Let me guess: You’re looking for a boat that will run the flats in 5 inches of water, get you safely out 30 miles in the Gulf after grouper, tow the kids tubing, fit the whole family for cruising, run comfortably and dry in any sea conditions, and return 5 miles to the gallon at 40 knots. Sounds great, right?
But you’ll be doing a lot of looking, because that perfect boat doesn’t exist. Every boat design involves compromise. And no matter what you boat you end up with, it’s capabilities will be a compromise.
Now, that doesn’t mean you can’t find a boat that’s versatile. You just need to be aware of its limitations. You can take your 18-foot flats skiff 15 miles offshore — as long as it’s a very calm day, with no storms or fronts or wind in the forecast. Even then, it’s a good idea to use the buddy system and get another boat to come out with you.
A boat is a major purchase, and as with any major purchase you should do your research and then make a careful, informed choice. Spur-of-the-moment decisions are rarely the best ones. Whether you’re looking at a new or used boat, always take it for a sea trial (test ride, for the non-nautical). If you can, choose a breezy day for the trial. A piece of plywood will run smooth and dry on a calm day.
Decide what you want your boat to do. If you want to do some hardcore flats fishing, you need a boat designed to run and float in shallow water. Again, be aware of the vessel’s limitations. Flats skiffs are usually small and lightweight, and don’t offer a lot of room for comfy cruising with passengers. Maybe you’re thinking, “What will I do when the family comes to visit? They won’t all fit in this little boat.”
Well, that’s true. But they aren’t the ones making the payment. They’re not going put gas in it. They probably won’t even help you clean it after the trip. And they won’t be there when you’re kicking yourself for buying a boat that runs too deep to fish the flats. Better idea: Get the boat that works for you, and rent a big cushy one when the kids come down for a week. They’ll be happy for the week, and you can be happy the rest of the year.
Maybe you’re looking for a boat that will fish and cruise. Deck boats are good all-rounders. They’re similar to pontoon boats, but there’s a fiberglass vee-hull under the deck instead of hollow metal tubes. Fishing-style deck boats usually have passenger seating on the side or center and a trolling motor up front. Cruising-style boats offer seating in the bow as well. Most deck boats will float in about 14 inches of water, and the vee-hull means they can run through rough water when necessary (although it might not be a dry ride).
Some modern pontoon boats have been designed for speed. These boats have pontoons shaped more like canoes than tubes, and are able to actually get up on plane. Pontoon boats boast a lot of space, and that space can be customized almost any way you want it. If you’re looking at these boats, be sure to get one built for saltwater use. Freshwater pontoon boats have very short lifespans in marine conditions.
Center console bay boats generally offer the ideal compromise ride. With deep vee-hulls and concave bows, these vessels are designed to cut through waves and deflect spray away from those on board. A relatively shallow draft means you can also fish the flats — at least sometimes. They aren’t the best choice in really skinny water, unless you like spending time stuck on sandbars. But equipped with a hydraulic jack plate and a trolling motor, these are your all-rounders.
If you’re planning to spend a lot of time in the open Harbor or the Gulf, you might want a real offshore boat. These start at about 24 feet and go up to … well, how big is your budget? Many are inboards, though outboard motors have become a lot more popular in this category. Twin outboards used to be a big deal, but now you’ll see many boats with three or four. Buying one of these will set you back about the same amount as buying a home, but they sure are nice when the wind picks up.
There are a lot of different boats out there, and it’s impossible to determine what a particular vessel can or can’t do just by looking at it. Boat design is as much art as it is science (and maybe a little magic). Two boats that look a lot alike can be completely different on the water. You don’t want to waste a lot of money on a boat that disappoints.
Your best resource here is other boat owners. Don’t just ask the dealer. After all, he wants to sell you a boat. Talk to charter captains, tackle shop staff, people at the marina or boat ramp. Join an Internet forum (start with TheHullTruth.com and Forums.FloridaSportsman.com) or Facebook group. There’s no such thing as a truly unbiased opinion, but the more information you have, the more likely you are to be happy with your decision in the long term.
Robert Lugiewicz is the manager of Fishin’ Frank’s Bait & Tackle and a co-host of Radio WaterLine every Saturday from 7 to 9 a.m. on KIX 92.9 FM. For more information about the shop or for local fishing tips, call 941-625-3888 or visit FishinFranks.com.