The Fishing's good in those skinny waters at the back end of the bay. But the ride over open water to get there-not so good. A flats boat gets beaten up on the ride. A deep-V center console gets beached. But there's an alternative. The bay boat is as versatile a vessel as you'll find in the fishing world, a fantastic compromise that lets you hunt in the shallows and, conditions permitting, go outside the inlet. No other style of boat covers such a wide range of water. And almost no other style of boat offers so many models. So we picked five of the best to help you choose. We looked into how they're built, rigged, and handled the flats and open water, then checked that all-important intangible-what you get for your dollar. This was a tough one. Prices and features were all close. So close, that you'll be cheating yourself if you flip to the end to see who won. You might miss the right boat for you.
The Price of Fish
As you can see from our comparison chart, each of these boats has a lot to offer the angler. But which one gives you the most for the best price?
Except for the VIP Bay Stealth, which has an extended running surface aft, you'll need to pay extra for trim tabs-a must-have on the flats. As all our test boats had different power, we'll compare prices with a standard 150-hp outboard for easier shopping.
The Pathfinder gives you first-rate construction, a smooth ride, a preinstalled through-hull transducer, and a lot of fishing space for a reasonable $27,175.
The Polar is more expensive, at $30,463, but it's a bigger boat in weight and length. It also comes with three standard livewells, coaming bolsters, tons of rod stowage, and a raw-water washdown.
The Pro-Line edges the Pathfinder by $96 to claim the title of least expensive boat. It's not as slick as some of the others and has the smallest standard livewell of the group.
The Triton, coming in at $29,157, offers tons of rod stowage. Plus, it has the largest fishbox and a few standards the others lack, such as a battery switch and leaning-post rodholders.
The VIP Bay Stealth offers one standard the others can't match-a galvanized trailer. If you don't want it, knock $1,600 off the $30,800 list price. It's also the only boat to offer standard fishing chairs and removable seat cushions. Plus, you don't need those tabs, making the price even more reasonable.
The Chosen One
To tell the truth, we'd be happy fishing from any one of these boats. All of them have the ability to satisfy the bay boat mission: ride the rough, fish the skinny. But it's our job to pick one, so we went with the boat that we think we'd be happiest with years from now.
The Polar 2310 is bigger, heavier, and has a deeper cockpit than all the rest. If you mostly fish in rougher water, you'll appreciate its size and security. It's a dockside looker, with a lot of wouldn't-it-be-great fishing amenities. But it's a little too big and beefy for our bay boat sensibilities.
The Pro-Line 22 Bay is a solid performer and a no-nonsense bay boat with an affordable price. It's a good value pick. There's nothing wrong with this boat, but there's nothing to vault it to the front of the pack, either.
The Triton 220 LTS handles well in rough water, has a lot of nice fishing features, and is built well. It would make many an angler happy. Like the Polar, it's a little heavier, so it's a little slower and has a tad more draft than some of the others.
The VIP Bay Stealth 2230 has some great standards, gets more speed with less power, and rides over the waves like a performance boat. But it has the flattest running surface of the group-it gets in to the shallow but it doesn't win the rough-water battle.
That leaves the Pathfinder 2200-V, which best represents our idea of a true bay boat. It's lightweight and can get in skinny water, yet its deeper V gives it great rough-water handling. You can cast from almost every place you can stand, making it the most fishable and the most amenable to inshore sight casting. Plus, it comes in on the lower end of the pricing scale, making this versatile runner the favorite. Just give us those inwale rodracks and a few grabhandles and we'd call it near perfect.
Pathfinder 2200-V888/742-5569 www.pathfinderboats.com
The 3'9"-by-5'10" bow casting platform has a molded lip to keep line ondeck. Sand-textured nonslip is molded into every walking surface, including the 7"-wide gunwales, to maximize the available room to fish. All deck hatches are flush and have a cushioning strip to mute fish-spooking sound when closing. A 25-gallon livewell comes standard. There are no inwale rodracks, but vertical holders accommodate four on each side of the console and four on the leaning post. There's also lockable stowage in the port bow hatch that holds 7' rods.
With a 225-hp Yamaha, the Pathfinder, the lightest of our boats, leaped onto plane and ran smooth and dry through a tight bay chop. It could also cleanly get into and out of water less than a foot deep. With the tabs deployed, it planed within its own hull length with no bowrise-the fastest and smoothest of the group. It posted a top end nearly identical to the longer and heavier Polar with its 250-hp Mercury. We could execute the tightest turns among contestants at 30 mph without significant ventilation. It has the steepest deadrise compared to all but the Triton.
There's foam coring in the hull and the one-piece deck liner. The hull and deck are joined with screws and adhesive. There's a composite fiberglass stringer grid. A look under the double-finished hatches-that are also gasketed and guttered-shows attention to detail. Stick your hand into the anchor locker and you'll feel a glassed-in aluminum mounting plate for a trolling motor. Inside the console there's orderly wiring and rigging. The helm sports a large space for electronics on the dash. The forward rodlockers are gel coated inside, and the cockpit has gutters funneling water to large stainless-steel scuppers.
