Embarking on the quest to find your perfect fishing boat is like diving into a vast sea of options. With countless types of fishing boats for sale, the journey can seem as long as a deep-sea angler’s fish tale. But fear not, fellow anglers, for we’ve crafted this delightful Fishing Boats Guide to be your trusted compass, steering you towards the vessel (and the fish) that aligns best with your needs and desires. So, sit back, reel in your anticipation, hoist the flag of informed decision-making and let us navigate the waves of fishing boat options together, guiding you towards the treasure trove of your ideal fishing companion.
Types of Fishing Boats
Different types of fishing boats range from small Jon boats used in ponds and inland lakes, to big offshore sport fishing boats that can venture many 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. Freshwater fishing boats tend to be lighter weight, have less freeboard (i.e. shorter height), a slim profile and shallower drafts than saltwater fishing boats. Additionally, many freshwater watercraft may be equipped with heavy duty carpeting and other materials that may be prone to faster deterioration in salt water.
Freshwater fishing boats include:
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. The come in many different shapes and designs, including side and center consoles, fish-n-skis, tiller steers, and multi-species dual consoles.
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.
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.
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.
Pontoon Boats Design For Fishing
You can find a number of pontoon boats that have purpose-built and designed from the bottom up to be used specifically for fishing. Fishing pontoon boats are a great platform for more casual anglers who want to relax as they crank on a reel. They offer stable casting platforms and plenty of onboard storage for tackle and rods, as well as ample room for large livewells and insulated fish boxes. Fishing pontoon boats have advanced greatly in their capability and onboard features over the past decade.
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. There are walleye boats made specifically for targeting that species, and there are even some boats designed just to target panfish like crappie. 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. Basic classes include:
Center Console Fishing Boats
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.
Dual console boats, often simply called “DCs,” have a steering station located on a starboard-side console and a passenger’s seat located behind a port-side console (i.e. two consoles). Although not designed at the outset for fishing, these kind of family-style boats can actually be set up for fishing as well, while providing some more comfort for those onboard who may not be throwing lines. This saltwater fishing boat is a popular choice for recreational cruisers and family anglers because the cockpit offers an additional console for storage (or a head), a comfortable “automotive-style” passenger seat to the port side of the driver and a dedicated bow seating area in front of the console. This is also a good cockpit layout and design for watersports boats, ski and wakeboarding boats, swimming, and other family-oriented activities.
Flats boats 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. They are often maneuvered via “poling” – where the captain pushes the boat along with a pole standing on a platform on the stern of the boat.
The term “skiff” 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. They are simplistic in nature with plenty of advantages for fishing, including reaching hard to reach fishing grounds and sandbars due to their shallow draft hulls and smaller outboard engines.
Convertibles and Sport Fishing Yachts (Sportfishermen)
Above: A 2012 Custom Convertible Sportfish Yacht for sale. Photo by Carrswood Yachts Limited in Palm Beach, FL.
There are no specific rules 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 used to catch sportfish species, you can call it a sportfishing boat. There are center console fishing boats, flybridge fishing boats, express sportfishing boats, 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.
Sportfishermen is a catch-all name that can be applied to many kinds of boats but is often used to refer to larger size sport fishing yachts used for saltwater sport fishing, including convertibles, express models and flybridge boats (mentioned earlier). It can also be used to describe boats in several sub-classes, such as “express boats” (offshore fishing boats that don’t have closed backs on their cabins but utilize canvas) or walk-arounds (boats with side passageways that go around to the bow area) or even center console fishing boats that are labeled sportfishermen.
Lobster Boats or Downeast 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.
Offshore Fishing Boats vs. Inshore Fishing Boats
Many of the above varieties of fishing boats may be used both offshore and inshore, for many different types of fishing. That said, there are some commonalities to boats that may be designed more or less for uses intended in the ocean versus in bays, rivers, and more protected waterways.
Offshore Fishing Boats
Above: A 2022 Contender 32 ST center console fishing boat for sale on Boat Trader with twin Yamaha outboard engines. Photo via Sovereign Yacht Sales in Stuart, FL.
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.
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, and have plenty of fuel capacity. 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 without running the tanks dry.
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.
Many inshore anglers also prefer casting lures, a tactic for which raised casting decks are ideal. Some 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.
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:
- 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.
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.
Which of these 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.
Editor’s Note: This article was last updated in May 2023.