Just as tuna fishermen use a tower both to see down into the water and to extend their horizon, small-boat anglers can similarly improve their vision by getting higher above the deck. Backcountry guides have known this for years, which explains the presence of poling platforms on the transoms of most flats skiffs. Those who've fished such boats are familiar with the "guide-sight syndrome." That's where the guide makes you feel like Ray Charles by pointing out all the fish that you absolutely cannot see from the deck.
Two production boatbuilding companies, Aquasport and Hydra-Sports, have recently introduced trailerable boats with towers. Aquasport's 245, with a tower as standard equipment, has been successful enough to inspire other models in the line. "The first in a new series of trailerable fishing boats with fold-down towers, our Tournament Master lets hard-core fishermen search a farther horizon," says Curt Jarson, Aquasport's general manager.
Aquasport has numerous reasons for adding a tower. "Certainly part of our reason for introducing a series with standard tower is that no one else is really doing it," says Jarson. But other reasons include the ability to run the boat from a remote spot. "You're able to command the whole boat from up there," Jarson says. "Your eyes are about 14 feet above the waterline. If you're chasing bait or have somebody cast netting, you're completely out of the way and able to see the shallows and where to move in close. When your guests or family are fighting fish, you can follow fish movement and position the boat more precisely."
Alex Leva, national sales manager for Hydra-Sports, loves to watch people pass by his 21-foot inshore skiff with a small tower at boat shows. "Hundreds of people without a clue will walk by it and never even notice," says Leva. "Then one guy will stop dead in his tracks when he sees it. The man who understands it is sold instantly." (Evidently, quite a few individuals have "seen the light," as the Hydra-Sports skiff with a tower has been selling extremely well.)
Capt. Ed Walker, who fishes Florida's Tarpon Springs area north of Tampa, owns one of the new Hydra-Sports with a tower and swears by it. "With the population of anglers, at least in our area, it has gotten to a point where to get on the best fishing flats, you almost have to take a number. There's a lot of fishing pressure on those fish. But with the tower, I can go to places I've never been before and quickly determine if there are fish there. I've found some terrific new spots that may have never been touched.
"I watch as the flats guides run up and down the beach trying to find and chase the rolling tarpon. With my tower, I can zip to where I see a dark spot I recognize as a school of tarpon that isn't rolling," says Walker. "When the coast is clear (when flats skiffs aren't running all over the submerged school), the tarpon will put their heads back up - and there I am. Even if they don't start rolling again, I can fish them deep because I can see where they are."
The Hydra-Sports 21 is not a tender boat so the tower amidships doesn't affect speed much. At the same time, you don't want to take it offshore except on flat-calm days because without a vee hull waves really cause a boat to pound. Turns seem unaffected by the tower on the Hydra-Sports skiff as the flat bottom and hard chines provide sufficient roll stability to offset the tower's raised center of gravity. According to Leva, "Whenever you consider putting a tower on a boat, you want some substantial hull underneath you."
On Aquasport's 24-footer, "Making a turn with two grown adults at the upper station, weighing about 400 pounds together, will definitely make the boat lean," says Jarson. "It feels unusual, because no one is accustomed to a boat leaning like that. But you get used to it and (though it leans in a turn) it won't capsize."
Adding a tower to the Hydra-Sports 21 offers no change in towing performance: In fact, it adds only about 200 pounds to the entire package and sits no higher on the trailer than a 25-foot center-console with T-top.
The majority of small boats used in salt water get trailered or at least hauled out of the water between uses. Small boats like the Hydra-Sports with a tower that only adds 6 feet to the height have no problem towing behind a car or truck as there's very little added windage. But on slightly larger boats like the Aquasport, the tower must be specially designed to fold down.
Not just any small boat can handle the added stresses, weight, windage and raised center of gravity that come with adding a tower. "Aquasport accommodates the tower mainly by carrying its 8 1/2-foot beam almost the full length of the boat," Jarson says. "If you look straight down on a 245 from overhead, you can't help but notice how really wide it is - both in the bow and the stern."
The 21 Hydra-Sports offers greater inherent stability by virtue of its flat bottom. Not a speed demon to begin with, the 21 doesn't cause the "whip-cracking" stresses on the tower typical of many faster boats. And OMC mounts the tower directly to the deck - certainly the strongest spot - rather than the console or gunwales. Designed simply, the 21's only control station is in the tower. That's an advantage since the only additional requirements for this option include hydraulic steering and wiring harness extensions - with the tower package retailing for about $4,000.
Jarson's assertion that few other boat manufacturers offer towers for small boats may be true of production builders in general, but at least one tower builder on Florida's east coast begs to differ.
"We specialize in small boats," says Bob Birdsall of Birdsall Marine Design in West Palm Beach. "We don't do any big boats. Basically, if you can get the boat to my shop, we'll build the tower."
Bob Birdsall, in the small-boat tower industry since 1979, is very candid in his advice to boat owners about towers, especially when a boat's beam is too narrow or has too much deep-V in the bottom shape to afford adequate side-to-side stability. However, under these circumstances, all is not lost. Another option for owners of such vessels is to consider what he calls a "mini-tower" - one that folds down or is removable. Birdsall had so many clients who wanted towers on small boats that he invented the compromise - T-top rigs that you can stand through, standing on top of your console and using the T-top as a bolster.
"We prefer to mount everything directly to the deck, with braces to the console," says Dana Bausch of Bausch Enterprises in Stuart, Florida, builder of Pursuit's aluminum fishing structures as well as components for Sunbird and Contender. "Some customers and some builders like to have the legs go directly to the console with nothing to the deck. But the console has to be really rugged, and very well secured to the deck, for that system to succeed. Low-profile towers, even on center-console boats starting at 24 feet, can have supports go out to the gunwales for attachment."