At a recent boat show, an after-dinner conversation about great boats led a group of us here at Salt Water Sportsman into a discussion about what we might consider the best saltwater fishing boats of all time. As you might imagine, the discussion soon became a vigorous debate, as people understandably have strong feelings on the subject.
That debate led us to poll many of our staff and contributors as to what their list of the best 50 fishing boats might look like. We took all of those votes and compiled them into this master list, which is decidedly unscientific, subjective and thoroughly opinionated. After all, if you’re not talking about fishing, the next-best thing you can discuss is boats. Here’s our list of the best inshore and offshore fishing boats.
50: Boston Whaler 13 Sport
While many people might not think of the 13 Whaler as a fishing boat, you can’t deny that this little vessel has been the platform for many an excellent fishing adventure. It has also been a water-ski boat, a snorkeling base, a yacht tender and a million other things, but the sheer number of 13 Whalers that have hit the water around the world since the model was introduced in 1958 staggers the mind. Plus, it was featured in the coolest boat ad ever, with Whaler founder Dick Fisher sitting calmly in a 13 that had been sawed in half.
49: Striker 44
The Striker 44 was introduced in 1968 and is notable if for no other reason than it was the world’s first all-aluminum production sportfishing boat. The rugged, welded-aluminum hulls were built in Norway, and soon gained a reputation as no-nonsense offshore fishing boat performers that could handle serious seas and still fish hard. Striker went on to build larger aluminum boats, and for a while the company offered round-the-world welding repair to owners who damaged their boats, a truly innovative and unique service.
48: AquaSport 22-2
The 22 AquaSport is one of the first production center consoles ever built and was a hugely influential design, helping launch other companies like Mako, ProLine and others in the late 1960s. The 22-2 first appeared in 1964; only a few center consoles came before it, notably those from Boston Whaler and the Chris Craft Dory. But the AquaSport took the concept to a new level and a larger size, and the center-console craze was on. The same basic, eminently practical, open-fishing design shown by that early AquaSport remains the most popular fishing-boat design on the market today: the center console.
47: Luhrs 340 Sport Fisherman
The 34-foot Luhrs came out in 1983, and was an overnight success due to a combination of good design, efficient performance and a lean price tag. Lots of hardcore offshore guys finally found a boat that they could afford, and they liked the hybrid design: a raised bridgedeck that was not as tall as a flybridge but was taller than a conventional express design. The 340 is also notable because it was one of the first sportfishing boats to come standard with a marlin tower.
46: 25 SeaVee
Don McGee founded SeaVee in 1974, and that company later split into two separate companies: SeaVee Boats and Whitewater Boats. The 25 SeaVee became an instant classic in South Florida, as many of the top guides in Miami and Key West chose this boat as their fishing platform. The 25 became known overnight as a tough and capable performer, able to fish in the roughest seas and run through serious chop. The 25 became the platform that SeaVee used to expand its line into the modern fleet it produces to this day.
45: Phoenix 29 Convertible
Phoenix sold more than 750 of the 29, making it one of the best-selling boats around. Introduced in 1977, the 29 was built for 10 years and became a favorite of offshore fishermen around the world because it could be powered by low-horsepower diesels for a very efficient ride. The 29 came with a large but Spartan interior, and it had a large fishing cockpit, making it a great choice as a charter boat. You still see some in operation among foreign fleets.
44: 65 Paul Mann
Paul Mann is another of the great North Carolina boatbuilders, and his boats deserve mention because of their combination of high performance and beautiful interior design. Mann was among the first to take the interiors of his boats to an entirely new level, offering dazzling combinations of burnished wood and lush fabrics, helping transform Carolina boats from relatively Spartan fishing machines into sportfishing yachts that can rival anything turned out by other custom builders in other areas.
43: 37 Merritt
The 37 was built by Buddy Merritt and became the boat that ruled the Edge at Cat Cay during the heyday of the giant bluefin tuna migration along the Bahamas Bank at famed Tuna Alley. With only 13 of them ever built, and landing in the hands of the best crews of the day, the 37 quickly made a reputation as a fishy piece of equipment with a good look to her. By today’s standards, the 37 is a small boat, but it has reached far and wide, and traveled from Newfoundland to Venezuela and all ports between on its own bottom with great success.
