Jared Kaufman’s first bay boat was a 13-foot Boston Whaler. In that small boat, rigged with a 25-hp Johnson and a foot-pedal trolling motor, the 13-year-old began his pursuit of tarpon.
Kaufman still runs a bay boat, but it’s nearly twice the size of the Whaler. And he still chases tarpon, running up and down Florida’s west coast in a 2015 Sportsman Masters 247 with a 300-hp Yamaha 4-stroke. His previous bay boat, a 21-footer, got the job done for 15 years but beat the heck out of him in the Gulf of Mexico.
“I wanted as big of a boat as I could get but still fish inshore for trout, redfish and snook,” says Kaufman, 34, a surgery center office manager from Sarasota, Florida.
Enter today’s bay boat, an inshore/offshore hybrid from 22 to 27 feet (more or less) with the essentials for skinny-water fishing — low freeboard, 11 to 15 inches of draft, fore and aft casting decks — and a hull with enough power and deadrise to play offshore.
“I can be in the Keys in calf-deep water getting pilchards and then run offshore in 3-foot sloppy stuff catching dolphin. Same trip, same day,” says Joel Wagner, 57, of Oviedo, Florida, who owns an Albury Brothers 23.
Former pro football linebacker Jarret Johnson is sold on the new generation of bay boats, as well. “I was shocked at how well it ran out in the ocean,” says Johnson, 34, of his Pathfinder 2600 HPS, the boat that replaced his 22-foot bay boat and his 34-foot deep-vee center console. “Sell two, buy one — I liked that,” says Johnson, the son of a commercial mullet fisherman who hails from Destin, Florida. “It made all the sense in the world.”
With its single Yamaha F300, the Pathfinder costs less to fuel and maintain than the big center console, he says, but it cleans up as easily as the smaller bay boat. She’s outfitted with three live wells, a trolling motor, a tower and deck space for Johnson’s 6-foot-4-inch, 275-pound frame and four other anglers.
The bay boat has been around since the 1980s, starting out as an everyman’s skiff for trout and redfish anglers in Texas and Louisiana, says Scott Deal, president of the Maverick Boat Group, which introduced the Pathfinder 22 in 1997. It was among the first of a new breed of higher-quality bay boats with more fishing equipment. “Before that the flats boat was more prestigious and the bay boat more low-end,” says Deal. “The Pathfinders looked nicer, were better finished and faster than traditional bay boats.”
Their popularity took off in the early 2000s, and after the Great Recession the bay boat hit a growth spurt. Today’s larger boats have proud bows to handle a sea, and some ride stepped hulls that improve speed and fuel efficiency. They are outfitted with hardtops, towers and outriggers, and their consoles are big enough for at least two displays. Trolling motors with GPS-guided station-keeping are popular, and owners want the latest transducers and not one but two shallow-water anchoring systems.
“Our customers want to outfit them just like a big center console,” says Rob Kaidy, chief naval architect of Sea Vee Boats, which builds the 270Z stepped-hull bay boat. “They don’t just ask — they expect massive amounts of storage, multiple live wells and sea chests.”
In 2011 Scout Boats debuted one of the first bay boats over 25 feet, the 251 XS. “Back then it was a hunch,” says company president Steve Potts. “The motivation was to give anglers the freedom to fish multiple species. It was never meant to be a hardcore offshore boat, but you could pick your days and venture offshore. I’m a fisherman first, and I want to bend a rod with all species, whether it’s billfish or bream.”
Guides took to the 251 XS first. “It allowed them to broaden their audience,” says Potts. “Get more people on the boat, go more places.”
Bay boats are primarily used in the Southeast, but Deal predicts that larger models, such as his Pathfinder 2600, will catch on farther north, from New Jersey to New England.
“With all the rough rips that are fished up there, super-low-profile boats can be sketchy,” he says. “This is a better mousetrap. If you’re a guy who wants to be able to use his boat — whatever the weather, within reason — and you like to fish light tackle or fly, you need to look at this style of boat.”
One thing is for certain: The bay boat is coming of age.
Click through the gallery below to get the lowdown on some of the newest bay boats