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Friday, February 25, 2005

The evolution of bass boats

By Mark Taylor

The Roanoke Times


Providing a stable, maneuverable fishing platform suited for use in heavy cover.

That's the primary mission of a bass boat, and one that hasn't really changed since the craft started catching on nearly four decades ago.

The boats themselves, on the other hand, have evolved at a breakneck pace.

"Those early bass boats looked like rod boxes with trolling motors on them," recalled Sam Phillips of Lakeside Marine.

Ranger Boats president Randy Hopper doesn't totally disagree.

"They were essentially glorified johnboats," said Hopper, who started as a laborer at Ranger 36 years ago.

Modern bass boats are a different story.

"They are highly specialized fishing machines," said Hopper, adding that bass boats often set trends for other aspects of the boating industry.

Today's bass boats are long, wide, heavy, powerful, fast, comfortable, and expensive. They even sound tough, with names like Triton, Nitro, Skeeter and Champion.

Top-of-the-line bass boats can get you to your favorite fishing hole at 70 mph safely and in style, but can run $40,000.

The roots of modern bass boats can be traced to the late 1940s, when Skeeter founder Holmes Thurmond started working on a low-profile, wooden-hulled boat with sides that slanted up and in, similar to a kayak. But it wasn't until the 1960s that bass boats really got rolling, with several boat makers getting into the game.

Among the features of the boats were fiberglass hulls, relatively wide beams for stability, and battery-powered, front-mounted, foot-controlled trolling motors to allow anglers to maneuver the boats while carefully fishing bass-holding cover.

Longtime Roanoke Times outdoors editor Bill Cochran fondly remembers the first time he saw a bass boat, during a fishing trip to Kerr Reservoir with Dave Goforth of Greensboro, N.C.

"It looked a bit like a hollowed out log, but it was a beauty to an angler," Cochran recalled of the Skeeter. "It was the Model A of bass boats.

"I told Goforth I had to have one."

A few days later, Goforth got back in touch with Cochran, and convinced him he needed to buy a Terry bass boat. The Terry had a fiberglass hull and was wider than the Skeeter. Cochran thought the Terry would offer him the stability he needed while fishing big Virginia lakes such as Kerr Reservoir and Smith Mountain Lake.

"I believe I'm safe saying it was the first modern bass boat in the Roanoke or New River valleys," said Cochran, who hadn't seen one before his. "I know for sure it would draw a crowd every time I launched it."

The boat had a 25 horsepower outboard.

"That was a lot of power at the time and the Terry would all but fly, or so it seemed," Cochran said.

As the popularity of tournament angling grew, beating fellow competitors to prime fishing holes became more important and the need for speed led to more powerful engines. Many of today's bass boats are pushed by motors 10 times as powerful as the outboard on Cochran's old Terry.

"For most tournament anglers, 225 horsepower is the standard," said James Cassaday at Conrad Brothers Marine.

For anglers who must do better than the standard, there are options.

Bass boats are available with 300 horsepower engines, although those engines sometimes won't meet limitations established by bass tournament sanctioning bodies.

Mercury's new Verado engine, a supercharged four-stroke engine available with up to 275 horsepower, is creating excitement, Cassaday said.

"You're talking about an 80 mile-per-hour boat," he gushed.

That's fast, but it's not as fast as it could be had the size and weight of the average bass boat not also increased substantially over the years.

Bass boats now stretch to 22 feet and beyond and feature 8-foot beams. Some weigh nearly a ton - without the engine.

Hull designs have had to improve to handle larger motors and faster speeds, while hull construction has also evolved. Hulls of top-end bass boats typically feature a melding of fiberglass and composites for strength and durability.

Then there are the extras.

Where early bass boats had simple sonar flashers, new boats can be equipped with sonar units featuring detailed color displays. The systems can be married to GPS units.

Of course all bass boats now feature aerated livewells, something that wasn't even considered in the early days of serious bass fishing, when catch-and-release was rare. Huge storage compartments provide ample room for tackle and rods.

Of course there are also the expansive, carpeted decks. The decks offer fishermen an ideal platform from which to cast their lures toward their quarry.

And that, after all, is the whole point, right?


 Copyright 2005     The Roanoke Time


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