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Cast a wide net

With dozens of fishing boats to choose from, the challenge is finding the right balance between ride, fishability and creature comforts

With dozens of fishing boats to choose from, the challenge is finding the right balance between ride, fishability and creature comforts

Painful but true: Few of us ever find our ideal boats. We know a better boat is out there somewhere, but time and money conspire to push us toward making do with what we have — or at least what we know about.

Some people shop for a boat for years at a time, and then settle for a rig that’s merely acceptable because it was a great deal. Others own a boat but never really stop shopping for a new one. Even more often, people buy the boat they think is perfect, only to discover that it really isn’t right for their uses.

If you’re both a fisherman and a family man (or woman), someone who wants an angling machine without giving up the ability to cruise, go tubing or enjoy other waterborne activities, then choosing the right boat just became a whole lot tougher. You’ll need to find a ride that does both jobs well without sacrificing too much of either, and often boats that try to be all things to all people end up functioning poorly for any one specific task.

The boat that’s perfect for you is out there, but you’ll have to choose carefully. After reading this primer on how to gauge fishability, you’ll have a good idea of what to look for, and hopefully it won’t take years to find one that’s merely acceptable.

Design of the times

Open deck space is the No. 1 factor when it comes to increasing fishability on a boat. That’s why center consoles, with their all-around open layouts, are so popular among serious anglers. Of course, most of us want a cabin for the comfort, cruising ability, stowage and versatility it adds to the boat. So where’s the happy medium? Just remember this simple formula as a rule of thumb: To have plenty of rod-swinging space you’ll want about 25 square feet of deck space per angler. That can mean forward and aft cockpit space, and doesn’t include people who aren’t actively fishing.

Cockpit space is clearly maximized by the center console design, which shouldn’t be eliminated by family anglers simply because they’re known as hard-core fishing boats. In fact, the center console layout works well for many other water sports, such as water skiing, tubing and diving. It also is more family-friendly than one might think, particularly boats in the 21- to 26-foot range, for a few reasons. Most 21-plus-foot boats are equipped with heads these days. The absence of cabin stairs is safer for small children, who often make a game of going in and out of it. And the increased usable exterior space means there’s room for more guests on board.

There are, of course, other designs that maximize deck space and still allow good fishability. One of the most popular and usable is the dual console. Dual-console boats offer more protection for you and your crew, though still not nearly as much as cabin boats. Most also have heads in the console these days, usually on the passenger’s side, and since their forward cockpits tend to be arranged for maximum seating, they also work well for bringing lots of guests or family members on board. In fact, the dual-console’s popularity has grown so much in the last few years that we’re seeing new models that push the 30-foot mark, whereas traditionally these boats were popular in the 18- to 22-foot range.

Walkarounds are the next potential choice and will appeal to anglers who feel they really need that cabin. While deep side decks around the cabin may seem like they provide 360-degree fishability, don’t be deceived. Except in the most extreme cases, these side decks are rarely wide enough to comfortably stand in, and they’re really best used only for transiting to and from the bow. Some walkaround boats do have small bow areas that are comfortable to fish from, but they usually won’t accommodate more than a single angler, and he or she will have to constantly navigate back to the cockpit to get bait, rigs and other items.

It’s also nearly impossible to land a fish from the bow of a cabin boat, because it’s such a long reach to the water, which makes netting or gaffing difficult. Bottom line: You may see people fishing from the bow of a walkaround from time to time, but they are usually making the best of it — not enjoying the best of it.

The same is true of cuddy-cabin or express boats, except they may (or may not) have more difficult bow access. This design, however, does tend to have more interior cabin space, since the side decks aren’t recessed. One fishing perk often accompanies this design in the form of cabin rod racks. Walkarounds with deep recesses usually have vertical sides on the interior where the recessed walkway is molded in. Cuddys or expresses, however, have a flat underside on the bottom of the side deck, which is directly over the sharpest curvature of the hull side. This odd-shaped space running the length of the cabin provides a perfect slot for mounting rod racks, which isn’t present in walkarounds, and it provides safe and secure stowage for two or three rods per side.

