Northeast light tackle anglers passionately pursue their sport in a variety of ways, from creeping into skinny water in the back bays for schoolie bass, weakfish and summer flounder, to plowing through nasty inlets and running 20 miles down the beach to track down a wolf pack of hungry linesiders hammering a terrified pod of bunker. Add in a fishery that can start in mid-April and go until well past Thanksgiving and you get the picture—no one type or style of boat can do it all. Flat bottomed and modified-vee skiffs are superior in the back parts of the bay, but start to lose their edge in windswept open waters or when approaching a confused inlet. Center consoles are always a fan favorite for 360-degree fishability. But when the north wind is honking, you probably wish you had the weather protection of a full cuddy or walkaround with a hardtop and full canvas enclosure. We are going to look at the pros and cons of each of these types of Northeast fishing platforms, with the practical size limitations for our discussion being outboard-powered vessels from 17 to 25 feet in length. So sit back and enjoy the ride as we take a closer look at boats that get it done in our home waters.
Before we take a closer look at the different styles and layouts of proven northeast fishing craft, let’s discuss some of the common core values that they should all share to make it happen. Although we plan to discuss many of these topics in greater detail in future Fisherman articles over the summer, the following is a brief summary to get you thinking about some of the requisite items that you need to properly accessorize your preferred fishing platform.
Rodholders- You never seem to have enough of them onboard. Ranging from flush-mount models in the gunwales; to horizontal racks down under; to vertical mounts on the transom or console sides; to rocket launchers in the leaning post or T-top/hardtop. If your mission is fishin’, the rod and reel is your tool of the trade. Big boat or small, you need to have the room somewhere onboard to rack them in an organized fashion where they are ready for immediate deployment, but out from underfoot.
Tackle Storage- Just like you need multiple rods and reels for the many different opportunities that might suddenly present themselves, the same goes for the tackle that you need onboard to make it happen. You might have a fluke drifting trip planned for the day, but when a swarm of frenzied gulls signals chopper blues feeding down below or a pod of bunker is chased up to the surface by a swarm of hungry stripers, you will be reaching for surface plugs, bucktails, jigs or a snagging treble a split second later. If you don’t have it stowed neatly within arm’s reach, or can’t find it quick enough from a confused bucket of jumbled rigs, that’s another swing and a miss and a frustrating lost opportunity. Organized tackle is an absolute requirement for any sized Northeast light tackle fishing boat.
Livewells- Tossing a frisky live bait to a foraging gamefish is one of the most time-proven methods for rod-bending action. Whether it’s a peanut or full grown bunker, snapper bluefish, killifish, porgy or an expensive spot, if you have ‘em, you want to keep them alive and kicking for as long as possible. While more and more light tackle fishing boats from 17 to 25 feet feature standard recirculating livewells tucked away somewhere onboard, yours might not. But worry-not, this shortcoming doesn’t have to be a game-breaker. Portable and semi-permanent polyethylene bait tanks are readily available at reasonable costs. A few tweaks to the plumbing of your onboard raw water washdown pump and you are in business. Don’t have a saltwater pump? Best advice is to buy one and install it pronto, since it is also a great tool for cleaning up the cockpit after a hot bite.
Fishbox Storage- If you intend to keep your catch in prime condition for dinner, the freezer or your neighbor’s BBQ, you have to care for it from the get-go. The icy brine of a roomy built-in fishbox takes care of business, but what if your 17-foot back-bay skiff isn’t so equipped? Once again, creative solutions abound and you can always add a portable cooler or roll-up insulated fish bag to solve this problem, just add the appropriate amount of ice and try to keep it out of the center of the cockpit.
Back Bay Skiffs
This class of boat has always been the easiest way to get on the water when you are starting out on a budget, or just want to simplify things and downsize to minimize your fishing costs. Purchase a suitable 17- to 19-foot flat bottom or moderate deadrise open skiff or center console, strap a 60- to 90-horse outboard onto the transom, add a couple of 12-gallon portable tanks, a handheld GPS and VHF and you are ready to go fishing.
Smaller light tackle boats like these sip fuel though a very thin straw, so you can be out all day long for 15 gallons or less, depending on how far you need to travel to get to the promised land. These skiffs and smaller center consoles can sneak into some very skinny water, where you can enjoy unique fishing action that rarely gets tapped by the crowd. They are easily trailerable, can be kept in your driveway and can follow the fishing action east or west, north or south. You won’t need to incur the usual operating costs like summer dockage and winter storage, plus when you have a mechanical hiccup, you can always drive to your favorite boat repair shop for a quick fix. That’s the good news.
