Shallow water fishing _ the phrase conjures images of anglers tugging on big fish that are splashing in skinny brine.
But the problem with shallow water fishing is that sometimes, it's just too shallow.
No matter how modest a vessel's draft, short tides and deep boats often lead to bad things, such as a stranding or yanking a motor off the transom.
And that's the problem, because the coastal floor is an uneven surface. The depth within an area the size of a football field can vary greatly. There are potholes, troughs, small boat cuts and bars that make for diverse terrain.
And anglers have learned that during low tides, a lot of these slightly deeper spots hold an astonishing number of game fish such as snook, trout and redfish. Cut off by the falling water, these fish sit as easy pickings if you can reach them.
Thats a big, big, if.
Wading might work, except in less-than-hospitable areas where jagged rocks and shells guard the hot spots, or in places with bottoms to soft to offer any support.
There is hope. Short of awaiting the tide's return, your magic carpet into the low-tide wonderland is an airboat.
Essentially a sled with a big fan on the back, an airboat eliminates the barriers that prohibit anglers from accessing prime areas. With nothing hanging below the hull _ such as an outboard motor's lower unit _ airboat anglers can focus on the hunt rather than concerns of destroying a motor in new territory. They can concentrate on scanning for fish.
Another advantage of airboats is scouting shallow areas. Taking a good look at bottom structure and contour provides a great planning tool for later returns. Some do this in shallow-draft motorboats, but at some point the tide will close the door, coming or going. With an airboat anglers rarely encounter an obstacle or impediment that can't be gotten over or around. Whether it's a muddy bar or sand flat, if it so much as glistens an airboat can zip across unscathed.
Airboats are also fuel efficient. Properly maintained, they burn excessively only when the driver lays on the accelerator. Under normal use an airboat's skimming nature means minimal water drag and more economical fuel consumption.
Contrary to common misconception, airboats don't necessarily spook fish. Passing fish at wide open certainly alerts them, but anglers need only run wide open when traveling from spot to spot. After they arrive at a fishing area, an airboat can idle around with surprising stealth. Remember, the power source is above the water, not below like an outboard engine's. Still, anglers need ear muffs, because the noise at top speed is deafening.
As for operation, a gas pedal controls acceleration and a stick on the driver's left side governs twin rudders, which direct airflow. Pushing the stick forward turns the boat to the left, and pulling it back turns the craft to the right.
For snooping through the shallows, some opt for bow-mounted trolling motors. A traditional push pole or a 12-foot wooden dowel suffices for poling short distances.
Airboat propulsion and steering may be straightforward, but stopping requires a little more know-how. As with outboard-powered vessels, airboats have no brakes. Until drag through the water or a solid object decreases its momentum, an airboat continues on its course even with the engine in idle.
The concern for airboaters is that the back end sags with the weight of the fan and engine, and following waves can swamp the transom. To avoid this, balance the boat with most of the bodies and gear forward.
Sliding can also cause tense moments for new airboaters, as the vessel's mostly flat bottom slips across damp grass and mud for a good distance. It's no big deal, as long as you're not headed for a collision, but a brief spin can throw an angler from the boat if not buckled in and holding onto the seat.
And airboats aren't only for low tide. As Dave Markett of Tampa said, this can be an environmentally friendly method of transportation, noise withstanding. From the coastal shallows into brackish rivers and even onto freshwater lakes, the airboat skims across any damp surface with practically no impact.
Can't do much about the noise, but nothing is perfect.
Airboats can cross extremely shallow areas, giving access to fishing holes cut off from most anglers. During the winter, fish often hide in potholes in areas too shallow for other boats.
An airboat uses a propeller with rudders for steering. There are no breaks, so drivers must plan their stops.