Freshwater fishing goes big

Boats, motors — and sales — continue to grow

By David Gee

There are lots of things you can do in, on, from and behind a boat; cruise, chill, eat, swim, surf, ski, and ride to name a few. The most popular one? It’s throwing out a line and a lure or some form of bait and reelin’ them in.

In 2018, the marine industry reeled in 74,300 new freshwater fishing boat (aluminum and fiberglass) customers, up 1.4% from 2017. The segment accounts for 27% of all new boats sold today, according to the National Marine Manufacturers Association.

Not only are overall sales edging up, but also so is the size of the boats themselves. Last year nearly 70% of new freshwater fishing boats sold were 17 feet and larger, compared to 55% in 2008 (see chart).

Vexus VX21

A “growing” market

“What we see in the market is the 18-foot entry-level bass boat segment getting hammered,” said Bass Cat and Yar-Craft Boats president Rick Pierce in a recent phone call to Boating Industry. “I grew up fishing as a kid in a 16-foot bass boat and basically those are extinct today. What was 16 turned into 17 and then to 18. Boats keep getting bigger and the 18-foot segment is now converting to 19 and the 19 is kind of the target start point for the fiberglass bass boat.”

SeaArk Boats was eyeing that growing 19-foot market with their addition to its BC series bass boat line in the form of the all-new BC 190.

The BC 190 features the Evolution Hull design like its sister boat, the BC 210. The company says this hull features a 10-degree dead rise and creates better lift, with less water connection and drag.

The BC 190 is built with heavy gauge aluminum, all-aluminum floors and decks, oversized cap rails and extruded center keel. The interior features two lockable rod boxes, four lockable storage boxes, a built-in 39-quart bow step cooler, and 35-gallon live well. The BC 190 also has over 8,200 square inches of fishable deck space.

“We are excited to expand our new bass boat line with the BC 190,” said SeaArk Boats president Steve Henderson. “We feel that this will fill a need in the market for a high-performance boat that has ample storage and plenty of deck room.”

New kid on the bass block

High performance was high on Keith Daffron’s priority list when he unveiled Vexus fishing boats a year-and-a-half ago; the newest entrant in the fishing boat market.

Daffron is the former vice president of sales and marketing at Ranger Boats and is the grandson of Ranger founders Forrest and Nina Wood.

“There is a lot of heritage in our company, and a lot of boat building history,” Daffron tells Boating Industry. “That heritage is built on a strong commitment to customers, and building products that are of superior quality. We are also committed to using advanced technologies, proprietary designs and environmentally-friendly manufacturing processes.”

Daffron said in a recent phone conversation the Vexus business model is pretty simple. Serve the trailerable fishing boat market with both fiberglass and aluminum boats that are best in class.

“That was our focus when we started, it’s our focus today, and I think customers have been responding very well to that so far.”

Daffron chose Flippin, Arkansas, the longtime home of Ranger, as the location for the new company, and for a new 115,000 square-foot, state-of-the-art manufacturing facility.

“Even though we have lots of experience between us in the company, none of us have ever started a brand-new boat building company from scratch. And there’s a lot to do! Building a brand, building a new factory, and then designing and building the boats that come out of that factory. I’m proud of what we have all done, and in such a relatively short period of time.”

Employing over 120 people with good paying jobs is one of the aspects Daffron and his team say they are most proud of.

As for the future?

“We are bullish on the future of the fishing boat segment. There are a couple of reasons for that. One is the sheer number of young people who are now on fishing teams and participating at the grassroots level. That gives us hope there is a new generation of customers out there. And if the economy turns, well, fishing can be an escape from the stresses of every day life. We see growth in fishing in general, and in the fishing boat segment specifically.”

The business of bass

Yes, big fish mean big business these days. Especially when we’re talking bass. The black bass family, which includes largemouth, smallmouth, spotted bass or Kentucky bass and Guadalupe bass, has become the most specifically sought-after game fish in the U.S.

This in turn has driven the development of all kinds of new high-tech fishing gear including rods, reels, lines, lures, electronic depth and fish-finding instruments, as well as fishing-specific drift boats, float tubes, kayaks, and so on (more on alternative water-borne fishing platforms later).

There are several established – and one upstart – professional bass fishing tournament series’ harnessing the power of social media and television and more sponsorship dollars to help fuel this growth.

Bass Cat Lynx

But the bass fishing glory isn’t the exclusive purview of the professionals these days.

As Vexus president Keith Daffron said, there has been an exponential increase in the number of high school bass fishing teams across the country. That can include significant recognition, but also create an avenue to pursue angling in college and eventually opportunities to turn bass into cash some day.

Despite the growth in grassroots fishing, the popularity of the pros, and healthy boat sales, the sport of fishing is still trying to plug the “leaky bucket;” meaning about as many people are quitting fishing as are coming in or rejoining the sport (see sidebar).

Sea-Doo doesn’t offer a leaky bucket with their all-new for 2019 Fish Pro, but they do include a 13.5-gallon LinQ fishing cooler on what the company is calling the first and only personal watercraft built for fishing.