Many other open-deck configurations, such as cockpit trawlers, dayboats, pilothouse boats and, of course, convertibles, work great as fishing boats. And in many cases, the demands of family and versatility will mean there’s no doubt that a cabin-equipped boat is a necessity. Just remember: The more exterior deck space the boat has, the better it will prove to be for fishing.

Hull design also has an impact on a boat’s fishability. As is true with all types of boats, as a rule of thumb those with deeper-vee hulls tend to ride more smoothly but also rock more at rest or slow speeds in a beam sea. If you’re an angler who likes to troll or drift fish, keep in mind that this means you’ll also be rocking and rolling when you’re fishing.

Choosing an inboard, sterndrive or outboard also has a big effect on how a boat fishes. Leaving arguments about efficiency, speed and reliability aside, anglers who plan to drift fish will want to remember that while inboards usually drift beam-to, outboards and sterndrives tend to drift stern-to. Though drifting stern-to means less rocking and rolling, drifting beam-to means anglers can line the gunwales and get more lines over the side without risking tangles. And trollers will want to remember that outboards and sterndrives can creep along more slowly than many inboards, often down to just 1 or 2 mph, which can be very effective when trolling for slow-moving fish in cold temperatures or under other circumstances.

Don’t question authority

No matter what type of boat you’re considering, if you plan to fish more than once or twice a season there are a few must-haves and must-not-haves to bear in mind. There is no question, for example, that you’ll need rod holders. And if you plan to troll, these will have to be angled aft, with forward holders also angled off to the sides.

Many boats can be retrofitted with holders but not all. Make note of gunwale width for surface-mounting and, if it’s not sufficient to allow surface-mounted holders, gunwale construction material. For example, gunwales that are too thin for surface-mounting but are constructed of foam- or balsa-coring with a fiberglass skin may not provide sufficient bite for screws to hold side-mount rod holders. So think through your rod holder options before settling on any particular boat.

A live well is, of course, another must-have for most anglers. Many boats are built with integrated wells these days, but they aren’t all equal. Look for one that’s rounded inside (so baitfish don’t swim into the corners and beat themselves against the fiberglass) and seals tightly (so water doesn’t slosh out as you run). Those with integrated drains are better than those with stand-pipes, which can shake loose, allowing the well to drain. And stay away from pump-share arrangements. Many inexpensive models save a buck by plumbing the live well and the raw water washdown to a single pump with a valve to change its purpose. But these rigs have subpar water pressure, and the pump, forced to do double duty, tends to fail.

Washdowns are another absolute must for a fishing boat. Blood, scales and chum make one heck of a mess and can even cause unsafe conditions on deck. The best non-skid becomes slick when covered in fish residue. Even if it has a dedicated pump that looks hefty, make sure you try out the washdown when testing a new boat to be sure it has enough pressure to blast away scales and fish blood.

There also are a couple of must-not-haves when looking for a fishing boat. First and foremost is carpeting. Nothing ruins carpet more quickly than scales and fish blood, and no matter how hard you may try to keep it clean, by the second or third trip your entire boat will smell like a chum bucket. Plus, hooks have a way of burying themselves in carpet. Stick with fiberglass or teak when it comes to decking.

The second no-no is a radar arch or a wakeboard tower that goes over the center of the cockpit. (Ones that angle forward over the helm are fine.) Try to fish from a boat with one of these overhead encumbrances, and the first time you cast you’ll sheer off the top half of your fishing rod. That can be painful, almost as painful as thinking you’ve bought the perfect boat — until you try to go fishing in it and discover otherwise.

Lenny Rudow is an avid angler and author whose titles include “Rudow’s Guide to Fishing the Mid Atlantic” and “Rudow’s Guide to Fishing the Chesapeake.”