42: 18 Maritime Skiff
The Maritime Skiff deserves mention because of the impact it has had in the Northeast. Maritime Skiff was launched in 1991, and soon thereafter, it seemed like everybody in the Northeast was driving one model or another, most notably the 18. The practical, simple rolled-edge design proved immensely popular among inshore and nearshore anglers alike, and almost overnight, the Maritime Skiff was the boat to have.
41: Sea Cat SL 25
The Sea Cat was the boat that kicked off the catamaran craze that boomed in the 1990s and is still going strong. The 25 was a standard center-console design and offered a surprisingly comfortable ride in a short chop, a ride that many people found irresistible. It is said that either you are a cat person or you’re not, but the 25 Sea Cat made “cat people” out of a great many boat buyers who were tired of getting beaten up when they went fishing.
40: Blackfin 32
Blackfin’s 32 was introduced in 1980 and drew inevitable comparisons to the 31 Bertram, which was nearing the end of its production. The 32 was built on an aggressive deep-V hull and came standard with gasoline inboards, but most of them were sold with Caterpillar 3208 diesels, an excellent combination of performance and efficiency. The boat featured raised engine boxes and a huge cockpit, with a wide beam for stable operation in heavy seas.
39: Chris Craft 30 Tournament
This little gem of a boat has proved extremely popular over the years, and is another boat that has been compared by some to the 31 Bertram for her fishability. Indeed, Ray Hunt designed the Chris Craft’s deep-V hull, so there is some similarity there, plus the boat came with hinged engine boxes in the cockpit, like the Bertram. The 30 featured a Spartan cabin but offered a huge cockpit, with lots of fishing room. The 30 was built for only three years in the mid-1970s, but it has become a favorite among those who restore older boats, and many are still fishing today.
38: 41 G&S
On one of the more-famous 41-foot G&S boats,_ Raptor_ (pictured), Capt. Peter B. Wright and angler Stewart Campbell caught and released a record 73 giant bluefin tuna in a single day off Hatteras, North Carolina. Later 41-footers featured rounded and angled transom sections, excellent at maneuvering plus agile and super-fast while backing down. Known for its simplicity, ruggedness and great fishability, the 41 G&S has been a top choice for hardcore crews shipping the boat to hard-to-reach destinations that often prove to have incredible action. Boats like the Hooker, French Look, Silver-Rod-O, Spirit of Pilar and others have traveled far and wide chasing world records and big fish.
#7: Wellcraft V20 Steplift
This hugely popular boat was one of the best-selling designs ever for Wellcraft. It’s important to remember that Wellcraft was a huge player in the fishing-boat business in the 1970s, due in large part to boats like the V20. It came in many different forms, but all of them were capable, utilitarian boats that rode well and carried a relatively wide beam, providing excellent stability.
36: Mako 17
The 17 Mako was the third boat built by Mako Marine in the late 1960s, and it went on to become one of the best-selling boats of all time. Generations of anglers young and old have caught untold numbers of fish out of these boats, and Mako built them until quite recently, making the 17 one of the longest-running designs on the market, a testament to its inherent appeal. Many different models have been offered over the years, and thousands of them still take people fishing each day.
35: 54 Scarborough
Ricky Scarborough was another game-changing North Carolina boatbuilder who turned out many boats that became famous around the world. His classic designs featuring the famous Carolina flair and seaworthy hulls became the boats of choice for some of the world’s top crews. In the 1980s and ’90s, Scarborough boats were found in every major offshore-fishing hot spot on the planet. The 54-foot A-Fin-Ity was one of the most notable, a top campaigner on the now-defunct BXRL tournament series.
34: Rampage 31
The Rampage 31 was considered a high-tech boat when it was introduced in 1985. Designer Dick Lema built the boat utilizing a fully cored modified-V hull, yielding a lightweight and efficient design that performed well with minimal power requirements. An immensely practical express layout provided superb fishability, and a small cabin provided basic creature comforts. The 31 also was ahead of her time in the live-bait department, as it came with a huge 85-gallon livewell built into the cockpit deck.
