Fishing Boats Guide: Choosing the Right Fishing Boat

There are many types of fishing boats out there on the water and finding the best one for you, personally, can be a long process. That’s why we created this Fishing Boats Guide – to help you narrow down the choices and make a smart pick.

A great center console fishing boat, the Fisherman 236.

The right fishing boat for you depends on your fishing needs.

Types of Fishing Boats

Different types of fishing boats range from small jon boats used in ponds and inland lakes, to big offshore sportfishing boats that can venture dozens of miles off the coast, relatively far from land. Which of these types of fishing boats is ideal for your needs depends entirely on the types of waters you fish in, the marine species you’ll be targeting, and of course your budget.

Breaking the field down into freshwater fishing boats and saltwater fishing boats, the different basic popular types of fishing boats include the following:

Freshwater Fishing Boats

Freshwater fishing boats, as the name implies, are vessels design specifically for fishing in fresh water only, as opposed salt water. Fresh water fishing boats tend to be lighter weight, have less freeboard (i.e. shorter height), a slim profile and shallower drafts than salt water fishing boats. Additionally many freshwater watercraft may be equipped with heavy duty carpeting and other materials which may be prone to faster deterioration in salt water.

Aluminum Fishing Boats

Relatively small and light-weight, aluminum fishing boats are often used on ponds, lakes and rivers. They’re inexpensive, easy to tow on a trailer, and can be found in different designs and layouts intended to pursue specific fisheries.

Bass Boats

Bass boats are one of the most popular types of freshwater fishing boats on the water – no surprise there, since bass are the most popular freshwater fish species among anglers. Since they’re so incredibly popular, we’ll dig a little deeper into angler boats designed specifically for bass fishing. Most importantly, any boat shopper should understand that the best bass boats are highly-specialized bass fishing machines.

When largemouth bass is the quarry, nothing beats a bass boat.

When largemouth bass is the quarry, nothing beats a bass boat.

The best bass fishing boat is going to have lots of power so you can beat competitors to the hotspots; it will be low-slung so you can swing those bass right over the gunwales or reach down and grab them by the lip; and it’s designed for a pair of anglers because competitive bass anglers fish in pairs, so even on many large models three’s a crowd.

When it comes to targeting largemouth bass, period, nothing can compete with a dedicated bass boat. However, bass boats aren’t always the best choice for those who like to fish with a large group of friends, hit the lake one day and go to a saltwater bay the next, or use the boat to tow the kids on wakeboards and water-toys.

If you’ve decided a bass boat is the right boat for you, there are still plenty of decisions to make. They come in both fiberglass and aluminum models, range in size from 16 to over 20 feet in length, and can be found more or less comprehensively equipped with a range of features like electronics, livewells, and electric trolling motors.

Jon Boats

The term “Jon boats” is sort of a catch-all name used to describe most small, open, simple, flat-bottom boats. These are very versatile and utilitarian. They’re also among the least expensive fishing boats in existence, so naturally, they’re quite popular as well.

aluminum jon boat for fishing and anglers.

A small, simple aluminum jon boat is the perfect, if simplistic, fishing boat, for many anglers.

Of course, there are many other sub-categories and niche-oriented freshwater fishing boats. There are fish-and-skis made for people who enjoy water sports as much as fishing. You can find fishing pontoon boats that are great for casual anglers who want to relax as they crank on a reel. There are walleye boats made specifically for targeting that species, and there are even some boats designed just to target panfish like crappie.

This Sun Tracker Fishin' Barge 20 DLX has rod holder, livewells, fishing chairs, and more. Just add fish.

This Sun Tracker Fishin’ Barge 20 DLX has rod holder, livewells, fishing chairs and more.

It’s important to understand that as fishing boat designs become more and more specific to any one type of fishing, they become less and less versatile. Some people’s fishing interests are very targeted, and for them, a specialized boat makes sense. But if you want a boat appropriate for numerous different activities, be careful not to choose one that’s so focused on a specific species or style of fishing that you can’t use it for others.

