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The Ultimate Fishing Boat

The unique demands of saltwater and freshwater fishing have helped shape boat accessory technology.

By Larry Bozka

Thirty-five miles southeast of Freeport, a sleek, 29-foot V-hulled cruiser glides smoothly over an endless horizon of gently rolling offshore swells. Growling from the transom with a hypnotic, synchronized rumble, twin 200-horsepower outboard engines push the gleaming sportfishing rig at a slow but steady trolling speed of eight to 10 knots.

Far back in the prop wash, a pair of brightly colored feather jigs dance just beneath the surface. The rainbow-colored lures trace the ragged edges of a thick, meandering weedline.

Dense patches of sargassum weed are essentially offshore shade trees. Bar jacks, blue runners and other diminutive baitfish dart in and out of the floating grass mat, clearly visible through polarized sunglasses.

Understandably, the little fish are skittish. King mackerel, cobia, dorado, wahoo and other predators love the coolness of the shade every bit as much as the readily available food source.

There’s shade on the boat, too. For that, the anglers aboard can credit the foresight of the owner. Summertime offshore fishing is a punishing test of human heat tolerance. It’s an unforgiving arena, one that savagely separates the purposefully prepared from the painfully sunburned.

Aside from the shade, the boat’s aluminum T-top also contains an important assemblage of electronics. Its custom fiberglass instrument box is loaded with angling electronics — a combination GPS/depthfinder unit with a color readout, a waterproof VHF radio and even a compact radar system.

On the aft starboard side, mounted atop the gunnel, is a sturdy but simple, hand-operated downrigger. Manufactured from corrosion-resistant components, the unit is designed to constantly withstand the salty rigors of trolling the Gulf.

The downrigger’s primary function is “controlled-depth fishing.” The downrigger does just what the term implies, holding the selected bait or lure at a precise depth based on the depthfinder readout, and accordingly, the exact position of gamefish in the water column below.

The depthfinder shows a concentrated school of sizable fish — most likely king mackerel — patrolling up-current around 50 feet deep. Following the cue, the captain quickly transfers one of the shallow-running “flatlines” to his downrigger system.

He cranks in the starboard-side feather jig, but stops the retrieve with the lure still trailing about 25 feet behind the boat. The line is affixed to a clip that, like a clothespin, holds it in place under the constant tension of slow-trolling. With the sharp impact of a strike, however, the downrigger clip will instantaneously release the line.

With the line clipped in place, the captain eases off the downrigger’s tension control. Monitoring the readout of the compact unit’s depth gauge, he loosens the tension on the downrigger’s narrow spool. A heavy, round “cannonball,” affixed to braided wire cable and fitted with a short, rudder-like fin to enhance its tracking, plummets toward the bottom. With this device goes the line and lure.

When the downrigger’s depth gauge shows 45 feet, the captain stops the spool and places the rod into the unit’s built-in rod holder. He knows from experience that fast-moving gamefish such as roving schools of kings are much more likely to attack lures presented from above.

Three minutes later, a fish literally rises to the occasion. The reel drag sounds off, the captain’s wife grabs the rod and the first of a half-dozen keeper king mackerel falls prey to the controlled-depth lure presentation.

From bow to transom, virtually everything on this amazingly versatile fishing rig has been thoroughly thought out. The configuration and number of rod holders, the comprehensive arsenal of angling electronics, the downrigger system, the placement of seats, the aluminum T-top and instrument box and even the dry storage and below-deck fish boxes were all critical prepurchase considerations for an experienced offshore captain who knew exactly what he needed and then went out and bought it.

The tricked-out 29-footer is, for the captain who runs it, “the ultimate fishing boat.”

That same summer day, about a hundred miles north of Dallas in temperatures no less forgiving, a wide, 21-foot V-hull boat carves a clearly defined wake in the clear green waters of 89,000-acre Lake Texoma. Unlike the aforementioned offshore rig, this heavily accessorized “striper boat” is powered by only a single outboard engine. A powerful electric trolling motor with an extra-long shaft is mounted on the bow.

The striper rig’s fuel tank is a little over half the size of the one on its offshore counterpart, holding 80 gallons instead of 150. It’s 8 feet shorter than the offshore boat, and weighs only about half as much.

Other than that, the accessories and outfitting of the two fishing craft are remarkably similar.

