Here's the first part of the draft. Since I never know when I'll have free time to write more, I'm posting it as a teaser. Pardon the typos :)
December 2008 I was fishing a WON team tournament on the Delta. It was blowing from the North and Franks was jumping with 2 to 3 footers. I was in my 15' jon boat by myself, running downwind and slamming through the waves. The wiring on my livewell pump shorted and burned up. The back of the boat started filling with water from the spray. Eight hours and one bass later I decided I couldn't fish out of a jon boat for team tournaments any more.
There had been a half-dozen times before that day when I'd been close to pulling the trigger and buying a 'real' boat. In 2003 I was right there but I bought my jon instead. 2006 was very close but work was uncertain and life's responsibilities come first. My son, grad school, the house and all the little things that are more important than a shiny bass boat. It took another 10 months after that day in December but by September, 2009 I was finally ready to look seriously.
In October my fishing buddy Nico Raffo and I drove from Dublin, CA to Branson, MO and I bought a 2006 Champion 198 Elite with a Mercury Optimax 225 ProXS. This article is about the process I went through to buy the boat. Things went well overall for me but I made some mistakes too. My hope is to help you in your thought process, search, and purchase of a used bass boat.
You're going to get a lot of the same advice when you go to buy a boat. It will sound like this... "You should save up and buy new." "You should test drive a lot of boats and see which one works for you." "Brand ____ boat is the best by far, you should buy one." "Never buy a ____ motor." "Buying new is crazy, you should buy used." Get the picture?
I have strong opinions when it comes to fishing gear but I don't have strong opinions on glass boats because I've never owned one. So I picked up the phone and called my friends who have boats and fish hard. I picked their brains at length for recommendations and opinions. I asked about handling, speed, rough water performance, engine reliability, trolling motors, storage, trailers, fuel economy, fish finders, all of the big items. Information is key with any big purchase.
In the end I learned what I think we all know. People like what they have. It's a 'love the one you're with' world out there. Ranger guys think Rangers are the best for quality and attention to detail. Champion guys talk about the ride and the rough-water performance. Triton guys talk about the speed, the handling and the price. I listened to it all. I enjoy hearing from people who are passionate about their equipment.
I also took in to account 12 years of back-seating with team partners, friends, and Pro/Am draws. I've been in boats that have speared waves, broken windshields, hit steel bouys, ran up on docks, thrown prop blades, and blasted through 4 footers. I haven't spent much time behind the wheel but I've driven a Nitro, a Basscat, and a couple Rangers. I'm no boat expert by a long shot but I know the water. Here's the conclusions I came to.
New or Used: My price range was 20-30k. At the same time I wanted a 19-20' boat with a 200 to 225hp motor. New was out of the question. The notion of paying $40-$70k for a bass boat seems broken to me as a sustainable business model. With the recession in 2008/2009 this may change. But as I write this, prices on new rigs are still way up there. So used was my choice. I wanted something 2005 or newer.
Boat Size: 19 to 20 feet felt like the right size for me. I'm not out fishing the National Guard on the Columbia River or Mead. I do like to get in close around docks to flip. With my swimbait-centric approach to life, 8' rod lockers were a must have item. So I had to go at least a 19 footer. 21 didn't seem necessary.
Boat Brand: After a lot of thought I settled on either Champion or Ranger - with Champion as my first choice. Triton interested me, but I didn't like the front deck layout. My important criteria were rough water handling, space to fish up front, and room for my 8' rods. I wanted a boat that where I didn't have to second guess running the San Joaquin or the narrows at Clear Lake on a big day. I felt like Champion was my best bet in the 19-20' range based on trips with Cameron Smith in his 196. The feeling of cutting across 2' chop with no bumps is a nice feeling. This meant a 196, 198 or 200 Elite was on the menu. I was willing to consider a 20' Ranger like a 520 or Z520 if I could find a real deal on one. 19 foot Rangers weren't on my list based on too many bone jarring slams in a 195VS over the years.
I didn't care about speed and didn't look at any specialty boats like Allison or Bullet. Resale value was a consideration, and after watching the classifieds carefully for more than two years I saw that both Ranger and Champion had decent resale. When I say decent, I'm talking in relative terms. Bass boats depreciate at an alarming rate. More importantly I saw that when a sharp looking rig came across at a good price - it got sold. I don't plan on having any of my current boats until I die. There's too much time left to fish!
