From our vantage point in the tower nearly 13 feet above the water, the motionless tripletail stood out like a neon bar light against the mocha-brown water. A pinpoint cast produced the desired reaction, and after a brief but spirited tussle, we released the 16-pounder.
“What did I tell you?” asked my host, Capt. Keith Grimes, as we resumed our hunt. “You can see everything from up here. The fish can run, but they definitely can’t hide.”
When Grimes started shopping for a replacement boat for his inshore charter operation (tarpontarpontarpon.com) last winter, he focused on midsize tower models. A pre-owned 2400 Bay Ranger with a folding custom aluminum tower ended his search. With upper station add-ons like a Morse single-lever electronic control, Yamaha push-button ignition, Garmin 178c chart plotter, dual rocket launchers and a canvas T-top below for shade, the boat makes the ideal fishing platform for his clients in the waters around Apalachicola, Florida.
“Adding a tower is not cheap,” says Grimes. “With the options I have, you can expect to pay up to $18,000 extra. But for my style of fishing, where I search for bait and diving birds over the tarpon, it’s perfect. And for tripletail, it’s absolutely deadly. The tower expands my visible range and cuts down the surface glare because of the overhead angle. It really takes sight-fishing to a whole new level.”
Using height to find more fish isn’t new. Zane Grey had a special “crow’s nest” installed on his boat to spot basking swordfish near Catalina Island in the 1920s. Tuna towers were instrumental in developing the bluefin fishery off the Bahamas decades later. That led to half-towers as the current standard for blue-water battlewagons. Now with anglers pursuing dolphin, cobia, snook, false albacore and other game fish by sight, towers are increasingly reshaping the profile of coastal craft.
Constructed from heavy-gauge polished or powder-coated aluminum tubing, spotting or sport towers are typically mounted to fiberglass hardtops or the console and deck. As such, structural integration between the boat and the tower is paramount.
“Basically, a tower is an upside-down pendulum,” says Ed Forbes, head of manufacturing for Engineered Metals and Composites in Columbia, South Carolina. “That’s a lot of weight up in the air, and if it’s not secure, stuff is going to start coming apart. When we design our towers, we always consider safety first and then the weight.”
Forbes’ company, which fabricates towers and hardtops for 30 different boat builders, analyzes the metals, boat laminates and the type of reinforcements that will ensure strength and integrity before starting production. The company buys aluminum milled to exact specifications and then manufactures all the fiberglass, metal fittings and accessories, including rod holders and rocket launchers, in house.
“We work closely with the builders to develop safe and lasting towers,” Forbes explains. “There are so many forces involved: fore-and-aft motion, side-to-side, pounding waves. Poorly designed towers can cause premature damage to the boat, but more importantly, lives are at stake.”
Historically, round aluminum tubing (114 to 2 inches in diameter) was the standard in tower fabrication. Forbes, who has an extensive background in welding and metallurgy, helped develop D-shaped tubing, which was first introduced as a tower material by Scout Boats in 2000. Other builders have adopted similar designs.
“The advantage of the D tubing is its strength,” Forbes explains. “It’s much stronger than round pipe and is able to withstand the fore-and-aft and lateral forces better because of its flat-plane design.”
Factory vs. Custom
Many anglers forgo factory installations and choose instead to work with a custom-fabrication shop in designing their tower and related accessories. Bob Birdsall has been building custom boat towers in West Palm Beach, Florida, for 29 years.
“If you’re in the market for a tower, I recommend you go to a custom shop like ours. That way, you’re getting one that meets your needs rather than a vanilla, one-size-fits-all model from the dealer. Buy a new boat clean, and we’ll build a tower specifically for it. Center consoles and smaller boats are our niche.”
Before Birdsall starts a job, he’ll look at how the boat is built. On center consoles, for example, mounting the tower legs directly to the console is the preferred method so deck toe clearance isn’t hindered. That might require adding reinforcing fiberglass or backing plates inside the console. When deck mounts are necessary, they are through-bolted or screwed into the sole and, ideally, into the stringer system for greater structural integrity and stiffness. Marine adhesive locks the components into place. Once the basic framework is completed, specific custom options can then be added.
“We can do upper-station controls, shade tops, radio boxes, outriggers, rocket launchers, just about anything you want,” says Birdsall. “Going up really helps organize and enlarge the boat. You get lights, rods and other stuff up out of the way. That means you gain 360 degrees of fishability. And that makes a boat more pleasurable to use.”
Gaining an upward advantage via a tower is not limited by boat size. For example, poling towers, a miniature version on skiffs as small as 15 feet, help anglers fish the shallows. Available as original equipment or after-market accessories, towers are permanently mounted to the aft deck or transom depending on the hull design. Expect to pay $500 or more for a basic set-up. Shorter, removable bow platforms ($350+) give the casting angler nearly the same view as the guide.
When considering a poling tower, chose one that offers height without sacrificing access. Bob Birdsall of Birdsall Marine recommends that the tower clear the cowling by 1 to 2 inches when the engine is fully raised. He also builds his platforms with a couple of degrees of tilt, depending on the length of the boat, so the top remains level regardless of load.
A larger top (such as 30 x 40 inches) enhances safety and comfort; raised toe rails around the edge provide tactile reference points. GPS and radio antennas as well as rod and push-pole holders are common tower add-ons. The latest trend in skiff towers is leaning bars, which provide stability in choppy seas. Most fold or break down for storage.