The striper boat sports an aluminum T-top, complete with gold-plated “rocket-launchers” on its rearward end to support a half-dozen rods and reels of various makes and designs. Though it doesn’t contain a radar unit, the T-top’s instrument box is likewise filled with sophisticated angling electronics. The GPS/depthfinder unit is slightly less powerful, rigged with a wide-angle transducer that’s designed to effectively scan 40-foot-deep lake waters instead of 20-fathom-deep offshore locales.

The striper boat carries, as all fishing boats should, a VHF radio coupled with a long, fiberglass “whip” antenna. The lengthy antenna provides a critical margin of additional range.

Cell phones are great, but on boats they are no replacement for a properly installed and functioning VHF radio. When a cell phone goes into the “Can you hear me now?” mode, or its battery loses its charge, a quality VHF is an invaluable asset.

Powered by a fully charged, 12-volt, deep-cycle accessory battery (the same kind that supports other angling electronics as well as electric trolling motors and portable 12-volt fluorescent “green light” systems for night fishing), a reliable VHF can usually prevent a communications breakdown.

Whether an angler is sharing or seeking news about the location of gamefish or calling a local marina, sheriff’s department or the U.S. Coast Guard to make a distress call, a VHF radio is a vital multipurpose tool. Channel 16 is the standard VHF communications channel; boaters use this frequency to establish contact with desired parties and then usually “move” to less-utilized channels.

Furthermore, virtually all modern VHF radios provide instantaneous access to current weather information. Way out in the Gulf or even in the middle of a sizable Texas lake (Sam Rayburn Reservoir, for example, covers more than 100,000 acres), a good VHF can be a lifesaver for conscientious boaters.

Like the offshore rig, the sharp-nosed 21-footer is fitted with a downrigger. Actually, it has two of them, one on the starboard and one on the port side. By using downriggers in tandem fashion, lake trollers can experiment with the placement of baits or lures at two different depths, and even run flatlines above if there are enough anglers to handle the drill when schooled-up fish suddenly strike in numbers. When one line starts drawing repeated strikes, the others are immediately adjusted to the same exact depth.

For the veteran striped bass guide who runs the well-maintained 21-foot center-console craft for well over 200 days a year, this boat — for his purposes, anyway — is indeed “the ultimate fishing boat.”

Specific fishing demands, more than anything, determine the makings of an “ultimate” rig. The striper boat just described is custom-designed to locate and catch striped bass. Nonetheless, for largemouth bass it would be in many ways unusable.

Bass boats represent perhaps the ultimate example of specialized fishing rigs. Ever since Kilgore-based Skeeter Boat Company introduced the first fiberglass bass boat in 1961, the evolution has been continual, becoming more and more refined with changes in angler needs and bass fishing methodology.

Like computers that must be occasionally upgraded to meet progressively higher software demands, bass boats (and all other styles of boats, for that matter) have experienced design modifications that accommodate the newest and most effective angling accessories and options.

Hull design and engine choice will always be significant considerations for boat buyers. All the same, it’s the options and accessories that create the makings of an “ultimate” fishing rig.

In the 1970s, an 18-foot bay or bass boat was considered a “big” hull. With time, both bass and bay boats have grown considerably. The average size of bay boats has risen to 21 to 23 feet, and many now serve double-duty in the summertime as lightweight “mosquito fleet” offshore rigs.

Some features that used to be options are now included as standard equipment. Livewell systems, in particular, have been greatly enhanced. Quality livewells are now incorporated into most every fishing boat on the market.

Livewells were initially developed for bass tournament anglers — competitive fishermen who had to either keep largemouth bass alive until weigh-in or lose precious points. When bass boat livewell technology was adapted for the saltwater market, the primary purpose of the live well shifted to the maintenance of live bait. Livewells keep the water oxygenated so that the fish in the tank will stay alive.

Either way, both groups have gained yet another edge in their respective sports. There is virtually no segment of the coastal fishing industry that has not positively benefited from advances in bass fishing research and development.

Electric trolling motors, once almost exclusive to freshwater bass boats, are now commonplace accessories on bay rigs. Manufacturers initially responded to coastal fishing demands with specially designed, corrosion-resistant units. Ultimately, most trolling motor makers added corrosion-resistant features to their entire product lineups. This is another example of how the demands of saltwater fishing have yielded tangible benefits for freshwater anglers.