33: 36 Yellowfin
As Yellowfin Yachts grew as a company, based on the initial success of the original 31-footer, they began branching out into larger boats, including the 36. One of the first boats to offer triple-outboard-power options, the big Yellowfin soon became an undisputed leader in tournament-level competition because of its high level of performance, fishing-friendly layout and high-tech construction techniques. The 36 remains one of the top-selling 36-foot center consoles on the market today due to these same attributes.
32: 55 Viking
Viking Yachts has produced many popular models over the years, but the 55 rewrote the record books in terms of popularity and style. When it was introduced in 1998, the 55 sported a sleek and modern new look that became immensely popular overnight. Sales climbed as buyers put the 55 to the test on some of the world’s toughest fishing grounds, further establishing Viking as the builder of boats capable of competing at the very top levels of offshore tournament fishing. The 55 offered a combination of styling and performance that raised the bar for all other builders at the time.
31: Hewes Bonefisher
The first two Hewes Bonefisher models were delivered to Lefty Kreh and Bob Stearns — who were both instrumental in its development — in 1970. Bob Hewes thereby created the very first true production flats skiff. Hewes Boats went on to produce a long line of improved skiffs over the years, as well as spawn a lengthy list of competitors, as interest in flats fishing soared in the 1970s and ’80s. The Hewes Bonefisher was the boat that popularized flats fishing among the masses more than any other design.
#30: 47 Buddy Davis
The late Buddy Davis became the first Carolina boatbuilder to build boats on a production basis, and his 47-footer became an instant success. The 47 turned into one of the most popular boats in her size range after she was introduced in 1986, and turned a whole new generation of buyers onto the many advantages and design innovations of Carolina boats. The 47 also raised the bar for many established production builders, as the level of fit and finish on Davis boats was a cut above what many offered.
29: 23 Formula
According to urban boatbuilding legend, all modern deep-V center-console boats began as imitations of the original 233 Formula, first introduced in the mid-1960s. The Formula was the brainchild of the late Don Aronow, a major force in offshore racing in the 1960s and ’70s, and the creator of the Cigarette racing team. The racing heritage served the Formula well, as it rivaled the 31 Bertram (also sprung from a racing background) in terms of its ride in heavy seas. Classic 23 Formulas remain a favorite among collectors and restoration enthusiasts.
28: 28 Carolina Classic/Albemarle
The 28 Albemarle became a huge hit in the express-boat market when it was introduced in 1984, and the same general design continued to flourish when former Albemarle employee Mac Privott built the first 28 Carolina Classic in 1994. Both boats sold in large numbers and proved extremely durable over the years for the serious fishermen who bought them. Both models were available as either straight inboards or as jackshafted sterndrives.
27: 36/37 Topaz
Express boats were few and far between when the Topaz 36 entered the market in 1980, but that soon changed as scores of fishermen embraced the no-nonsense layout of the Topaz. There was no mistaking this for a fancy cruiser; it was a fish boat through and through, with a huge cockpit, a large raised bridge deck, and comfortable if Spartan accommodations. Topaz boats became a common sight on the offshore grounds, especially in the Northeast, and in 1986, Topaz introduced the much-improved 37-foot model, which continued the successful run begun by the 36.
26: Conch 27
The Conch 27 might be the only boat designed exclusively to suit the guides of Key West, Florida, but its no-nonsense fishing design and long list of amenities made it extremely popular with fishermen from the Keys and elsewhere. The Conch featured rugged construction, and you could fish it in nasty seas when others stayed home, which also contributed to its allure. Sold factory direct on a custom basis, the Conch 27 became the boat of choice for a whole generation of fishermen who considered themselves a cut above the rest.
25: Hells Bay Whipray
After the game-changing Hells Bay Whipray 16 hit the scene, guides needed a little more room for clients but didn't want to sacrifice the super-skinny technical-poling abilities that the 16 offered. Hal Chittum pushed his crew with input from the finest flats guides in the business, and the Whipray 17.8 Professional was launched. It also doubles as great option for a tender on a traveling game boat because of its lightweight, practical layout and super fishing prowess.
