Capt. Gary Henderson, Florida

April 3rd, 2006

A Tale of Two Boats, Memories and a Spirit

By Captain Gary (Flats Dude) Henderson
A few weeks ago, a buddy, here at work, walked up to me and said, "I have an old, fourteen foot aluminum boat, and if you want it, you can have it." This translates into, "I have a piece of trash sitting in my yard, if you pick it up and don't want it, you can throw it away." But, as they say, curiosity killed the cat, so off Linda and I went to take a look at the old aluminum "piece of trash."

As we drove up to Mike's house, there in the backyard was this v-bow metal boat sitting on what appeared to be a dilapidated trailer, weeds grown up around it, and obviously, from our vantage point, lots of mildew and mold covered the once white hull of the old gal. Kind of sad, actually.

"Is he talking about that thing?" Linda growled from just above her steaming coffee cup. But I saw something there. I looked past the weeds and the hull stains. "Yeah, ain't she cool?" What I saw from the street took me back to my early high school years, when old, then new, smoky, tiller engines powered small "fishin'" boats. I remembered my dad's green, plywood skiff he had built. We spent so many early mornings catching bluegill, shell-crackers and speckled perch from that old boat. I basically learned to fish from that boat. Even though there are no photographs of the skiff, I can plainly see it in my mind. I can still smell that old engine's oil as she slapped the surface on the lakes of central Florida.

Mike handed me the title to the boat, a 1968 Smoker Craft. But the surprise wasn't over. As he reappeared from his outside storage building, there in his grasp was a ten-horse, 1962, Evinrude engine. "This goes with the boat. I'm not sure if it runs or not, but if you want it..." That was the icing on the cake.

As Mike went over the title, his voice cracked somewhat. His dad had passed away and left him the boat. His regret was not having the time to do much with it. His only request was to take him out in it this summer and let him fish with his dad's boat once more. I look forward to that.

We brought the old boat home. Broke out the cleaning solutions, and began pulling the carpet out of the floorboard. There was actually moss growing out of it. Within a few hours, the old gal lit up as if to say, "I've been here all along and I'm ready to go!"

The transom had long rotted away. If only Dad were still here, I bet he could build a new one to go on the stern, but he wasn't, and I had spent my youth not watching and listening to him as he built new homes and did repair work. He was a master carpenter, and my lack of skill left me with not a clue on how to get the task at hand completed. I remembered Roger Stouff's boat-building and how his dad taught him. I emailed Roger, but with the lack of a digital camera, it was difficult to explain to Roger how the boat's transom was laid up. Then, as if Dad tapped me on the shoulder, I went to work on the rotted wood, taking apart the braces and trim, careful as not to damage any part. I cut the old, rusty bolts from her, bought new stainless steel hardware, and began the gluing, the cutting and replacement of her new transom. New swivel seats were added and a flat floor of plywood was placed between the first and second bench seats.

The true test came when Linda and I took her down to the lake behind the house and launched her. For the first time in years, she slid off the trailer and proudly became afloat. Her old hull held tight with no leaks. Soon, a trolling motor was attached, the battery was connected and the first largemouth bass came aboard, of course, caught by Linda that same afternoon.

This week, my neighbor Frank is going to help me get that old ten-horse running. Then she will be complete and the old gal will once again hunt the lakes and rivers as she was meant to do, and my dad will find his way back to watch over us as we do so.

Ten years ago, Linda and I were married and her first wedding gift was a brand new, Hewes Redfisher flats skiff. I taught her to sight-fish from that boat, and before it was sold, Linda had mastered the technique of light-tackle sight-fishing, handling the skiff and poling across miles of grass flats on the Indian River.

It was a sad day I left that boat sitting in the driveway of a stranger that had bought her, and I could kick myself many times over for selling the boat. I had spoiled Linda in that skiff, one of the finest flats boats produced. After all, she had her own guide at her beckoned call, but y'all already know that story.

Just after we took possession of the '68 Smoker Craft, I heard of a fourteen foot, fiberglass skiff someone here at work had for sale. I looked over the photos of the boat. There were huge, swivel seats on tall pedestals, two trolling motors, rod holders mounted to the bow, just all kinds of stuff for fly-line to catch on. But I looked past all that stuff and saw pure potential. I saw a flats boat begging to be freed, and the price was right.

I went over and checked it out in person, no hull fractures, and the transom was tight, engine "looked" clean, all the structural features of the skiff were sound. I bought it.

