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Buying a Bay Boat

Want to Buy a Bay Boat? Match the boat to each fishing scenario.

By Larry Bozka
Photography by David J. Sams

It’s Friday evening at the 2004 Houston Boat, Sport and Travel Show. The after-work crowd has arrived in force. Ahead of me shuffles a tired-looking, 40-something fellow still dressed in his business suit. There’s a lavishly appointed, 21-foot, center-console bay boat immediately to our right, and the sight of it stops him in mid-stride.

The man steps out of the aisle, lowers his briefcase to the floor and pulls a small spiral notepad from his jacket pocket. On a nearby easel rests a placard that profiles monthly payment plans. He scratches a few quick notes, stares pensively at the bright red rig and then turns to walk away.

Halfway down the aisle he stops again, looks back at the boat and sizes it up with a wistful gaze.

“So,” I ask him, “is it what you’re looking for?”

He hunches his shoulders and cracks a weak grin.

“At this point,” he says, “I honestly don’t have a clue.”

His trepidation is understandable. This week, during the traditional boat-show month of January, Reliant Center is hosting the biggest show-and-tell in town. A sparkling fleet of more than 1,200 boats is on display, and the sticker prices on many of the boats are right up there with those on new cars.

Although the boating industry as a whole is still suffering the economic downturn from 9/11, bay boat sales are booming. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department division of coastal fisheries reports that saltwater fishing licenses have been increasing at the rate of 2,000 a month, and many of those new anglers are buying boats. No other style of powerboat has witnessed such a remarkable degree of expansion and evolution in the past decade.

My new friend has come to the Houston Boat Show to buy a bay boat, but even within that seemingly narrow definition (it immediately excludes sailboats, motor yachts, pontoon boats, ski boats and bass boats), selecting a boat for bay and flats fishing remains an intimidating proposition.

As the quality and popularity of Texas coastal fishing has grown, bay and flats fishing rigs have become increasingly specialized. Picking the right bay boat is a little bit like picking the right fishing tackle. You don’t use a surf rod for sight casting to redfish in the flats. There is no ideal boat that fits every fishing situation, but for every fishing situation in Lone Star salt water, there is an ideal boat.

For the next half hour, we mull over the major options between Beaumont and Brownsville. We start south, on the super-shallow flats of the Lower Laguna Madre, and work our way up the coast.

Conquer the Shallows with a Scooter

Price range: $12,000 to $20,000

There is arguably no more specialized wade-fishing boat than the strange-looking but effective rig known as the “scooter.” Scooters were first built with fiberglass-coated plywood bottoms as flat as the Coastal Prairie. From there, they evolved into sophisticated, tunnel-hulled shallow-water wonders.

An ideal scooter is a 15-footer, and, like most boats intended for shallow-water use, it’s equipped with a hydraulic “jack plate” that raises and lowers the outboard engine, allowing the propeller to run efficiently in different depths. It’s fitted with a custom Tops-N-Towers poling platform, ideal for long-range viewing through polarized sunglasses when scouting the shores for tailing redfish and nervous bait.

Like all small scooters, it’s light — only 750 pounds — and as such can be trailered with a lightweight towing vehicle. While this craft is wide and stable, its primary drawback is the same as any boat with a scooter-style hull: It’s capable of handling rough water, but not comfortably.

On a glassy flat, however, it can plane three adult anglers over 6-inch-deep water like a waterborne glider. Because its deck is set low to the water, it’s ideal for the wading angler to step off and on.

Popular brands: Shallow Sport, Dargel, Shoalwater, BoatRight, Shallow Craft

Pole a Skiff to No-Man’s Land

Price range: $22,000 to $32,000

The back lakes of San Jose and Matagorda Islands, the remote lagoons out of Port O’Connor, Seadrift and Rockport, and even the tiny estuaries that spill out of major bays from Galveston to Sabine Pass comprise the “No Man’s Land” that, with the exception of kayakers and the most rugged of mud-slogging wade fishermen, are reserved for the pole-pushing fraternity of saltwater skiff owners. Typically 15 to 18 feet long, the saltwater poling skiff is made of lightweight fiberglass or Kevlar or a carbon-fiber laminate. These boats can weigh as little as 425 pounds and, because of their light weight, draw only 5 inches of water. They can be set up to carry 18 gallons of gasoline and are powered by fuel-efficient motors of 60 horsepower or less, yet they can achieve respectable speed.

