The best fishing boat ever built is the boat that’s ideal for the type of fish you pursue, but anglers of all stripes will be able to appreciate the 10 that top our list. We test hundreds of boats every year, and while most blend into the crowd, these are special. Each has its own unique features, and each is a fish-killing machine. So here they are (in order of size): our Top 10 Fishing Boats of 2012.
1. Hobie Mirage Pro Angler 12 - Kayak fishing is becoming more and more popular, but this sport has always had a couple of serious drawbacks: it’s hard to control the yak while you cast, and it’s hard to remain seated in an uncomfortable kayak for hours on end. The Mirage Pro Angler solves both of these problems; it adds the pedal-powered Mirage Drive which leaves your hands free, and an uber-comfortable seat with lumbar and recline-angle adjustments. The one down-side is its eyebrow-raising cost, which starts at over $2,500. Still, if cash isn’t in short supply and you want the best kayak for casting, check this one out.
2. Crestliner Kodiak 16 SC - Lake and river anglers are inclined to aluminum rigs, but these boats are usually relatively small and relatively cramped. When we arrived to test the Kodiak 16 SC, the first thing that impressed us was how roomy it is for a 16-footer. The reason? Crestliner stretched the boat’s beam by half an inch, then re-designed all the floatation chambers from long, narrow longitudinal boxes into lower, wider sections which act as seat bases. The down-side to this design is the elimination of gunwale rodboxes, but the up-side is well worth the trade. At one point there were four of us aboard, and we had plenty of room to move around. Bonus features: Crestliner finishes the boat with a rugged non-skid similar to truck bed-liners; a reverse-chine in the hull keeps spray down; there’s a standard 12-gallon livewell; and hatches are aluminum, not plastic.
3. Mako Pro Skiff 17 – This boat makes the cut thanks in no small part to its cat-like “inverted V” hull, because it offers a fish-catching platform that rides well through a chop and can handle bays, rivers, and sounds—yet it does so at an eminently reasonable cost. A mere $10,000 puts you into this rig with a trailer and a tiller-steer 25-hp four-stroke outboard. Spend another $5K and you get it with a (slightly flimsy roto-molded) console, remote steering and controls, a livewell, and a 30-hp powerplant. Or opt for a 60-hp four-stroke, by far our favorite way to run this boat, and the price tag still doesn’t break $16,000. Considering how hard it is in this day and age to find a well-built, capable fishing boat that doesn’t break the bank, we call the Pro Skiff 17 a winner for anglers with bay-sized ambition and a pond-sized budget.
4. Starcraft Starfish 176 - Another aluminum rig freshwater anglers will go gaga over is Starcraft’s Starfish 176. How many boats of this type have a rodbox that can lock down 11 rigs? An over-sized windshield that gives you and your passengers full protection without needing to crouch? Gunwales sized for downriggers? Dual livewells? .01” thick aluminum on the hull bottom? The answer: not many, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find any competitor that offers all of these features in one package. Added bonus: the baked enamel finish looks nearly as slick as gel coat. If you’re a big-water freshwater angler on the hunt for species like walleye and perch, the Starfish 176 is prime beef.
5. Carolina Classic 25 - This model has been around forever and a day, and anglers who fish bays with regularity but also like to venture offshore when the conditions allow have long considered the Carolina Classic 25 a mainstay. Unfortunately, in order to enjoy one you were forced to accept life with an inboard. What’s an outboard-enthusiast supposed to do? Wait until this year, when Carolina Classic rolled out a new version of this boat with twin outboards hanging from the transom. Now, the 25 cruises at over 30 knots and offers dual-outboard reliability for those long runs offshore.
6. Beneteau Barracuda 9 - Beneteau is not exactly a big name among the fishing crowd and the Barracuda is not exactly what you’d call hard-core. In fact, the cushy cabin and relatively small cockpit make it as well suited for cruising as it is for fishing. But spend a few hours at the helm, and you’ll know why it made our list – this boat is amazingly fun to run, and amazingly competent for a multiple-mission design. Plus, it has a mini-flybridge. When’s the last time you found that, on a 29’ fishboat? Offshore anglers and sight-casters are going to love it. Our test boat had a pair of F-225’s on it, and we blasted along at close to 50-mph while cruising at over 35. The hull ate through a chop, and the air-conditioned cabin ate through the sweltering summer heat. Sure, we were bummed at the lack of an integrated livewell and fishboxes, but taken as a whole, the Barracuda 9 has a lot more to offer than most fishboats of its size.
7. Ameracat 31 CC - Cat lovers in search of a wide-open center console offshore fishing machine that has fast speeds and is stoutly built have several models to choose from, but most are heavily-laden with features and accoutrements that drive prices off the charts. If you like a relatively inexpensive boat that’s designed for utility, you’re out of luck—at least, you were until Ameracat introduced their 31 to the world. This boat is tough as nails and has about the same level of complexity—and as a result it costs half as much as many competitors. It looks like the workhorse it is so it won’t be the choice of those with a desire to impress the neighbors, but if you want to it fish hard and put it away wet, this one’s a winner.
8. Scout 320 LXF - Mega-sized center consoles might be all the rage, but Scout’s 320 LXF is just plain outrageous. It’s big and beefy, it’s as fishy as it gets (with a massive built-in tackle and rigging station, integrated livewells and fishboxes, 6 stainless-steel gunwale rodholders, rocket launchers in the post and on the top, and rod stowage in the console), and it performs like a thoroughbred, with a 57-mph top-end. But our favorite feature on this boat is the innovation. The electric cockpit grill, for example, has been relocated to the bow where it won’t get in the way of angling. The electronic hub allows you to control the boat’s systems with a key fob. And the hard top, windows, and supports are integrated together to create one stiff, strong structure. Offshore center console lovers who want the latest and greatest gadgets, gizmos, and goodies will love this boat.
9. Cabo 36 Express - With ZF pod drives and a pair of 460-hp Caterpillar C9 ACERT diesels, Cabo’s 36 is like an all-new boat. We thought the 36 was just fine from the start—like all Cabos it’s built like a tank, bulls its way through rough seas, and has a beautiful offshore-oriented cockpit. But ditching those shafts and redesigning the 36 for pod drives netted Cabo a 15-percent reduction in fuel burn, made it ride flatter and handle turns better, and most importantly, turned dockside maneuvering into a dream. I had to weave it through a very tight, very crowded marina during the Miami Boat Show, and with one finger on the joystick, I felt 100-percent in control at all times. If you want a canyon runner that you can park like a car, this boat is the ticket.
10. Spencer 60 - When size matters and cost doesn’t, offshore anglers will turn to a boat like the Spencer 60. This billfishing machine is crafted from triple-planked Okoume ply bathed in epoxy and glass, and as a result, it weighs in at 15,000 to 30,000 pounds less than some other boats of its size—yet it’s either as strong or stronger than those overweight competitors, and it goes faster, with a top-end nearing 50. And each Spencer is built to the owner’s specifications, so you can have the livewells, bait freezers, and icemakers placed where you want them. Fit and finish is insanely good, with book-matched cabinetry and glossy hardwoods. The down-side is, of course, price, which is measured in the millions. How many millions? If you have to ask, it really doesn’t matter.
So there you have it, fishboat-loving boaters, our top 10 fishing machines of the year. And if you think we missed one that deserves to be on the list, give it a shout-out in the comments section below.