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Freshwater fishing generates steady profits for manufacturers, dealers

By Craig Ritchie

If there’s one constant in the recreational boating industry, it’s that freshwater fishing boats always manage to sell. 

Even at the height of the downturn, freshwater fishing rigs were one of the few types of boats that continued to move off the lot – with some buyers joking that at least they would have something to do if and when their own job disappeared. And now with the economy once again firing on all cylinders, freshwater fishing boats continue to sell as consumers show new levels of confidence and manufacturers unleash an avalanche of new models and new features designed to leapfrog the competition.

Through February 2017 sales of freshwater fishing boats in the United States were up by 2.7 percent over the previous year, according to Vicky Yu, director of  industry statistics and research for the National Marine Manufacturers Association. 

“Freshwater fishing boats now account for 45 percent of all outboard-powered boats sold, outpacing pontoons (32 percent) and saltwater fishing boats (19 percent),” said Yu. “Sales of freshwater fishing boats have been growing for the past four years, with increases slightly moderating in the past year.”

Hobie Cat is seeing growing demand in the kayak fishing market.

The slow but steady uptick in freshwater fishing boat sales volumes appears to parallel similar slow but steady growth in overall angler participation. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service fishing license sales show an average annual growth in the low single-digit range over each of the past four years – a figure that is in line with growth in the freshwater fishing boat category overall.

The aluminum market

If there’s one thing about freshwater anglers, it’s their endearing love of aluminum. Indeed, aluminum boats now account for 84 percent of all freshwater fishing boat sales, said Yu. Reasons cited for this strong preference include their lighter overall weight, which allows aluminum boats to be towed behind smaller vehicles, and their ability to be easily launched and retrieved from waterways with unimproved ramps or no ramps at all. Aluminum is also said to be more resistant to damage than fiberglass should it periodically scrub rocks or stumps, a common occurrence among anglers who often fish in shallow waters. 

“The freshwater fishing market has been steady and aluminum boat sales in particular are up. They’ve been climbing steadily since about 2008,” said Lori Kneeland, director of marketing for Crestliner Boats. “We came out of our boat show season this year with unit sales well up over last year. The Baby Boomer is still the principal buyer, but we’re seeing more young families and young couples coming in looking for that first boat, and that’s good to see. We’ve added some amenities to attract younger buyers, like ski pylons, tables, upgraded stereos and sun pads, for example, but of course we maintain the core focus on fishing.”

Kneeland notes that while versatile multi-species models remain strong sellers, the company is also seeing increased activity in special purpose designs. 

While there is growing demand for larger boats, the 16-foot aluminum is still a popular size.

“Our aluminum bass boats have grown significantly over the past two years, especially our premium PT series,” Kneeland said. “That’s a very competitive market space, but we’ve enjoyed a lot of success and they’re doing well. We’re also seeing upticks in some of the niche markets that we’re into, like the catfish boats and the Pacific Northwest product.”

Some of the inroads in the bass boat space no doubt result from having an aluminum product in a segment long dominated by fiberglass.  

“Aluminum boat buyers are in aluminum boats because that’s the product they want,” said Mark Zwicker, senior sales and product manager at Ranger. “There isn’t as much crossover from one to the other as one might think. Aluminum buyers have specific reasons for wanting that aluminum hull. So we offer both types of product in order to appeal in two very different markets.”

Part of the reason for strong consumer dedication to aluminum hulls lies in the increasing sophistication of the product. The continued “up-featuring” of aluminum fishing boats has brought luxury features into even the value segment of the market. 

“We’re definitely seeing more amenities in aluminum fishing boats such as improved flooring materials, more comfortable seating and reconfigured helm consoles that can accommodate large, multi-function displays,” said Peter Barrett, senior vice president of marketing at Smoker Craft Inc. “We’re seeing integrated track systems for accessories, ventilation systems for the rod lockers and storage spaces, and new hull designs that don’t need maximum power to deliver great performance. These innovations add a ton of utility and a ton of value, yet the buyer still gets a boat that’s moderately priced and something they can tow with a family vehicle.”

Freshwater fishing boats now account for almost half of all outboard-powered boat sales.

While full-featured models with dual live wells, in-floor rod storage and other high-end features can be found in boats right down to the 16-foot range, buyers have shown an interest in not only more features, but more floor space as well. Yu notes that where the “standard 16-footer” was once the undisputed king of aluminum fishing boat sales, in recent years sizes – and horsepower ratings – have been steadily creeping up. 

“Four years ago 76 percent of freshwater fishing boats were 16 feet in length or larger,” she said. “Today, that figure is 79 percent.”

For Smoker Craft’s aluminum fishing brands – Smoker Craft, Starcraft and Starweld – that standard 16-footer has become a standard 17-footer, says Barrett. 

“The 16-footer with a 50 or 60 horsepower outboard is still a staple in the lineup, but we’ve been seeing more and more buyers migrate up to a 17-foot boat with a 75 or a 90,” he said. “What’s particularly interesting is that we’re seeing more first-time buyers now than we’ve seen in the past few years, and they’re going straight to the 17-foot models that come with all the bells and whistles. At the winter boat shows this year we definitely noticed a growing number of young families and young couples buying mid-range aluminum fishing boats.”

Beverley Ramsay, director of marketing at Lowe Boats, agrees that the average size of aluminum fishing boats seem to be sliding upward. 