24: 25 Hydra-Sports
The Hydra-Sports deserves mention because it was the first model offered with Kevlar construction. This immensely strong fabric is now used in many modern boats, but in the early 1980s it was quite rare, and in fact it didn't take off for some time. But the 25 Hydra-Sports became known as a super-tough bluewater boat with a soft ride to boot.
23: 31 Fountain
Fountain’s sleek 31-footer enjoyed many years at the top of the heap in competitive fishing, particularly on the Southern Kingfish Association circuit. The Fountain’s fast and soft ride played well with kingfish anglers, as long runs in open water are often the rule rather than the exception, and the 31’s rugged construction dealt with the punishing demands that fishing is known for. Fountain was one of the first companies to translate success on the racing circuit into success in tournament-level fishing, and the 31 is the vehicle that got them there.
22: Gamefisherman 40
The 40 grew out of the plans for the fabled Dream Girl, a one-off design created by Capt. Walter Voss and Len Broadhurst in the late 1950s. The Gamefisherman 40 has established itself as a prime big-game-fishing platform. Probably the most famous of all is the Tijereta captained by Capt. Bubba Carter, one of the first on the scene in Costa Rica in the late '80s establishing that incredible fishery that's still enjoyed to this day. With her clean running hull and simple, efficient day-boat layout, the Gamefisherman 40 still offers one the of the finest all-around big-game fishing platforms of all time.
21: 23 SeaCraft
The 23 was a natural progression in the growth of the SeaCraft line during the ownership of Bill Potter. The 23 embodied all of the natural attributes of the 20, a graceful sheer and sleek raked stem for a classic timeless look, a soft ride, efficiency, and excellent fishability, yet it offered higher freeboard, extra length and larger compartments — along with all the other benefits that a few more feet offers. In the early ’80s and still today, the 23 was often seen offshore, in the canyons all along the East Coast, Gulf and throughout the Bahamas.
20: Maverick Mirage
Maverick’s Mirage 1 rewrote the book on technical, shallow-water fishing. With a super-skinny, super-quiet hull design, anglers who chase bonefish, tarpon and permit discovered a skiff that suited their needs like nothing had before. The Mirage appeared in 1991, was designed for push-poling, and could slip into shallower water and closer to fish than previous flats models, making it a huge hit with the shallow-water crowd, spawning many imitations over the next decade or two. Many subsequent models from Maverick have improved upon that original design.
19: 34 Rybovich
You can't have a list of great sportfishing boats without including the original. When the 34-foot Rybovich Miss Chevy II was built in 1947 for automobile dealer Charles Johnson, it became the very first custom sportfishing boat designed and built solely for that purpose. Up until that time, converted cabin cruisers had been pressed into service as big-game boats, with limited success. The Miss Chevy II was specifically designed for that mission. It later became the Sail Ahoy and served for many years as a charter boat in West Palm Beach, Florida, for Capt. Frank Ardine.
18: Pursuit 3000 Offshore
The 1995 introduction of the 3000 Offshore fishing boat cemented Pursuit’s reputation as the builder of serious fish boats. Many earlier Pursuit fish boats had been rebadged models from sister company, Tiara, but the 3000 was all Pursuit, and came with an aggressive and sleek “Palm Beach” look that many fishermen found attractive. At just under 30 feet in length, it offered an intelligent combination of fishing space and belowdecks amenities, combined with outstanding performance and economy, a winning combination.
17: 35 Cabo
Cabo’s 35 Express actually debuted one year after the company’s 35 flybridge model hit the market in 1992, but the express model became a classic almost from day one. It also turned a lot of former convertible owners into express owners, as fishermen discovered the simplicity and ease of operation the Cabo offered. The company’s high quality and exceptional attention to detail also attracted lots of new owners, and the 35 Cabo went on to become a huge seller in both flybridge and express versions.
16: 54 Bertram
Bertram’s original 54 became one the best-selling and most widely admired sportfishing boats in history, due to her impressive seakeeping abilities and rugged construction. Bertram’s deep-V hull allowed the 54 to run hard in seas that kept many boats at the dock, and the 54’s large cockpit provided the perfect arena for both serious weekenders and tournament pros alike. First introduced in 1981, Bertram built the original 54 for 12 years, making it one of the top-selling large sport-fishermen of all time.
