It’s a late October morning, and we’re on the hunt for false albacore with a weather-be-damned attitude. “Hold on tight, it’s about to get nautical!” the captain shouts as we punch our way through a 4-foot chop at the mouth of Barden Inlet in North Carolina. A stiff west wind stirs up a long fetch, and an outgoing tide piles on the pain. It’s a day when most recreational boats stay home.
We play in the snot, so to speak, weaving our way through foaming curlers while ducking blobs of blowing spindrift. The Jones Brothers 23 center console delivers us to thick pods of feeding false albacore just offshore and then keeps us in the game for the rest of the day.
Much like an artisan woodworker might rely on a fine hand planer, anglers have trusted center consoles as the tool to get the job done for 60 years. The center console is the go-to fishing craft for a majority of coastal and offshore fishermen. Picking one of these rugged boats can be challenging. You could belly up to a bar in any number of fishing ports and get an abundance of opinions, or you could ask fishing pros who guide clients for a living.
That’s what we did.
Capt. Jay Withers started fishing for bass and crappie with his grandparents in southwestern Ohio at age 3. Today he guides clients around the Charlotte Harbor, North Carolina, area for snook, redfish, speckled trout and tarpon. His weapon of choice is a 2017 Pathfinder 2500 Hybrid with a Yamaha F300 4-stroke.
This bay boat has a stepped hull with moderate deadrise and an open deck plan that’s great for fly and light-tackle fishing. It’s Withers’ second Pathfinder. “I started out in an 18-foot flats boat but got my first Pathfinder in 2004,” he says. “There are a couple of features I really like about this boat. First is the huge, elevated forward casting deck. It’s as big as a dance floor, with plenty of room for casting. Lots of boats are difficult to cast from because their casting decks are set well beneath the gunwales. That might be good for some fisheries, but not the ones I participate in.”
Withers says the second feature he likes is stowage. “The Pathfinder has an endless amount of stowage lockers, cubbies, live wells and other hidden spaces that swallow up a massive amount of bait, tackle and gear,” he says. “You can never have too much stowage space on a fishing boat. Otherwise, you tend to leave stuff behind.”
Capt. Eric Davis, a pro guide who also runs a Pathfinder 2500 Hybrid, says he appreciates the boat’s rugged seaworthiness. “One day we went offshore when we knew we’d have had to get back about 2 p.m. or 3 p.m. — before the winds were forecasted to get cranking,” Davis says. “The wind came up early, and we were 15 miles out. It got really choppy, really quick, so we started to head back. Within 30 minutes, things were really bad; we should not have been out there in a bay boat. In the end, the boat did fine, and we got back safe. The 2500 Hybrid has a great balance between deadrise and deep-vee but still keeps with the bay boat theme.”
Gallery: Center Consoles
Among guides who have to cover many miles over unpredictable seas, center console power cats are gaining popularity. Freeman Boatworks is a South Carolina builder catering to this market with lots of horsepower, seakeeping qualities and fishing layouts.
Capt. James Chappell, who operates Catchalottafish Charters in Islamorada, Florida, runs a 34VH Freeman with twin Yamaha F300s. He guides in the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic for tuna and billfish, as well as for wreck species such as grouper and snapper.
Chappell has run a number of boats in his nearly 20-year charter career, and he says the 34VH runs well in the rough stuff. “With my Freeman, I rarely miss trips on poor-weather days that I would have otherwise canceled 100 percent of the time in all of the monohull boats I’ve owned,” he says. “The stability and smooth ride of the Freeman makes rough days seem not so rough. The boat doesn’t lean in a drift. It just goes up and down. And you never get in a sideways roll in this boat, as the cat design makes it so buoyant. The beam is also ridiculous for a boat my size.”
Extra beam and twin hulls mean not just enhanced stability, but also deck space and capacity for extra horsepower. “You could fit most monohulls of similar-size boats inside my deck,” Chappell says. “My boat does nearly 60 miles per hour with a tower, a couple of coats of bottom paint and a decent load of fuel and anglers. Stowage for tackle and gear also is incredible. I’ve got a huge, 50-gallon live well, 800-quart coffin-style cooler and four enormous, in-deck stowage lockers. I’m never wishing I had more fish, tackle or gear stowage.”
North Carolina Skiffs
The waters around Cape Lookout, North Carolina, play host each fall to one of the most epic meetings of predators and prey along the East Coast. As massive schools of bait are flushed out of the sounds, hordes of hungry false albacore, redfish and sharks await. It’s a free-for-all for anglers with fly and light tackle.
The near-shore waters around Cape Lookout are notoriously unpredictable, and the wind blows more often than it doesn’t. Jones Brothers Marine in Morehead City, North Carolina, builds a lineup of skiff-style center consoles that are up to the task.