Saltwater Fishing Boats

Saltwater fishing boats are built to withstand harsh ocean conditions and the corrosive nature of salt water. Generally they are designed with increased stability, strength and durability than freshwater fishing boats, although they vary in size and hull shape.

Center Consoles

Center console boats have a steering station in the middle of the boat, and an open deck all around. Small ones are often used for fishing on protected bays, larger ones regularly venture into the ocean, and many people feel they’re the best type of inshore fishing boat around.

An Everglades Center Console Fishing Boat

Center console meets bay boat meets offshore fishing machine, in the Everglades 273cc.

Convertibles

Convertibles are large fishing boats usually intended for offshore or open-water use. They have a flying bridge with a steering station, which is often enclosed by removable clear-canvass or Isinglass curtains (hence their name).

Dual Consoles

Dual console boats, often simply called “DCs,” have a steering station at a starboard-side console and a passenger’s seat behind a port-side console. This type of saltwater fishing boat is a popular choice for family anglers, because it offers a bow cockpit with seating in front of the consoles and is also a good design for watersports, swimming, and other family-oriented activities.

Flats Boats

These are a specialized breed of small boats with very shallow drafts and large casting decks, used specifically for fishing flats, shallow bays, and the back-country.

Flats boats are highly-specialized fishing machines.

Flats boats are highly-specialized fishing machines.

Flybridge Boats

Flybridge boats have an upper deck and steering station built on top of the main cabin. Some are convertibles and others have enclosed upper cabins, but in either case, these are usually large boats intended for offshore use.

A 1974 Bertram 31 with Flybridge for fishing.

A 1974 Bertram 31 with Flybridge for fishing.

Skiffs

This term is used to describe any open, small fishing boats. Although there’s no official cut-off, most people would consider a boat under 18 feet in length to be a skiff.

Though they’re simplistic in nature, skiffs have plenty of advantages for fishing.

Though they’re simplistic in nature, skiffs have plenty of advantages for fishing.

Sport Fishermen

Sportfishermen is a catch-all name that can be applied to virtually any boat used for sport fishing, such as convertibles and flybridge boats. It can also be used to describe boats in several sub-classes, such as expresses (offshore boats that don’t have a flybridge) or walk-arounds (boats with sidedecks going around a forward cabin).

saltwater sportfishing

Can anyone put a value on the joys of recreational fishing?

Sportfishing Boats

There’s no rule as to what constitutes a sportfishing boat and what doesn’t, but as a general rule of thumb, if a boat is large and seaworthy enough to venture out onto open bodies of saltwater and you use it to catch sportfish, you can call it a sportfishing boat. That means there are center consoles, flybridge boats, expresses, and all kinds of other boats you could accurately term “sportfishing boats.” Of course, there’s a world of difference between a 20-foot center console used on a coastal bay and a 35-foot convertible that makes 50 mile runs to the offshore canyons.

Offshore Fishing Boats

If you’re wondering, “what kind of boat do I need for offshore fishing?” then note that larger center consoles (usually those from the mid-20-something-foot range and up) are considered adequate, but big flybridge boats and convertibles are usually thought of as the ultimate in deep sea fishing boats. Many people also believe that having twin engines is a must when running a boat outside sight of land.

Are they going fishing? Cruising? Entertaining? Yes, yes, and yes.

Dual outboards engines are always a good idea on an offshore fishing boat like this.

Offshore fishing may require long cruises to the hotspots – from some ports, the offshore angler boats run for 50, 60, or even 70-plus miles one-way. And of course, recreational sportfishing boats aren’t intended to spend days at a time offshore like commercial swordfish boats or long-liners. So it’s important that a sportfishing boat that’s going to be used offshore be fast and comfortable. Fortunately, most of the best sportfishing boats built in recent years have enough speed to get out to the fishing grounds and back again in short order.

Inshore Fishing Boats

Inshore sportfishing boats also have some special requirements, which are quite different from those on boats used for offshore fishing. In many cases, the best fishing spots are located in the shallows, or you may need to cross over shallows to get to them. This depends in great part on geography, and where you do your fishing. As a result, in many parts of the nation having a shallow draft becomes imperative.

