December 16, 2019
By Cory Scmidt
Catfish don’t care what kind of boat you run. More big catfish have probably come aboard an old beat-up jonboat or a repurposed pontoon than all other boats combined. Still, there’s something to be said for blazing across a small river powered with a 200-hp jet engine—an awesome white-knuckle joyride. Jumping sandbars on inside bends certainly saves time and gets you to your spot faster. But have you ever tried running a choppy reservoir on a hull built for a river?
More than a few modern catfish folks run multiple boats. Even the pros with a shiny new 20-foot tournament rig in the garage likely stash an old 16-foot jonboat. Meanwhile, some of America’s best catfish guides operate from a pontoon—and not because they have to. Flathead Ed Wilcoxson navigates a big Sun Tracker pontoon across Arizona’s Pleasant and Bartlett lakes. He says it’s a comfortable, safe, and versatile way to roll, whether on overnight excursions or hiding under the canopy on 100-degree days. Ohio’s late, legendary Robby Robinson also landed untold numbers of goliath flatheads from a pontoon boat he converted into a temporary living quarters.
Residing on a boat sounds like a catman’s slice of heaven. Certainly, some high-end 20- to 24-foot rigs offer all the comforts of home (almost)—plush captain’s chairs, sonar units that live-stream your favorite TV shows, built-in coolers, wash-downs that double as makeshift showers, and tackle storage areas large enough to sleep in.
Not every river rat wants or needs the type of rig that can run into the $50K range and beyond. But some do, and an increasing number of catfish folks want the same level of comfort, power, and fishability as their bass and walleye counterparts. In either case, it’s fun to see how far the catfish boat market has come, an indicator of the sport’s evolution—good, bad, or otherwise.
Arkansas based SeaArk Boats remains perhaps the front runner of the catfish boat category, building the first 24-foot jonboat in 1994 (they’ve since added a 26-footer). In 2009, SeaArk introduced the ProCat Series, which quickly became an aspirational rig among hardcore catfish folks. The ProCat remains perhaps the most popular boat on the catfish tournament scene.
Phil King, legendary Tennessee-based guide and tournament angler, has been a SeaArk fan for years. He has recently retired from guiding, but continues to pursue monster Tennessee River blues in his ProCat 240. Both the 20-foot ProCat 200 and 24-foot ProCat 240 boast massive 80-gallon rear livewells, big enough to house blue cats King has landed between 80 and 100 pounds.
Daryl and Jason Masingale, arguably the most productive tournament team today, operate out of a ProCat 240, a departure from the rig they ran in their early days. “We still talk about a tournament we won on the Mississippi River, fishing from a 16-foot jonboat,” says Jason of Paragould, Arkansas. “For a livewell, we had a big Rubbermaid cooler ratchet-strapped to the deck. Back then, a 7- to 10-fish 100-pound limit of catfish would almost guarantee you a win. These days, 100 pounds often won’t even land you in the money. “With a 1,600-gallon pump and an Oxygenator inside our SeaArk’s rear livewell, we can keep over 200 pounds of catfish healthy, even in warm water,” he says.
“Not too many years ago, a 20-foot boat was unheard of,” Daryl says. “Tournament fishing has pushed the envelope, inspiring SeaArk to lead the way with bigger boats, 250-hp capacities, and giant livewells. We’ve also got a 43-gallon belly gas tank—quite the departure from the old 12-gallon tanks we used to run. The thick 0.125-inch aluminum hull on our boat is all-welded, not riveted, and the 15-degree hull runs smooth over rough water.
“We can run in excess of 50 mph if we want,” he says, “but we spend most of our time around 35 mph. Safety is a primary consideration. There are a lot of things you can hit, especially in a big river, and it’s nice to know the hull on this boat will hold up if something bad happens.
“On the Mississippi last year we were motoring around in a foot and a half of water, but our rig had the flotation to glide right over it. Dual flotation pods welded to the transom add buoyancy and stability, especially in shallow water. On hot days when you want to go for a swim, they also make great platforms for climbing back aboard,” he says.
