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Buy a boat: A fishing craft opens most productive waters

by Bryan Hendricks | June 18, 2020 at 2:47 a.m.
Two-man bass boats made of tough ABS plastic are small enough to carry in a pickup truck, enabling anglers to fish waters that bigger boats can’t reach. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Bryan Hendricks)

We've learned how to fish high, low and in the middle of the water. We've selected our rods and reels, and we have filled a few boxes with lures. All that's left is to obtain a fishing vessel to take us to the best fishing places.

It is peculiar that bank fishermen try to cast as far into the water as they can while anglers in boats try to cast as close to the bank as they can. You can certainly catch a lot of fish from the bank or from the water, but you can reach a lot more of the bank from a boat. A boat also gives you access to all of the offshore cover and structure that you cannot reach from the bank.

This is where the fishing journey can get dicey. Your decision can bring joy, distress or even heartbreak, so it is important to choose wisely. Since this is a beginner's fishing series, we recommend choosing a boat suited to a novice angler's needs.

With their wide decks and inherent stability, bass boats are the most comfortable and most user-friendly fishing platforms, but their high cost makes them a poor choice out of the gate for novices. However, you can find old bass boats in fairly good repair for reasonable prices. The motor on a 15- to 20-year-old boat might be underpowered by today's standards and the electronics may be archaic, but if everything works, it's all you need and then some. My first bass boat was a vintage 1971 Ranger, and I used it a lot. I upgraded to a 1982 Cajun Brat with a new 40-horsepower Nissan outboard, and used it to fish all over Arkansas and Missouri.

From there, I regressed. In 2006, I obtained a War Eagle 1542 with a 25-hp Yamaha two-stroke engine. It is the only boat I have had since. I've upgraded my graphs a few times, but otherwise it is still in its original configuration. Mark Hedrick of Little Rock, a well-known angler in Central Arkansas, has an identical rig, and he still uses it occasionally.

If you're starting with a small budget, I recommend a plain aluminum flatbottom boat. You can get them new at several big-box retailers for only a few hundred dollars. Some are small enough to carry in a pickup truck bed, but that size boat is suitable only for ponds.

For lakes and rivers, you want a longer boat, and for a few hundred dollars extra you can get a nice trailer, new or used. For years, Bill Eldridge of Benton used a small Alumacraft flatbottom with a 9.9-hp Mercury all over the state, including on the White River when eight generators were running. In the hands of a skilled boater, it was perfectly safe.

Depending on the size of the boat, you can run it with a 6- to 20-horsepower motor. You can buy motors new, but it's easy to find lightly used motors in good repair for very reasonable prices. You might have to rebuild a carburetor and replace a water pump, but those are small investments that will help ensure years of dependable service.

The main thing to remember with two-cycle outboards is that you must mix fuel with gas. Most outboards run on a mixture of 50 parts fuel to 1 part oil (50:1), but my Yamaha runs on a 100:1 mixture. Tape it on the cowling if necessary and adhere to it.

If you plan to fish small lakes and ponds, a little two-man bass boat made of ABS plastic is an excellent choice. It fits comfortably in a regular-size pickup bed, and it is available in several styles. The most popular is a semi-pontoon style with high-rise seats. There is a place on the bow for a small trolling motor and a plate on the back for a small outboard. Add a trolling motor battery and a couple of tackle boxes, and it is very cramped.

One of these was my first gas-powered boat, and I took it all over Beaver Lake, even in really rough water, which it did not handle well. A better choice is the deep hull style. New models have battery boxes, small storage bins and even lights for night use. I upgraded to an early model of this type called Bass Tender, powered by a 3-hp, air-cooled Tanaka outboard. It was deafening, but I used it to fish all over Northwest Arkansas, and especially at Lake Nimrod. It would go almost anywhere. It just didn't go anywhere fast.

For a more generous budget, an aluminum bass boat is an excellent compromise. Some are very roomy, with many of the accoutrements found on professional grade bass boats. They come with carpeted decks, aerated livewells, appropriately powered outboards, ample storage, good trolling motors and other features to enhance a day on the water with friends or family. Tracker is the ubiquitous brand and is available in many trim packages, but Monticello-based War Eagle and Monticello-based SeaArk make aluminum bass boats, as does Hot Springs-based XPress, Flippin-based Ranger and Mountain Home-based Bass Cat.

If a motorboat isn't your style or if parking space is an issue, join the largest segment of the boating industry and buy a fishing kayak. You can get them as basic or as feature filled as you desire. The best one, like the Hobie Pro Angler series, enables you to fish any kind of water, including offshore saltwater. They range from a few hundred dollars to several thousand.

You can get into a starter boat for a very reasonable price and upgrade as experience on the water shapes your vision for a more suitable boat. Whatever you choose should make fishing more fun and more productive. Hopefully, it will also encourage you to fish more often.

Final installment of the Beginner’s Fishing Series

A plain aluminum flatbottom boat is suitable for fishing small lakes and rivers in Arkansas. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Bryan Hendricks)

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