Padding strips in addition to gaskets on hatches muffle fish-spooking noise. Open layout makes for excellent all-around fishing space. A Lowrance flush-mounted through-hull transducer is preinstalled, meaning no aftermarket drilling. All hatches are flush with the deck.
No inwale rodracks makes it harder for fly guys to access rods. Lack of grabrails around boat for passengers to hold. Anchor locker is an option.
$27,175. Includes: Hydraulic steering; 8 console rodholders; 4 ss pull-up cleats; 25-gal. livewell; leaning post w/4 rodholders; flush-mounted through-hull transducer; removable leaning post cooler; helm leaning post; insulated fishbox.
Polar 2310 256/736-2979 www.polarboats.com
There are three standard livewells-a 38-gallon one aft, a 28-gallon one in the forward console seat, and a 30-gallon one in the bow deck. Hatches under the aft jump seats hold a 5-gallon cast net bucket or trashcan. The inwale rodracks hold three rods per side, and the coaming bolsters are standard. Two vertical rodholders adorn both sides of the console. Each lockable bow deck hatch stows four 9' rods per side, and there are three tackle trays to either side of the bow platform step. There are also four gunwale-mounted rodholders aft. The bow platform measures 4'5"-by-5'10".
It's beefier than the other boats, more closely resembling an offshore center console than a flats boat. It rode well in the rough stuff, tending to run through the waves rather than dance over their tops. This gives it a secure feeling in slop, especially with its higher 1'9" cockpit depth. It offers a solid, stable, and dry ride. The 250-hp Mercury pushed it above 55 mph-it would have gone faster without the optional T-top. However, it was the slowest boat in this group to plane and had the most bowrise. It can compete in shallow water with the rest of them, though you need more tab to get up and out.
Polar does great gel coat work; the 2310 may be the most eye-catching one at the dock. Beneath that slick exterior is a foam-cored deck, solid glass hull, and a fiberglass stringer grid. Hull and deck are joined with adhesive. The center console has a molded recessed toe kick all the way around. The windshield is removable and attaches with wing nuts. Rigging tubes make electronics installation easier, but there's limited mounting space on the helm. The boat is prerigged for a trolling motor. Hatches are double finished with guttered openings but have no drains or sound-deadening gaskets.
Three livewells come standard, giving it the most bait-carrying capacity. Only boat with coaming bolsters. Optional backrests on aft jump seats convert to fishing seats or leaning posts.
Limited dash space to mount electronics. Motor rigging restricts access to bilge hatch. Sluggish climbing on plane compared to the other boats.
$30,463. Includes: Hydraulic steering; 4 console rodholders; 4 gunwale-mounted rodholders; 6 inwale rodracks; 38-gal. aft livewell; 30-gal. bow livewell; 28-gal. console livewell; 2 recessed tackle stowage lockers w/3 trays apiece; insulated fishbox; 2 lockable rodlockers; coaming bolsters; raw-water washdown; removable-cooler helm bench.
Pro-Line 22 Bay 800/344-1281 www.prolineboats.com
This is a good basic fishing boat, with a small 15-gallon livewell aft and a 2'10"-by-5'6" bow platform. That platform is one molded piece-no locker hatches to slam or rattle when stepped on. There's a vertical hatch to access stowage underneath. Stainless-steel grabrails prohibit walking around on the forward gunwales. The console has four stainless-steel rodholders per side and there's space for two tackle trays forward of the helm. There are no inwale racks for the fly guys. There's an extra rodholder on the starboard gunwale forward so you can live line.
During turning tests, this boat didn't turn as sharply as the others and tended to ventilate in tighter curves. It finished middle-of-the-pack in planing, which was helped immensely by the optional trim tabs. Once up and running, it performed solidly in the chop, taking on some spray but not enough to be uncomfortable. It can get into less than a foot of water-the gold standard for any boat wishing to call itself a bay boat. With a 200-hp Mercury, it topped the 50-mph mark.
Another with a composite fiberglass stringer grid. The hull is solid fiberglass; the deck is cored. Both are joined by screws and adhesive. We like how the wiring plate on the back of the console hatch makes it easy to work on. The hatches on the aft deck are molded fiberglass, but the forward hatches are Starboard plastic. There are stainless-steel gunwale grabrails that start aft of the forward benches. There is no molded-in backing plate for a trolling motor, but the area is prewired. There's a grippy diamond-pattern nonslip.
No hatches on bow casting deck mean no slamming or rattling while fishing. Easy access to the electrical wiring plate on the back of the flip-down console hatch. Lockable glovebox on the dash. Standard swim ladder.
