Boat makers cater to America's love affair with walleye angling

America's new-found love affair with walleye fishing is alive and well.

What's more, the affinity for walleyes has jumped the gunwales of the boat business.

In the category of fishing craft, it used to be the seasonal question of what's new, bigger, faster, fancier and blah, blah, blah, was largely limited to bass boats.

Bass anglers tended to seek casting comforts beyond imagination, while a typical walleye fisherman settled for your basic tin boat with hard bench seats and a deck easily hosed of dead night crawlers and stepped-on fathead minnows.

Well, that said, have you looked at what kind of boat walleye anglers are shopping for these days? Holy amenities.

In the last decade or so, anglers have discovered that just because your favorite fish is a walleye, it doesn't mean you have to suffer to catch one.

You can fish on carpet just like the bassin' boys do. You can have things that start with a push of a fancy button. You can have livewells and built-in minnow buckets and windshields and seats that squish when you sit down. You can even have a radio with FM.

Oh, yes, the basic fishing boat is still out there, but it's not what serious walleye anglers are dreaming to have.

"The ultimate walleye boat isn't easy to describe," Luke Kujawa noted the other day.

"It can be fiberglass or aluminum, you know, and everybody has their own idea of what the perfect fishing machine is."

Whatever is walleye perfection, Minnesota is the manufacturing home for three of the top walleye boats: Alumacraft in St. Peter; Crestliner in Little Falls; and Lund in New York Mills.

Kujawa, who heads sales and marketing in Minnesota for the Crystal-Pierz chain of marine stores, said the most popular walleye rigs these days have several common traits.

"One of them is stability," said Kujawa. "Today's walleye boats are longer and wider."

Oh yes, the days of 16-footers has been replaced by 18- to 20-foot walleye boats or even longer. And wider.

Crestliner's 20-foot Tournament Series line has a beam width of 100 inches. Ranger's biggest walleye model goes longer than 21 feet with a nearly 95-inch beam. Lund's top walleye models, Pro-V, exceed 20 feet with 96-inch beams, while Alumacraft's pro series is only an inch shy of 19 feet with 96-inch beam.

In other words, walleye seekers like plenty of room with plenty of storage.

"It seems the more serious you are about fishing, the more gear you have and the more you want to stow. You don't want to trip over your gear," said Kujawa.

"But the width or beam is about as far as they can go. I don't think it can go beyond 104 inches or 8½ feet."

Walleye boats also have emphasized livewells for keep fish alive in transit or for release tournaments and baitwells for keeping fresh livebait, such as minnows and leeches.

One of the most impressive changes in walleye boats over the years has been in outboard power. Once upon a time, a 25 or 35 horsepowered outboard was considered "max" for trolling, forward or back.

Two or more decades ago, the power climb went from 25 horse to 50 horse to 75 horse to 90 horse to, well, "They just don't stop," said Kujawa.

The top power on walleye boats today is a 225-horse, 4-stroke, although the most popular outboard so far is in the 115- to 150-horse range.

Kujawa said new ignition systems, such as high-pressure fuel injection and the advent of 4-stroke models, has allowed the big horses to troll down for fishing purposes.

Another big change — reflected in walleye craft — is how more and more walleye anglers are fishing. They operate on the bow seat or in a console.

Slowly, Kujawa said, the tiller models (angler operates outboard from stern seat) are going away. As a result, a well-equipped walleye boat will have an electric trolling motor on the bow and possibly another on the transom, each capable of producing more than 72 pounds of thrust.

Did anybody mention satellite communications systems, yet?

Technology didn't stop for a walleye boat; the electronic sonars now come with global positioning systems (GPS) included, which means an angler can find in the biggest lakes the exact fishing spot twice without the aid of a map or a guide or shoreline marks.

Walleye amenities come with a price, of course.

Depending on your definition, the ultimate walleye boat might have a price tag as high as $50,000 … fully loaded, of course.

Kujawa said the average price for a loaded walleye boat is somewhere between $15,000 and $20,000, including trailer and power. Twenty years ago the average was closer to $5,000.

Thanks to low loan rates, Kujawa said sticker shock doesn't seem to be a big problem.

Ten- and 12-year loans are common for boats. And banks are willing to make the deal because most boats have a small depreciation rate.

As a result, Kujawa said, boat dealers are able to offer walleye boat package prices that would have seemed unbelievable back in the days of higher interest rates. What kind of deals?

How about a new 18-foot Crestliner Fish Hawk, fully loaded, with a 115-horespower, 4-stroke outboard for $209 down and monthly payments of $209?

Does this mean the walleyes don't stand a chance anymore?

Ha. That's the great thing about fishing. In a boat or on the shore, getting skunked knows no boundaries.

Ron Schara may be reached at ron@mnbound.com.

January through March 2003, "Backroads with Ron & Raven" airs Sundays at 7:30 a.m. ET on ESPN2. Ron Schara's short feature of the same name airs Saturdays on ESPN2 at 7:55 a.m. ET. Click here to view this week's show descriptions.