Unlike heavy, deep-vee center consoles with aggressive transom deadrises, the Cape Fisherman boats that Donnie and Rob Jones build have a relatively shallow deadrise, narrow beam, light displacement and moderate entry. They run like a dream in the bumpy, confused seas I fish each fall.
Capt. Sarah Gardner and her husband, Capt. Brian Horsley, use a pair of Cape Fisherman 23s year-round to guide clients off the Outer Banks. “All the Jones Brothers Marine hulls are the perfect combination of deadrise, length and width,” Gardner says. “They all have about 12 to 14 degrees of deadrise at the transom. These hulls slice through chop and don’t bang like wider boats. My boat also doesn’t roll when sitting still. My Cape Fisherman 23 is very trim-tab sensitive, so I can really tweak them for a better ride in tough conditions, or to compensate for large anglers.”
Horsley says this style of boat is a good choice for fishing. “The deck is clean, with no hardware or interior components for lines to tangle on,” he says. “The lack of a raised casting deck — like many bay boats have — provides my anglers with a much safer feel. Plus, she’s got good rod stowage under the gunwale and around the console.”
Horsley also likes the way the Cape Fisherman rides. “The boat is nimble and lets me maneuver quickly to put my clients in the best positions on breaking fish,” he says.
Built For Speed
Capt. Art Sapp fishes the migrations, which means he might drop bait on wrecks off Key West, Florida, one month and then kite-fish in the Bahamas the next. To run those distances in comfort and at speed requires a specialized hull. Sapp trusts his SeaVee 390Z to do the job.
The 390Z can be tipped with four 400-hp outboards that deliver a top speed as high as 76 mph. The base engine configuration, a rack of three 350-hp outboards, provides a low-60-mph top end. A double-stepped hull is to thank for some of this performance. The steps ventilate the deep-vee hull, meaning there’s less drag. An aggressive 22.5-degree transom deadrise smooths out the bumps and reduces banging in a sea.
“Back when we fished a lot of wahoo tournaments in the Bahamas, I made some Gulf Stream crossings in 30-plus-knot winds,” says Sapp. “I was absolutely shocked at how well the 390Z performed in those conditions.
“I believe there is a combination of reasons for the boat to perform so well,” he continues. “The fact that the boat is not ultra-light, like so many other center consoles, definitely helps. She has plenty of bow flare, as well as a substantial deadrise. The bottom feature that SeaVee calls speed rails allows the boat to track extremely true and straight.”
Folks who fish live bait know the importance of well-engineered live well space. Although the 390Z can accommodate as many as three live wells, Sapp says it’s all for naught if the boat pulverizes the bait on a run. “The ride is a very important part of keeping our bait alive and wriggling,” he says. “We fish in some very rough oceans, and our bait is still phenomenal at the end of the day. Part of the reason our bait stays so strong is the SeaVee’s ride. It also helps our clients survive some of those bumpier days.”
Bay and skiff-style boats have their place, but pro guides who fish in the ocean, such as Capt. Corey Gammill, often need deeper boats with a more robust disposition. Gammill’s Regulator 26 is a Lou Codega design that offshore anglers praise.
“I love the versatility of my boat,” says Gammill, who runs fly and light-tackle charters out of Nantucket, Massachusetts. “I can take it 20 miles offshore and not worry if the wind pipes up. Or I can position it accurately to fish the rips in shallower waters around the islands. We fish for a number of species, and that requires a versatile platform.”
Gammill’s Regulator 26 has a pair of Yamaha F250s. “It can handle just about anything,” he says. “When the wind pipes up, all I have to do is point her nose into the waves, and we can keep on fishing. She can take big water very well. I have lots of clients that now return, year after year, because they were used to getting beat up on other charter boats that didn’t handle the conditions around here so well. It can be exhausting getting beat up like that.”
Like Gardner and Horsley, Gammill extols the virtues of a smartly designed forward casting area. “It’s really important to have a safe and secure platform to cast from,” he says. “You can’t get by with raised decks around here. The Regulator 26 has a great forward casting area.”
Though the 26 is no longer in production, the company today builds a Regulator 25 that designer Codega says “is in many ways better than the original.”
Jones Brothers Cape Fisherman 23
LENGTH: 22 feet, 8 inches
FUEL: 90 gallons
POWER: single Yamaha F150
Pathfinder 2500 Hybrid
LENGTH: 24 feet, 9 inches
FUEL: 67 gallons
POWER: single Yamaha F300
LENGTH: 33 feet, 7 inches
FUEL: 400 gallons
POWER: twin Yamaha F300s
LENGTH: 25 feet, 2 inches
FUEL: 160 gallons
POWER: twin Yamaha F200s
LENGTH: 39 feet
FUEL: 550 gallons
POWER: triple 300-hp Yamaha or Mercury outboards