The Accidental Boatbuilder - Anglers Journal - A Fishing Life

Before he was a boatbuilder, he was a fisherman. And fishing is the activity that continues to define Scott Deal.

“Fishing is the way I connect with family and friends,” says Deal, who is the president of the Maverick Boat Group, which builds four brands of fishing boats. “It’s challenging and focused and relaxing at the same time. Many of my customers have the best days of their lives fishing. I think of the saying about fishing being hours of boredom interrupted by moments of panic. That I get to play some part in that experience is humbling and challenging.”

Deal, age 10, with a largemouth bass. 

Deal, age 10, with a largemouth bass. 

Deal grew up in Winter Park, Florida, years before nearby Orlando became a Disney-driven tourist attraction. It was a sparsely populated area of spring-fed lakes and interconnected canals that generated a fascination with fishing among the local kids. The largest lake, Osceola, was populated by largemouth bass, panfish and gar.

“My family had a 14-foot Orlando Clipper aluminum boat that had what could loosely be called a forward casting platform,” Deal recalls. “It was powered by a mechanically challenged 35-hp Evinrude outboard that would break down at the most inopportune times, and I would have to MacGyver it back to life. It was actually a blessing in disguise, as it forced me to learn the fundamentals of how things worked because if I couldn’t figure it out, I wasn’t getting home.”

Deal was using the boat and the canal system to get around for years before he could drive a car. The Clipper was transportation to meet up with friends, and the skiff whisked him to his early fishing adventures. He spent most of his time fishing for bass in the evenings, throwing unweighted rubber worms on a $5 Zebco rod-and-reel outfit. “It was pretty unsophisticated stuff, but we caught a heck of a lot of them like that,” he says. “It was a really cool existence, and it spawned a feeling of independence among us kids.”

Deal says that in retrospect, the 14-footer was a good, capable boat, even if it was no looker. One of his buddies would tease, “My dad had a boat like that, then he got a job.” But of all his friends’ family boats, they liked his the most because of the foredeck, where two or three of them could stand and cast or bow-hunt for gar.

“We had great times in the Clipper,” says Deal, who is 60, “and it was a combination of where I lived and that boat that really got me into fishing.”

Deal checks out tooling for a new Cobia model. 

Deal checks out tooling for a new Cobia model. 

Today, Scott Deal’s Maverick Boat Group builds thousands of boats a year, but he’s never forgotten the importance of functionality and reliability when it comes to building fishing boats of any size. “A boat needs to be built to perform a task, even if that task is just tooling around,” says Deal, whose two manufacturing facilities in Fort Pierce, Florida, built upward of 1,700 boats in 2019. “Fishing boats are more challenging. Things can get crazy out there, and the boat can’t hold you back.” His Maverick and Hewes flats boats, Pathfinder bay boats, and Cobia center and dual console models are among the leaders in their respective categories.

Princeton, Xerox, Skinny Water

Deal’s interest in fishing was augmented by his interest in athletics during high school, especially soccer. He was selected as an alternate for the under-19 U.S. National Team. Although he never had the opportunity to play for the United States in international competition, he did play in eastern U.S. regional tournaments.

During his senior year, he decided to apply to an Ivy League college. Bill Muse, the coach he played under, also was the soccer coach at Princeton University; he recruited Deal. “It was quite a surprise being the first kid from Winter Park High School to attend Princeton,” Deal says with a smile, “especially for my teachers.”

Deal played college soccer for a couple of semesters but had to exit the program after several injuries. He graduated with a degree in history, but a business career was on his mind, and he wanted to work for a major corporation that offered top-notch training. He was recruited by Xerox, a leader in the business machine industry at the time. He interviewed at the company’s Miami office and was sent to its sales training facility in Leesburg, Virginia.

“It was an interesting time for Xerox,” Deal says. “There was the old guard in stodgy gray business suits with their dated corporate culture trying to fight off efforts to pick the company apart by importing business machines coming out of Japan. The thing that stuck with me all these years was the sales training program. It echoes in my brain today, especially when I have a salesperson come in to pitch me on some new product or machine, and they are just doing a miserable job. The biggest takeaway, the one thing that has served me well no matter what business I was involved in, was don’t start selling until you figure out what the customer is buying. That’s true regardless of whether you’re selling copiers or fishing boats.”

