Sales of freshwater fishing boats continue to grow, but the segment isn’t just benefitting from anglers.
With innovative design and consumer preferences for outboard power, many manufacturers are seeing the fishing boat replace the fiberglass I/O as the de facto family runabout.
“Reality is there are a lot of people that fish, [and] there are a lot of people that don’t, but they want those dual consoles, they want those center consoles for the ease of boating,” said Rob Parmentier, president and CEO of Larson Boat Group. “You can put a lot of people on board, they have less canvas, they are easier to clean, a lot of them are easier to get in and out of. You can use them as kind of an SUV, and they have the technology of the outboard power, which has completely surpassed that of I/O.”
Larson is seeing strength in both its Larson FX freshwater series and the saltwater boats in its Striper line. Those trends seem to be carrying across the entire segment, with freshwater fishing boats up about 11 percent through March on a 12-month rolling basis, versus 8 percent for all powerboats, according to data from Info-Link. Saltwater over 21 feet is doing even better – up 23 percent over the same period. (For more on the saltwater fishing market, see the "Market Trends: A multi-purpose vessel" article in our February issue.)
Sales have been up across most boat categories for Smoker Craft but fishing is one of the highlights, said marketing coordinator Steve Huber.
“We definitely can’t complain,” he said. “All of our schedules are full. That is something we’re very proud of, being able to keep those schedules full and keep those employees working all the time.”
Like Larson, Smoker Craft is seeing a lot of buyers opting for fishing boats for “family fun.”
The company’s new-for-2015 182 Ultima is a fish and ski boat with plenty of seating. The driving force of that boat was for a true fish and ski in the line, Huber said.
A perfect demonstration of that multi-purpose, family-friendly trend may be the success Lowe Boats is having with its line of SF fishing pontoons.
While bass boats and freshwater aluminum sales are actually down slightly for the Brunswick-owned brand, sales growth for its fishing pontoons has been “huge,” said marketing manager Beverly Ramsey.
“These are fishing pontoons that you can also put a ski tow on,” she said. “It’s fishing in the morning and fun on the lake in the afternoon.”
For 2016, Lowe will continue to invest in its fishing pontoon line, revamping all its offerings and adding a new SF 212.
Baby boomers are driving that trend, choosing to purchase a vessel that gives them more room for family, plus they’re willing to “settle down” a little bit, said Lowe vice president David Kirkland.
“We believe it’s more the grandma and grandpa, because they want to get the family on the boat,” he said. “It’s big, it’s wide and it’s extremely stable – a solid, stable platform that feels very secure.”
But this family-sized expansion of the market doesn’t mean boat builders are forgetting about anglers.
Serious fishermen continue to be the bread and butter of the segment, said Rick Pierce, president of BassCat & Yar-Craft, recent additions to the Correct Craft portfolio.
With the average fishing boat buyers keeping their boats a little longer, there is now some pent-up demand in the market. Between the recession and weather challenges of the last couple years, many buyers have been reluctant to commit to a new boat.
“We think they moved up about 18 months in the age they keep the boats,” Pierce said. “Before the recession, the average buyer would keep the product from 7 to 12 years. That’s now closer to 8 to 14 years.”
While there are still the “aggressive” anglers that are going to be every year or every-other-year buyers, even that group has trimmed back their spending – at least on new boats.
“We did see some of those buyers fall back to the used boat market,” Pierce said. “They still keep it a year or two, they’re just not buying it new and taking that depreciation.”
Bigger and better
The strongest part of the market for BassCat and Yar-Craft has been the repeat buyer, purchasing a boat in the $50,000 to $70,000 range.
“We’re seeing strength in the upper-scale market more than the middle or lower part of the market in bass and walleye,” Pierce said.
The buyer is generally a higher-educated male, with a six-digit income, in his 40s or older.
“We’ve had a really good year on our Jaguar series, which sells with anything from a 250 to a 350 Verado and sells somewhere between $70,000 and $90,000,” Pierce said. “That’s really coming from customers who have had us before. Most of our Jaguar buyers are in their 50s or 60s.”
