Buying Your First Fishing Boat – What You Need to Know
Spend enough time fishing and, at some point, many of us will decide that we want a fishing boat – it’s a given. You find yourself looking at boating magazines, doing online searches for articles on boat buying and reading classified ads, attending a boat show or two, and even occasionally drifting into daydream land… I know because I’ve been there.
You’re filled with excitement (at times bordering on euphoria) and now you’re ready to put all those thoughts and feelings into action, and you’re ready to start down the path to buying your first fishing boat. Whoaaa…throttle your engine a little!
Owning a fishing boat or any watercraft, for that matter, is a wonderful experience that will hopefully bring you immense joy over the years. But something in your gut is telling you that you’d better come back down to earth and make sound decisions, ones that take into consideration the many important aspects related to boat ownership.
Where do you plan on fishing your boat, the type of fish you are targeting, the number of people fishing with you, your boating skills, your budget, time and energy commitment to your investment, and ongoing operating/maintenance costs are just some of the things to which you’ll have to give some serious thought before you make your purchase.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to dissuade you from fulfilling your dream. Far from it, the goal of this guide is to pass on some sound advice (many gleaned from personal experience as well as from that of others) to hopefully help you choose and purchase your first fishing boat with confidence.
Where Do You Plan to Fish?
This is possibly the most important consideration in choosing the type of fishing boat you will buy. If you don’t get this right you will soon be disappointed with your purchase. Are you going to be fishing freshwater or saltwater? Shallow freshwater or big, deep lakes? Inshore or offshore saltwater fishing? Are you strictly a bass fisherman? How you answer these basic questions will determine the type of boat you should be considering.
Something to keep in mind as you read through this page: this Guide is not so much about finding the perfect boat – if there is even such a thing – but more about finding the perfect fishing boat for you and your needs.
Types of Fishing Boats for First-Time Buyers
Let’s look at some of the most typical boat designs that you’re likely to see for sale. Because this guide is geared toward first-time boat buyers who will typically want boats that meet their fishing needs, are affordable, fairly easy to maintain and can be trailered, I’ve capped the maximum boat length discussed in this guide at 26 feet with outboard motors and excluded certain models.
If you are only fishing ponds, small rivers, and lakes or want to get into shallow, hard to reach spots, an inexpensive flat-bottom Jon boat should suffice. These small, lightweight aluminum boats (ranging from 8 to 20 ft) are also easy to trailer or even strap to the roof of a car or truck using a rack, making them an excellent choice for first-time boat owners.
They can be powered manually, by a trolling motor or small outboard engine. These versatile boats can be had for just a few hundred dollars for small, simple models to several thousand dollars for larger, high-end versions. Though generally made for 2 to 3 people, larger boats can accommodate more. See manufacturer’s manual or capacity plate on the boat for recommended maximum person capacity, weight and engine size.
All-Purpose Fishing Boat
Also called multipurpose boats, they can be used in freshwater and even saltwater, depending on the size. What you get with these is a craft that can double as a fishing boat as well a family-friendly pleasure boat that can also be used for other water activities such as day cruising and water skiing.
These small but versatile fishing boats will let you fish for a variety of fish species in different types of water. They are great for fishing rivers, lakes, and inshore saltwater.
Generally, in the 15 to 22 ft size range and sporting modestly-powered outboard motors, all-purpose fishing boats are an affordable entry-level fishing boat.
Bay Boat /Skiff
These versatile and affordable fishing boats are right at home in freshwater as well as saltwater. If you have no desire to venture offshore for your fishing, then a bay boat may be the perfect buy for you. They typically range from 16 to 24 feet in length and often come with smaller, economical, (compared to center consoles and walkarounds) single outboard motors in the 100 to 200 hp range.
The versatility these boats provide can present you with varied angling opportunities, such as chasing down snook along the mangrove shoreline, to casting over a nearshore wreck or reef for red snapper, to even fishing the flats for permit fish.
Simply put, bay boats are perfect for anyone who wants to experience great fishing inshore and in shallow waters while also keeping their cost of operation low.
These specialized boats do exactly what their name implies – they are made for bass fishing (can also be used to fish other panfish such as crappie and bluegill). Made primarily for freshwater fishing in lakes and rivers, bass boats are sleek and fast, and they can cost anywhere from a couple thousand used to more than $50,000 for high-end new models. Buying a used or “pre-owned” boat can save thousands of dollars, however.