Deal, who fell in love with skinny-water fishing in the Keys and Florida Bay while traveling as a Xerox sales rep, still loves technical poling skiffs. 

Deal, who fell in love with skinny-water fishing in the Keys and Florida Bay while traveling as a Xerox sales rep, still loves technical poling skiffs. 

Deal was assigned a sales territory in 1982 and initially worked out of Fort Lauderdale. He befriended Frank Gomez, one of the more experienced salesmen at Xerox, who also was heavily involved in the Miami fishing community. At the time, Miami was the epicenter of the development of saltwater light-tackle and fly-fishing techniques. Deal fell into the scene with abandon. He joined Gomez on a fishing trip to Flamingo, Florida, towing his Hewes Redfisher to those productive shallows. There, he was introduced to sight-fishing. Gomez would pole around the flats while Deal worked on his casting.

“That first trip was epic,” he says. “There were tailing redfish all over the place in the morning, and later in the day, Frank took me to other spots where we caught snook and tarpon on spinning tackle and jigs. I had a fabulous time, and there was a lot more to come.”

Deal's first tarpon on a fly. 

Deal's first tarpon on a fly. 

Gomez introduced Deal to a water rat named Herman Lucerne, and they hit it off. Lucerne’s houseboat, which was kept at the Flamingo Marina on the Buttonwood Canal side of Whitewater Bay, became a meeting place for their group of fishing buddies, and Deal would bring along his wife, Susan, when she was on break from law school. Lucerne had an old, rarely used Maverick flats boat that had plants growing out of it. Deal offered to buy it, Lucerne accepted, and Deal took possession of his first poling skiff.

“Susan wasn’t an avid angler, but she loved to explore the many miles of channels, canals, bays and mangroves,” Deal says. “Together, we grew adept at learning the very confusing waters in that area, and we found some incredible fishing spots. This was well before there were accurate maps, GPS or Google Earth to guide us along. We’d leave inconspicuous markers on the mangroves to help us find our way back to Herman’s place at the end of the day, until one day all our markers disappeared. It turned out that Herman had been wandering around and thought he’d come across some newcomer who was poaching our hard-earned spots. When we finally found our way back well after dark, he told us the story about how he put one over on an unwelcome angler by stealing his trail markers. He was pretty proud of himself until he realized the markers were ours.”

Deal fell hard for skinny-water fishing, so much so that he ended up talking the Xerox branch manager into letting him open a quasi-territory that stretched from Homestead to Key West. He worked out of a satellite office in a spare room in his uncle’s house in Islamorada. His newly acquired Maverick was on davits in Port Antiqua on Lower Matecumbe, and he only had to go to the office headquarters once a month.

Permit are one of Deal's favorite quarries. 

Permit are one of Deal's favorite quarries. 

“My sales territory was the entire Florida Keys, and all I had to do was fax in my orders,” Deal says with a grin. “It was a shallow-water fisherman’s dream job. I had a virgin territory all to myself, with hospitals, a Navy base, school systems and businesses opening left and right. I crushed it, absolutely crushed it, selling everything Xerox had to offer.”

And he fished a lot. “My branch manager would tell me, ‘You have way too good a tan for someone who is working diligently,’ but my numbers were so good that he just left me alone.”

The fishing in the Keys in those early years was incredible. Deal recalls his first attempt at fly-fishing. He bought a rod and reel, black, sink-tip fly line and a handful of ugly black flies. He staked out his Maverick where he’d seen tarpon cruising, and when a pod approached, his first cast fell well short. “Then one of the tarpon came charging out of the school, ran over and ate my fly,” he says. “That’s how dumb the fish were back then. It isn’t like that anymore.”

The Next Chapter

Xerox eventually cut up Deal’s territory, so he moved to Flamingo and went to work for his father’s hydraulic dredging company. His Maverick needed a paint job, and Deal was told that Mark Castlow, then of Atlantic Fiberglass, was the best. It turned out Castlow’s company built the hulls and decks for the Maverick boats. It was a fortuitous connection.

