If you were going to create the ideal boat for fishing Charlotte Harbor and Southwest Florida’s inshore waters, what would it look like? In the real world, every boat is a compromise — but if you found a genie’s lamp on the beach and he could build you an impossible boat, what would you want?
I know what my ideal boat would be like. It would run in the shallowest of waters, yet be stable and dry in heavy chop. It would be fast, but incredibly fuel-efficient. It would be big enough to bring a half-dozen passengers. It would have a high tower for spotting fish and underwater features at a distance, and still be able to creep under low bridges. It would have out-of-the-way storage for a couple dozen rods, a built-in fridge, a full-size head, comfortable seating for all aboard, and a 100-gallon livewell with an aquarium view. Oh, and it would be self-cleaning.
OK, that was a fun fantasy. In reality (which is where most of us live), these kinds of contradictory requirements simply can’t exist together. You want shallow capability and big-water competence? No. Compromise. You want extra features and creature comforts? OK — but they’re going to add a lot of cost and take up space, and some add a lot of weight as well.
So, let’s try this again. This time, we’ll focus on an actual, workable plan.
How shallow do you want to go? Most inshore fishermen want to be able to go as shallow as possible. There are single-purpose flats boats that can run in just a few inches of water. (Yes, airboats that can run at speed on damp grass, but these vessels are too extreme for most, so we’ll ignore them.)
So, do you want a tunnel-hulled Texas sled? Maybe, but probably not. You give up the ability to run through rougher waters. I know owners of these boats who won’t take them across the Harbor in a moderate chop. We’re talking about licensed captains here. If they know better, so should you.
Maybe a deeper vee-hull to cut into the waves? That’s super in open waters — but now you’re limiting your ability to get into the really skinny stuff.
All other things being equal, a boat that weighs less will float in shallower water. The best way to get a lighter boat is to go smaller, which is why many dedicated flats skiffs are pretty dinky. But small boats don’t have much room for passengers or storage, and they bounce around a lot more when it gets wavy.
Here’s the thing: No matter which hull you pick, there are going to be some things you can’t do, or at least can’t do comfortably. Look at some specs and pick a few that go shallow (I’d suggest a manufacturer’s claim of no more than a 12-inch draft). Then, schedule some sea trials, preferably for windy days.
A bigger engine gets you there faster. But a smaller engine weighs less and burns less fuel — and can also represent a very significant cost savings. What’s more important to you? From a recreational angling perspective, I’d suggest going with what the speed freaks would consider an underpowered engine. If the placard says the boat can can take a 250-horse motor, a 200 or even a 175 will probably be fine.
No, you won’t be winning many races. But you will be able to float a little shallower, and your gas bill will be less terrifying. Just don’t go too far with this idea. Hanging a truly underpowered engine on the back is no good. You’ll be running it too hard. I’d say the sweet spot is right around three-quarters of max horsepower.
No matter what size engine you pick, mount it on a hydraulic jack plate. This is one of the most important features for any boat that is expected to fish shallow water. The ability to pull your whole engine several inches straight up at the touch of a switch is a true game-changer. Do it.
From the perspective of fighting a fish, the ideal boat allows for maximum maneuverability on deck. That means nothing in the way — you know, those annoying things like towers, T-tops, seats, vertical rod holders, etc. Just a low and minimal center console, thank you.
But in the real world, there are going to be obstacles. Your boat is almost guaranteed to be used for other purposes, such as entertaining visitors and the occasional dinner cruise. And even the most die-hard angler appreciates shade on a hot sunny day, and a reasonably comfy seat when running from spot to spot.
Again, it’s all about compromise. What do you want or need, and what can you do without?
My suggestions for the well-equipped fishing boat: A T-top or tower serves multiple purposes in providing both shelter and storage — plus, in the case of the tower, a very useful spotting platform. Pop-up seats are nice if they’re built into the boat; if not, an inexpensive cushion turns a cooler into seat in seconds. If you plan to fish bait at all, a decent-size well (at least 20 gallons) with a recirculation pump and aerator will be most appreciated. Rod racks on the T-top are better than console racks for keeping things tidy and out of the way; just be sure you can reach them.
A bow-mounted trolling motor is almost indispensable. These can be had in basic manual control models or high-tech versions with remote controls, GPS anchoring and even self-deployment. I like the first two features, but motors with the third are not yet as reliable as I’d want. Be sure to get enough motor to pull your boat; that means 24-volt or 36-volt versions for anything bigger than a Gheenoe or jon boat.
While you’ll still need an anchor in the front well (really, you should have two just in case), for shallow fishing an anchor pin is very convenient. These are made in manual, electric and hydraulic models. Powered anchor pins are far more expensive, but deploy and stow with a button. Sometimes two are needed to hold position, but one will usually suffice. I’d suggest one hydraulic plus a manual for a backup.
Trim tabs are often overlooked, but once you have a boat that’s equipped with them, you’ll miss them if they aren’t there. Not only are they great for taming a pounding ride or evening out a side-to-side tilt, they also can keep you dry in a quartering sea by allowing you to tilt the boat away from the spray. Fishing or no, trim tabs make any boat better.
We could talk about fishfinder and GPS systems, but Capt. Cayle Wills covered that topic just a few weeks ago. To see his take on it, go to http://bit.ly/2FMbZwM.
Consider adding a raw-water washdown to your list. We all know that a good day of fishing is likely to leave your deck spattered fish slime and blood, and the longer that stays on there, the harder it is to get off. You can save yourself a big chunk of cleanup time by rinsing stuff off before it stains. By the way, a raw-water washdown can be very low-tech. Even a 5-gallon bucket will do.
OK, now for a cold hard reality: The best fishing boat will not make you a better fisherman. Sure, having all the tools and toys will help get you into the right places with greater safety and comfort — but none of it is going to hook or land the fish for you. Ultimately, that will always come down to a combination of your own luck and skill.
That said, it sure is nice to have a boat that will pretty much do what you want when you want, so you’re not constantly fighting with it. Next time, let’s take a look at building the ideal offshore boat. Spoiler alert: It’s going to be a very different vessel.
As the Fish Coach, Capt. Josh Olive offers personalized instruction on how and where to fish in Southwest Florida. Whether you’re a complete beginner or just looking to refine your techniques, he can help you get past the frustration and start catching more fish. Lessons can be held on your boat, on local piers or even in your backyard. To book your session or for more information, go to FishCoach.net, email Josh@FishCoach.net or call 941-276-9657.