Knowing full well Linda had been "broken in" with a Hewes under her rump, I questioned whether or not she would see that same potential I saw. I knew the skiff wouldn't be as stable as its predecessor, there wasn't any room for too much dry storage, the Hewes had more than plenty of room to stow her complete wardrobe of summer and winter clothes, plus accessories; all the features. It would be like comparing a Mercedes to a VW bug; both producing the same results, but giving up so many features. However, a brand new, eighteen-foot Redfisher was thirty-three thousand dollars, and that was my guide price.

The day before I headed to the Florida Fish-in, I picked up the little skiff, brought it home and parked it in the side yard. I expected the same growl from Linda when she came home from work. Instead, she pulled up, gave it a once-over, and said, "It's cute!" Whew!

Bear in mind that a poling platform is where I work. If you are wondering about that, or perhaps never have seen one, it kind of looks like the rear end of a Formula One race car's spoiler. If that doesn't work for you, the tower stands above the engine and attached to the top of the tower is a fiberglass platform where the guide stands with a twenty-foot, or longer, push-pole and actually shoves the skiff around in very shallow water in search of the intended target; red fish, tarpon, snook, bones, etc. It's the working end of the boat; trolling motors are totally out of the question since they create too much noise to already spooky fish. The new little "wanna-be" had no tower, platform, or push-pole. So, off to the marine aluminum shop to have a tower custom-built.

Upon completion of the tower, she then went directly to the shop for a tune-up, lower unit oil change, new water pump, but first and foremost, a compression check. Engines look good on the outside, and can run fine out of the water on a hose, then turn into money-eating monsters once one discovers internal damages exist. The compression was at the factory setting; again, whew!

In the next few days, I began the cleaning up process, removing unneeded items, scrubbing and buffing rust stains and getting the boat as low-profile as it could be. I began to warm up to the little skiff, and stopped comparing it to my Hewes. It began its transformation into a great little flats boat.

The other afternoon I climbed aboard to just look around. There was an old, wooden box that someone had installed to house the depth-finder, but the box had weathered and began to decay. As I studied the box, I noticed the workmanship that went into it by its previous owner, and how much thought and consideration was given. I thought of my dad, and how this was something like he would have designed and built. My thoughts drifted to the other boat as it sat waiting down by the lake behind the house.

Back before I was born, my dad drove a long-distance, semi-truck delivering produce all around the country. He had never seen the ocean, and when a delivery came to be in Cocoa Beach, Florida, he took a side trip to see the salt for the first time. Knowing not of tides and such, he parked his big rig on the hard, white sand of the beach, locked up his truck and took a walk down the beach. Upon returning a few hours later, he discovered it buried in the tide-flooded sands. He acquired the nickname of "Sea Horse" by his other truck driving buddies. This name stuck with him the rest of his life, and Mom became Mrs. Sea Horse to many of our friends.

As I thought of Dad and how I would love to take him out on this little skiff, I began to empty the little wooden box with the intentions on removing it from the boat's console. Inside the box was a small, screen compartment used to stow the boat's whistle, and a few hull plugs. When I emptied the screen, I sat straight up and tears began to mist over my eyes. Linda was just around the corner in the garage, and I called to her.

"Dad's been here." She looked a little puzzled, but realized I was serious. I reminded her of Dad's nickname. I reminded her of the time Jim Wilson and I both saw him early one morning checking out the offshore boat I once owned. I reminded her of the time she saw him walking across the backyard at one-thirty in the morning, even though she never met him.

"He came to check out the boats." Just then, I reached into the little, screen bowl and produced a tiny, pewter seahorse and held it up for her to see. Both of us stared it for a few minutes before we spoke. Linda was a little freaked out, but smiled and nodded, then said, "I think he approves."

So Dad, if you're reading this, thanks. Thanks for watching over my haphazard carpentry and not letting me screw up too badly on that old boat. Thanks for keeping me straight, for the most part. But, most of all, thanks for your approval.

By the way Dad, thanks for the sign. Just so you know, I plan on mounting that little seahorse on the console to always remind me you're here.

'Til next time, ~ Capt. Gary

About Gary:

Gary grew up in central Florida and spent much of his youth fishing the lakes that dot the area. After moving a little closer to the coast, his interests changed from fresh to salt. Gary still visits his "roots" in the "lake behind the house."

He obtained his captain's license in the early '90's and fished the blue waters of the Atlantic for a little over twelve years. His interests in the beautiful shallow water flats in and around the famous Mosquito Lagoon came around twenty-five years ago. Even though Captain Gary doesn't professionally guide anymore, his respect of the waters will ever be present.

Gary began fly fishing and tying mostly saltwater patterns in the early '90's and has participated as a demo fly tier for the Federation of Fly Fishers on numerous occasions. He is a private fly casting and tying instructor and stained glass artist, creating mostly saltwater game fish in glass.

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