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Published May 4, 2023 3:18 PM
Small fishing boats are often just as capable as larger ones that cost quadruple the price. Unfortunately, not everyone can afford to take out a loan to buy the latest fiberglass bass boat or a deep-v hull offshore craft. Even if they can afford it, some anglers aren’t interested in a larger boat, especially if the brunt of their fishing is on small lakes and streams. Another factor is simply that some anglers might not have a vehicle large enough to tow a bigger dedicated fishing boat.
The good news is that there are options out there to fit a variety of fishing styles, scenarios, and budgets. From the latest in fishing kayaks to singe-person bass boats, we’ve narrowed down the best of the best so you can focus more on fishing. Here are our top picks for the best small fishing boats being made today.
How We Picked the Best Small Fishing Boats
As a lifelong fisherman, I have had the privilege of fishing from a variety of watercraft over the years—large and small. Some of which could be considered the top boats made today. I used that experience to guide my choices here. Some of the craft here I’ve either fished from personally or I’ve used a similar model in the past. Additionally, I compared key features of many of these boats to help make my decisions. Among the most important considerations considered include:
- Length and width: How big is the boat? How much of that space is usable? Is the boat wide enough to stand up in?
- Weight: Does this boat require a trailer? Or is this craft light enough to toss in the back of a pickup truck?
- Fishing-specific features: Does this boat have rod holders? Live wells? Or is it a bare-bones boat ripe for customization?
- Construction: What materials were used in the construction of this boat, and how durable is it?
Best Small Fishing Boats: Reviews and Recommendations
Best Overall: Apex Marine Gamefisher
- Length: 14’
- Width: N/A
- Weight: N/A
- Weight Capacity: 625 Pounds
- Strong, one-piece hull
- Great weight capacity
The wide hull of the Gamefisher is made from a single piece of aluminum which gives it great strength and stability. This is a boat built to bounce off stumps, rocks, and whatever else the angler can throw at it in the shallows. Because this boat has a mostly open floor plan, it’s ideal for modifications too. There are three bench seats already included, but it is easy to add some aftermarket swivel seats.
While user reviews note it is light enough to be carried by two people, the boat’s length almost necessitates a trailer, which is an extra expense for anglers who don’t already own one. However, this boat offers more in versatility than most other options on the market. For instance, it’s rather easy to add a blind for waterfowl hunting, making this a good option for all-around outdoorsmen and women.
Best Budget: Pelican Intruder 12
- Length: 144”
- Width: 48”
- Weight: 126 Pounds
- Weight Capacity: 420 Pounds
- A lot of boat for the price
- Extremely stable
- Weight capacity seems low for a craft this size
The plastic Intruder is a solid lightweight Jon boat that comes with a great price tag. At just under $700, the Intruder has a simple, but highly versatile design. This boat can easily be modified with seats, rod holders, and fish finders. It is a good option for anglers who want something that could transition seamlessly to waterfowl hunting. While this is a 12-foot boat, the weight is only 126 pounds, making it easy for two anglers to quickly load into the back of a larger pickup.
Our only downside for the Intruder is the 420-pound weight capacity seems a little on the low side for a 12-foot boat. It should handle two anglers for a day at the lake just fine. More than that, plus gear might be pushing things. However, for fishermen on a budget, this is a highly versatile craft.
Best for Lake Fishing: Pelican Bass Raider 10E
- Length: 122”
- Width: 50”
- Weight: 145 Pounds
- Weight Capacity: 600 Pounds
- Easy to modify
- Incredibly stable
- Excellent price point
- Some reported shipping issues
The Pelican Bass Raider is one of the most popular plastic bass boats on the market today. It has developed a rather dedicated following from those who like customizing boats to suit specific fishing styles. With a minimum weight capacity of 600 pounds, this boat can easily hold two adults for a day of fishing, plus all the gear you might want. While it doesn’t come with a live well or rod holders, they are rather easy to add after the fact. We also like the Bass Raider for the shallow draft. Another bonus is that it is already wired up for an electronic motor and marine electronics.