They praise the spacious, catfish-friendly bow deck. “The front deck offers ample room for a bow-mounted trolling motor and leaves plenty of space for cast-net duty and anchor work without tripping over gear,” Jason says. “Spacious storage below organizes multiple anchors, rope, and tackle. There’s also a secondary livewell/baitwell in the bow that doubles as storage. The impressive side console houses all our important gauges, lets us control the flow of our livewell, and has enough mounting area for a 12-inch Lowrance HDS unit.”
King says another key feature is the spray-in, slip-resistant interior liner in his ProCat. “The boat also comes standard with a spray-down pump, another essential,” he says. “The ProCat accessory rails let me mount rod holders and bait boards and move them freely along the gunnels. I mount one bait board beside the wash-down for quick, easy clean-up.”
More catfish-friendly features include a designated area for individualized bait tanks, equipped with tie-down eyes, and two large rod boxes. King calls out the ProCat’s expansive list of options and accessories. “With tons of paint patterns, plus extras like external flotation pods, grab rails, archery deck, Power Poles, and steering upgrades, ordering a ProCat is like getting your own customized catfish boat,” he says. seaarkboats.com
If you’ve spent time on the Santee-Cooper system, you’ve no doubt witnessed the popularity of pontoon boats for driftfishing for cats on those legendary waters. One reason. Guides and recreational anglers there, and elsewhere, love them. Tons of room, functional, customizable, and comfortable—and they accommodate larger groups of anglers. You’d just as likely see pontoons in use for pulling cranks for crappies on Kentucky Lake as you would drift-fishing with shad for stripers at Lake Texoma. Or for family fishing anywhere with multispecies in mind. And they’re becoming more popular in places you might not expect, including the Great Lakes, says Angler Qwest Executive Director Brad Dupuie. “Triple tubes and big motors have improved performance on big water,” he says.
Angler Qwest Pontoons, by Apex Marine, designs pontoon boats for anglers who also want a boat to entertain, ski, relax and enjoy the water with family. If fishing is your main priority, their pontoons offer fishing amenities and a charter-boat feel, without losing multi-functional quality and comfort features and options. The company offers several pontoon models built for fishing, including the Troll, Fish, Family Fish, GillGetter, and Species-Specific. “About five years ago we added species-specific boats to meet the needs of various types of anglers,” Dupuie says. “The lineup stems from our proven and popular Pro Troll series, with features and options anglers want depending on what species they fish for.
“For catfish anglers, we offer two models of the Catfish Pontoon, a 22- and 24-footer,” he says. “With the tri-tube option, the 24-footer is rated for 300 hp, so it handles big water and has ample power.” Tournament anglers will like the 70-gallon built-in livewell with Max Air recirculation system. And if you fish with livebait, there’s an optional 35-gallon Extreme baitwell. There’s also a rear fishing workstation with high-pressure washdown system, and the boat’s vinyl floors are easy to clean.
v“The 4.5-inch binary wall system creates more room for storage and accommodates 72-inch Traxtech tracks for adding accessories like rod holders,” he says. “You also can add a radar arch that fits rocket-launcher-style and adjustable rod holders, and the front and rear extending bimini creates lots of shade. Up front are bow-fishing seats and space for a trolling motor powered by a 36-volt system.” Check the website for more features and options. anglerqwestpontoons.com
My friend Brad Durick, the busiest guide working the Red River of the North, has for the past several seasons operated a G3 1966 CCT DLX, a 19-foot tunnel-hull rig with a center console and ample walking-around room. “The advantage of this hull is I can run in 9 to 10 inches of water when on plane,” Durick says. “That’s huge on a river like the Red, where water levels can fluctuate widely, May through September.
“The tunnel hull means less motor is in the water, preventing me from hitting the lower unit, even if the hull bottoms out on a sandbars. With a 115-hp Yamaha four-stroke, I can push upwards of 38 mph in shallow water. I also like the outboard because the lack of a jet-drive engine gives me tons more room in the transom.”