Bass boats are usually 16 to 25 ft in length and come with outboards putting out anywhere from 50 to 300 hp. Some of the popular brands you’ll come across in your search will include names such as Tracker, Ranger, Triton, and Nitro (these 4 are Bass Pro brands), Skeeter, Bass Cat and Phoenix.
They make some of the best bass boats in the industry but can be quite expensive, particularly for someone buying their first bass boat. Fortunately, there are other smaller, budget bass boat options that offer plenty of features and yet are very affordable for first-time boat buyers.
Center consoles are often referred to as fishing machines, and rightfully so. They can handle rough conditions offshore in freshwater or saltwater, and their single floor, open deck design coupled with a big outboard or twin outboards (sometimes 3 outboards on bigger boats) tells you that they are built with one thing in mind – catching fish!
Center console fishing boats also come loaded with all the features a serious angler could want – storage lockers/rod lockers, livewells, big fish boxes, rod holders and a host of other important equipment. And I really love this about them – they are easy to clean after a fishing trip because of their open space layout.
Though not exactly a budget-friendly fishing boat when new, good bargains can be found in the used boat market. New models from 18 to 26 feet can run anywhere from $25,000 to well over $100,000. If catching fish is the only consideration or the most important one, then a center console fishing boat should be in your future, period!
Popular center console models manufactured by companies such as Mako, Cobia and Century fill the ads you will see, for new and used boats alike.
The walkaround is versatile freshwater/saltwater fishing boat that is comfortable in large lakes, coastal waters or offshore. My first fishing boat, many years ago, was a used 1989 Sportcraft Fishmaster walkaround with a single 225 hp Evinrude outboard. Though I wanted the all-out fishing capability of the center console, the family-friendly features of the walkaround made it the logical choice for me at the time.
If you have a family that enjoys fishing or being with you on the water while you’re fishing, this boat design offers some appealing features. Having a cuddy cabin with a head, sink and dry space for naps and unexpected changes in the weather was something the wife and kids appreciated. They’re also great boats for day cruises and even the occasional overnight camping adventure on the water.
In addition to better weather protection and comfort than most other designs, the walkaround like the center sole offers lots of amenities the angler will like – ample tackle storage, rod holders, livewells, fish boxes/coolers for your catch and so on.
Walkaround fishing boats come in sizes from 18 ft to 40-plus and beyond. For our purpose, of course, we are confining ourselves to the maximum length of 26 ft as outlined earlier. Single and twin outboards can be found on offerings in this size range, but really big walkarounds can come with 3 or more. As a first time buyer, you should narrow your search to boats with single engines, especially if affordability is a concern.
The price tag for many new models can definitely leave the first time buyer sticker shocked with many premium brands such as Grady White, Robalo and Boston Whaler starting at nearly six figures for their smaller models and over $100,000 for 24 to 26 feet walkaround boats.
However, if you are willing to go with a pre-2000 boat you may be able to pick up a solid used fishing boat at a fraction of a new one. You should even be able to find some excellent deals on 2000 to 2008 models, providing you aren’t looking at higher-end brands.
Boating Within Your Budget
Ok, first things first, let’s talk about what you can afford. English poet Robert Browning once wrote “Ah but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”. I wonder if he had boats in mind when he said that because when it comes to buying a boat we always want a little more than we can sometimes comfortably afford.
Now that you have decided on the type of fishing boat you want, it’s time to start thinking about how much boat you can realistically afford to buy. Be honest with yourself and keep your feet on the ground. You want all the rewards that come with boat ownership without the financial stress.
Sit down with pen and paper, calculator, or whatever else you like, and figure out just how much boat you can afford while still being able to meet your other financial obligations. This becomes doubly important if you have a family depending on you. Write that figure down and stick to it.
New or Used
Of course, we’d all love to have a brand-spanking-new fishing boat. Who wouldn’t, right? Well, if you have the means and can comfortably fit it in your budget, then go for it. You’ll have the latest and best designs, features, and electronics from which to choose, and your boat will also come with a manufacturer’s warranty, providing you with peace of mind (make sure though to read over your warranty to see exactly what components are covered and what is not, as they can vary significantly).
But keep in mind that a new boat, just like a new car, comes at a premium. And just like a car, you’ll take that 10 to 25 percent hit in depreciation as soon as you tow it off the dealer’s lot.
Now, if your budget does not leave room for a brand new boat, or maybe you just don’t want to spend as much or take the depreciation hit, then a used fishing boat makes a lot of sense. Sure, you won’t have that new boat smell and everything may not be as shiny, but what you will get is something that can be just as rewarding at a cost saving of anywhere 25 to 70 percent of the original cost.
