“Look at the roots of the mangroves … there’s a snook,” whispers Mark Castlow, gazing intently at the water through polarized sunglasses.
With the sun at our backs, standing on the silent skiff, we can see down into the shallow water of the estuary, the snook lazing in the shadows of the tangled roots. Today is its lucky day. We aren’t fishing.
Starting the motor back up, Castlow putters along the narrow estuary and back out to the Intracoastal channel, falling in with a ragged parade of yachts, Jet Skis, and pontoon boats, all heading north. This is a tour of the Vero Beach stretch of the Indian River Lagoon for a visitor but, more importantly, a demonstration of the 17 Classic Dragonfly boat. The skiff, at 17 feet, slices easily through massive wakes. At the channel marker, Castlow accelerates to get up on plane, to a smooth 35 mph, skimming the surface. Dragonfly indeed.
Castlow created the Dragonfly 17 Classic with a specific purpose in mind: to catch fish in very shallow water. With three people in a Dragonfly skiff, the draft is only 8 inches. You can see everything going on in the water, and when you stand up on the poling platform, you can see even more.
There is nowhere to hide for the snook, redfish, tarpon, and sea trout (the area from Vero Beach to Fort Pierce is known for its large sea trout) that inhabit these waters, riding the tide into the flats to feast on shrimp, small crabs, and mullet that reside there, and riding back out, sated, hours later. Savvy skiff fishermen like Castlow know this routine and cast most successfully on the hungry incoming predators. “You want to have water moving,” he says, slowing down for the manatee zone.
As a result of Castlow’s knowledge of inshore light-tackle fishing and his mastery of boatbuilding, Dragonfly skiffs ply the shallows worldwide. They ride easily to boat launches on trailers, are towed behind mega-yachts, and one even folds up from its 18-foot length to 13 and a half to perch sideways on the transom of a yacht. He has built boats for many celebrities, including Jimmy Buffet and golfers Jack Nicklaus, Andy Bean, and Davis Love Jr. His customers have been in movies and music videos; they epitomize a lifestyle, and Castlow is its boatbuilder/philosopher.
Back at Dragonfly Boatworks, located near the Vero Beach Regional Airport, the 70-year-old Castlow says, “Water is my common denominator.”
Growing up in Miami, he learned to surf and became obsessed with the hydrodynamics of the boards through water. Finding used boards, he would peel off the fiberglass, reshape and refurbish them, and then redesign them.
At the same time, his penchant for design and three-dimensional thinking led him to win a scholarship to Florida State University for architecture. Then, he and his father had “the talk”: “Chase your dream,” his father advised, recognizing his son’s passion.
Forgoing the four-year college experience, the younger Castlow drove to a gritty part of Miami, found a loft to rent over an appliance store for $50 a month, and built custom surfboards. Long-haired and covered in fiberglass, he befriended the many homeless people who camped out nearby, bringing them food. Eventually, he owned three surf shops up and down the east coast of Florida, landing in Fort Pierce. By his early 20s, Castlow was getting a “craving to do something different.”
“When that creative side of you inside is knocking, you have to listen,” he says.
He sold all the surf shop inventory, rented an old building, and “did anything in fiberglass,” attributing his burgeoning expertise to his mentor, Harold Hostetler, who taught him the art of structural fiberglassing.
“It started out as boat repair. We did some incredible jobs—50-to-60-footers. At the same time, one of the fellows that used to sand surfboards for me, his dad, Dr. Leonard Berg, a consummate fly fisherman, came up with Maverick Boat Co. In this particular kind of boat, there are a lot of different nuances: shallow water, stability, quiet, dry storage, and a poling platform. We did some neat designs,” he explains. Eventually, Castlow became part owner.
To spread the word about inshore fishing, Castlow and his wife started doing shallow-water fishing expos all over the country. For the next 13 years, they put on an average of eight expos per year, bringing in experts, partnering with companies such as Orvis, Land Rover, Coastal Living and Garden & Gun magazines, Patagonia, Volvo, Subaru, the Bahamian tourist board, and more. Over an average expo weekend, around 7,000 people attended.
“My wife and I made a mark in that industry. It was our pure passion for inshore fishing. We set a stage,” he says. In 1991, they settled in Vero Beach.
Eventually, as market conditions changed, that creative voice in Castlow’s head started calling yet again.
In 2007, he told his wife, “I’ve got one more boat company in me.” He tried all kinds of names, but nothing was working until he asked his friend Jimbo Meador, who lived in Fairhope, Alabama and was one of the inspirations for the book Forrest Gump by Winston Groom (Meador worked with Tom Hanks on the Delta accent).
“Jimbo called and said ‘Dragonfly’ because they’re born in the water,” recalls Castlow.
One of Dragonfly’s six models is in fact called the Emerger, after an actual stage in the development of the insect. “They have a mystical association in different cultures. All very spiritual,” he says.
As a culmination of his creative life, Castlow set out to capture a classic, nostalgic look in his boat designs, evoking emotion and epitomizing the romantic sensibility of inshore fishing. People tell him his boats have “soul.” That spirit is infused in every fiberglass boat, each being made to order by a team of 15 that includes Castlow himself. Fifteen pairs of hands touch each custom boat.
Castlow has personally trained each person who works for him. He doesn’t care about past issues or challenges; rather, he sees the good and potential in everyone. He takes a nontraditional look at applicants’ résumés and believes in offering people second chances and an opportunity to thrive. The resulting respect his staff has for him is evident at every turn in the workshop.
Still in touch with Castlow’s surfboard past, Dragonfly also fabricates custom paddleboards and has partnered with companies such as Vineyard Vines and Vera Bradley. Florida author Carl Hiaasen is paddling around on a Dragonfly board, as is actor Michael Keaton. For those customers who like to fish from their paddleboards, Dragonfly has equipped some with lights and is working on a battery-powered model.
All this magic happens in what Castlow calls the “toy shop,” where Dragonfly boats and paddleboards in various stages of assembly are housed, tended carefully by his devoted team. All parts of the six boat models are made in the USA.
Endlessly tinkering, Castlow has even incorporated elements of automotive design into his boats. In the case of the customer who put in a request for a boat to somehow fit his yacht’s 14-foot beam, Castlow and his team innovated and found a way. “A can of liquid and some cloth, you get a boat,” Castlow says modestly.
“Do people name your boats?” a visitor wonders.
“Sometimes, but if you do anything stupid on the water, you’re spotted,” he says, grinning.