In the saltwater arena, where the terms “shallow water” and “bay boat” have become nigh synonymous, boat buyers sometimes buy tunnel-hulled rigs for sheer bragging rights.

It’s an expensive and unwise move for anyone who doesn’t regularly navigate mostly protected, foot-deep flats.

Tunnel-style hull designs came of age in the early ’90s. Even though a tunnel hull enables the boat to travel faster across the water, it usually makes for a significantly rougher ride and tunnel-hulled craft only make sense for boaters who really need them for a specific reason. For Upper Texas Coast bay boaters, even those who commonly wade fish but need only 18 inches of draft at the least to access wadeable areas, the performance and efficiency of a standard V-hull is a much more sensible and cost-effective option than a tunnel hull.

Some options for your boat, just like leather seats in SUVs or six-speaker multiple-CD changers that rival the home stereo system, are essentially luxuries. Other optons, depending largely upon an angler’s chosen species and the waters he or she navigates to catch them, are absolutely essential.

There is a difference as vast as the Gulf of Mexico between a 29-foot offshore rig and a 21-foot bay boat. Yet, these boat styles and others share many similar features, all of them based upon on-the-water utility and practicality.

Virtually every major boat manufacturer has an extensive Web site that lists both standard and optional features on their craft. A careful assessment of those options, combined with the input of an established boat dealer and feedback from seasoned fishermen who run the boat in question, is all it takes to assess and eventually purchase the most appropriate rig — the one that, at least for you and your needs, is indeed “the ultimate fishing boat.”

Preventative Maintenance:

The Key to Avoiding Trailer Troubles

No element of a fishing rig is more critical, or more generally overlooked, than the trailer that carries the hull. Many a trip has been abruptly cancelled due to trailer troubles, most of which could have been avoided had the owner taken the time to practice preventative maintenance.

Trailer choices boil down to two options: two-wheel or four-wheel “tandem” trailers, and galvanized or painted steel.

The former choice is dependent on the size and weight of the hull and motor being towed. The latter option, unless the rig is going to be used exclusively in fresh water, usually comes down to spending the extra money on a corrosion-resistant galvanized trailer.

It’s important to note that a “galvanized” trailer actually equates to a galvanized frame. Wheels are sometimes, but not always, galvanized as well. As for lug nuts, trailer springs, axles, U-braces and other trailer features, they are almost invariably nongalvanized.

Left untreated, saltwater quickly corrodes nongalvanized metal surfaces. The problem is only magnified when boaters fail to give the trailer a thorough fresh water wash-down after every salt water trip.

As for “treatment,” it is actually best done while the boat is still in the water.

With the trailer unloaded, wash all of the surface area with freshwater from the nearest water hose. Allow it to dry; then spray a high-viscosity anti-corrosive coating to all possible surface areas, including the inside of the wheel wells. (Caution: Do not spray the top of the wheel wells, as the extremely slick surface creates an accident waiting to happen when someone tries to climb aboard by stepping on a wheel well.)

There are a variety of products on the market for trailer-treating purposes. However, the best I have found, and one that I have used for years, is CorrosionX HD (Heavy-Duty). It will leave a thick but nonhardening yellowish film on treated surfaces. However, cosmetics aside, it’s extremely effective as a reliable rust preventative.

Lastly, protect your wheel bearings with spring-loaded devices that push grease into the bearings, such as Bearing Buddies or a similar product. These devices shield trailer bearings from water intrusion and contain an extra level of bearing grease inside the housing.

A quick visual inspection of the wheels will show the amount of bearing grease used, and eventually indicate the need to add more. It’s recommended to carry a grease gun full of marine-grade grease with you, and add grease as necessary — especially on long tows. Some trailer manufacturers recommend filling the Bearing Buddies with grease after a long tow to the water before immersing the trailer; any air pockets will be expelled before water can fill the space and start to rust the bearings.

Outside of flashy models with pinstripes and chrome wheels, boat trailers invariably draw minimal attention. That’s commonplace, until a boater suddenly finds himself on the roadside with a blown-out tire and no spare, burned-out wheel bearings or a serious structural failure.

At that point it’s impossible not to think about the trailer, and specifically, why you didn’t take the time to make a modest investment to prevent a stressful, costly and sometimes dangerous incident that could have been so easily avoided.

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