With the Yar-Craft brand, which is focused on walleye/multi-species, average size has also increased from when BassCat acquired the brand in December 2011. In the 2012 model year, the company sold almost exclusively 186 models.
“Now that market is 20s and 21s,” Pierce said. “We hardly build a 186 now.”
For 2016, Yar-Craft is introducing a new 2095 back troller to replace its top seller.
“We haven’t really done anything revolutionary with [the brand] yet, but that is going to be really pivotal,” he said. “It’s going to be a great model and put our stamp on that walleye/multi-species market.”
Smoker Craft is also seeing a trend toward more size and power, Huber said.
“Our bread-and-butter was always the 16-foot market. This year it’s turned more into the 17,” he said. “On top of that, people are going more toward that 115 [horsepower engine], where on the 16, people were more toward the 50, 60, 75, 90.”
That trend toward bigger boats was one of the reasons Smoker Craft added a 182 Pro Angler XL this year.
“The Pro Angler series is by far our best-selling boat in the line,” Huber said. “We had four 17s and four 16s and we just needed to expand that out, just offer the next step up.”
While Larson is offering more size options, the top sellers haven’t changed for its freshwater offerings. The sweet spot is still in the 18 to 20-foot boats and the 1850 is still the best seller for FX, Parmentier said.
Comfort and ‘fishability’
Whether it’s to make the boats more family-friendly or to appeal to what is admittedly an aging core buyer, builders are also making sure they’re not forgetting about comfort.
“If it wasn’t important before, it is now: You’ve got to have comfortable seats,” said Kirkland. “But you’ve also got to have what we call ‘fishability.’”
That means everything from the right number of live wells to a stable platform that helps people feel safe and comfortable.
“One thing we pride ourselves on here at Lowe Boats is that we have one of the most stable fishing boats in the industry,” Kirkland said. “We don’t design the hulls to run fast – we want decent speed out of the boats, but we’re not a high-speed manufacturer.”
With a V-Tec hull designed to keep the boat stable and variable wide front decks for extra roominess, ease of use is key to design decisions.
“Even putting in front and rear live wells,” Kirkland said. “We were the only ones to do that for years, so you don’t have to get up and run around the boat to put your fish in.”
Smoker Craft has been hearing similar feedback from its dealers and buyers and is upgrading all of its bass seats this year to offer a more comfortable ride, Huber said.
Along with that, Smoker Craft has also been redesigning its consoles to allow anglers to integrate more electronics.
“The demand varies there by customer, so we just want to be able to satisfy the best we can what customers are looking for,” Huber said. “We’re definitely getting more feedback that they want the space for the more robust graphs that are out there.”
Parmentier said Larson will also have more to show off in 2016 around electronics when it unveils its latest boats, plus some exciting new aesthetics.
“A lot of people think fishermen don’t like a little bit of style but they do,” Parmentier said. “We’ve got some unique gelcoats we’re working with right now that will give us some different looks. We’re going to continue to work with these companies we’re working with to give us some unique colors for 2016.”
Larson relies on its team of professional fishermen to help guide its design changes, integrating improvements throughout the year.
“They’re putting 200, 300 hours on a boat in six months and they figure out pretty quickly where do you need the storage, how many bait wells do you need,” Parmentier said. “We make changes 12 months of the year. If they call me with … a good idea, I’ll walk out to the line and we implement it immediately.”
As long as the economy stays healthy, there’s no reason to expect the domestic fishing market to slow, the manufacturers agree. (The strong dollar presents challenges in Canada and other countries, though.)
“Next year is going to be even better because of the pent-up demand and the controlled price of fuel should entice the mid-level buyer,” Pierce said.
And anything that makes it easier for people to own and maintain their boats will continue to make fishing vessels attractive.
“People don’t want to mess with canvas, they don’t like to maintain their boats and they want ease of use,” Parmentier said. “The more we can do toward those three things, the more people we’re going to get into boating.”