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Fish Stories: One If By Land

Don’t Buy a Bigger Boat, Buy a Trailer.

January 17, 2007

Jeremy went to Rhode Island for a wedding and, before the evening reception, he wandered down to the beach in his tux, rod in hand, to check things out. What he saw in the frothing waters prompted a frantic call on his cell. “I’ve never seen anything like this in my life,” he shouted. “Get up here, now.” What Jeremy had never seen before were acres of bluefish ripping up bait inshore, while offshore lurked the real targets of our desire, busting schools of juvenile bluefin tuna. The only way to reach them was by boat – mine.

This left me with two choices: Wait to hear other people’s stories about epic fishing, or hitch the boat, an Angler 204FX sitting on a Performance trailer, to a Chevrolet Avalanche LT and head out on the highway. There was really only one choice. So before sunrise the next day I backed the Avalanche to the trailer’s hitch, connected the lights, and hit the interstate. Four hours later, I pulled in at the ramp. Jeremy was waiting to hop in, and we headed after the tuna.

But this turned out to be about more than tuna. We could also attempt to solve one of the great dilemmas of boating: Whether shopping for a used boat or a new one, is it better to buy a big boat and go places via water, or buy a small boat and tow vehicle and get there by asphalt?

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Each has its pros and cons, but which one wins out in the end? We had a lot of fun finding out.

The Commute

The classic argument in favor of a big boat is its extended cruising range. A larger boat also is more immune to weather, carries more fuel, and can wander far beyond the inlet. If you’re comparing apples to apples, with both large and small boats sitting in slips at a marina, that rings true. But when you take the smaller boat and throw it on a trailer, suddenly its range increases-bound only by the limits of paved roads.

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Consider that even the most fuel-efficient boats over 30′ achieve about 2 mpg at cruise; the Avalanche truck towing a 2,200-pound 204FX on a 2,000-pound trailer averaged 13 mpg. The 30-footer’s fuel tank may hold about 200 gallons, giving it a theoretical range of 400 miles. The truck’s 31-gallon tank gives it about the same. But it does this traveling at about twice the speed as the boat. All numbers that would seem to give the trailering option an advantage. But how does it stack up in the real world?

To find out, I did a head-to-head test against a larger sister boat, an Angler 2900 CC powered with twin 225-hp Yamaha F225 outboards, our project boat from a few seasons ago.

I pulled out at 6 a.m., hoping to avoid the crush of rush-hour traffic. The thought of getting caught in bumper-to-bumper gridlock with a boat in tow is an excellent motivator. But I immediately encountered my first negative in the trailering category. Certain roads are for cars only, meaning I couldn’t take the most direct route to reach the interstate. This added just enough time to get me caught in rush hour.

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Around 8 a.m. my stomach began to grumble. I eased my way to the next exit and performed a maneuver that, as far as I know, is impossible offshore: ordering at a drive-through window. Until someone comes up with a way for me to get an Egg McMuffin, hash browns, and a large coffee when I’m in bluewater, I’ll score this as a major advantage for the trailer.

Once my stomach settled and the traffic cleared, I made steady time northward, the Avalanche pulling the boat along at a 60-to-65-mph clip. Compare that to the top speed of 53.2 mph for the 2900 CC, or its optimal cruising speed of 30 mph (which gives it a range of about 386 miles).

At around 10 a.m. I pulled into the launch ramp in Point Judith, Rhode Island, where Jeremy stood waiting with fishing gear and a giant thermos of coffee. I made the approximately 200-mile trip in about four hours, and that’s with detours on local roads, rush-hour traffic, and a stop for food. Keeping the 2900 CC at its optimal cruising speed for four hours would mean I would have covered only two-thirds of that distance. And that’s if the seas were reasonably calm.

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“You won’t believe what’s going on out there,” Jeremy repeated. “Let’s get after them.” And we did.

The Pursuit

This is not a one-day story. Having school bluefin tuna come close to shore is a rare event. So we allotted four days to make sure we gave it every opportunity and to further evaluate the versatility of a trailerable boat. Day One. The action had moved west. The best place to put in would be at a ramp in Stonington, Connecticut, 38 miles away. By boat, this would take well over an hour. By road, it took us about 45 minutes. But then we had to launch. That night we saw another benefit to having a small boat on a trailer. A transient slip at the Point Judith Marina costs $3 per foot, or $90 a day for the 2900 CC. Our four-day outing would have totaled $360. We parked our rig in front of our lodging for free. Most ramps have usage fees, but they’re never much, and the ones we used cost nothing.

