If you are an inshore fisherman in the Nature Coast area, you have probably noticed the dramatic shift in flats fishing boat designs in recent times.
Twenty years ago, most flats guides and serious anglers worked the shallows in 16- to 18-foot skiffs with poling platforms mounted on the stern.
Today, larger shallow-draft boats with towers mounted over the consoles have become one of the most popular designs.
This transition worked out well for the Meismans of Holiday, who started Quality T-Tops, a marine aluminum fabrication business, in 1995. Dave Meisman, wife Trish and their then-teenage sons, Kevin and Travis, put together a team of welders and began doing custom aluminum work out of a 9,000-square-foot building on the Anclote River. T-tops, those aluminum-framed, canvas-topped shades that mount over the center console on open fishing boats, were, and still are, one of their most popular items.
"In our first year, we built T-tops and some other good-sized items for a mostly local crowd," Dave Meisman said.
Gradually they earned a reputation for doing exceptional work, and business began to grow. Then in the late 1990s, a handful of local guides began inquiring about installing specialized console towers on their boats. This style was developed in the Charlotte Harbor area where a group of fishermen had discovered that they could locate schools of fish much easier from higher vantage points.
Dave and Travis Meisman worked closely with the area's veteran fishermen and designed and crafted what would be the first tower boats to be used to fish the waters of Pasco and Hernando counties. At the time, you could not buy a shallow-draft boat with a tower on it. If you wanted a tower, you had to have it custom-made and installed.
The Meisman family had no idea they would soon be at the forefront of what would become a tower-boat revolution.
As business continued to grow, so too did the needs and requests of the customers. Many boaters inquired about canvas or upholstery work, and most of the T-tops required some canvas. "Early on, we subbed out some of the canvas work, but before long, though, we became unhappy with the reliability of the outside canvas people, so we started doing our own," Trish said.
In 2000, Dave Meisman bought an adjacent building and expanded the family business to 35,000 square feet. This allowed him to take in more and bigger boats and increased dock storage space for large vessels for mooring while having work done.
"We have built tops or towers for sportfishing boats up to 72 feet long and excursion vessels much larger while they sat in the water out back," he said.
Quality T-Tops has now become the largest aluminum fabricator in west Florida offering not just welding but canvas work, fiberglass fabrication and rigging services
"When we started this company, we did work on about 50 boats a year," Dave Meisman said. "Now we do about 500, and we have not experienced a drop in demand as most other boating-related businesses have. That to me means we are doing something right."
Travis, now 29 with children of his own, manages most of the aluminum business, handles customer service and designs most of the components.
Younger brother Kevin heads up the expansive canvas division, which has become one of the bay area's largest.
"Being able to have the canvas, aluminum fabrication and even fiberglass work being done in the same building allows us to put out a better finished product and provide everything the customer's boat needs at the same time," he said.
Today, console towers have supplanted T-tops as the top product requested by the boaters and fishermen.
"We still do a lot of T-tops, leaning posts and poling platforms, but the console towers have edged them all out as our biggest sellers in the last few year," Travis said.
This is apparent with a visit to the facility where, among other large aluminum parts, rows of silver console tower frames are lined up in various stages of construction or installation. Dozens of boats from 15 feet to 35 feet line the interior of the building, and a dozen more are outside or tied up to the docks. Teams of welders, wire riggers, pipe benders, canvas artisans and others are busy working just about everywhere you look.
So where do they go next? "We are guided solely by the needs of the fishing and boating community. What ever the next big thing is, we'll be there making what they want," Dave Meisman said.
And future of this business?
"Travis and Kevin have done a great job and essentially run the show now," he said. "Trish and I still help with some of the day-to-day operations, but we have stepped back a little bit. The boys are quite capable of handling the operation themselves."