If you enjoy fishing in lakes and estuaries, you need a boat that can access shallow water without running aground. The bay boat and flats boat offer you the best options for fishing in the shallows.
Many people confuse the flats boat and bay boat design. However, there are subtle differences between these boats, and they impact the performance and utility of the boat. This post unpacks everything you need to know about bay boats and flats boats.
What is a Bay Boat?
The flats and bay boat both serve the same mission – to get you into hard-to-reach fishing spots in shallower waters. However, the flats boat offers you the better option due to the flat hull of the boat. The hull also features aluminum construction allowing you to pound it back into shape if you hit a submerged log or a rock.
The bay boat gives you better handling and faster speeds, and it’s the better choice for taking out into the bay for inshore fishing trips. However, the hull on the bay boat has a V-shape design. While it’s typically not a deep V, it prevents you from getting into the very shallow water where flats boats can reach.
A bay boat is also the better choice for open water, and it gets its name from boating around the Chesapeake Bay and others along the east coast. Bat boats also have larger motors, and they are not suited for poling like flats boats. As a result, you don’t get the same level of stealth for fishing from the bay boat as you do with the flats boat.
However, the deeper V hull on the bay boat adds exceptional stability to the watercraft for a smooth ride in ocean conditions. In contrast, the flat bottom of the flats boat creates a slapping motion on the ocean, resulting in a rough ride.
You’ll get better handling out of the bay boat, with tighter turning circles and better maneuverability. Both bay boats and flats boats come in models ranging from 20 to 25-feet in length, and they’re suitable for carrying up to four to five anglers.
The bay boat also offers you excellent versatility for skiing and fishing, with all the amenities you need to enjoy a day out on the water. The bay boat also usually features the center console setup for the driver, with a cuddy allowing for storage space or a built-in head.
What is a Flats Boat?
The name “flats boats” comes from the shallow draft on these models. The flats boat is a step-up from the polling skiff, providing you a flat bottomed vessel that’s easy to get into the shallowest waters. The flats boat is also suitable for polling shallow waters where you don’t want to scare off the fish.
Most flats boats measure between 15 to 25-feet in length, and they have a lightweight design. Most models feature either fiberglass or aluminum hull, with aluminum being the preferred option.
Since you’re fishing in shallow water, there is a chance you could hit a submerged object like a log or rock, damaging the hull. With an aluminum model, you can just pound the dent back into shape, and there’s a good chance the accident won’t breach the hull, sinking the boat.
However, fiberglass models may crack under impact, causing the boat to take on water. It’s also more expensive to fix damage to fiberglass, requiring professional repair and finishing. Some of the more expensive models may feature hull constructions with carbon fiber for extra strength.
Flats boats are popular for use in waterways around Florida and the everglades, where they easily float over areas where the water can be as shallow as 18-inches in depth. The primary feature of the hull design is to reduce the draft, giving the boat as much lift on the water as possible.
The front of the flats boat will usually feature a raised platform for casting or for poling the boat. Many people might confuse the flats boat with the Jon boat. However, flats boats typically come loaded with electronics for specialist fishing trips, like fish finders and GPS tracking.
As a result, the flats boat can end up costing far more than the Jon boat, which is more of a bare-bones model designed for purists. Flats boats also rely on outboard motors, and they can reach high speeds on still water. They are more akin to high-end bass boats than skiffs or Jon boats, with purpose-built design for speed and shallow water use.
Differences Between Flats Boasts and Bay Boats
The key difference between the flats boat and the bay boat is where they can operate. As mentioned, the flats boat is better suited to shallow water, while the bay boat is the better choice for use in coastal fishing locations, like bays.
However, if you’re looking for the best crossover model, the bay boat is the better option. These vessels can also reach shallow waters, not quite as shallow as the flats boat, but you can get into shallow waters without much hassle.
The draft on the bay boat is shallower than other models like cabin cruisers and center consoles with deeper V’s in the hull for more stability in all water conditions. However, the bat boat is a great option for cruising inshore, and it has the capacity to go offshore as well, provided the swell conditions aren’t big.
When we compare rides between the two boats, the bay boat is silky smooth on lakes and in the ocean, whereas the flats boat is only suitable for calm waters like lakes. They can go out on the sea, but you’re in for a rough ride.
Design Features of Flats Boats and Bay Boats
The flats boat features a raised fore and aft design, featuring a casting deck. The rest of the deck is flat and unencumbered, offering easy movement around all sides of the vessel with the center console driver configuration.
Most models with casting decks have underfoot storage systems for stowing your gear. You get corrosion-resistant hinges, quiet-closing hatches, and drains that funnel water to the cockpit sole and the sump using channels and drainage holes.