Built essentially for shallower water, a traditional tunnel hull uses dual planing hulls and a solid middle section to trap air and create aerodynamic lift. G3’s tunnel hulls feature an elevated transom and optional buoyancy pods that provide extra lift for a fast hole shot. The company’s field promotions manager Scott Turnage says their Gator Tough Tunnel Jons come in 10 sizes and configurations, from 16-foot 5-inch to 20-foot 2-inch, including models for jet and traditional prop engines.
“Our tunnel hulls excel for hardcore river catfishermen,” Turnage says. “For folks who run trotlines to those like Durick, who run shallow, small rivers, Gator Toughs have been a solid boat. These rigs can be fitted with a 40- to 150-hp Yamaha jet or up to a 90-hp outboard on model 18 CCT.”
He says one of the top trends in catfish boats the past few years has been the demand for a larger 24-foot big-water boat with a windshield. “We’ve had tremendous feedback from anglers running our Sportsman 2100, but because a lot more catfishermen told us they wanted a 24-footer, we built the Sportsman 2400. This rig’s thick 0.125-inch aluminum hull is built for handling everything from the Mississippi River to big reservoirs. We’ve even got some anglers running this boat in the Gulf of Mexico. The hull’s 15-degree deadrise cuts through waves for a smooth ride.”
Also driven by angler demand, the Sportsman 2400 (250 hp max) features a 65-gallon livewell astern and another 25-gallon livewell in the bow. The front deck offers an extra foot of fishing space and an additional two feet on the rear deck, while the 95-inch beam assures ample room for larger anglers. A 50-gallon belly gas tank helps even out the ride for long runs. Extras include dual Power Poles, trolling motors, and five color options, including Mossy Oak, Shadow Grass, or Break-Up camo. g3boats.com
Despite its reputation as a walleye and multispecies rig, Lunds show up on catfish rivers and reservoirs in surprising numbers. While the deep-V aluminum boats remain popular in the Midwest, I’ve also seen them afloat as far away from their Minnesota factory as Texas, Florida, and South Carolina. Lots of Lunds float the Mississippi River around St. Louis, and for good reason—they’re among the most stable, smooth, safe, and reliable rides on any sizable waterbody.
It’s one reason catfish pro John Jamison has been a longtime Lund user. “I’ve owned a lot of different cat boats with all types of hulls and there’s no question the IPS2 hull on my 2075 Pro Guide gives me a smooth, quiet ride and extremely level flotation,” says the legendary Kansas catman. “I think there’s this notion that a V-hull won’t work in shallow water. I can get this rig right up into 1 to 2 feet with no problem. I’ve added a jackplate on the transom, too, which lets me easily raise the big motor.”
The tiller-operated Pro Guide matches his style of controlled drift-fishing and walking bait in big rivers like the Missouri. “With the Minn Kota Ulterra up front and the big tiller outboard in the back, I can sit in the captain’s chair and operate both at the same time while fishing, and get the ultimate in boat control.”
With one hand on the Mercury tiller, he runs in slow-forward gear while the remote-controlled Ulterra makes slight left-right adjustments. The bowmount motor can also be run in Autopilot mode to make automatic course corrections. “The Mercury motor has an RPM limiter that lets me bring speed down to a quiet crawl,” he says. “At the same time, I keep the Ulterra set at 3 or 4 in current while the big motor moves me upstream or downstream at slow speeds or even keeps me hovering in place.”
Jamison says that his Pro Guide’s open floor plan provides ample legroom, thanks, in part to a wide 93-inch beam. “The tiller design eliminates a center or side console, giving me and co-anglers more space to walk around, rig rods, and land catfish,” he says. “The rig has a ton of storage and lockable rod space, but not at the expense of interior real estate.