“Mark told me that no new Mavericks were being built and introduced me to the doctor who owned the company,” says Deal, whose passion for flats fishing led him to believe there might be an opportunity in skinny-water fishing boats. “With the help of my brother, Troy, we put together an offer to buy the molds for the 18-footer and the Maverick name for $12,000, and the doctor accepted.” And like that, Deal says, “I was in the boat business.” A newcomer to building boats, Deal relied on his sales training and fishing know-how to navigate the unfamiliar waters.

Deal at the helm of a Maverick 18 Deluxe. 

Deal at the helm of a Maverick 18 Deluxe. 

The first thing they did was refurbish Deal’s old Maverick, which became the company demo boat. Then Deal started selling and building them one by one. They had no real business model, no dealers, very little money, and they built each boat to order. Troy handled the business end, and Deal sold boats, took deposits and had Castlow make the parts from the molds they purchased. “Troy and I would put them together, install the simple plumbing and electrical systems, finish them off and deliver them,” he says. 

Maverick’s reputation soared as word got around South Florida that these great poling skiffs were available again. Guides and in-the-know, light-tackle anglers drove sales to the point that they couldn’t keep up. The brothers bought a couple of lots in an industrial park in Fort Pierce and put up an 8,000-square-foot building that became the initial manufacturing facility of a re-energized Maverick Boat Co., which quickly took over the lead position in the flats-boat market from the main competitor, Hewes Boats.

Around 1989, Deal invited Bob Hewes to visit the Maverick facility. During the visit, Hewes confided that he wanted to get out of the boat business but didn’t want to see his legacy lost. He was proud of his boats and the market they had dominated until Deal and his brother Troy took over Maverick.

Deal at a mid-80s owners tournament.

Deal at a mid-80s owners tournament.

“I ended up offering Bob an asset purchase of the company with the understanding that the Hewes brand would be retained,” Deal says. “Bob and I went on the road and opened up a dealer network for the brand while we simultaneously retooled the Hewes Bonefisher and Redfisher models. Once we got everything rolling, between the two lines, we were selling a ton of flats boats — Hewes through a dealer network and Maverick factory-direct. We were building between 700 and 800 boats a year.”

Flats boats were all the rage in the Southeast throughout the 1990s, and some even started trickling north. They were the boat to own if you were a hotshot angler, and Maverick and Hewes flats boats were king. 

Deal, meanwhile, was winning shallow-water tournaments and working with some of the best guides in the business. To build the best technical poling skiffs on the water, Deal used that experience to improve the boats, adding features, fine-tuning them and making them more stealthy, a passion that continues to this day.

Conservation Ethic

Given his love of shallow-water fishing, it should come as little surprise that Deal has been an effective voice for fisheries conservation and management. He and Bass Pro Shops CEO and founder Johnny Morris were key figures in the vision behind and promotion of the so-called Modern Fish Act, which established a framework for managing saltwater species. 

Deal and his son, Clay, with a pair of permit. 

Deal and his son, Clay, with a pair of permit. 

Last fall, Deal was inducted into the National Marine Manufacturers Association Hall of Fame, with his contributions to the industry and sport fishing garnering much of the praise.

Morris, who got to know Deal through the MFA, called him “down-to-earth, unselfish and totally dedicated to the future of fishing.” Grady-White Boats president Kris Carroll says Deal was the “epitome of a successful entrepreneur. He always tries his best to do the right thing, whether it’s for his friends, his business, his industry or the fisheries he cherishes.”

Own Worst Enemy

In 1996, Maverick was trying to make inroads into the Texas market, but its flats boats weren’t meeting the needs of the shallow-water guides and anglers in the Gulf of Mexico. Deal realized they were trying to sell a product before they understood what the customer wanted — bigger fishboxes, larger standup center consoles for longer runs and T-tops. The hottest shallow-water boats in that region were built by Kenner, which Bass Pro Shops had purchased, and by association, they had to be Mercury-powered, as were the rest of the Tracker boat lines.