Trim tabs offset varying loads, and freeboard carpet quiets the thud of dropped tackle and gear that might spook fish. These boats can be equipped with a 10-gallon live well that holds both bait and catch. These skiffs are favorites of fly-fishing purists.

When the water gets thin and a stealthy approach is imperative, the driver tilts up the prop, retrieves the push pole from a flush-mounted holder and pushes the boat towards tailing redfish for sight-casting by the angler in the bow.

Popular brands: Maverick, Hewes, Ranger, Action Craft, Carolina Skiff, Avocet

Try a Hybrid for Waters Green to Blue

Price range: $15,000 to $40,000

Between 18 and 25 feet long, the “hybrid” bay rig is a dual-purpose product of modern technology. By combining the features of V-hulls and flare hulls, boat manufacturers are making hybrid hulls that can perform in vastly different environments. Some hybrids sport broad-swept bows for better shallow-water entry; others emphasize the V-hull design for slicing through surface chop.

From my perspective, the best all-around hybrid — and most popular version — is a 21-foot, center-console V-hull with a dry-running Carolina flare configuration. But there are many other designs and makes that fit the bill.

Most all can be ordered in tunnel-hulled versions for shallow-water running. While tunnel hulls do help boaters run in the shallow water, their downside is that they cost the boat speed, maneuverability and fuel-efficiency. For my purposes in running the sometimes long distances on Galveston Bay, a tunnel hull is not required.

Here’s the way they’re typically set up: The center console allows round-the-hull mobility and is fitted with six flush-mount rod holders on each side. It can withstand a person’s weight, so it serves as a guide console from which you can gain an elevated view.

A leaning post, rather than a standard seat, looms over a large padded ice chest, which is used as a dry box. A small, cushioned deck mat at the base of the console lessens the leg-pounding impact when running through chop at high speed. Twin recirculating live wells maintain both baitfish and game fish. Four rod holders are welded to the post, and three more parallel rod tubes rest beneath the gunnels on both sides.

The beam is 8-1/2 feet, wide and stable. A powerful 24-volt bow-mounted electric trolling motor is the norm, but for purposes of a clutter-free deck I prefer remote-controlled units mounted on Lenco hydraulic trim tabs. Adjusted for shifting loads and changing water conditions, trim tabs are a major plus.

Dry storage boxes are incorporated fore, aft and beneath the bow. Storage locker lids are fitted with seal gaskets to prevent leakage. The stainless steel bow and gunnel cleats are recessed. All other hardware, including deck and console screws, is recessed, because anything that protrudes is a snagged fishing line waiting to happen.

The stern is low, perhaps with a recessed gunnel on one side, for easy entry when wade fishing. Climbing into a boat with high gunnels is no simple feat; a fixed transom step-up or, at the least, a removable ladder, is an appreciated amenity.

A minimum of 60-gallon, and preferably 80- to 100-gallon, fuel capacity opens the possibilities for fishing trips from inshore coves to ship-channel jetties and, on calm days, offshore weed lines and production platforms.

This boat is indeed a hybrid, one that, in the right conditions, can virtually do it all. As such it’s the rig most saltwater anglers ultimately buy, as versatile and seaworthy as Texas saltwater is unpredictable and diverse.

A hybrid bay boat is also the toughest to choose. There are a dozen-plus favorite makes, and several times that many more alternatives.

Popular brands: Kenner, Skeeter, Triton, Proline, El Pescador, Blue Wave, Gulf Coast, Pathfinder, Bay Stealth, Boston Whaler, Grady- White, Mako, Parker, Scout, Majek, Mowdy, TranSport, Champion, Ranger, Angler, Century, Sea Pro, Polar, Sea Hunt, Cobia, Robalo, Trophy, McKee, Hawk, BayMaster, Bay Hawk, Flatlander, Bayquest, Nitro

Consider the Economy of Aluminum

Price range: $7,500 to $20,000

If the goal is to hug the shore, access shallow water and, above all, to tow a rig on long hauls with a six-cylinder pickup or even a medium-sized car, aluminum shines.