When you listen to opinions on boat brands, just keep in mind that there's a trickle down effect on boat purchasing decisions. What I mean is that your top tier pro-staff guys who are getting free boats or memo boats are fishing those brands because of the boat deal -not necessarily because it's the best boat. Yes yes, many pro-staff guys believe strongly that they are in the best brand, but when you knock $10k off the price of any boat it starts to look real nice. Think about how many guys on the Elite Series have changed brands in the last 5 years.
When you put a deal like the FLW Ranger Boats contingency money in the mix, pretty soon you wind up with a lot of top-tier and second-tier guys running Rangers in California. The reputation for Ranger grows because when those guys sell their boats they are always going to say that the boat is the best boat you can run. They want to sell the boat after all right? In many ways, pro-staffers are like an extended sales force.
I'm not saying Ranger is a bad boat as obviously I considered buying one. But I am recommending that you keep an open mind and think about whether this kind of trickle down effect could be going on in the part of the country where you live. The same guy who tells you Ranger is the absolute stuff this year as he sells you his memo boat could be pitching a Triton to a different guy next year. That's the industry. Nothing wrong with it as long as you have awareness. I have zero affiliation with any boat company and if you are like me - you should pick the boat that works for you.
Single or Dual Console: If you are cool, you go single console. That's all there is to it. Your non boater can chew on knats and fend of the coots because when you hook super-bessie you are going to need to run past the second console with the rod buried under the boat as you let out your Iaconelli scream. I hear all that. But I like my non-boaters, and I have a little boy who might want to go fishing with me when he's older. So I decided that either single or dual console would be fine.
Trailer: Single or dual axle? The trade-offs are the price of 4 tires vs 2, the risk of a blowout on a single axle, and the ease of maneuvering your rig. Single axles are easy to back in to a tight parking space or push around on the jack wheel. Dual axles are nice when you get a blowout, and I've been behind the wheel on a dual axle when the tire blew. It was a big sigh of relief being able to get off the highway without incident as tire chunks shot from the wheel well. When you check the parking lot at a Pro/Am, you'll see an overwhelming percentage dual axles. It's for a reason. I decided dual axle was a must have for my boat.
Engine: Blue, black or sliver? Either way a 3-star carb rating or a 4-stroke was a must have for San Pablo Dam, DVL, and the likelihood that more lakes will begin enforcing outboard motor emission regs in the future. I went in to my thought process thinking 4-stroke. I don't like the idea of buying oil and mixing it. I do like the idea of low maintenance. To my surprise, the more I learned about the newer 2-strokes, the more my opinions shifted.
Being conscious of the environment and hating the stench of blue boat exhaust in the morning I looked in to emissions and was surprised to see that the newer 3-star 2-strokes were very good (in relative terms). As a point of comparison, my 2005 Yamaha 15hp 4-stroke has a lower carb rating (2) than a 225hp 2-stroke Mercury ProXS (3). That was an eye-opener for me.
Speed was not a huge factor in my decision but I wanted a boat that could jump up and move. The Delta is a 30 minute drive from my house and though I'm not a big Delta guy I do fish there. I didn't want to be underpowered on that body of water with it's winding canals and idiotic jet skiers. I thought about the Triton's I'd seen with 225 Hondas hanging off the back - they just didn't look right. The opinions I got were that the Hondas just don't have the performance you really want on a bass boat. As much as I wanted a 4-stroke, it didn't feel right. Yamaha is coming out with the VMAX SHO 4-stroke that might solve the 4-stroke issues, but it's too late for me.
This got me narrowed down to Mercury Optimax ProXS, Yamaha Series 2, and Evinrude E-TEC. My next step was to read all of the marketing materials and check all of the boat test websites for fuel economy numbers. The marketing materials for boat motors are a marvel of statistical manipulation. Someone should do a case study. My next move was to make a bunch more phone calls to friends to solicit opinions and hear as many blown engine stories as I could. I liked the ProXS for the fuel economy and the lack of blown engine stories. The Yamaha sounded good in reliability terms but not in fuel economy and oil consumption terms. The Evinrude won the prize for most blown engine stories. I decided that a ProXS was what I wanted. It fit my selection criteria the best.
