Buying a Starter Boat

By John Neporadny Jr., Courtesy of Bass Club Digest

Anyone looking to buy their first bass boat should consider joining a bass club.

Photo of a bass boat

Take A Test Ride

After all, what better opportunity does a novice angler have to take test rides and actually get to fish in a variety of brands and sizes of bass boats? During my earliest non-boater days in the Eldon Bass Club, I got the chance to fish in every major brand of bass boat ranging in sizes from 15 1/2- to 19 feet and through these experiences I formed an idea of what would be a good starter boat for me.

"If they are fairly new to bass fishing, they are usually fishing with some of their friends in the club, so they are getting to know what their needs are as far as length of the boat and horsepower of the motor," said Wesley Dawson, owner of Dawson Marine in Beaumont, Texas. The boat dealer works closely with bass clubs in his area by sponsoring club events and allowing club members to hold their meetings at the dealership.

"The first-time buyer is probably more picky and knows more about what he wants than the guy who has had 15 or 20 boats," said Luke Payne, 2005 B.A.S.S. Federation Central Division champion and owner of Pro Choice Marine in Warsaw, Mo. "There are a lot of club guys who have ridden in Brand A or Brand B and have narrowed down their choices to those two because they have seen that the other boats won't work for them."

Even though club tournaments have given them plenty of test rides, club members still have to mull over some considerations when buying their first boat. "The biggest consideration is where they are going to be fishing," Payne said.

"If prospective buyers will be fishing mostly rivers and smaller impoundments, a 17 1/2- to 18-foot bass boat with a 90- to 150-horsepower engine will suit their needs best. A 17-footer will run waves a couple feet high really easy."

However, a bass club member who often fishes large impoundments such as Sam Rayburn or Table Rock should consider at least a 19 1/2-foot model. These boats usually cost more, so the buyer also needs to consider any budget constraints.

"A guy is way better off though stepping up to a bigger boat and under-powering a little bit if he's on a budget," said Payne, who noted a 19 1/2-foot boat powered with a 150 hp engine can still run in the mid 60-mph range.

If your budget allows, you should avoid buying an underpowered boat though.

"Sometimes we have customers that do that and in six or seven months they come back and are already to trade," warned Payne. "We see that a lot. The first-time boater is usually afraid (of bigger engines) since boats don't have brakes."

How Much Space Do You Have?

Another key consideration for the first-time buyer is garage space. Payne estimates 40 percent of his sales in certain lengths of boats are determined by the buyer's garage size.

A vehicle's towing capacity should also be considered when a first-time buyer looks for a bass boat. "You definitely don't want to be towing a 21-footer with a 225 hp engine with a light pickup or SUV," advised Payne. "You don't want to overload your tow vehicle. A lot of times you can pull bigger boats but stopping is the problem."

Using engine size as a guideline, Payne recommends his customers can tow any bass boat longer than 18 feet with a V-8 engine, but boats shorter than 18 feet are recommended for buyers with V-6 or smaller engines in their tow vehicles. Since first-time buyers usually step up to another boat later, they often look for a boat with a good resale value.

"It might not be the deciding factor but it is a factor to most people," Dawson said.

What Size Boat Should You Start With?

The Skeeter dealer notices several first-time buyers in bass clubs in his area start with an 18-foot boat powered by a 150 horsepower motor. "That is usually a big enough boat to get them started and some people stay with that boat for a long time," said Dawson, who recalls his starter boat was a 15-foot Skeeter with a 70-horsepower motor.

A similar size rig works for beginners in Payne's area. "A good starter boat is a 16- or 17-footer with a 90- to 115 horsepower," said Payne, who's a Triton/Ranger dealer. "Other bass club members that have been in other guys' boats might want to start with an 18-footer with a 150 hp, single console to give them more room and a trolling motor with more thrust."

The All Star Bass Club member reveals he bought a 16-foot 160TF Bass Tracker with a 90-horsepower Evinrude for a starter, but three months later purchased a 19-foot Ranger with a 150 Yamaha. "It was an over-sized boat rated for a 200, but it was a good starter boat," said Payne, who frequently fishes the big reservoirs of Truman Lake and the Lake of the Ozarks.

Once first-time buyers figure out the size of the boat they want, then they must choose whether to buy a new, used, fiberglass or aluminum model.