Ventilates in tight turns. Has the smallest bow casting area of the group. Plastic hatches on forward stowage areas. Drain hole in anchor locker left raw fiberglass exposed on test boat.
$27,079. Includes: Hydraulic steering; 12v receptacle; raw-water washdown; 15-gal. livewell; 4 pop-up cleats; compass; removable leaning post cooler; ss telescoping swim ladder; trolling motor prewiring; 8 console rodholders; gunwale-mounted rodholder; helm leaning post; insulated fishbox; recessed tackle stowage locker; fuel/water separator.
Triton 220 LTS888/887-4866 www.tritonboats.com
This boat has the best rod stowage combination, with three inwale rodracks per side, two gunwale-mounted rodholders, four holders in the leaning post, and eight around the console. Two lockable hatches in the forward deck accommodate rods up to 10' in length, giving it a slight edge over the Polar. The bow platform measures 5'3"-by-6'2", making this the largest forward casting area. A 25-gallon livewell comes standard. In the stowage space under the console, there's dedicated plastic ridges to secure a 5-gallon bucket-the perfect place to store your cast net.
Not quite as heavy as the Polar but with more transom deadrise, the Triton had similar good rough-water handling characteristics and a little more midrange zip. It had the second-fastest holeshot (behind the Pathfinder), a mark improved with optional tabs. With a 225-hp Mercury, it broke 50 mph-the T-top on our test boat likely shaved off a few miles per hour. It had no problem getting into a foot of water, although the draft is officially listed at 1'1". It could ably handle tight turns and kept dry in a light bay chop.
Again we see a composite fiberglass stringer grid and a cored deck that is screwed and glued to a solid glass hull. There are molded-in 1'7"-by-11" transom platforms that are great for stepping down to land a fish. You also get molded-in steps up to the bow and aft casting platforms. Hatches are finished on both sides, guttered, and gasketed with drains. It sports a toe recess around the console. There is a glassed-in aluminum mounting plate for a trolling motor, but no wiring.
Comes with a limited-lifetime hull warranty. Molded-in step-ups to bow and aft casting platforms. Center console has molded-in tow recess. Lockable rodboxes can hold 10' rods.
Doesn't have an anchor locker. Console windshield flexed a little during tests. What, no bow cleat?
$29,157. Includes: Hydraulic steering; 2 ss gunwale-mounted rodholders; 4 ss pull-up cleats; battery switch; fuel/water separator; 8 console rodholders; 2 lockable rodlockers; 25-gal. livewell; insulated fishbox; 12v receptacle; leaning post; removable cooler w/cushion; 4 leaning post rodholders; 6 inwale rodracks.
VIP Bay Stealth 2230 800/256-7579 www.vipboats.com
There are no inwale rodracks. Instead you get six vertical holders around the console, with an option for four more in the leaning post. But there are molded-in aluminum backing plates should you want to add aftermarket inwale racks. The bow platform compares to the Pathfinder's, but the standard stainless-steel grabrails prohibit walking around on the gunwales. Two standard fishing chairs with pedestals can be moved among three mounting spots-one on the bow and two aft. It's the only boat with this option. It has two standard 12-gallon livewells-one in the aft deck and one under the forward console seat. The forward locking rodboxes can handle 9 1/2' rods.
It took a little time to get over the hump, but once on plane it ran with the attitude of a performance boat-its low-slung bow flying over the chop. Despite having only a 200-hp Yamaha, it nearly matched the Polar and Pathfinder in speed, losing by only 1 mph. This is the second-lightest boat, so it felt as zippy as the Pathfinder. The hull bottom aft has molded-in "afterplanes" that extend the running surface and eliminate the need for trim tabs. As with the others, it can operate in less than a foot of water.
The cored deck and solid glass hull are joined with adhesive, rivets, and screws going into an aluminum backing plate. Very impressive. There's also a composite fiberglass stringer grid. The console sides are bolted into aluminum L-brackets that are screwed to the deck. At the helm, there's a standard electronics box, and the windshield is removable for easy cleaning. The system's fuses are readily accessible on the dash. All the bow hatches are guttered and gasketed and lift on gas struts. It also has a standard trolling motor mounting plate and wiring.
Comes with two standard pedestal fishing seats. Only boat with a standard electronics box in the dash. All lockers-even the anchor locker-are lined. Afterplane hull design means no trim tabs.
Full-length grabrails prohibit gunwale walkaround. Only boat without pull-up/pop-up cleats. Tight fit between leaning post and aft casting platform.
$30,800. Includes: Hydraulic steering; galvanized trailer w/disc brakes; 2 12-gal. live-wells; 2 adjustable fishing chairs w/pedestal bases; insulated fishbox; 12v receptacle; leaning post; removable leaning post cooler; 2 lockable rodlockers; 6 console rodholders; trolling motor bow panel w/wiring harness; removable hatch seat cushions.