A common problem reported in user reviews is boats shipped with subpar packaging. Some users have reported receiving damaged craft. Another problem was some users didn’t get a title with their shipment. This becomes an issue when trying to register in some states. However, for $1,000, there is much that can be done with this boat.
Best for Bays and Estuaries: Old Town Sportsman PDL
- Length: 12’
- Width: 35”
- Weight: 116 Pounds
- Weight Capacity: 500 Pounds
- Extremely stable
- PDL drive seamlessly transitions between forward and reverse
- Rugged construction
A kayak makes an excellent choice for inshore angling on bays and estuaries, and Old Town produces some of the best in the business. I’ve used Old Town’s kayaks in both inland lakes and mangrove flats, and I am always amazed at their stability. The biggest selling point of the PDL line is the pedal drive system. This drive can seamlessly transition from backwards and forwards simply by reversing pedaling motions. Not every pedal kayak on the market can do that. I love how this kayak leaves my hands free to cast and fight fish while still being able to navigate. I find the Sportsman PDL to be very rugged—I’ve run the drive system aground, into logs, and I’ve wrapped the prop in weeds many times without issue. Pedaling in reverse usually clears the tangle.
The biggest downsides to this kayak are the $2,700 price tag and the 116-pound weight. It’s not an easy kayak to get into the water or onto a trailer by yourself. And you can forget about wrestling it onto a rooftop rack. However, the stability and ease of navigating make this boat of the best kayaks on the planet.
Best One Man: Bass Pro Shops Pond Prowler 8
- Length: 8’ 7”
- Width: 48”
- Weight: 100 Pounds
- Weight Capacity: 515 Pounds
- Compact and easy to transport
- Great price point
- Already wired for a trolling motor
- No front lift handle
- Seat doesn’t lock down
The Prowler is a simple little boat that is perfect for solo anglers. Because of the compact design, this boat slides into the back of a pickup rather easily. The flat bottom allows anglers to get back into shallow areas that other boats can’t reach. This boat also boasts an impressive 515-pound weight capacity that makes it comfortable for anglers of all sizes despite the boat being less than nine feet long. Much like the Pelican Bass Raider, this boat is often heavily modified by users. The polyethylene construction is basically a blank slate for anglers looking to build the ultimate tiny bass rig.
One downside mentioned in user reviews is the lack of a carry handle on the front. It can make transporting a little more difficult. The seats also don’t lock down, and several user reviews mentioned minor problems with the seat shifting on them when they leaned over to get in their tackle box or land a fish.
Best for Two People: Sundolphin American 12′ Jon Boat
- Length: 144”
- Width: 52”
- Weight: 110 Pounds
- Weight Capacity: 532 Pounds
- Extremely affordable
- No enclosed storage spaces
This Jon boat’s width and flat bottom make it an excellent choice for two anglers. The Sundolphin only weighs 110 pounds, making it easy to slide into a trailer or the back of a pickup truck. It has four built-in rod holders and multiple cup holders molded into the polyethylene hull. The boat’s materials also make it easy to hose and wipe down at the end of a long day of fishing.
The biggest downside to this boat is that there are no enclosed storage areas, which is a dealbreaker for some. That also means a battery for a trolling motor will need to sit on the deck exposed to the elements. However, for a boat of this size, the sub $800 price tag is hard to beat.
What to Consider When Buying a Small Fishing Boat
With the price of almost everything being extremely high right now, most anglers are turning to a smaller boat. But not all boats are created equal. If you want to fish saltwater flats, a long, wide specialized fishing kayak makes more sense than a flat-bottomed Jon boat. On the flip side, most small aluminum boats work best for inland lakes, rivers, and reservoirs. For intercoastal fisheries, select a craft built to withstand the corrosive saltwater environment. Don’t forget to always rinse your craft thoroughly after each trip in saltwater to extend the life of the craft.