Day Two. We refueled the boat at a roadside gas station, taking on 22 gallons for about $71, and put in at dawn. Here we experienced one disadvantage of hauling your boat on a trailer-other people like to use ramps too. You have to wait in line for your turn, ultimately cutting into your time on the water. Did it cancel out the time saved on the road? Maybe.

We pointed the bow of the 204FX between the rock jetties and headed offshore in search of tuna. We zigzagged between inshore and off, looking for the telltale froth on the surface. A mile or so off Newport we found the bluefin. I hammered the throttle on the 204FX and blasted through the wind chop to get close, exposing another truth: Big boats are more comfortable than small ones.

We accumulated 89 miles on the GPS. We topped off the tank for the late afternoon run back to the ramp, taking on 14 gallons for $62 at a marina. Wait a minute, didn’t I put 22 gallons in the boat this morning for $71? On land I paid $3.23 per gallon, while on the water I paid $4.43. That’s a huge price discrepancy. Score one more for trailering. Day Three. We were joined by Tom Rosenbauer of Orvis, who brought an arsenal of pricey new Zero G fly rods to field-test. He’s one of the most accomplished anglers on the planet, but the opportunity to tangle with a bluefin tuna had always eluded him. We chased schools of fish all over the coast, but failed to find any bluefin, connecting instead with several skipjacks. On the way home we bypassed the fuel dock and waited to top off at the Sunoco station in town.

Day Four. We were determined to find those bluefin. But the weather was determined to stop us. The forecast called for steady 15-to-20-mph winds in the morning and a small-craft advisory that evening. We’re small, but we went out anyway.

For its diminutive size the 204FX is seaworthy, handling the increasing wind chop without any significant pounding. I could keep it on a comfortable course by holding the 150-hp Mercury OptiMax at 3200 rpm, or about 18 mph. Still, it’s no 30-footer. We spent hours coming close but not connecting. We looked around and realized we were the only boat left. We decided to look for one last surface bust, and on the last shot of the day, Tom connected. “That’s a bluefin,” he said as he watched his line fly out of his reel. It felt as if the little tuna had more pulling power per pound than our Avalanche.

We had a 14-mile run back to the ramp. The seas churned up to closely spaced three-footers, and we had to take them head on. Did I wish, at this point, that I were at the helm of the 2900 CC? Absolutely. The 204FX handled the rough water, but we ran at a snail’s pace. We made it to the inlet in one hour and 40 minutes, slightly wet and a little more weather-beaten. There’s no doubt that in a bigger boat we would’ve fared better.

Waterway, Or the Highway?

You can buy a tow vehicle and reasonably outfitted 20′ boat for several thousand dollars less than a well-appointed 30-footer. With the money you save, you could trailer your boat on several long-distance trips and save even more dough by cutting out slip rentals and avoiding the premium fuel prices at the dock. Combined, it’ll be cheaper to fuel and operate the truck and the 20′ boat than it would the 30-footer. Plus, you can save time and money by trailering a boat over land than going by sea. And the highway system, for the most part, isn’t sensitive to weather.

But there are downsides to towing a small boat – you’ll occasionally have to play in traffic. You’ll also have to wait your turn at the boat ramp. And when the weather kicks up, your 20-footer will fare worse in rough seas. There are times where size does matter. But overall, buying a smaller boat and a tow vehicle can provide you with a lot more freedom than you’d ever expect. Yes, bigger can be better. But sometimes smaller is the way to go.