All the hatch handles, hardware and cleats feature a recessed or flush-mount design to facilitate anglers when they are walking around the vessel chasing a fish on the line. The gunnels are wide enough for anglers to crossover or stand during their battle with the fish.
Flats boats also come with rod holders and storage compartments for your fishing gear. You’ll usually find the storage areas under the gunnels and a vertical storage system along with the center console. Flats boats also have options for live wells, but that’s a personal preference for boaters, and you might not need a live well in your boat.
The bay boat is more of a cruiser. You get comfortable seating, with some models having dedicated fishing chairs and setups around the boat for fishing chairs.
With the bay boat, you get more storage, including under-seating storage, built-in coolers, and rod holders.
Stealth Features in Flats and Bay Boats
The Flats boat is the better option for stealth fishing. When your angling in shallow water, motor noise will scare the fish away. So, many flats boats rely on trolling motors to reduce churn and noise. Flats boats also have a raised front bow deck, allowing for poling the vessel in shallow waters for a total stealth approach that won’t scare off the fish.
In contrast, the bay boat usually relies on high-powered outboard motors. As a result, they aren’t as stealthy as the flats boat. However, you can pole along with a bay boat in shallow waters, but you need to be careful that you don’t catch the hull on the ground.
Motors and Helms for Flats and Bay Boats
If you’re looking into a flats boat, you have options for the location of the helm for your engine. Previous models of flats boats featured a tiller-operated or stern-oriented engine. You also have options for a side-mounted console, and most motors feature an electric start.
Side-mounted consoles are losing the popularity war against center console designs that allow anglers to walk around all sides of the boat. There is a relationship between the weight and size of the boat, the helm placement, and the size of the engine powering the vessel.
When it comes to the hull design, flats boats draw less water than the V-shaped hull of bay boats. As a result, you get a quiet hull when poling the watercraft in flats. Since some of the flats boats utilize lightweight materials in the design, you have designs that weigh less than 400-lbs, allowing them to float in inches of water without touching the bottom.
Typically, the flats boat will offer you excellent performance and speed with something as small as a 40-HP motor. It’s for this reason that trolling engines are also popular with flats boats. You get better fuel economy and all the power you need to drift around shallow waters.
Bay boats prefer larger motors, ranging from 60-HP to 180-HP, depending on your requirements. Since these boats are suitable for use on the ocean, you need a bigger engine capacity than you get with the flats boat. Four-stroke motors are common in bay boats, providing quiet running and better fuel economy while allowing for a smooth power curve during acceleration.
Some flats boats also prefer the tiller engine design allowing you to control the motor directly from the rear of the boat using your hand. We recommend going with an electric ignition system over the less expensive pull-start engines. After a hard days fishing, the last thing you’ll feel like doing is pulling a ripcord to start the motor.
However, the tiller configuration doesn’t offer the same driving experience as a center console. Most rear tiller motors will push the boat’s bow up during acceleration, limiting the driver’s view in front of the boat. The positioning of the tiller motor also adds around 200-lbs to the stem weight, increasing the bow lift.
The center console design eliminates this problem. While trim tabs may do something to counteract the bow lift during acceleration, it will not make that much difference to the driver experience. Never stand and operate a hand tiller motor as that’s an accident waiting to happen.
Bay boats come with several motor configurations and types, including outboards, jet propulsion systems, and more. With a center console design, you don’t have to worry about the lift getting in your field of vision. Since the weight has even distribution across the center of the boat, the bow lift is minimal.
Choose a Center Console Design for Your Flats or Bay Boat
When selecting your flats boat or bay boat, we advise going with a center console setup. Don’t confuse the center console driver arrangement with a center console boat. The center console offers you a central driving position, allowing for an easy 360-degree view of the water for the driver.
The center console setup adds weight to the boat, but the versatility of this driver configuration brings additional storage capacity to the vessel, with a cuddy in the center console. The center console also features advanced driver controls and electronics like helm and trim tab controls positioned next to the steering wheel.
Flats boats with center console configurations work well with outboard motors. You don’t need a powerful motor, and you’ll find you get exceptional performance out of the boat with a 60-HP motor. The outboard engines on flats boats offer you power, tilt, and trim, allowing for easy operation by the driver.
Electric trim tabs are necessary for jumping on planes quickly and for modifying running angles when encountering large swell off the stern, bow, or beam.
The flats boats and bay boats make excellent watercraft. However, if you’re a keen fisherman that enjoys angling in estuaries and lakes where the water is shallow, a flats boat is your best option.
If you want a boat that can handle inland and coastal water, the bay boat is better. You get a hybrid design that’s better suited for an all-around performer in all water conditions.