Storage and Transport
The biggest benefit of a smaller boat is that it is easier to store and transport. However, it’s still important to take stock of how much storage space you have in your garage before you buy. Storing your boat inside will significantly increase the life of the craft. Try to figure out your storage options before you buy to avoid unwanted headaches.
Another factor some fishermen and women neglect is how to transport the new craft to the water. Smaller bass boats and kayaks are sometimes easily transported in a pickup bed. However, if you’re like me, you might find yourself needing to purchase a small trailer for transport. This can mean buying and installing a hitch if you don’t already have one.
Depending on the state, you may need to register the trailer too. Here in Michigan, a smaller kayak trailer under 2,500 pounds doesn’t require a plate. However, if you’re planning to buy a smaller aluminum boat that requires a heavier towing system, you may need to put plans in your budget for getting a plate.
Motors and Batteries
Unless you plan to paddle, pedal, or row your small fishing boat, you will also need to invest in a motor and possibly a marine battery. Most smaller boats can be powered by a simple trolling motor, but that adds another $150 to $1,500 just in motor costs alone. While a cheap trolling motor can do the job, the battery can add on another $150 to $500 depending on whether it is a lithium, absorbed glass mat (AGM), or lead acid battery. Small, simple outboard motors can go for anywhere from $250 to $1,800, depending on the make and model. However, the good news is that for a small 10 to 12-foot boat, most anglers don’t need a super fancy motor.
Registration and Other Legalities
Registration for small fishing boats is often unnecessary if the craft is non-motorized. That means most kayaks, canoes, and rowboats are often exempt from licensing and other regulations. In most states, you only need to register a boat if you add a small motor, whether it be a trolling motor or outboard. There is a ton of variation here from state to state, so be sure to review your state’s rules before you head out for the first time. Although some small boats may not require registration, many states still require you to have life vests and preservers for everyone on board. Most states also require some sort of running lights if you plan to fish after dark or near dawn or dusk. Fortunately, there are some cheap options for boat lighting online.
Q: Are small boats safe?
Small boats are perfectly safe as long as they are not overloaded or used in poor weather conditions. Pay attention to the weight limits of each craft. Besides having the proper number of life vests onboard for the number of passengers, be sure to read the owner’s manual thoroughly. The manual will have safety information specific to the boat, including conditions to avoid.
Q: What is the most stable boat for fishing?
In most cases, a wide, flat-bottom boat will usually be the most stable. Although manufacturers have become more sophisticated in their designs and many modern fishing kayaks also offer incredible stabilization in a very narrow package. However, a good rule of thumb is that the wider the hull, the more stable the boat will be. Consequently, this is why so many modern fishing boats have wider, more stable platforms regardless of the size of the overall craft.
Q: How long do small fishing boats last on average?
This depends on the type of boat and how well it is maintained. I have relatives and friends who have owned the same aluminum boats for decades. Two of my plastic kayaks are over 12 years old and still floating. Storing your small boat indoors in the winter months will help increase its lifespan considerably. With plastic boats, avoid exposure to sunlight, as UV light can bleach and ruin the color. Don’t forget to winterize the motor before putting the boat into extended storage at the end of the season. Properly maintained, there’s no reason a small fishing boat shouldn’t last 15-25 years.
Best Small Fishing Boats: Final Thoughts
While it might seem like larger boats are all you hear about these days, there is still a market for small fishing boats. Many anglers are re-discovering the effectiveness of a simple Jon boat like the Apex Marine’s shallow draft for reaching hidden spots that no one else can get to. Additionally, these smaller crafts are simply a more cost-effective way to get on the water without totally breaking the bank.
Why Trust Us
For more than 125 years, Field & Stream has been providing readers with honest and authentic coverage of outdoor gear. Our writers and editors eat, sleep, and breathe the outdoors, and that passion comes through in our product reviews. You can count on F&S to keep you up to date on the best new gear. And when we write about a product—whether it’s a bass lure or a backpack—we cover the good and the bad, so you know exactly what to expect before you decide to make a purchase.