“It’s funny because guys look inside my rig during tournaments and ask if I’ve forgotten my gear. Most catfish boats don’t have a lot of tackle or gear storage, so everything ends up on the floor. But I like to keep things organized and put away, with my boat floor clutter-free. That includes rods I store in the boat’s three extra-long rod lockers. One rod box right at my fingertips holds my favorite rods, so I don’t have to get up and maneuver around other anglers to grab a new combo. A second starboard rod locker contains co-angler rods, while a big center rod locker has more cat combos.”
Up and down either side of the boat are six to eight Driftmaster rod holders, each affixed to one of Lund’s SportTrak mounting brackets. The exclusive system eliminates the need to drill holes, and gives Jamison the ability to instantly slide and reposition rod holders or clip-on fillet boards anywhere along the length of each gunnel. Adding peace of mind is a lockable electronics command center, which houses a Humminbird Helix 12 plus pertinent gauges and switches. “I love that I can lock up all my rods, tackle, and electronics and not worry about it while I’m away from the boat,” he says.
While the Pro Guide comes factory rigged with a 27-gallon livewell astern (and a second 11-gallon bow livewell), Jamison makes one significant modification to hold a tournament-limit of large catfish. “Lund ships my boat with the livewell parts loose, allowing me to add my own 55-gallon livewell that easily transports 200 pounds of fish. I add custom oxygen infusers, controlled via my electronics center.”
Lund recently entered the traditional catfish boat market, unveiling the Predator series, an all-aluminum “utility jonboat” built with a welded mod-V hull. Starting at around $13K, nine Predator models run 16, 17, 18, or 20 feet, with available tiller or center- or side-console versions. The 2070 Predator sports a broad 96-inch beam with 20-gallon fuel tank, 150 max hp rating and 7-person capacity. Predator models also feature Lund’s SportTrack gunnel system, standard no-slip flooring, aerated livewells, and four color options, including Mossy Oak Breakup or Oak Shadow Grass. Optional sponson pods offer increased buoyancy in the transom, ideal for running shallow water. lundboats.com
Even if you have no intentions of stepping foot outside your old repainted jonboat, it’s still cool to know boat builders are taking catfish seriously. There’s certainly something to be said for comfort, safety and fishing in style—even if catfish couldn’t care less.
More Catfish Boats
Excel Boats Catfish Pro (excel-marine.com)—Builders of ultra-tough duck boats, Excel Boats’ 24-foot Catfish Pro has a welded 0.125-inch aluminum modified V or “viper” style hull with reverse chine for smooth easy turns.
- 225 hp max
- Storage for four batteries plus on-board charger
- Track rail system for hole-free mounting of rod holders and accessories
- 66-gallon rear livewell with intake and recirculating pumps
- Water-resistant storage compartments with raised edges
- Center Drain Grate for easy wash-down and clean-up
- Rubberized flooring dampens sounds and prevents slippage
Crestliner 2070 Retriever SCHD (crestliner.com)—A heavy-duty side-console catfish rig, the 20-foot Retriever boasts 0.125-inch aluminum gauge bottom, broad beam design, and all-welded, modified-V aluminum hull.
- 150 hp max
- 60-gallon bow livewell
- Folding deck seating with under-seat storage
- Port and vertical rod racks
Xpress Boats Xplorer XP200 Catfish (xpressboats.com)—At a moderately priced $26K, the 20-foot 3-inch XP200 delivers a 0.1-inch gauge aluminum, all-welded, hydro-dynamic hull.
- 150 hp max
- Xpress Camo paint with Xtreme Coat liner
- High-pressure bow wash-down
- Flotation pods with step-up
- Large bow livewell with Oxygenator / Rear oval-shaped baitwell
- Lockable side rod box
Lowe 20 Catfish (loweboats.com)—Starting at $26K, this 20-foot all-welded, all-aluminum catfish rig offers side-console configuration, swivel seating, and standard rod holder/rack system.
- 150 hp max
- Wash-down system
- 60-gallon bow livewell, 16-gallon baitwell
- Catfish rod holder rack system
- Locking port rod compartment (8-foot 6-inch rod length)
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Cory Schmidt is an avid catfish angler and contributor to all In-Fisherman publications.