15: Ocean 40 Super Sport
The Ocean 40 was introduced in 1977 and launched what would become a hugely successful run by the Leek family of New Jersey. The Ocean 40 provided exceptional performance for the time, promising a top speed of 30 knots. The 40 launched many new designs for Ocean, a company that became an overnight sensation in the convertible-, and later the express-boat markets. Ocean Yachts had many imitators over the years as other companies tried to reproduce the Leek’s successful combination of quality construction and solid value, but no company ever did it better than Ocean.
14: 57 Spencer
Like many North Carolina boatbuilders before him, Paul Spencer worked as a charter mate and a captain before entering the boatbuilding business in 1996. When he began building his own boats, he soon gained a reputation for fast, sleek designs that pushed the legendary toughness and seaworthiness of other Carolina boat builders to a new level. Spencer is generally credited with modernizing both the looks and the hull designs of Carolina boats, and his 57-footers epitomize that revolution. This combination of speed, ride and modern construction techniques elevated Carolina boatbuilding to an entirely new level, and made buyers of large sport-fishermen around the world sit up and take notice.
13: 53 Hatteras
The Hatteras 53, first produced in 1969, was the industry standard in big production sport-fishermen for many years. The 53 featured a balanced design that many offshore fishermen still find attractive, and her spacious cockpit combined with a large and comfortable living area inside to create one serious offshore fishing boat. The boat’s heavy construction produced a solid, if sedate ride, and she was known to be wet in a sea, but the 53 was nonetheless an incredibly successful model that led to the development of more modern boats in later years, as other builders sought to emulate that success.
12: Grady-White 254 Kingfish
Yes, we know the photo is of a 255 Sailfish, but the 1977 introduction of Grady-White's 254 Kingfish launched that company's entry into the big, wide-beam cuddy cabin market — a segment the company dominates to this day. The Kingfish was a sterndrive-powered model and became an overnight success among the country's legions of fishing families. The Kingfish led to the creation of the Sailfish series (shown), arguably the most successful series of walkaround and cuddy cabin boats in history. Combining comfortable amenities with serious fishing features, the Sailfish revolutionized the outboard-fishing-boat world.
11: 22 Pathfinder
Although bay boats existed long before the 1998 debut of the 22 Pathfinder, the unprecedented success of this model redefined the genre and created an entirely new generation of anglers who saw the versatility of the bay boat design as a one-size-does-everything concept, and embraced it in staggering numbers. Bay boats became the SUVs of the water, and the 22 Pathfinder deserves much of the credit for launching that ongoing trend.
10: 26 Regulator
Regulator’s most enduring model came out in 1991, and has been going strong ever since. Its North Carolina lineage was a perfect fit with the treacherous shoals and inlets on the Outer Banks, where it became an overnight sensation. The immensely practical design and solid construction soon earned the respect of fishermen from all coasts, making the Regulator 26 an iconic design in many regions, and spawning larger models that bear the same notable quality and performance. Known for exceptional handling in rough seas, the Regulator deep-V hull has become something of a legend, and it all started with the 26.
9: 31 Jupiter
Jupiter’s first 31-footer hit the market in 1989, and right off the bat, people saw it as something special. Originally a semicustom boat, the 31 started the trend toward sleek-looking, fast center consoles that carried a distinctive look quite different from everything else on the market at the time. Most center consoles at that time sported a more functional, utilitarian look, but the Jupiter exuded sex appeal and style, and it looked fast even when sitting at the dock. It also came with a host of practical fishing features and high-tech construction, so it provided real fishing amenities along with the aforementioned classy appearance.
8: 31 Contender
The 31 Contender is an iconic fishing boat in all parts of the country. It’s one of the most successful, large center consoles ever built, and its combination of rugged construction, intelligent design and excellent performance made it a natural choice for a great many fishermen. The 31 became one of the best-selling boats ever in its size range, and a common sight just about anywhere you might choose to fish. The 31 also became a serious tournament winner for Contender, posting numerous victories on the Southern Kingfish Association trail, in striped bass competition in the northeast, and in many South Florida sailfish tournaments as well.
