ST. PETERSBURG — What makes a good fishing boat? Ask a dozen anglers and you'll get a dozen different answers.
Some go for speed. Others want a mellow ride. But nobody would argue that durability isn't important, especially if you plan to venture offshore in the fickle waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
"I think that is why this is the best-selling saltwater fishing boat in the country," Jim Naset said of Sea Hunt's BX 24. "It's got it all."
Naset ought to know. The veteran angler fishes the competitive kingfish circuit, and he has seen his share of boats founder in big surf. And while you can't compare a modest 24-foot, single-engine, center console with the 35-foot triple-performance crafts that dominate big-money tournaments, he thought enough of this midlevel consumer model to rig one for local tarpon tournaments.
"We can't keep them in stock," said Naset of Pro Marine Performance. "It is the best all-around boat for the money in this market."
A lot of boat for the money is what consumers are looking for as Florida's marine industry struggles to make up lost ground after a long economic downturn.
Bay boats such as the Sea Hunt BX 24, which start at around $55,000, give a lot of bang for the buck. You can fish Tampa Bay in the morning, anchor off Egmont Key for lunch and then head to dive an artificial reef in the afternoon.
But Sea Hunt isn't the only manufacturer offering lean fishing machines at this weekend's Tampa Bay Boat Show at the Florida State Fairgrounds. You'll find everything from wakeboard boats to flats skiffs at this year's show, which runs today through Sunday.
Before you head to the fairgrounds, have a game plan. Are you a shopper who just wants to look around and dream of owning a boat? Or are you a buyer who wants to slap down cash and hit the water before tarpon season peaks?
Most boats fall in one of two markets: fishing or pleasure.
If you want to fish, the center-console boat is the most versatile. Bay boats, such as the Sea Hunt, are small, light and affordable multipurpose crafts that can run in fairly shallow water yet still handle a chop if the seas kick up on the inland waterways.
If you decide on a fishing boat, the next step is to set a budget. How much do you want to spend? Do you plan to pay for the boat in one lump sum or through monthly payments?
Answer those questions before you settle on a specific model. Once you decide on what you want, check the used boat ads for resale value. If you buy the boat now, what will it sell for in two or three years?
Another factor to consider is storage. Do you plan to trailer your boat? If so, will you keep it in your garage? On the side of your house? In a boat yard? If you store your boat away from home, that will add to your monthly expense.
Don't forget about insurance. You will pay more to insure a performance, or "go-fast," boat than a fishing boat.
Get educated on safety
If you are a first-time boat buyer, sign up for a safe boating class. Florida law requires that any person born on or after Jan. 1, 1988 who operates a vessel with a motor of 10 horsepower or greater must successfully complete a National Association of State Boating Law Administrators-approved safe boating course.
One of the most valuable lessons you will learn is to file a "float plan" with a trusted friend or relative. Let them know in writing where you're going and when you plan to be back. That way authorities know where to begin a search should you run into trouble.
And before you head out, take the time to know your boat. Don't overload it with people or gear (check the capacity plate). Make sure the safety equipment — flares, fire extinguisher, horn, signaling mirror — is on board and in working order.
And if the seas start getting rough, put on a personal flotation device. State records show that more than 80 percent of boating-related deaths could have been avoided if the victims were wearing PFDs.
Terry Tomalin can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8808.