,695. A carbon fiber edition at 65 pounds is available for another $1,200.

Bill Larson, President of Little River Marine, has put in many hours fishing on the Heritage 15--including a recent trip offshore in the Florida Keys (with some help from a mothership). Larson said the company has also introduced a new model, the 15-foot Legacy, which should be ideal for open water adventures and fishing.

"The sliding seat offers a unique opportunity to set up rods attached to your foot brackets, so they are right at your fingertips when you row, and at the perfect angle for trolling. Near-shore, I typically troll one rod, with a second rigged to cast at sighted fish."

Larson suggests bringing soft-sided cooler and tacklebox, reducing noise. It's tempting to add a small Bimini top or umbrella for sun protection, but Larson says that might be too much windage for offshore rowing. Better to wear a floppy hat. As to the potential advantages of rowing boats over kayaks:

"You get to use your legs and use oars that are twice as long," said Larson. "I don't get cramps like I do in a kayak because I move my legs. When trolling I'm facing the baits, just like in a sport fish. And the Heritage is stable enough to stand and cast, or get up and get a better look. And I'm always dry."

Rodholders and offshore stability sponsons are some options. 'The sponsons provide an extra level of security. They inflate by hand and only weigh 3 pounds," said Larson.
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Author:Kelly, Doug
Publication:Florida Sportsman
Date:Jun 1, 2015
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