Bass Boat vs. Bay Boat – Which Boat Type is Right for Me?

In a perfect world, an angler living in a coastal area might own two boats – a bass boat for fishing fresh-water lakes and a bay boat for in-shore salt water fishing. But if you can only own one boat, which is the best choice? Let’s looks at the pros and cons of each of these popular boat types.

Bass Boat

A bass boat is a very specialized fishing machine, designed to quickly carry tournament anglers to the fish and back to shore for the weigh-in. The expansive bow casting platform puts the primary angler in control of an electric trolling motor and electronics. The boat has very low freeboard and a deck that’s almost flush with the gunwales to make it easy to kneel down and reach the water to lip that big bass and get it into the boat. There’s a smaller casting platform in the stern of the boat.

Bass Boat

Bass boats range in length from about 17 feet to about 22 feet. The biggest models can be rigged with up to 300 hp outboards. The running surface is relatively flat and has a pad at the keel aft. At top speed the boat is running just on this pad and can be very fast – over 70 mph – but require some expertise to handle at high speed. This focus on performance is desirable for tournament anglers, as boat speed gives them more time to fish. The shallow draft also makes it possible to trim up the outboard and sneak into very shallow water in pursuit of fish.

A bass boat will usually have a large live well – up to 30 gallons on the biggest models – and lots of storage under the bow deck for tackle and gear, including specific compartments for rods. The side-console helm is usually designed to support one or more large multi-function displays. Most models have seating for just two or three people in the center of the boat. The entire deck area is usually covered with carpeting. Most bass boat brands offer some “fish ‘n ski” models that feature dual consoles, a full windshield, and jump seats that make them more versatile for family boating.

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Bay Boat

A bay boat, as the name implies, is intended for in-shore salt water fishing and family boating – typically staying in sight of shore and on protected waters in coves, bays and river mouths, with the ability to head further offshore when seas and weather are calm. These are scaled-down center console boats, ranging in length from about 20 feet to 25 feet, so bay boats begin in size where bass boats stop, although both boat types are trailerable.

Most bay boats are a center console design, so they offer 360-degree access to the water when fishing. The console will have room for electronics, and often will have a T-top for shade that also incorporates rod holders. There may be a seat forward the console – just a padded cooler on smaller models but a full lounge on bigger examples – and the console may offer storage and even a head compartment. There may also be flip-down jump seats at the transom.

The bow will have a casting platform and may be equipped with a trolling motor for navigating shallows. Bay boats will usually have both a live well and a bait well, and some will have a bait prep station, plus dedicated tackle and rod storage.

With a hull deadrise of 12 to 14 degrees, bay boats won’t slice through chop like a deep-vee center console, but will be much more comfortable in rough water than a flat-bottom bass boat. A 20-foot bay boat will draw about a foot of water, so is still capable to getting into some shallows, but certainly not the very skinny water that can be navigated by a flats skiff. It will have enough bow flair to keep the cockpit free of spray when the water gets rough, but will have lower freeboard than a center console model that’s really intended to head offshore.

The first mission of a bay boat is angling, but most models have enough seating to double as family boats and can be used for exploring, relaxing at the sandbar, running to a waterfront bistro for dinner, and even towing kids in a tube.

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A bass boat is engineered to be a great platform for freshwater angling, especially in warmer climates, but presents many compromises for any other kind of duty. With its low freeboard and carpeted decks it’s not really suited for salt-water use, it does not offer a comfortable ride in rough water or much wind protection for passengers. A bay boat will present some compromises for fishing in fresh water, but if you live in a coastal area and want to be able to fish and family boat in boat fresh and salt water, the bay boat offers more versatility.

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