“I had a longstanding relationship with Yamaha, so I approached the management and offered to design an advanced bay boat if they would help me get them into the former Kenner-Yamaha dealers that were left out in the cold when Bass Pro Shops took over the company,” Deal says. “They agreed but only gave me 90 days to come up with a design and prototype. I sketched out the initial design on the back of an envelope and worked around the hull of a 21-foot Maverick we had introduced earlier that was not exactly a hot seller in Florida. It had a great bottom but it was too big for poling. But it was perfect for the first Pathfinder bay boat. It had raised gunwales, a bigger console, live wells, fishboxes and was Yamaha-powered, of course.”

Courtesy Scott Deal

Deal's sketch on an envelope contributed to a bay boat revolution. 

Pathfinder sales skyrocketed. Deal sold a lot of boats in Texas, and then they started to catch on in Florida, where nobody had been buying bay boats. The boats could run in water almost as shallow as a flats boat, but they carried electric trolling motors and had way more amenities. In the next few years, Pathfinder destroyed the flats-boat market, as sales jumped to 1,200 units per year, far surpassing Maverick and Hewes sales combined.

“With the introduction of Pathfinder, we became our own worst nightmare competition,” Deal says. “So we kept expanding the Pathfinder line with more complex and finely finished models loaded with features like flush decks and pitch wells, Power-Pole shallow-water anchors and stepped hulls. We even offer a carbon fiber upgrade for our most popular models.” Today, the Pathfinder line consists of eight models from 20 to 26 feet. 

Bigger Boats for Big Water

In 2005, Yamaha owned two boat companies but didn’t want to continue with the brands because they were essentially competing with a growing legion of boatbuilders, including Maverick Boat Group, that made up the OEM sales base. Then Yamaha president Phil Dyskow approached Deal to discuss selling him one of the two companies: Cobia. It took some time, but they eventually structured a sale, and Deal opened a third manufacturing facility, this one in Marion, North Carolina.

Cobia had been in business under several prior owners since the late 1950s but was not considered a prestige line. The boats were clunky-looking, entry-level center consoles that didn’t receive much attention in the market and would need a complete makeover to meet Deal’s expectations.

A Cobia 350 Center Console, one of the brand's latest offerings. 

A Cobia 350 Center Console, one of the brand's latest offerings. 

“In 2007, we opened the new facility just for Cobia in Marion,” Deal says. “It was a lovely location with a great workforce of wonderful people, and we were just getting our feet wet when 2008 happened. The recession brought boatbuilding to a near standstill and killed off a lot of builders in the process. It was one of the toughest decisions I’ve had to make as a businessman, but there was no way we could keep the Marion facility open and remain financially sound with everything else that was happening, which literally changed the way boats would be marketed and sold in the future.”

Maverick Boat Group closed the new facility and moved everything back to Fort Pierce. While the economy recovered, Deal and Troy invested in reinventing the Cobia line. As the financial outlook improved, they came to market with new models designed from the bottom up. About the only thing that didn’t change was the brand name. 

“Cobia was perceived in a totally new way, and the boats started taking off,” Deal says. “We needed to expand our current facility, maxing it out at 66,000 square feet. We were building Maverick, Hewes, Pathfinder and Cobia using lean manufacturing principles. We were able to reduce production times on most models from 25 to seven days and improve the quality of the product, eventually building 25 boats a week up to 35 feet.”

An angler tangles with a tarpon from a Maverick 17 HPX-V

An angler tangles with a tarpon from a Maverick 17 HPX-V

That’s efficient, but there was no room to keep growing without an expansion. Dealers wanted more boats. Deal purchased a 38-acre lot not far from the current plant and built a state-of-the-art facility with 155,000 square feet of manufacturing space under one roof. It was completed in 2017. Maverick Boat Group now produces about 1,700 fishing boats a year, with plans to build even larger Cobia models in the 40-foot range while adding new models to the Pathfinder line. The flats-boat market is relatively flat, so to speak, but it is where Deal’s roots are planted.

“It really makes no sense to keep building technical poling skiffs,” Deal says, “but it is still a passion for me, and we continue to make what the market demands. Most go to professional light-tackle guides who cater to a very specialized clientele, but in the end, I still love ’em.”

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