The cooler features a recessed work surface, four rod holders, trolling slots, tackle and bait storage and quick latch system.

The Fish Pro also comes with a fishing-specific bench seat to facilitate fishing sideways, trolling mode that allows for throttle-less low-speed control, watertight phone box, special boarding ladder, angled gunwale footrest and other fishing-friendly features.

Grassroots fishing grows

What’s SUP?

Inflatable manufacturers are also angling for their share of the fishing market. Basically as long as something floats, and you fill it up with air, it’s considered an inflatable, no matter the design. And more and more inflatables, from canoes to kayaks to stand up paddleboards (SUP) are being designed with fishing-friendly features in mind.

The new Sea Eagle FishSUP 126 stand up paddleboard for example is made especially for fishermen. You can sit, stand, fish, motor, or troll, and the removable transom gives you the ability to run with an electric motor. The company says you can be set up in under 10 minutes.

The product also features 360-degree swivel seats, built-in fish rulers, D-rings and shock cords at the bow to secure gear, and a unique pocket to stow and secure the paddle.

Fishing finish line

Of course if you like to get to your favorite fishing spot faster than you can paddle, then you’re in luck with today’s high-horsepower outboard engines mounted on the back of your favorite fishing boat.

And just as the boats are getting bigger, so are the motors. In 2008, the average horsepower in the U.S. for all outboards was 80. In 2018, the average horsepower of all outboard engines sold hit a new record of 119.4, according to NMMA.

Nearly one quarter of the 278,500 outboard engines sold in America last year – 64,500 units – were 200-horsepower or greater. That number has doubled in the past five years. Outboard engines rated 300-horsepower and above grew 14.3% year-over-year to 25,388 units. That is up from 9,788 units in 2013 when NMMA first started breakout sales of engines over 200-horsepower.

SeaArk BC190

Where is this headed?

“I think it will in a large part be determined by the primary professional bass fishing organizations in the country,” opines Bass Cat and Yar-Craft Boats president Rick Pierce. “What’s going to determine the horsepower race is if any of those organizations decide to allow motors over 250-horsepower, their current limit.”

Pierce is quick to add though the customers they’re selling 300 and 400’s to aren’t professional anglers.

“They’re just weekenders, fishing locally, but want the biggest motor they can buy. They don’t necessarily drive their boats that fast, but they may like the hole shot and the power it gives them. They just prefer more ponies.”

Don’t we all?! It reminds me of the old motorsports adage, “How fast do you want to go?” And all in unison comes the response, “How much money do you have?”  

Sea-Doo Fish Pro

Some facts about freshwater fishing

More than 49 million Americans take to the nation’s waterways annually to enjoy some form of recreational fishing. It consistently tops lists of favorite — and most popular — outdoor sports.

In their latest special report on fishing, the Outdoor Foundation and Recreational Boating & Fishing Foundation found fishing participation continued growing slightly from 2016 to 2017, increasing by 0.4%, or by 1.9 million individuals.

That represents the highest participation rate since 2009.

However, like lots of other fish stories, there are some holes in this one. The Outdoor Foundation and RBFF call it the “Leaky Bucket” (see chart). It illustrates the annual churn of fishing participants, or those people joining/rejoining the activity and those quitting in a given year.

From 2016 to 2017, there was a net increase of 1.9 million people. The annual churn rate also increased from 10.2% to 12%.

New-Returning Participants

New fishing participants made up 6% of all participants, or three million people. Returning participants accounted for 9.4% of participants, or a little over four-and-a-half million people.

Lost Participants

5.6 million people stopped fishing in 2017. The activity also lost one million more participants from 2016 to 2017 than it did during the previous year.

Continuing Participants

The majority of participants, 84.6%, continued fishing from 2016 to 2017. That equates to 41.5 million people.

Over 12% of all Americans who did not fish for the past two years, or 30.1 million people, were interested in taking up fishing or rejoining the activity. This is up from 11.7%, or 29.1 million people, in 2016. It is also the highest percentage and number of Americans interested in fishing since this figure started to be recorded in 2010.

12.2% of Americans considered fishing in 2017. The percent of people interested in fishing has steadily increased since 2014 when 10.5% wanted to try fishing.

The Recreational Boating & Fishing Foundation is certainly trying to make fishing easier, at least when it comes to purchasing a fishing license and registering a boat. That’s thanks to RBFF’s latest free tool, the Fishing License & Boat Registration Website Plugin.

So far, 25 organizations have added the tool to their consumer-facing websites, helping anglers and boaters get on the water. In March alone, the tool received 112,000 hits, resulting in more than 5,500 fishing license and boat registration referrals.

“With more than 112,000 hits and thousands of licenses and registrations already converted through this tool, it’s obvious it’s working for consumers,” said RBFF president and CEO Frank Peterson. “We are encouraged by all the organizations that are making the process easier for consumers by sharing this tool, but more support is needed. I’m challenging every organization in our industry that has a consumer-facing website to add this tool to help us reach our 60 in 60 goal.”

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