7: SeaVee 390 IPS
When we tested the 390 with Volvo Penta's revolutionary pod drives in 2007, the new levels of performance this boat was capable of blew us away. We had never been on a boat that could maneuver as quickly or precisely as this one. After driving the 390 IPS for half a day, we agreed that this was the new ultimate light-tackle fishing machine. The 390 can go sideways faster than most boats can back up, it spins fast enough to make all occupants hold on tight, and then there's the effortless docking. Combine that with the intelligent layout and design of SeaVees in general, and you come up with one exceptional boat.
6: 31 Yellowfin
When the original 31 Yellowfin appeared in 2000, it changed the game of offshore fishing from center consoles. The 31 wasn’t the first stepped-hull offshore fishing boat, but the design and layout created by Yellowfin combined extraordinary performance characteristics and an exceptionally dry ride to create a buzz in the saltwater fishing boat world like no other. The 31 quickly became a favorite of guides and serious tournament competitors alike, and soon began posting victories in competitive-fishing circles and racking up the trophies. Yellowfin came out of nowhere to become an overnight sensation in the fishing world, and the 31 provided the initial impetus for that success.
5: 25 Mako
The original 25 Mako debuted in the mid-1970s and kicked off a trend toward larger center consoles that continues unabated. The big Mako was one of the first center consoles considered a capable canyon boat in the Northeast, able to make big runs offshore in relative safety. It also became a huge hit in the Gulf and the Southeast because of its relatively long-range capabilities and practical, open design.
4: Boston Whaler Nauset
Whaler’s 16-foot Nauset was reportedly the world’s first production center console, beginning a trend that exploded over the next decade and continues to this day. The center console remains the most popular fishing-boat design in the world, for good reason. The Nauset, along with sister models Eastport and Sakonnet, debuted in 1961, and spawned later versions of the same design, including the 17-foot Menemsha, Montauk and Newport models, among others. Thousands of these diminutive boats were sold along the East and Gulf coasts of the U.S., and around the world. Their unsinkable design and immense practicality made them some of the most popular fishing boats in history.
3: 31 Bertram
Perhaps no other boat has earned as much long-term fame as the 31 Bertram. First introduced in 1961 in both Flybridge Cruiser (enclosed cabin) and Sport Fisherman (no aft bulkhead, open design) layouts, the 31 became an overnight success and is still popular. Built on the now-famous deep-V hull designed by Ray Hunt, the 31 could go fast in big seas and tracked down-sea like no other boat that anyone had ever seen. A huge cockpit made fishing a pleasure, and it didn’t take long before 31s were scattered across the oceans of the world in both charter and private service. Many of them are still running today, a tribute to their rugged construction, most notably at Tropic Star Lodge in Panama, where the entire fleet consists of 31 Bertrams.
2: SeaCraft 20
The SeaCraft 20 Master Angler was made popular with her timeless looks—a sleek, unbroken shear and fast-looking raked stem, and her simple functional layout that guides and anglers alike enjoyed throughout the latter '60s, '70s and '80s. Taken from an early 1960s U.S.-patented, 21-foot racing hull designed by Carl Moesly, the SeaCraft hull had unique longitudinal steps running the length of the hull that offered varying degrees of deadrise in three sections, giving the combination of deep-V in the center, then gradually flattening out at her aft chines for great lateral stability and a dry ride. The famed SeaCraft ride came from this Variable Deadrise Hull, and her simple center-console layout offered a 360-degree fishing platform that could do it all.
1: 43' Merritt
The 43' Merritt is widely recognized as the iconic sportfishing boat. With her clean and uncluttered looks, large and functional cockpit, simple layout and excellent maneuverability, the 43 is a game-fishing weapon for the world's oceans when in the hands of top crew, which most of them were. With only 11 ever built, the 43s hold many records, including the men's All-Tackle Atlantic and Pacific blue marlin records, the women's All-Tackle Atlantic blue marlin record, and the record for most giant bluefin tuna taken by trolling in one day. The bluefin trolling record was set by Capt. Buddy Merritt aboard the Caliban in Newfoundland in 1968, only to be broken by the last 43 ever built, Capt. Cookie Murray's Cookie Too in the mid-1980s.