Buying New

First-time buyers will pay more when purchasing a new boat for a starter, but they can avoid a lot of maintenance headaches and warranty hassles. Buying new gives them nearly a problem-free boat and full warranty. Dawson noted most boat companies now offer lifetime warranties to original owners.

Purchasing a new boat also allows beginners to have their boats rigged with everything they need. First-time buyers rarely have to customize new rigs since most boat companies offer package boats with all the bells and whistles.

"All the brands on the market (today) are pretty well loaded up with a jack plate, disc brakes on the trailer, detachable tongues, battery chargers and full gauge instrumentation," Payne said. The Missouri dealer added the only customizing needed for most package boats is to add the buyer's preference in trolling motors and electronics.

Buying Used

The sticker prices of new boats can be a shocker for a first-time buyer on a tight budget, so they might consider getting more bang for their buck by looking at a used model. "You can get a 20-foot boat with a 200 horsepower or greater that's four- or five years old for maybe the same price as a new 18-foot boat," advises Dawson.

Payne, who sells several used boats at his dealership, suggests a first-time buyer can save $5,000 to $7,000 if he can find the right secondhand boat. The dealer recommends the buyer should seek a rig with a multiple-year warranty on the outboard motor. "A lot of the motor companies are offering free warranties, so that is not quite as much of an issue anymore. You can buy a three- or four-year-old boat that still has a year or two warranty left on it, which is super," he said.

Looking at used boats is a buyer-beware situation, though. The number one danger of buying used is getting a boat with a troublesome engine. "You always want to make sure you get a compression check," Payne warned. "If the motor still has warranty on it, you still need to take it and have it checked out because sometimes there are some warranty issues that a customer might think is covered but it is not."

A certified mechanic can check for crucial problems, such as a cracked lower unit or bent pro shaft, which might not be detected by the buyer. "We encourage everyone to take it to a dealer and spend $50 or $60 to have the dealership check it out because that 'good old boy handshake' deal a lot of times ends up getting them in trouble," Payne said.

The first-time buyer can check for transom cracks and look underneath the seats and in compartments and livewells for stress fractures. A used boat with a Hamby Keel protector will have less scratches on the bottom, but Payne suggests the buyer should also look for any delaminating of the hull.

Depending on the age of the boat, some of the equipment will have to be replaced due to wear and tear. "We tell everyone when they buy a used boat that they should expect in the first year to spend $300 to $400 on water pumps, batteries, depthfinders or bilge pumps." Payne said.

Knowing the previous owner of a used model could insure that a first-time buyer acquires a dependable starter boat. "A lot of guys buy boats 'as is' off the Internet and we've fixed a lot of their headaches," said Payne, who sells a lot of used boats on the World Wide Web as well. "Sometimes guys get a lot of good deals too, though."

Buying a used boat from someone you know gives you a good idea of how well the boat has been operated and maintained. "I would say that 75 percent of the guys who buy from a non-relative or stranger have some type of trouble with their boat that wasn't revealed during the sale," he said.

Being in a bass club gives the first-time buyer a definite advantage when considering used boats. "The club is a great place to buy a used boat. You fish with a guy this year and in two years you find out the guy is going to sell the boat. So you have been in it and you feel comfortable with it. You know how it ran and think it will make you a good boat," Payne said.

Fiberglass Or Aluminum?

Fiberglass bass boats are the standard for tournament fishing, but some quality aluminum models are available for the competitive angler. Both boat dealers are noticing more club anglers are buying aluminum models for starter tournament boats.

"They've come a long way. There are a lot of guys who run rivers and beat the boat off stumps and they don't feel comfortable doing that with fiberglass," Payne said.

Dawson agrees that aluminum models are more suited for stump-filled rivers and reservoirs laden with flooded timber. "You might dent it if you hit some wood, but you know you are not going to rip or fracture that metal like you might fiberglass."

The major drawback to aluminum models is a lighter hull, which means a rough ride in choppy water.

"Technology just keeps making them better and better. I've told guys we could blind fold them and take them out riding in a fiberglass boat and an aluminum one and they wouldn't be able to tell the difference in the ride on a 1-foot chop," Payne said.

And though buying a starter boat can be a tough decision, bass club members should remember that test rides come tournament time can help make their choices a lot easier.