Inshore Fishing Boats

Inshore fishing boats have their advantages with smaller drafts and maneuverability.

Many inshore anglers also prefer casting lures, a tactic for which raised casting decks are ideal. Center consoles in the 20- to 26-foot range designed specifically for these sorts of tasks (commonly called “bay boats”) often have semi-V hulls as opposed to deep-Vs, to reduce draft and enhance stability. A semi-V hull, however, isn’t always as apt at smoothly splitting open large waves and the trade-off in some cases may be a rougher ride when the seas kick up.

As is true with bass boats, however, the more specialized a boat you choose the less versatile it’s likely to be. That big convertible which is so well-suited to offshore fishing is too large to be trailered to new waters. The twin-engine center console that’s great out on the ocean and bay probably draws too much water for light-tackle casting in the shallows. And that inshore fishing boat that performs admirably in coastal bays may prove exceedingly uncomfortable if you take it through the inlet and out into the open ocean in rough weather.

There are plusses and minuses to every fishing boat design, so it’s important to consider the advantages and disadvantages of each before you make any decisions.

Lobster Boats

Lobster boats, also known as “downeast” boats, are a rather unusual type of fishing boat that some anglers will want to consider. These are the fishing boats you see that look more or less like they have commercial boat heritage, with relatively slow but stable hulls, a cabin forward, and an open cockpit aft. That’s because the basic design does derive from old workboats used for lobstering and other methods of commercial fishing.

Unlike most modern fishing boats, lobster boats are usually powered with inboard engines. This limits lobster boats mostly to bay and ocean anglers who don’t mind traveling slowly and don’t need to get into shallow water. They’re a unique type of fishing boat and though they may have a number of limitations, many people who don’t even go fishing much gravitate towards them thanks to their classic lines and historic appeal.

Fishing Boat Equipment

Part of what makes a fishing boat ideal for catching fish is the way it’s equipped. Naturally, there’s a lot of variation between the different sizes and styles of fishing boats, but virtually all will have some form of:

  • Fishing rod holders and/or fishing rod storage lockers
  • Livewells or baitwells to keep the catch and/or bait alive and kicking
  • Coolers or fishboxes for keeping food, drinks, and/or fish chilled
  • Integrated tackle boxes or tackle box storage

Along with these items, different styles of fishing boats will have specific accouterments designed to help you be an effective angler. In fact, top angler boats that are used for freshwater fishing (including bass boats) often have:

  • Swiveling fishing seats
  • High-tech fishfinders
  • Electric trolling motors

Sportfishing boats used in saltwater also boast advanced fish-finding electronics but they rarely have swiveling seats, and only sometimes have electric trolling motors. However, the majority of them also include:

  • Chartplotters, radar, and other long-distance navigational gear that helps you get to distant hotspots
  • Large insulated fishboxes that can hold pelagic species
  • Toe-rails, for additional stability when standing and fishing on a pitching deck
  • Coaming bolsters (padding) so you can lean comfortably on the inwales while fishing
  • Raw-water washdowns
  • Rocket launchers and trolling rod holders

And if those sportfishing boats are used offshore, you can add these items to the list:

  • Outriggers
  • Elevated upper stations and/or tuna-towers
  • Stand-up rigging stations

As boats get even more specialized, you may find equipment like downrigger mounts and downrigger ball holders, electric reel power outlets, or even deck designs meant to accommodate specific types of fishing – like flush foredecks with no obstructions, which are ideal for fly fishing.

The Bayliner Elemet F18 Fishing Boat

Family fishing on a Bayliner Elemet F18 Fishing Boat. Photo courtesy of Bayliner.

While everyone wants to find a fishing boat that’s the ultimate platform for their own purposes, one shouldn’t exclude a boat from his or her short-list just because it may lack one or more of these items. Aside from design features most of this equipment can be added to an almost-perfect boat, to turn it into your own personal ideal fishing machine.

So: which of these many types of fishing boats will be the best for you? That’s a question only you can answer. But now that you know about all these different types of fishing boats, you can match up the information with your personal fishing preferences and make the right choice.

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