Aluminum boats range in size from 15 to 21 feet, with 17 feet being a great compromise. And again, make no mistake, every boat-buying decision requires compromise.

An inexpensive 12-volt trolling motor, preferably a corrosion-resistant model, can be fitted for chasing working birds or scouting surface slicks. Four PVC rod holders are fitted to the transom, with as many more on the small center console.

A 48-quart ice chest mounted with deck brackets near the bow serves as a dry box. Another chest immediately forward of the console holds either fish or, rigged with a 12-volt Burgess aerator, live bait.

A 40-horsepower engine is miserly with the fuel that’s carried in twin 6-gallon tanks beneath the rear deck. If the budget is really tight, the console can go. Many a Texas bay angler goes from spot to spot while steering a tiller-operated outboard. It’s not nearly as convenient as a console with a wheel, but it gets the job done, and that, in any case, remains the prime consideration of the saltwater boat angler.

Popular brands: BoatRight, Allweld, Monark, Sea Ark, Tracker, Alumacraft, Xpress, G3, Fisher, Weldcraft

Peruse before you cruise

A reputable dealer will answer questions thoroughly and honestly, and won’t hesitate to allow the buyer as much time as it takes to understand the nuances of owning a new boat. He or she also won’t hesitate to let you take a test drive. Consider the following checklist when talking with boat dealers.

Does the boat have adequate dry storage, and just how “dry” is it? Every inch of deck space and deck storage counts.

How much weight, and how many passengers, do you need to accommodate?

Will you fish at anchor, drift-fish or wade-fish? Low-profile hulls are far more efficient for slow drifting. Low sterns and hull sides also make it much easier for waders to get in and out.

How far will you travel to and from your fishing locale? Aside from fuel and range considerations, comfortable ride plays an important role here.

What is the towing capacity of your vehicle? If it’s on the light side, consider a smaller hull or perhaps an aluminum rig.

Are rod holders built-in or an optional accessory? This seems minor, but for some styles of fishing, rod holder positioning and style are surprisingly important.

Will you drive the boat sitting down or while standing? Almost all boaters prefer the latter, thus the growing popularity of “leaning post” configurations.

Does the boat come with a Bimini-style canvas shade or an aluminum/fiberglass “T-Top?” Biminis are great for stopping the sun, but they tend to get in the way of anglers who fish from their boats. T-Tops allow for the mounting of VHF radios, depth finders and other electronic accessories, but can impede access beneath bridges and inside low-roofed storage areas.

Does the manufacturer offer a warranty? Can it be extended to a second owner should you choose to sell the rig?

Will you also use the boat for water-skiing? If the family is pressing for a ski boat, check out the various fish-and-ski hybrids.

What about console design? The vast percentage of today’s bay boaters run center-console hulls, due to increased fishing space and round-the-hull rod maneuverability. Walk-through windshield designs are the norm on fish-and-ski rigs, and perform fine for at-anchor fishing, particularly jetty fishing.

How much horsepower is enough? Check the manufacturer’s maximum rating. Larger engines, provided they are operated at reasonable speeds, are sometimes more fuel-efficient than less powerful outboards that must be run at higher rpms to achieve the same speed.

If You Choose It, Use It

For the devout, but impatient, angler, a new boat can be a seductive, but obscenely expensive, siren. But no boat is the right boat unless the buyer uses it enough to justify the effort and expense. The initial purchase is only the first step. Factor in insurance, licensing, storage, electronics, fishing-related accessories, fuel and maintenance, and you’re getting closer to the real cost. If you’re only going fishing two or three times a year, you might be better off spending your money on one of the coast’s many qualified fishing guides. On the other hand, if you’re an angler who knows your needs and you are certain you can make the time to use your boat on a regular basis, the freedom afforded by ownership is virtually priceless.

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