Not only will you save money but you may also benefit in the way of lots of extra equipment being thrown in with the deal. Pre-owned fishing boats are also a great way for the first-time boat owner to get his feet wet and learn seamanship without excessive fear of damaging something.
Used boats are sold by both dealers and private sellers. But regardless, you may be able to score a better deal with a used boat over a new model since there is usually a bit more wiggle room for negotiations.
An important side note here, regardless of whether you are buying new or used – make sure the trailer is included as part of the sale price, don’t assume! You don’t want to learn later on that you’ll have to fork over an additional $1000 to $5000 for one.
Like a car or even home inspection, an inspection of the boat prior to finalizing any deal in very important. After all, you are plunking down your hard-earned money. Have your prospect inspected by a qualified marine mechanic, a NAMS (The National Association of Marine Surveyors) certified marine surveyor, or one accredited by SAMS (The Society of Accredited Marine Surveyors).
They are professionals at what they do can spot potential problems that the untrained eye would miss. If any issues are found during the inspection, you can back out of the deal or request a price reduction. It is money well spent.
Additionally, see if the seller or dealer is willing to let you take the boat for a test drive on the water. Dealers may be reluctant to let you take a new boat out, but they may have a demo model they’re willing to let you use. This will give you an opportunity to see how the boat behaves in its environment, in addition to possibly helping you spot potential issues. It doesn’t hurt to ask.
Cash or Financing
If you’re able to buy your new or used boat with cash, so much the better. You won’t have any monthly payments or finance charges (which can add thousands of dollars in interest fees over the course of the loan).
But if paying cash is not an option (and it isn’t for many), then the finance route is another alternative. Your boat dealer may offer to finance through one of their lenders. If you have good credit it might be more cost-effective to seek to finance through your own bank or credit union, as they may be able to give you better rates.
Loan terms (length of the loan) and finance rates can vary greatly depending on the cost of the boat, type and model year. You can usually get a loan with terms anywhere from 5 to 20 years, with interest rates dropping as the loan term increases currently under 5% with excellent credit.
Regardless, keep in mind that most lenders require a minimum down payment of at least 10% of the sale price. Older boats may require a higher down payment.
Optionally, many people who own their homes prefer to take out a home equity loan to pay for their boats. Using the equity from your home to finance your boat purchase may be a better way to go, as you will likely get better finance rates and the interest payments on your loan may be tax deductible.
If you take out a loan to buy your boat you will need to carry boat owner’s insurance. It’s no different than lender requirements for cars, homes and other property. They want to make sure they are protected should anything happen to the boat (incurred loss) before the loan is paid off.
Also, most marinas will require proof of insurance before they rent you space for your boat. However, with a smaller boat, you’re able to trailer it and store at home, so this may not be a concern for most.
The two above scenarios aside, most people are under no requirement to have boat insurance. Though there are some states that require liability coverage on motorboats with more than 50 HP, many have no such requirements.
However, that doesn’t mean you should not have a boat owner’s policy. Without one, you may be personally liable for the full extent of the damages or loss to another’s property. Also, the more costly your boat, the greater risk of financial loss to you should some unexpected event occur to your boat such as fire, theft, vandalism and other physical damage.
Side note – taking a boater’s safety course will not only improve your seamanship but may also lower your insurance cost.
Other Expenses and Operational/Maintenance Costs
When you sign the paperwork and close on your boat, whether buying new or used, you can also expect to pay for registration and taxes and, depending on the purchase price, the sales tax in your state can really add to your overall expense at the time of purchase. So, make sure you have this amount set aside.
Additionally, you’re going to have some ongoing expenses related operating and maintaining any vehicle – a boat is no different. You’ll have fuel costs, and those big tanks can sure get thirsty. However, having a boat that can be trailered is a plus here. You will be able to fill your tank at your local gas station instead of the marinas and gas docks where prices can be substantially higher.
You will also have to have annual tune-ups performed, at least if you want your boat to run as efficiently as possible. Regular oil changes, propeller repairs/replacements, and winterization depending on your region, are just some of your expected costs. Then, of course, you are bound to have unexpected expenses here and there. Some will be minor but, still, the costs can add up. Older boats may require more frequent maintenance, also.
We’ve come to the end of our guide but, hopefully, the suggestions and tips here will help you in making a sound decision when it comes to choosing the right fishing boat for you, regardless of whether you have owned a boat before or are a first-timer. You are about to embark on one of the most exciting and rewarding journeys of your fishing life – tight lines and enjoy!