“One thing we’ve been striving to do is to be able to put larger engines on our boats. We used to sell a ton of boats with 60 horsepower engines but now buyers want 115s and 150s,” said Ramsay. “That comes straight out of tournament fishing, where anglers want to be able to fish until the very last second before running in for weigh-in. But even non-tournament anglers appreciate the extra range a bigger engine brings, and the ability to get to and from their spots more quickly so they can spend more time fishing and less time traveling to and from. So we’re building more boats to provide that capability.”

The fiberglass market

Ranger’s sales are growing at the best rate since 2005.

While aluminum boats may command the lion’s share of the freshwater fishing category, in two specific markets – bass fishing and big-water trolling – fiberglass remains the undisputed king.

Many of the features now considered standard fare in freshwater fishing boats owe their roots to tournament bass rigs – a segment that continues to thrive and is currently seeing a strong uptick in sales. 

“The market is expanding in a steady and manageable rate. I’ll say this with some caution, but I think the first quarter numbers could show growth to be up even more than that. Our order intake has been up considerably since Nov. 1 … we haven’t seen numbers like this since 2005,” said Zwicker. 

While Baby Boomers remain the primary buyers of fiberglass fishing boats in the freshwater market, as in the aluminum segment, a growing cohort of younger buyers has begun to make their presence known and are beginning to account for a higher proportion of sales. 

“Tournament bass boats remain the core business for Ranger, while we continue to push into the multi-species and fish-and-ski segments where we’re starting to see more interest from young families,” said Zwicker. “In the bass market, collegiate tournaments are clearly beginning to have an impact. We’re seeing excellent success with the events that we participate in at the high school and college level. That’s getting to be bigger all the time.”

Anglers want more amenities, even in aluminum boats.

As the bass market slowly expands, so too does the offshore fishery on large water bodies like the Great Lakes, where ecosystem rehabilitation efforts have resulted in rebounding populations of walleye, muskie, lake trout and salmon. 

“The Great Lakes can get rough so it’s always been a strong market for offshore boats,” said Alan Lang, national sales manager at Scout Boats. “The freshwater market has been growing for us, not only in units, but in size. We sell everything in freshwater, right up to our 42-foot model. The 17 to 22-foot models probably represent the strongest volume overall, but we see demand right up the line, depending what the customer wants to do. Some of the buyers don’t even fish, they just like the look of the boat and its ability to handle rough water.”

Where hard-core fishing boats once commanded the lion’s share of the big-water market, Lang notes that today’s buyers are looking for fishability combined with luxurious amenities. 

“We’re seeing more demand today for boats that provide the latest electronics, whether that’s big in-dash displays and radar, or convenience features like joystick controls.”

Go small or go home

For Scout, 17- to 22-foot models are the best sellers.

While aluminum continues to command the lion’s share of the freshwater fishing boat market and fiberglass exhibits steady year-over-year gains, some of the fastest growth in recent years has been seen in the fishing kayak market, with the small boats now accounting for some of the largest sales gains of all.

Kayak fishing first gained widespread attention as an extreme offshore sport, with a handful of adventurous anglers going far out into the Pacific Ocean to catch sharks and sailfish. Fueled by an avalanche of kayak fishing magazines, websites, television programs, YouTube channels and a rapidly expanding tournament circuit, specialized fishing kayaks – complete with rod holders, fish finders and even live wells – have exploded onto the mainstream. 

“We’re seeing more and more anglers buying a kayak as a way of getting off the bank and onto the water,” said Morgan Promnitz, fishing products manager at Hobie Cat. “And at the same time we’re seeing a growing number of experienced anglers moving from their power boat into a kayak because they enjoy the sheer simplicity of it. There’s a migration toward kayak fishing, and it’s coming from both ends of the spectrum.”

Increasingly sophisticated, fishing kayaks not only represent attractive profits for stocking dealers, they also spur the purchase of a wide range of high margin accessories, from simple rod holders and hydrostatic PFDs to high-end multi-function displays, stand-alone GPS and fish finders, and safety gear like portable EPIRBs. 

Electric motors are making kayak fishing easier for anglers.

“I’ll be blunt – kayak fishing is the biggest thing to hit freshwater fishing since Ray Scott in the 1960s,” said Steve Trkla, president of Torqeedo Inc. “We make an electric motor for kayaks, and it’s one of our biggest growth segments. What kayak fishing allows is a lower barrier to entry, so it’s attracting a lot of anglers that can’t afford a luxury bass boat that might retail for $70,000 or $80,000. Fishing kayaks are one-man boats, rigged with all the same bells and whistles like high definition multi-function displays and Talon anchors, and you can buy one for about $5,000. There’s no ongoing fuel cost. There’s no insurance cost. You don’t need a huge truck to tow it. For Torqeedo, we do the math and see how many people are getting into this and how attractive it is for new people entering the sport, and it’s clearly going to just keep getting bigger every year.”

Future outlook

Freshwater fishing remains one of the most popular recreational activities in the United States, says the Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation in its 2016 stakeholder report. The organization’s new recruitment program – 60 in 60 – aims to boost the number of fishing participants in the U.S. from the current 45.7 million to 60 million over the next 60 months. With growth in the number of first-time anglers up by 4 percent last year, and outpacing overall growth in the U.S. population (0.7 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau), the future for the freshwater fishing segment looks bright with an expectation of steady, sustained growth. 

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