Trolling Motor: Minn Kota or Motorguide. They all break. Guys like the Motor Guide's because you can spin the head with the cable quickly. The same guys who say that will tell you their stories about breaking the cable and losing a day on the water. I've owned Minn Kotas for years and hated the unreliable foot pedals on the PD series. Trolling motor brand therefore wasn't a consideration for me. I'd take either. I did want a 36v with 100lbs+ thrust. When you are sight fishing on a calm day in clear water, you want to be moving at least 2.5mph. 3 or 4 is nice.
Fish Finders: I didn't hang up on Fish Finders. If I could get some nice ones that was great, but I decided that I would not let this be a make or brake criteria for the boat. In the long run I want the full bore side-scanning setup, but I knew that in my price range and year range I was unlikely to get it. No big deal.
Accessories: Like the fish finder, I did my best to put accessories out of my mind. Of course we all want two power poles, a hydraulic jack plate, blinker trim, Smart Craft gauges, a lift assist trolling motor, Hamby's keel guard, remote oil fill, tackle organizers, rod racks, structure scan, and Biosonix. But those things can all be purchased after the fact.
Online Search: I looked across the entire country and you should too. Prices are cheaper in the south/central United States and even with shipping or driving to get the boat you can still come out well ahead. I posted on the forum for advice on Classifieds sites and got some good help. While I'd like to tell you that Calfishing.com is a hotbed of boating classifieds, it's not, so here's where I wound up looking online:
There are quite a few other sites out there, but those five sites seemed to carry the best listings and the most volume. Boat Trader is particularly nice because you can run very specific searches to get a cross section of boats and evaluate pricing.
With Craigslist, there are many sub-sites that have to be searched individually. In other words, you can't search the SF Bay Area and Atlanta at the same time. What you can do is go to google and search with site:craigslist.org at the beginning of your search. You'll get expired listings, but you'll be able to search across all of their sites.
Old Fashioned Search: After spending a lot of time online I was frustrated by the fact that there were very few boats that met all of my criteria for sale. Since I was looking for a Champion I had a friend who knows Skeet contact him and see if he knew about any boats for sale. I also emailed Mike McClelland. I'd met Mike once at a show but a guy like Mike meets ten thousand people a year at shows, so it was pretty much a cold-call.
Skeet didn't know of any boats, but McClelland said to give a call to the mid-west Champ rep and that he would expect my call. I called and he knew about three boats. Two 200 Elite's with Evinrudes and a 198 Elite with a ProXS. These boats were not for sale online anywhere that I had searched. I was interested in the 198 so we talked back and forth and he got me in touch with the seller. The boat met almost all of my criteria and wound up being the one I bought.
The lesson here is that it's worth it to contact pro-staff guys. Their job is not necessarily to move used boats but moving boats in general for the brands they are supported by is a good thing. To Mike McClelland I'm just Joe Lunchbucket, but he set up a phone call and helped move a boat. In turn, the guy I bought my boat from had bought the Champion support boat from the Elite Series the year prior. So it's all part of the boat food chain and good for the sponsoring company.
While it would be nice to know what people out in the world are paying for used boats, that information is hard to come by. Occasionally, a rig will go up for sale and be sold within a few days. In those cases you can infer that the sale price was close to the offering price. For example, during my search I saw two 2007 Champion 200 Elites with 225 ProXS motors go up for $32k and sell quickly. From this, I inferred that a boat like that was selling in the $30 to $32k range as I doubt any seller would come down more than a few thousand in a week's time. Assuming you can wait to buy a boat, it's worth it to watch this sort of information to get a sense for what a fair price is.
It doesn't hurt to call and get a few prices on new boats either. I called on a new 2008 Champion 198CX with a 225 ProXS and was quoted $37k + fees. This was a pretty stripped down boat with just the basic options. That price is useful though because it helps build a sense for what a fair price is on a used rig.
The Blue Book of boats is called NADA. I would suggest that bass boat prices are much harder to estimate than car prices due to the variation in individual boats and the low total number of boats on the market. But it's a start: