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The perfect fishing boat? There’s no such thing - Part One

Editor’s note: Choosing the “perfect” fishing boat is impossible because what works for one angler is often ill-suited for another whose needs differ. In this first of two columns by Zach Harvey he interviews a 50-year charter skipper who talks about the first two of the four boats he has owned — the merits and shortcomings of each and why he moved on.

What makes a perfect fishing vessel? There’s no singular answer to that question. There are a thousand issues of scale, of fishing methods, species and grounds, of inlet clearance or pure economics.

Zach Harvey

From hull design to bright work, boatbuilding is an act of incessant balancing — weight and/or stability against speed, maneuverability against seaworthiness, head-sea performance against beam- or following-sea performance. Theoretically, the “perfect” fishing boat is the one that most gracefully balances a world of conflicting demands. Of course, we all know that if we asked 20 skippers to name the perfect fishing boat, we’d get 18 hulls, minimum.

I posed the question to a guy with strong feelings on the subject: Capt. Al Anderson of Narragansett, R.I., a charter-fishing veteran of 50 years. Anderson currently runs a custom 42-foot Willis Carolina express sportfisherman called Prowler. Since 1961, he has fished out of four craft, beginning with a 19-foot Aquasport that underwrote his first exposure to the striper-rich North Rip and other areas around Block Island, R.I.

Anderson’s earlier years with the 19-footer overlapped with the tail end of some world-class trophy striper fishing along the Narragansett mainland, but as that fishery deteriorated, the promise of island grounds dragged him across the sound more frequently. It didn’t take too many homeward-bound beatings to convince him that if he planned to ply his trade across the pond, he’d need a craft more suited to these volatile crossings — especially with a deck-load of customers.

First love

Capt. Al Anderson's 26-foot Bonito was a fine fishing boat, but she could rattle your fillings in a hard sea.

Around 1970, Anderson fell in love with the boat that would ultimately grant him and his growing clientele steady access to Block Island’s burgeoning bass population. “I caught wind that one of my heroes, Dick Lema, was talking about building a bass boat unlike the MacKenzies and Brownells friends at Cuttyhunk were using,” says Anderson. “Lema envisioned a fiberglass 26-foot open [center console] boat that would carry an inboard gasoline engine. The Cuttyhunk guides were fanatical about gasoline engines, said you just couldn’t catch bass running diesels. And back then, a MerCruiser I/O was the inboard.

“When I saw the first hull — Dick had brought it down to Wickford Harbor — I fell in love,” he says. Lema’s concept drew on a proven hull, a wooden 26-foot bass boat designed and built by Manny Parece in Seekonk, Mass. Lema asked Parece to provide a plug of his classic 26-footer, then constructed the mold for what soon became Lema’s solid-fiberglass 26-foot Bonito open bass boat. The end result was an unusually high-sided bass boat with full transom.

“That was critical when the North Rip started snarling,” says Anderson. “With the top of the boat 5 to 6 feet above the water all the way around, my clients could lock their knees right under the coaming. Nice high sides kept anglers in the boat and much of the water out.”

Departing from the helm and deck configuration of the traditional Cuttyhunk-style bass boat — forward controls, enclosed bows and tiller steering — Lema moved the helm controls aft to a center console, freeing up bow space for a raised casting platform and providing captain and crew with 360-degree mobility. More important for Anderson’s agenda, part of which was running charters single-handed, was that the helm’s position roughly amidships would let him reach anglers (or return to the controls) in two or three easy strides. An 11-foot beam tapering to around 8 at the transom provided ample room for “fish-on” maneuvering.

Many pros, one big con

The ample freeboard on Anderson's current boat, a 42-foot Willis, helps keep anglers on board.

Fiberglass construction facilitated cleanup and routine maintenance, and reduced the weight associated with sodden wood, fetching Lema’s 26 considerably more speed from comparable I/O horsepower and better range per tank of fuel. All things considered, a damn fine fishing boat. A “perfect” boat? Any builder worth his salt knows there’s no such thing, just compromises and more compromises.

Every boat has its weakness, and Anderson quickly identified the Bonito’s. “My God, did that boat slam in a head sea,” he says. “Manny Parece’s bass boat was designed to carry weight forward — the enclosed bow and windshield, the helm — and thus lacked a sharper forefoot you see on many of today’s center consoles.”

When Lema was constructing the mold, Parece convinced him not to modify the forefoot, not to sharpen its entry to offset the changes in weight distribution. For all of her strengths, Anderson’s first Prowler could pound the fillings out of your teeth in a head sea.

In 1981, with storm clouds on the striper horizon, a substantial book of repeat business and a booming offshore fishery, Anderson recognized that he needed more boat underfoot, more comfort for clients and better range. Next month, we’ll take a look at the two boats he’s owned since.

See related article:

- The perfect fishing boat and the art of compromise. Part two

January 2013 issue