Trail Boss
Chevrolet Avalanche LT
We used this truck to tow our Angler 204FX for an entire season. It did the job without flinching. Our 20′ boat proved no problem – this SUV’s 5.3L Vortec V-8 engine had enough juice to easily tow up to 7,800 pounds. The four-speed automatic transmission has a tow/haul mode, which allows quicker shifting for smoother towing. En route, we could make rapid stops without incident, a key attribute when towing in heavy traffic where other cars aren’t shy about cutting off someone with a boat in tow.The biggest plus for long road trips is the Avalanche’s roomy interior, which is similar to the Chevrolet Tahoe’s. (It claims to comfortably seat six, but we never had more than five.) Plus it has a pickup storage bed that can be covered and locked with three snap-in inserts, good for wet messy gear you don’t want in the cab. The storage boxes on the sides also lock. Chevrolet seems most proud of the midgate feature, which it calls Convert-a-Cab. Essentially, you can extend your cargo bed to a full 8′-by-4′ by pushing down the cab’s aft bulkhead and folding down the back seats. I used this feature several times when I was too lazy to break apart my fishing rods. Our Avalanche listed for $45,619 and came equipped with a lot of pricey options, including leather seats, dual-zone air conditioning, adjustable gas and break pedals, a remote vehicle starter, a six-CD changer with MP3 jack, navigation and satellite radio, 20″ wheels, and a sunroof. All that added close to $10,000 to the base price. The other area where you’ll pay more is at the fuel pump. Chevrolet lists the Avalanche as having a 15-mpg city/20-mpg highway rating. We never achieved better than 18 mpg, and towing the boat we averaged 13 mpg.
Land vs. Water
Comparative costs for a four-day cruise
Angler 204FX/Avalanche Angler 2900 CC
$75,600 Purchase price $98,340
200 (by road) Miles to destination 125 (by water)
4 Travel time (hours)
13 Mpg (avg.) 2.1
$3.20 (on road) Gas/gal (avg.) $3.90 (at marinas)
$208 Total fuel cost $786
$0 (ramp/parking) Fees $90/day (marina)

Elegant Simplicity

The Angler 204FX

We spent an entire season playing with the 204FX, not just a few days in Rhode Island. So we got to know its personality very well. Overall, our impressions were favorable. Not one of our cranky editors found much to gripe about.

This 20’4″-by-8′ boat handled exceptionally well for its size, capably taking on fairly rough water conditions. It is a bare-bones boat-there are fewer extraneous parts to break – making for a hassle-free, low-maintenance season. For boaters who don’t want excess accouterments getting in the way of fishing, the 204FX is an excellent choice. But our non-fishing friends felt at home when we put back the snap-in cushions and a backrest to create transom seating for three. Plus, there’s a portable MSD in the surprisingly spacious console compartment. We took as many as six aboard – no problem.

The boat fishes well. The recessed bowrails around the sizable casting platform give plenty of room to make unobstructed casts with stable footing. Up to four people fished comfortably at one time. The T-top never flexed or rattled over the course of an entire season, proving its solid installation. There were a few minor fit-and-finish quibbles – the snaps on the snap-in cushions broke off after a single use; the anchor locker hatch kept popping open; and the nonslip wasn’t particularly grippy. But the highs far outweighed those. A few screws on the hatch hinges showing rust was the only real sign of wear after a hard season of use. Our 150-hp Mercury OptiMax paired perfectly with the 65-gallon fuel tank, and any choice of 150-hp engine would do. It just struck the right balance for performance, speed, and fuel economy. Overall, the Angler 204FX is a value boat with a hell of a lot of value at $30,000 (with a trailer). Contact Angler at 305/691-9975, www.anglerboats.com.

Angler 204 FX
speed efficiency operation
rpm knots mph gph naut. mpg stat. mpg n.mi. range s. mi. range run angle sound Level
1000 4.6 5.3 0.7 6.6 7.6 385 443 1 64
1500 5.4 6.2 1.2 4.5 5.2 263 302 2 68
2000 7.1 8.2 1.9 3.8 4.3 219 252 2 70
2500 9.1 10.5 2.8 3.3 3.8 191 219 4 73
3000 12.4 14.3 3.6 3.5 4.0 202 232 5 75
3500 22.5 25.9 4.7 4.8 5.5 280 322 3 76
4000 27.7 31.9 6.8 4.1 4.7 238 274 2 79
4500 31.0 35.7 7.7 4.0 4.6 236 271 1 80
5000 34.2 39.4 10.4 3.3 3.8 193 222 1 82
5500 37.8 43.5 14.7 2.6 3.0 150 173 1 85
_ Advertised fuel capacity 65 gallons. Range based on 90 percent of that ­figure. Performance measured with two persons aboard, three-quarters fuel. Sound levels taken at helm, in dB-A._
** Test boat power** Single 150-hp Mercury OptiMax V-6 outboard with 153 cid, swinging a 141/4″ x 19″ three-bladed ss prop through a 1.87:1 reduction.
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