While this level of purity and getting back to the basic angling roots is a great thing and brings out the adventurous spirit, smaller skiffs typically don’t like to operate in choppy windswept open bays or inlets due to lower freeboard, flatter running bottoms and the usual lack of weather protection. Going out into the ocean through an inlet is doable, but you really have to watch the current table and prevailing winds. A calm inlet can turn nasty in a few hours and it’s a lonely, disconcerting and potentially dangerous feeling if you are on the outside looking in. As long as you realize their limitations, smaller skiffs and center consoles can be a lot of fun, catch plenty of fish and are easy to own and operate.
Center consoles have come a long way since I started running them back in the mid-70s. This layout is the undisputed king of light tackle 360-degree fishability. My first boat was a center console and my last three boats have been center consoles, with an equal mix of cuddies and walkarounds in between. Bottom line, I know firsthand the plusses and minuses of the CC deck plan. Most modern center consoles in the 20- to 25-foot range have many of the mandatory light tackle features built right in, like rodholders, insulated fishboxes, livewells and tackle storage. And if they don’t, it’s usually a snap to add them. Many center consoles in this class now feature an enclosed head area, which is a real treat and allows you to fish from sunup to sundown in remote areas without having to detour to make a pit-stop. Having a T-top, canvas and a rocket launcher overhead allows the crew to enjoy some welcome protection from the elements and extended fishing time on those cold, windy and nasty days. The old bugaboo that “there’s nowhere to sit” on a center console is a past memory with the latest flexible fore and aft bench seating arrangements offered by most boat builders, which can be easily field-adaptable and retrofit to older craft. Center consoles from 20 to 25 feet can be powered by either one motor or two (It’s always a good idea to have a backup.) and fuel capacity is not usually an issue for pursuing inshore gamefish—you can run all day long without refueling.
The downside to center consoles are felt when blasting through a snarly inlet, inundated by a passing summer squall or when making a 20-mile run down the beach in early December to hook up just one more striper before calling it quits for the season. The CC equation is simple, you trade off a little bit of weather comfort for a more efficient fishing platform. Some folks are cool with this exchange, while others gravitate towards our next and last category of Northeast light-tackle fishing machine: walkarounds and cuddies.
Walkarounds and Cuddies
I have owned more walkaround and flush deck cuddy cabin fish boats than any other type and they can catch ‘em up with any layout—just with less usable operating space forward. It is the bow area that these cabin craft trade off the ability to walk an active gamefish in a circular 360-degree dance down to just half of that area in the aft end of the vessel. The good news is that this quid-pro-quo creates a welcome barrier against wind, spray, weather and bitter chill. Add a hardtop and a four-sided clear canvas enclosure and you are in business and bending rods, even on some “marginally fishable” days, as long as you can get safely to and from the fishing grounds. Walkarounds and cuddies also create dry storage space down below, which is conducive to having an enclosed head, a place to get out of the sun, and the potential for added rod and tackle storage. If your boat is on the longer size of the 17- to 25-foot equation, you should still have a nice sized fishing cockpit where a quartet of anglers can do their thing, whether it’s drifting for bottom fish, casting to a school of blues or trolling wire along the beach. Seating arrangements on cuddies and walkarounds are usually good to go, with aft bench seats or corner jump seats, a pair of cushioned swivel chairs at the captain and crew locations, plus a pair of aft-facing box seats abaft of the helm seating typically used for either fishbox or tackle storage. Just be advised that all of these positions might not be weather-protected, based on each boat’s layout.
The downsides of cabin craft are obvious. It’s harder to get up forward and the possibility of fishing up there depends on a variety of variables, like wind, waves, boat traffic, the age and athleticism of your crew and where you are in the waterway. Similar-sized cuddies and walkarounds also tend to weigh a bit more than their open skiff and center console counterparts, are slower and have more of a tendency to catch the wind, both when drifting and during critical dockside maneuvers. Still, these minor inconveniences do nothing to tarnish the fish-catching reputation of cabin craft—they can still bring it!
Hopefully, we have shed some light on the nuances of the different types of Northeast lighting tackle fishing boats and what makes each layout unique in its singular focus to bend the rods.