The Ver­sa­tile Bay Boat

THIS POP­U­LAR BOAT STYLE HAS PLENTY TO OF­FER FOR THE COASTAL AN­GLER. Does the per­fect coastal fish­ing boat re­ally ex­ist? Judg­ing by me­te­oric sales fig­ures of bay mod­els, and the fact that more and more builders are join­ing the fray, the an­swer is a re­sound

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CAPT. DAVE LEAR

What makes a bay boat such a ver­sa­tile choice for an­glers is a com­bi­na­tion of things: lots of fish­ing room, a wealth of fish­ing fea­tures, and the thought­ful de­sign and rig­ging that af­ford an­glers the flex­i­bil­ity to go from the shal­low grass flats to blue water, when the seas al­low. “You’re not go­ing to pole a bay boat, but it does func­tion well in shal­low water with a trolling mo­tor. And, in the right con­di­tions, you can go from 12 inches of water to 1,200 feet be­cause you have the right tool to do both,” says Char­lie Johnson of Mav­er­ick Boat Group — builder of Pathfinder’s 22- to 26-foot bay boats — in Fort Pierce, Florida.

All bay boats are ba­si­cally cen­ter con­soles, which makes cast­ing and fol­low­ing a hooked fish around the boat a cinch, and they come in two ba­sic lay­outs: one in­cludes an open bow and cock­pit, the other has an ex­pan­sive for­ward cast­ing deck and usu­ally a smaller deck in the rear. Pathfinder of­fers both, and mod­els with the for­ward cock­pit in­cor­po­rate raised

U-shaped seat­ing with dry stor­age un­der­neath, plus an in­sert that fills the gap be­tween the seats, con­vert­ing the space into a cast­ing deck.

When it comes to hull de­signs, many bay boats in­te­grate a tran­som pocket or tun­nel, which fa­cil­i­tates take­offs and nav­i­ga­tion in shal­low water with the mo­tor raised, and the larger mod­els have enough cock­pit free­board to ven­ture off­shore. Stepped hulls are a more re­cent trend. The steps help re­duce fric­tion from the water by adding more ven­ti­la­tion un­der the hull, re­sult­ing in bet­ter fuel ef­fi­ciency and im­proved per­for­mance.

Aside from am­ple stor­age, in-deck or un­der the seats, the most de­sir­able fea­tures for an­glers in­clude lean­ing-post­style helm seat­ing with tackle stor­age and a rocket launcher on the back­rest to keep rigged rods at arm’s length; at least one large, in­su­lated fish box (prefer­ably long enough for a cou­ple of big pelagics); hor­i­zon­tal rod stor­age un­der the cov­er­ing boards; and one or more siz­able livewells with water ex­change and re­cir­cu­la­tion to keep a large sup­ply of bait frisky.

Pathfinder boats, says Johnson, come with all that as stan­dard equip­ment, as well as a hy­draulic jack plate, which al­lows the en­gine to be raised ver­ti­cally to re­duce draft and fine-tune the ride for op­ti­mum per­for­mance, ei­ther a T-top or hard­top to pro­vide pro­tec­tion from the el­e­ments, and more.

Capt. Richard Rut­land (cold­blooded fish­ing.com) is an avid tour­na­ment com­peti­tor who also guides up to three char­ter clients aboard his Con­tender 25 Bay through­out Alabama’s Mo­bile Bay sys­tem. Although most of his char­ter trips are within 20 miles from shore, Rut­land has been as far as 57 miles out from Dauphin Is­land. “I’m re­ally im­pressed with the stepped hull on my Con­tender,” Rut­land says. “It has a soft, cush­ioned ride, I’m get­ting up to 4.2 miles per gal­lon with the 300 hp Yamaha, and my top-end is 60 miles per hour. I also have an in­cred­i­ble range with the 96-gal­lon fuel tank.”

Rut­land also says the large for­ward cast­ing deck eas­ily ac­com­mo­dates three an­glers. The U-shaped tran­si­tional step on the bow cen­ter­line houses an in­su­lated com­part­ment. That low­ered space is a re­as­sur­ing spot for those with bal­ance is­sues, and the 180-quart fish box will keep three cobia or a four-man limit of red snap­per on ice.

Ac­cord­ing to Rut­land, his boat has ver­ti­cal racks for up to 10 rods strad­dling the con­sole, and un­der­gun­wale racks where he keeps fly rods, plus a gaff and deck brush. The lean­ing post in­cludes a 30-gal­lon livewell and holds two more rods, typ­i­cally rigged with pitch baits for cobia. In ad­di­tion, a raw-water wash­down sys­tem in the stern comes with a quick dis­con­nect to keep the decks clean.

“The boat comes with one big well and a smaller one for crus­taceans on the rear cast­ing deck,” Rut­land ex­plains. “But I had both com­bined into a sin­gle 52-gal­lon well, so I can keep two red­fish and five trout alive dur­ing tour­na­ments.” The wells are rigged with re­cir­cu­lat­ing ca­pa­bil­ity, which helps keep bait alive when he moves from salt to brack­ish water, or vice versa.

Capt. Charles Bal­lard is an­other guide who chose a bay boat for his char­ter busi­ness. He chases cobia along the beaches, fishes wrecks in hun­dreds of feet, and even runs out to the Gulf Stream, and he went with a Yel­lowfin 26 Hy­brid rigged with a tower and a sec­ond helm sta­tion to spot fish and keep an eye on trolled baits. “It cuts through the waves and rides like a cus­tom sport-fisher,” he says. “It has enough room for three an­glers and a mate, and tall-enough gun­wales so clients can lock their knees in when fight­ing fish.”

Bal­lard doesn’t go real skinny of­ten. “Most of my in­shore trips are in Pam­lico Sound for bull reds,” he says. A 36-volt Minn Kota Ul­terra trolling mo­tor on the bow let’s him fish the shal­lows or hold over wrecks us­ing the Spot-lock an­chor-mode fea­ture.

Bal­lard claims he has enough rod stor­age to stock a vir­tual tackle store; a for­ward, oversize fish box that eas­ily stores the day’s catch; and no short­age of bait ca­pac­ity. “I have a 55-gal­lon livewell in the lean­ing post where I usu­ally keep men­haden, and a 40-gal­lon one in the deck to hold blue­fish overnight when I’m fish­ing king mack­erel tour­na­ments.”

So, is it re­ally pos­si­ble for one boat to han­dle all your coastal fish­ing needs? Per­haps. With the evo­lu­tion of bay and hy­brid mod­els, many sure come pretty darn close.

Fea­ture-rich Most bay boats of­fer a wealth of fish­ing-re­lated fea­tures and op­tions.

By Capt. Dave Lear Bay boats are like SUVS for the water.

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